Post contributed by Stephanie Fell, Rare Materials Project Cataloger
When the Lisa Unger Baskin Collection was packed and shipped to Duke in early 2015, many of the materials were boxed thematically. Therefore, as we have been cataloging the collection, the materials tend to come in waves of various themes and subject matter. Lately a number of cookbooks and monographs relating to domestic arts have been coming across my desk. Some have been traditional cookbooks and domestic arts manuals, offering recipes, menus, and nutrition information, as well as advice to the home maker, from cooking, cleaning, and child care tips to household budgeting and how to decorate the home. I wanted to point out a couple of items in particular that caught my attention.
These particular books, at first glance, are traditional cookbooks or domestic arts manuals for women to help them maintain a healthy and happy home through cooking and good housekeeping. Looking more closely, however, they contain a subversive message that rejects traditional gender roles and encourages the reader to emancipate herself from the kitchen.
Foods and Home Making by Carlotta C. Greer, published in 1938, was intended to be used by teachers to train boys and girls to do household tasks better. This text looks typical of the genre and time period; it includes “many suggestions and devices to stimulate pupils to participate in home activities and to do their share in making their homes attractive and happy” (page iii-iv). Upon closer examination, the “To the teacher” note includes the following advice: “Much of the material of Foods and Home Making is suitable for boys as well as girls. Knowledge of food selection is necessary for boys. Stimulation of boys’ interest in home making contributes to their appreciation of home life” (page v). The author encourages the reader to get her sons involved (and appreciate!) the work involved with sustaining and maintaining a household.
Another noteworthy feature of the Rubenstein Library’s copy is that it contains manuscript annotations indicating the owner was using the volume to prepare for an exam. Part of my work as a rare materials cataloger is to include provenance-related information such as this in the library’s catalog record in copy-specific notes. This kind of information about the book is important to include in the bibliographic record, because it shows not only how a former owner used the item, but also helps to differentiate this copy from copies at other institutions.
Another volume I cataloged recently is Uncooked Foods & How to Use Them by Mrs. & Mrs. Eugene Christian. Published in 1904, it is dedicated to “the women of America on whom depend the future greatness of our glorious country”. This unassuming volume includes more than just recipes and housekeeping advice. Scrolling through the table of contents, the reader will find that chapter 8 is entitled “Emancipation of Woman”. The authors advocate a raw food diet — one reason for this being simplicity: “There is nothing more complicated–more laborious and more nerve-destroying, than the preparation of the alleged good dinner. There is nothing simpler, easier and more entertaining than the preparation of an uncooked dinner” (page ). The authors argue that eating raw foods is healthier and will “emancipate [the reader] from the slavery of the kitchen and the cook stove” (page ). They continue, “… the use of uncooked or natural foods will surely bring relief and freedom” (page 52). Mr. and Mrs. Christian were admittedly ahead of their time in more than one regard.
As I’m cataloging the Lisa Unger Baskin Collection, which documents the work of women over the last 500 years, I’m not just describing the materials bibliographically, but I’m also trying to provide relevant access points and descriptive information for researchers. In addition to these items, the Rubenstein Library holds many other volumes related to cooking and domestic life. One can find other examples of domestic arts advice for women both inside and outside of this collection through Duke University Library’s online catalog. A genre term search for “Cookbooks” will return many items in that category and a keyword search for “prescriptive literature” may yield broader results.
Post contributed by Ayanna Legros Doctoral Student in the History Department at Duke
In New York City, Radio Haïti-Inter staff joined musicians, writers, professionals, and other Haitian exiles who had fled the Duvalier regime (1957-1986). Barbershops, cafés, bookstores, churches and street corners became stages for Haitians to passionately debate politics and the future of the nation. While newspapers such as Haïti Observateur,Haïti Tribune, Haïti Progrès, and Sèl circulated around the Upper West Side of Manhattan, offering exiles room to present opinions, radio provided members of the Haitian community a sonic space to grapple with the realities of their homeland while also discussing strategies for combatting racism, xenophobia, sexism, classism, and the linguistic privileging of the French language over Kreyòl. Kreyòl – the national language of Haitians – connected exiles across differing class and educational statuses. While some radio programs operated with licensing, others bypassed state and institutional regulation to avoid surveillance and penalization for usage of airwaves.
