In the Rubenstein Library, sometimes we primarily judge books by their covers, be they bejeweled, finely bound, or otherwise interestingly decorated. And sometimes we certainly do not. Case in point: the book below.
The Library wouldn’t acquire most copies of the third edition of Langston Hughes’s Shakespeare in Harlem, especially not a copy without its original dust jacket and rather heavily worn. But this was no ordinary copy. This appears to be Hughes’s own copy of the last edition of this book issued during his lifetime.
Not only that, Hughes made changes to fifteen of its poems, some of them dramatic shifts in the tone, rhythm, length, or meaning of the text.
The copy recently turned up in a sorority house at Lincoln University, from which it was sold at auction and entered the rare book trade. Much about the volume remains to be discovered. The changes that Hughes made in this volume have not been published or incorporated into any of the later editions of Hughes’s collected works or poems.
The Library recently acquired a small album of photographs taken in Virginia’s Tidewater region. It contains six cyanotypes depicting work at the freight docks of Newport News and other subjects. Of particular interest is a laid-in cyanotype which appears to be a portrait of Frances Benjamin Johnston, a pioneering female American photographer.
Johnston was a remarkable photographer. She took portraits of American presidents and the high society of the turn of the nineteenth century from her Washington, D.C. studio, but also participated in ambitious documentary projects, such as her architectural photographs of Southern states. For one of her best-known commissions, she traveled to Virginia to document the students of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in 1899-1900. Her photographs of this important education institution for African Americans and Native Americans are preserved in her collection at the Library of Congress.
Based on the probable identification of the woman in the photograph as Johnston and the photographs of the area around Hampton in the album, these photographs have been dated to the first decade of the 1900s. However, no information about the photographer is yet known. Were they a student or colleague of Johnston? Is it possible that the photographs (or some of the photographs) are by Johnston herself?
The album is also accompanied by handwritten directions for making “Pyro Developer” and a “fixing bath for platinum prints,” which may provide further evidence that the creator may have been a student or novice photographer. (The large initial “B” on the “Pyro Developer” formula bears some resemblance to Johnston’s handwriting, but the handwriting of the rest of the formula does not appear to be similar to hers.)
If anyone has clues or guesses to contribute to the mystery of the photographer’s identity, please share them in the comments section below!
Post contributed by Will Hansen, Assistant Curator of Collections.
On this date in 1807, “An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade” was passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom. This was a milestone in the struggle over the use of slaves in the British Empire’s colonies and a victory for the abolitionist coalition led by William Wilberforce. The bill’s passage not only saved countless lives, changed the administration of empires around the world, and transformed nineteenth-century commerce: the research, propaganda, and theoretical efforts which led to its passage were key to developing the concept of human rights. Many essential resources for understanding the abolition effort are available in the Rubenstein Library, including correspondence and papers of abolitionists William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, and William Smith.
In addition, a volume of manuscript poetry in a Rubenstein Library collection of British literary papers contains a poem entitled “On the Slave Trade.” Very little is known about the poet or the poem: the poet is only known by his handwritten initials, “W. J.” or perhaps “W. G.,” and no trace of publication of the poem has yet been found by Rubenstein staff. The poem appears to have been composed before the slave trade’s abolition, probably in the eighteenth century. Study of other poems in the volume, and analysis of the poet’s idiosyncratic punctuation and contractions (such as the use of “fab’lous” for “fabulous”) may provide clues as to the poem’s date and the identity of its author.
The poem is satirical, presenting the intentionally outrageous situation of Satan commissioning his demons to find him slaves to do Hell’s dirty work. While it is unlikely that anyone will argue that it is a lost masterpiece, it does use vivid imagery and sly irony to convey the grotesque injustice of the slave trade and the unbridled greed that led to such abuse of fellow human beings. A transcription of the poem appears below. If you know anything about the author or the poem, please post a comment!
On the Slave Trade
Fab’lous — are storys — some will say
Yet I’ll tell one — if I’m able
That some odd tempers take it may
Either for truth — or a fable
A sort of wisper’s in the air
That Pandaemon’um Peers are met
But loud enough — some ears to hear
And now they do in council set
Satan — address’d his higher Pow’rs
My friends — what I’ll propose you’ll see
Will benifit both yours — and ours
And much improv’d our realm will be
We want more slaves for drudging work
Sewers and boghouses to clean
That well can labour in the murk
And clear away the soil — not seen
Our drains that to Cocytus run
Are choak’d — from whence such stench arise
That must affect us ev’ry one
Our healths endanger — and our eyes
Of women slaves we want a few
As nurses for our Devilkins
To keep them sweet — and wipe their queu[‘s]
So nothing fret their tender skins
The sex besure you don’t mistake
For I remember once before
As some for He’s you She’s did take
Which set our realm in an uproar
My good compatr’ots I advise
You hunt like those on Guinea coast
Use artifice — yourselves disguise
See who can lure — and trap the most
Here Satan — ended his harangue
Their wings they flap — and ape their jaws
With teeth they make a horrid clang
In gen’ral token of applause
A sudden rumbling now exist
Some change to Vultures — Apes — and Hogs
All Proteus like to what they list
Others to Serpents — Newts — and Frogs
Some Keener Devils than the rest
Direct — transform’d themselves to Gold
Well knowing it of snares the best
As nat’ons for it have been sold
The pond’rous gates now open fly
And all rush out their sev’ral roads
In full pursuit of slaves they hie
And swarms they bring to their abodes
The golden lumps had such success
More than the others double caught
Of all descript’ons more or less
Their baits they had so artful fraught
In thought among these tribes you see
Cozening Knaves — and Thieves — beside
The worst of wretches that can be
Envy — Avarice — Mischief — Pride
What horror must these beings feel
Down in the Sink — of mis’ry thrown
Condemn’d — shut out from all appeal
By evil — being downward prone
They like their masters lov’d to prowl
And aim’d to trick and bubble all
So now in Slavery let them growl
Themselves they'[v]e bubbled into thral
Be on your guard for to escape
These Semi Devils — here are out
For some assume a Cherub shape
And are perpet’al on the scout
Post contributed by Will Hansen, Assistant Curator of Collections.
The Archive of Documentary Arts continues its monthly series highlighting work in our holdings that has been digitized. This month we are spotlighting the Michael Francis Blake Photographs, 1912-1934. The collection includes 117 photographs of men, women, and children taken between 1912-1934 by Michael Francis Blake. Blake opened one of the first African-American photography studios in Charleston, S.C. and the photographs represent his work from the 1910s to his death in 1934. The images come from a photographic album entitled “Portraits of Members,” which might have been used by clients in the studio to select the backdrop and props they wanted in their photographs. To see more of Michael Francis Blake’s photographs, visit the library’s digital collection.
Post contributed by Kirston Johnson, Moving Image Archivist, and Karen Glynn, Photography Archivist, Archive of Documentary Arts.
Dispatches from the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University