One radio station that rose to prominence was Lè Ayisyen, a Haitian Creole radio show run out of Columbia University between 1969 – 2002. Like Radio Haïti Inter, Lè Ayisyen staffers and volunteers understood that Haiti’s issues had to be interconnected with the democratic struggles of Central American, Caribbean, Latin American, and African nations. Conflict in nations ranging from Nicaragua to Eritrea were documented and shared with the community. The founder of the program, Lionel Legros, stated during an oral history interview that he wanted listeners to understand “The United States was not going to save Haiti.” In other words, Haitians should to be cautious of U.S. involvement in the region – Haitian exiles were aware that Cold War politics dictated the U.S.’ rapport with its Caribbean neighbor.
In November 1981, one year after living in New York in exile, Jean Dominique participated in an interview with Daniel Huttinot on Lè Ayisyen. Huttinot asked Dominique about his silence, the state of Haiti, and his perception of democratic movements. Dominique replied with messages of hope in the diaspora while also expressing frustration in lacking his own station. After two years, Jean Dominique came back on the air, on a program called Radio Haiti in New York (Radyo Ayiti nan Nouyòk) on WNYE 91.5FM. a non-commercial independent radio station licensed through City University of New York (CUNY). Co-hosted by Jean Dominique and Anthony Pascal (aka Konpè Filo), the program surveyed issues impacting the everyday lives of Haitians in the early 1980s such as immigration, HIV/AIDS stigma, and the murder of Firmin Joseph, founder of the weekly newspaper Tribune d’Haïti.
Daniel Huttinot many years later recalls the impact of Lè Ayisyen on the Haitian community in New York stating that they had “loyal listeners” for years and would regularly host Haitian exiles on their program seeking to share about their experiences back home. Further discussion about the collection with researcher Jennifer Garcon, PhD, as well as Radio Haïti-Inter archivist, Laura Wagner, PhD, demonstrate the force of radio within the Caribbean and the diaspora. Laura and I for several Saturdays went through the Lè Ayisyen collection and unbeknownst to us discovered many Radio Haïti in New York cassettes, adding to the robust collection already housed at Duke. These cassettes offer valuable information about Reagan’s policies in Central American and the Caribbean countries and the enormous contributions of exile voices to the ousting of Jean-Claude Duvalier 7 February 1986.
Radio Haïti in New York tapes will soon be digitized and made available. The vast majority of Lè Ayisyen’s collection remains independent and unprocessed. Both collections will offer researchers access to an important chapter in New York City Haitian migration history. Bridging the Lè Ayisyen archive with Radio Haïti Inter’s fills an important gap in the Radio Haïti Archive. Values such as tèt ansanm (heads together) and collaborative working practices in archival preservation and academic work are continued necessities particularly in the rapidly paced digital age in which data collection and digitization present libraries and researchers a new set of challenges. The practice of tèt ansanm by historians, archivists, and data collectors will continue to be necessary in order to create solutions for the impending challenges of the digital age.
 Demme, Jonathan, director. The Agronomist. 2003.
 Legros, Lionel, phone interview, April 20, 2019
Post contributed by Laura Wagner, Ph.D., Radio Haiti Project Archivist
Processing the archive of Radio Haïti-Inter can be difficult work. The collection is filled with human rights violations, suffering, injustice, and death — including both the repression that the station’s journalists covered and the repression they personally endured. Yet despite the heaviness of the subject matter, listening to Radio Haiti is often joyful. Jean Dominique is the single most expressive person I have ever had the privilege of spending time with. (He was, in the words of his friend Jonathan Demme, “an absolute theater superstar waiting to happen.”) In French, he’d quote Henri de Montherlant and La Rochefoucauld. In Haitian Creole, he’d draw on the language’s evocative proverbs and expressions. Creole is a language of poetry and double meanings, of metaphor and dissembling, of mawonaj.
As I head into my last week on the Radio Haiti project, I wanted to emphasize a lighter side of the project and share some wonderful Haitian Creole phrases. I’ve also learned some fantastic French terms over the course of this project (like scélérat – a villain! often paired with mediocre, because to Jean Dominique, mediocre was one of the worst things a person could be. Or histrion, a buffoon; scribouillard, a penpusher; or crêpage de chignons, a catfight!). But, as I said, in this list I’m going to concentrate on the Creole expressions that I’ve picked up along the way, not only from Jean Dominique, but also from Michèle Montas, J.J. Dominique, Konpè Filo, and other members of the Radio Haiti team, as well as some of the people they interviewed.
Sòt pa touye w, men li fè w swè – Literally, stupidity won’t kill you, but it’ll make you sweat. My personal mantra every time I made a mistake while processing the Radio Haiti collection. It’s pretty much what it sounds like: stupidity isn’t fatal, but it creates a lot more work for you.
Sezi kou berejèn – Very surprised; literally, surprised as an eggplant. I have no idea why.
Depi djab te kaporal – Literally, “ever since the Devil was a corporal.” Figuratively, since the beginning of time. I’m told that’s because the Devil has been a general for a long time, so if he was a low-ranking officer, that must have been a very long time ago.
Mare sòsis – Literally, to tie your sausage together with someone else’s. Figuratively, to be in cahoots with someone.
M a di w sa Kasayòl te di bèf la – Literally, “I’m going to tell you what Cassagnol told the cow.” When you want to curse someone out without doing it directly. No one knows who Cassagnol was, or what he told the cow, but we can only imagine that it was very bad indeed.
Pitit trannde dan – Literally, “a child with thirty-two teeth.” In a report from 1979 by Konpè Filo, sex workers from Port-au-Prince explained that they referred to their pimps as “children with thirty-two teeth” because they were all grown up but still depended on women for everything.
Benyen san kache lonbrit – Literally, bathing without hiding your belly button. Letting it all hang out, not having any secrets.
Panzou – Traditionally, a children’s game in which you slap someone’s hand, often to make them drop something. Panzou came to mean coup d’état, referring to the way the army seized power from Haiti’s democratically-elected government in 1991. The perpetrators of the coup, accordingly, were panzouyis (panzouists).
Mete absè sou klou – Literally, putting an abcess on top of a boil. Figuratively, making a bad situation worse.
Nou se lanmè, nou pa kenbe kras – A proverb, and of Radio Haiti’s slogans. Literally “We are like the sea, we wash away the dirt.” It means “we reveal the truth, we don’t keep secrets.”
Nou pa manje lajan Chango, nou pa manje manje bliye – Literally, “we don’t consume Chango’s money, we don’t eat the food of forgetfulness.” Figuratively, “we’re not taking part in corruption and we never forget.” Chango is a Vodou lwa known for his anger. If you take Chango’s money, you have to be prepared to do something in exchange. The original expression is Lè w manje lajan Chango, fò w peye Chango (“When you use Chango’s money, you better pay Chango back.”)
Degi – A small bonus, like a baker’s dozen. (This twelfth entry on a list of eleven is your degi!) I knew this word before, from every time I’ve bought rice or beans in a Haitian market, but I did not know that degi comes from the Fon language of West Africa, as Jean Dominique learned when he interviewed the ambassador from Benin, Patrice Houngavou, in 1978.
A Note from Rubenstein Staff: Laura, we will miss you! Thank you for your incredible and invaluable work on this massive and complicated project. We are so lucky to have pote kole with you these past few years. Because of your hard work, expertise, and passion, the Radio Haiti Archive is accessible to people all over the world. How amazing is that?! We wish you all the best and look forward to hearing about your future endeavors.
The processing of the Radio Haiti Archive and the Radio Haiti Archive digital collection were made possible through grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities
Post contributed by Paula Jeannet, Visual Materials Processing Archivist at the Rubenstein Library
“Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.
Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with
linguists and contenders,
I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait.”
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Section 4
June 23, 2019 marked the 30th anniversary of photographer William Gedney’s death in New York City in 1989 at the young age of 56. Gedney’s career spanned a time of great changes in American society and elsewhere, and in his photographs he captures the vitality and promise of those decades as well as the counterweights of social isolation and poverty. A lover of literature, he found early inspiration for his work in another New Yorker: Walt Whitman. Like Whitman, Gedney was fascinated by people in all their complexity and was an exceptional portraitist, using his camera rather than a pen; like Whitman, he was especially drawn to street life and crowds. The full extent of Gedney’s preoccupation with Whitman can be more fully explored through the photographer’s archive; for now, this blog post will indicate some starting points in the collection.
Born in 1932, Gedney grew up in rural Greenville, New York, in the Hudson River Valley. As a child, his family took him to visit relatives in the big city, and ultimately he studied art at Pratt Institute and moved into a cold-water flat in Brooklyn in the mid-1950s. While working as a commercial photographer to pay the bills and cover darkroom expenses, he roamed Brooklyn neighborhoods, his camera loaded with black-and-white film. Many of the images capture daily life and the inhabitants of Myrtle Avenue, where he lived. He continued this documentary work for the rest of his life.
In 1966, William Gedney’s photographic life took flight: he traveled to Kentucky (twice), cross country to California (also twice), then across the ocean to Ireland, England, Paris (twice again), and India, also twice. Brooklyn always drew him back.
Sometime around 1968 or 1969, perhaps inspired by Whitman’s interest in celebrating and documenting urban street life, he began a consuming project to uncover the history of Myrtle Avenue from its beginnings in the 18th century, using newspapers and literary sources, including the Brooklyn Eagle, for which Whitman served as editor, writing copious notes and pasting clippings in two volumes, Myrtle Avenue 1 and 2 – another habit he would continue throughout his life. Some of his notes include transcripts of Whitman poems:
At some point (probably earlier than 1969), he discovered that Walt Whitman had lived in Brooklyn, on 99 Ryerson Street, just a few blocks from Gedney’s neighborhood on Myrtle Avenue. While living at that address, Whitman published his ground-breaking epic poem Leaves of Grass in June 1855.
Although it’s not clear when the idea first came to him, in 1969 Gedney began to create the layout for a project to combine Whitman’s verses with his own photographs of New York City. In one of his notebooks, titled only with the year 1969, he writes about “the bridge” photographs, and of framing them with Hart Crane’s poem “The Bridge.”
A few months later, in the same notebook, Gedney writes “I think the bridge pictures would be best paired with Whitman’s Brooklyn Ferry poem under the overall title ‘Brooklyn Crossing.’ His poem is the one I was most under the influence at the time.” The Brooklyn Bridge book maquette in the Gedney archive contains no accompanying texts; however, during the recent Rubenstein project to rehouse and digitize the Gedney archive, the lead archivist came across this item hiding out in a box of oversize materials:
Sometime around 1970, Gedney again turned to Whitman’s verses, this time selecting the poem “I wander all night in my vision” to introduce his planned book of night photographs taken in India. Clearly Whitman was still on his mind and informing his work.
I had thought Gedney’s connection to Whitman largely remained unexamined, with the exception of Margaret Sartor’s comments in her seminal book introducing Gedney and his archive to the world: What Was True: the Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney (W.W. Norton, 2000). Then, while researching this blog post, I discovered Mark Turner’s book, Backward Glances: Cruising the Queer Streets of NY and London (Reaktion Books: London, 2003), which in the context of the phenomenon of male cruising, discusses the remarkable parallels between Gedney and Whitman. The two clearly favored male liaisons, and this orientation was reflected to some degree in their poetic and artistic work. Beginning in 1975, Gedney began extensively documenting the exuberant gay pride parades as well as street hustlers in San Francisco and New York, until a few years before his death. At the same time, he was intensely private about his personal life, never fully coming out even to his closest friends.
“…as I pass, O Manhattan! your frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love,
Offering me the response of my own–these repay me,
Lovers, continual lovers, only repay me.”
Walt Whitman, “Calamus 18”
Like William Gedney, Walt Whitman also celebrates an anniversary in 2019: he was born 200 years ago on May 31, 1819. Many events have been planned in his honor: http://waltwhitmaninitiative.org/
It’s easy to imagine that he would have been intrigued by Gedney’s photography and pleased at the idea of a publication of Brooklyn images prefaced by his own verses.
Sadly, it was not to be: Gedney bequeathed the world a body of compelling, eloquent photographic work, but his many book projects remained unpublished, with only the book maquettes in the archive as evidence of Gedney’s hopeful plans. Perhaps with the right editor, these two artists will be joined again as Gedney had imagined.
“These and all else were to me the same as they are to you,
I loved well those cities, loved well the stately and rapid river,
The men and women I saw were all near to me,
Others the same—others who look back on me because I look’d forward to them,
(The time will come, though I stop here to-day and to-night.)”
Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” stanza 4
Note about the Gedney Collection: Although William Gedney’s work was still largely undiscovered by mainstream audiences at the time of his death in 1989, it stood on the cusp of an awakening, thanks primarily to the efforts of close friends Maria and Lee Friedlander, and John Sarkowski, curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. Eventually the entire Gedney archive — over 49,000 photographs, negatives, artwork, and papers – came to Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and is now being digitized in its entirety (the finished prints and contact sheets are already available online). You can learn more about the collection by visiting the collection guide online.
Post contributed by Meghan Lyon, Head of General Manuscript Processing at the Rubenstein Library
One of the Rubenstein Library’s older collections, the William T. Blackwell Papers, has recently grown thanks to a generous gift of 19th and 20th century papers and photographs from the Martin family, descendants of the Blackwell family. Before this latest addition, the William T. Blackwell Papers consisted almost exclusively of financial ledgers documenting the dramatic failure of the Bank of Durham, which opened in 1883, extended credit too liberally, and subsequently closed in 1889. This new addition has earlier material, documenting the rise of Blackwell’s fortune during the 1870s, as he and business partners James R. Day and Julian Shakespeare Carr built their factory, manufacturing and selling smoking tobacco through the W.T. Blackwell and Co Tobacco Company. The addition includes a notable cache of letters from Carr (yes, that Carr), documenting his and Blackwell’s partnership and their legal strategies during the Bull Durham trademark litigation through the 1870s.
These new records with the details of the W.T. Blackwell and Co. business operations would be exciting enough, but the rest of the addition is fascinating too. In fact, the nature of the collection has changed so significantly that we have opted to rename the collection to be the William T. Blackwell Family Papers. This better reflects the range of the materials now held – in addition to William T. Blackwell’s business materials, there is now correspondence, receipts, invoices, and other documentation of the daily life of the Blackwells, both W. T. and Emma Exum Blackwell, whom he married in 1877. W.T. Blackwell’s sister, Lavinia Blackwell, later married J.D. Pridgen, who owned a shoe company in Durham and whose daughters attended Durham High School in the early 1900s. Their scrapbooks, which include snapshots and printed ephemera from their social activities and education in local Durham schools, have amusing, endearing captions. Mary Blackwell Pridgen, one of the daughters, kept scrapbooking as an adult, and her later marriage to Chester B. Martin explains the inclusion of Martin family materials in this collection as well. In 1927, Chester B. Martin co-founded and operated Durham Dairy Products, Inc., which was Durham’s first milk delivery service. Materials from Durham Dairy include a nearly-complete run of company newsletters – Durham Dairy Doings – with great hand-drawn cartoons, profiles of staff and workers, local Durham news, and insights into the company’s marketing and delivery of milk. The multi-generational aspect of this collection has been challenging but fun to sort out – especially since it is all Durham history, and not just about tobacco (or banks!) anymore.
What: Radio Haiti Project Culminating Event: A Conversation with Michéle Montas
When: 5:30 PM, Thursday, April 11
Where: Ahmadieh Family Lecture Hall, Bay 4 (C105) Smith Warehouse, 114 S Buchanan BLVD, Durham, NC 27701
Haitian journalist and human rights activist Michéle Montas discusses the legacy of Radio Haïti-Inter, Radio Haiti’s archive at Duke’s Rubenstein Library, and the past, present, and future of justice and impunity in Haiti. With additional remarks by Laurent Dubois, Radio Haiti project archivist Laura Wagner, and AV archivist Craig Breaden. Light refreshments. Free and open to the public.
The processing of the Radio Haiti Archive and the Radio Haiti Archive digital collection were made possible through grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Please join the History of Medicine Collections for our next Trent History of Medicine Lecture Series event. Edward C. Halperin, M.D., M.A. will present “Why Did the United States Medical School Admissions Quota for Jews End?” At the end of World War II anti-Semitic medical school admissions quotas were deeply entrenched in the United States. Twenty-five years later they were gone. Why did that happen and what are the implications for the current controversy regarding alleged quotas directed against Asian-Americans?
Dr. Halperin is Chancellor/Chief Executive Officer of the New York Medical College, Valhalla NY.
All are welcome and encouraged to attend. No registration is needed. A light reception will follow.
Post contributed by Jennifer Garcon, Bollinger Fellow in Public and Community Data Curation at Penn Libraries
One morning in July 1965, an unfamiliar voice radiated from the transistor radios of Port-au-Prince residents. Rather than hearing pre-recordings of President-for-Life, François Duvalier, residents heard the dissenting voices of exiles based in New York. The program, La Voix de l’Union Haïtienne Internationale, would become known as Radio Vonvon. While they must have immediately recognized the dangers of tuning in, people unearthed radios hidden in kitchens and in bathrooms, and continued to listen to the clandestine program each Sunday, “to listen to words of hope about one day ending this nightmare,” in the words of New York-based Haitian journalist Ricot Dupuy. This, I argue, was a political act.
My doctoral research explores how journalists deployed various media strategies to mobilize their audiences against dictatorship in Haiti. I centralize broadcasting because, I argue, 1) radio was, and in many places, remains a powerful cultural force; 2) the medium was easily accessible and widely available, and thus had unparalleled democratic appeal and influence; and 3) radio, unlike print media, does not require literacy as a prerequisite for participation. Radio, particularly Kreyòl language broadcasting, was a platform that embodies equity and democratized politics; and vernacular radio archives reflect this inclusion.
From a material culture standpoint, reduced cost and increased post-WWII supply transformed radio technology into a crucial instrument of struggle in Cold War Latin America, and elsewhere in the Global South. As historian Alejandra Bronfman reminds us in Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean, “the sounds of radio are [by their very nature of production and dissemination] ephemeral.” For that reason alone, the comprehensiveness of the Radio Haiti Records are indeed exceptional.
Using a sampling of the approximately 5300 recordings and 191 boxes of paper documents that constitute the Radio Haiti archives — spanning field reports, editorials, investigative reports, in-studio interviews, and special programming — I built an argument that reframes the everyday activities of ordinary people as political activity and agitation.
Investigating radio listening as a form of political engagement allows for a more granular examination of the transformation of civil society that I argue occurred between 1971 and 1987, during the presidency of Jean-Claude Duvalier and in the immediate aftermath of his fall from power. This, I contend, challenges the scholarly interpretations that mischaracterize peasants as politically inert throughout much of the Duvalier era, until the killing of three schoolboys in Gonaïves on November 28, 1985 (the Twa Flè Lespwa, or Three Flowers of Hope). In contrast, my research charts broad domestic ferment on the air-waves. Radio media, in addition to independent vernacular print outlets, offered a space where dispersed sectors of the Haitian population could critique and challenge state power. Radio records have helped to offer insights into patterns of open opposition to government excess that predate the 1985 killings. These included reactions to the murder of the young journalist Gasner Raymond, who was killed after investigating workers’ strikes at the state-owned cement factory in 1976; rice farmers’ revolts against repressive local Macoutes in the Artibonite between 1977 and 1979; peasant farmers’ and workers’ opposition to Reynolds Haitian Mines in Miragoâne; attempted coups in 1981 and 1982, and anti-government bombings between 1980 and 1983.
Radio programming offered a discursive public space in which to practice one’s politics, where few other avenues remained. Having grown used to practicing forbidden forms of citizenship on the airwaves, this radio activism soon moved onto the streets. In the popular movement that uprooted Duvalierism, the Haitian majority– Kreyòl speaking peasant farmers, agricultural day laborers, and urban workers—who had once formed bases of support for the regime now demanded the end of the dictatorship. I plot the emergence of a nearly decade and a half long grassroots political movement against Jean-Claude Duvalier by examining radio media to show how ordinary people first negotiated the terms of their citizenship within an authoritarian system, and later struggled to uproot that system in its entirety.
The complete audio archive of Radio Haiti will soon be available to the public via Duke’s Digital Repository, which will be an unparalleled resource for historians and other researchers interested in radio, political resistance, and the circulation of information in Haiti and in the Haitian diaspora.
This is a guest blog post by Nathan Dize, a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of French and Italian at Vanderbilt University specializing in Haitian literature and history.
Twenty-eight days after the passing of James Baldwin, on December 28, 1987, Haitian writers Jan J. Dominique and Yanick Lahens and their cohost, bookseller Monique Lafontant, paid homage to the African American writer with a discussion of the significance of his novel If Beale Street Could Talk on Radio Haïti Inter’s weekly cultural program, Entre Nous. Set in New York City, the novel focuses on the lives of childhood friends-turned-lovers Tish and Fonny as they prepare to welcome their first child. The two are suddenly separated when Fonny is arrested and accused for the alleged rape of a Puerto Rican woman. Tish narrates the story as both her and Fonny’s families attempt to prove the young Black man’s innocence. Yanick Lahens begins with her review of the book, followed by a brief discussion of Baldwin’s literary career.
For Lahens, Beale Street is a “faithful and realistic portrait” of the generation of the Great Migration where African Americans moved to northern and industrial cities in the Midwest as a response to the tightening of Jim Crow legislation and racial violence in the South. More importantly, Lahens explains that the literary strength of the novel lies in the way it presents an “evolution of hope or extreme despair” as the plot unfolds. She argues that readers never completely slip into despair, yet readers cannot enjoy hopeful moments long enough to sustain a sense of optimism that Fonny will ever be freed from prison.
In recent weeks, If Beale Street Could Talk has again been on the tips of critics’ tongues as Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of the novel was nominated for three Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay. Critics of Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-nominated adaptation of Beale Street have also focused on Baldwin’s ability to productively operate between the poles of hope and despair. While some reviewers bristle at how some of the novel’s more severe moments, like Tish and Fonny’s first sexual encounter, “shimmer romantically in Jenkins’ film,” other parts of the film faithfully reach for Baldwin’s depth of blues and melancholy. Back in 1987, Yanick Lahens explained that readers immediately encounter despair “from the first lines [of the novel] we see that this young man will never leave prison.” Baldwin’s novel exposes the “judiciary machine” in the United States that gives the semblance of hope, but that will ultimately never let him go or leave the two families unscathed.
Towards the end of her review, Lahens explains that the accents, the sounds, the feelings of the blues permeate Baldwin’s writing. These “accents of the blues” in Beale Street are found in the characters’ despair and bitterness in the face of Fonny’s imprisonment. In an essay from his collection Nobody Knows My Name, James Baldwin writes about his discovery of the language of the blues through the music of Bessie Smith, which Lahens reads in French:
“It was Bessie Smith, through her tone and her cadence, who helped me to dig back to the way I myself must have spoken when I was a pickaninny, and to remember the things I had heard and seen and felt. I had buried them very deep […] I had never listened to Bessie Smith in America (in the same way that, for years, I never touched watermelon), but in Europe she helped me to reconcile myself to being a ‘nigger.’”
Some critics have claimed that Barry Jenkins’ adaptation is a failure, that Baldwin deserves better. “Is [Jenkins’] movie too beautiful?” Doreen St. Félix writes for the New Yorker. St. Félix agrees that film adaptations do not have to remain faithful to the text; they are adaptations, after all. But, the point where Lahens’ reading of Baldwin’s blues coincides with Jenkins’ film is perhaps best captured when Fonny’s old friend, the good-natured and affable Daniel, played by Brian Tyree Henry, tells Fonny about his arrest. St. Félix explains that this scene “is washed in a darkness that is incongruous with the rest of the film’s palette.” In the novel, Baldwin sounds the depths of despair as Daniel confesses that he was gang-raped in prison, instead Jenkins renders this aesthetically with color saturation. In his own right, Henry’s portrayal of Daniel’s character had many critics calling for him to be nominated for the Best Supporting Actor category. Brian Tyree Henry expertly contrasts moments of superficial cheer with sullen, vacant looks through clouds of cigarette smoke to convey Daniel’s fractured dignity. Beyond Henry’s performance, Regina King’s wails from the streets of Viejo San Juan also supremely express what Lahens describes as “all the accents of the blues,” earning her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Baldwin’s discovery of the blues in the Swiss Alps is remarkable for Lahens, Dominique, and Lafontant who consider James Baldwin as a writer of the African American Diaspora. The three conclude the segment by comparing Baldwin to Haitian writers forced to flee the successive dictatorial regimes of François Duvalier and Jean-Claude Duvalier. For many of the journalists and employees of Radio Haïti Inter, forced exile remained an open wound as the station had just re-opened the previous year in October 1986. Decades later, when the radio station finally shuttered its doors, Jan J. Dominique herself would also eventually go into exile in Montreal in 2003, fleeing a violent climate towards the press that led to the assassination of her father, Radio Haiti director Jean Dominique, on April 3, 2000.
As I listened to this review on the eve of the 91st Academy Awards, I was reminded of the importance of James Baldwin in global expressions of Blackness in literature, how artists and writers have thought through and with Baldwin even after his passing. I am also reminded of the significance of the recording’s survival through the efforts of project archivist Laura Wagner and the other archivists, librarians, and graduate and undergraduates working at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The review of If Beale Street Could Talk is but the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, as a search in the Duke University Libraries Digital Repository leads to more than 4,000 individual recordings of cultural, historical, literary, and journalistic reportages from 1957-2003. At present, an excess of 4,800 of an approximate 5,300 recordings have been described and are either available or will be available online for listening this spring. So, as you process the results of this year’s Academy Awards, be sure to make a visit to the Radio Haiti Archives catalog and browse their collection that has just as much to do with Haiti’s past as it does with our cultural and historical present in 2019.
 “Dès la première ligne [du roman] on voit que ce bonhomme ne sortira pas de prison…”
 Yanick Lahens refers to the US judicial system a “machine judiciaire.”
This post is contributed by Paula Jeannet, Visual Materials Processing Archivist, and is part of “An Instant Out of Time: Photography a the Rubenstein Library” blog series.
My work as a photographic archivist often includes improving the housing of the thousands of photographs found in older collections in the Rubenstein Library. One such group of seventy-eight photographs was recently discovered in the Isabelle Perkinson Williamson Papers, a collection of letters chiefly between Isabelle and her mother. The Perkinsons were residents of Charlottesville, Virginia, where several family members served on the faculty at the University. Isabelle married a civil engineer, Lee H. Williamson, in 1917 and traveled and lived abroad with her husband. World War I found Lee Williamson serving in the 55th Engineers of the American Expeditionary Forces in France. The collection includes his military ID card as well as some wartime correspondence.
As I sorted and sleeved the bundle of photographs, I came across a single studio portrait of three children that didn’t seem to fit in with the others, chiefly because of the children’s dress:
Turning it over, I observed a stamp from the Red Cross Bureau of Photography, and the address of a Madame Bras in France:
An online investigation using the negative number on the print and key words such as “Red Cross photographs” quickly turned up a matching digitized glass plate negative, part of the Library of Congress’s American Red Cross negative collection of over 19,000 scanned images.
The caption reads: “Jeanne Le Bras, adopte. Address: Mme. LeBras, Haut du Bourg Plogastel St. Germaine (Finistere Pres Guimper) protégé of: 302 Ambulance Co. Sanitary Train, Care Company Clerk. American Expeditionary Forces .” The photographer is recorded as Joseph A. Collin, who took many of the images found in the Red Cross collection.
Here’s what I learned from the Library of Congress site and other resources: in the aftermath of World War I, whose events we continue to commemorate in 2019, thousands of refugee families and orphaned children were “adopted” by American troops and cared for by American Red Cross staff. The Red Cross hired professional photographers to document the organization’s efforts in Europe; they took hundreds of portraits of refugees and orphan children. The images may have been used in many ways: to find lost families; to publicize children available for adoption, or to record their successful adoption. As an interesting sidelight, I discovered that one of these photographers was Lewis Hine; his camera recorded over 1100 images for the Red Cross and are also part of the Library of Congress collection.
Some of the images in the Library of Congress Red Cross collection show signs of heavy editing: children were erased from group portraits, perhaps because they had already been adopted, and in some cases, adult figures blocked out. The latter was a common practice of the 19th century – explore this phenomenon by searching online for “hidden mothers photography.”
The Library of Congress caption for the single image found in the Rubenstein collection names only one child out of the three, Jeanne; it is not clear which one was Jeanne, but one hopes that all three were adopted and raised by kind families. Also a mystery is how the photograph came to live with the others in the Isabelle Williamson collection. It may have originated from Isabelle’s husband, who served in World War I, or from a friend of the family, Mary Peyton, who was a field nurse in World War I.
There is an abundance of primary source material on World War I in the Duke Libraries – images as well as papers. “Views of the Great War,” a Rubenstein Library online exhibit, is a great way to learn more about this world-changing event as revealed through our collections.