American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?

Introduction

Find out more about our Americas Studies collections on the Americas blog, written by our curatorial team and guest posts from the Eccles Centre writers in residence. Our collections cover both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Read more

17 October 2019

Black History Month

October is Black History Month in the UK and has been celebrated here for nearly 40 years. The month marks an annual commemoration of the history, achievements and contributions of black people in the UK. Originally founded to recognise the contributions made by people of Caribbean and African backgrounds, the focus of Black History Month has now expanded to include the history of African, Asian and Caribbean peoples and the importance of their contributions to the culture of the UK.

To mark Black History Month, we have selected a few items from our collections which highlight significant moments in black history around the world. The British Library will also be hosting Caribbean Fest events on Saturday October 19th including poetry, food and performance.

 

Ottavia Salvador, Fabrizio Denunzio, Morti senza sepoltura. Tra processi migratori e narrativa neocloniale (Ombre corte, 2019) YF.2019.a.14806
 
Chosen by Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections (Italian)
 
Front cover of 'Morti senza sepoltura. Tra processi migratori e narrativa neocloniale'
Cover of: Ottavia Salvador, Fabrizio Denunzio, Morti senza sepoltura. Tra processi migratori e narrativa neocloniale (Ombre corte, 2019) YF.2019.a.14806

 

Migrations in the Mediterranean are the subject of a lot of Italian books at the moment. I chose this title because the authors don't shy away from holding neo-colonialism responsible for the immigration process. The title 'Dead without Burial' evokes the horror of dying in a foreign country, in exile, often without a grave with a name on. Like French sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad (more from him, also in English in our collections) says in the essay in the appendix, the way a country treats a foreigner who dies on its soil says a lot.

 

John Michael Vlach, Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993). q93/15775

Chosen by Cara, Deputy Head, Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library

Cover of 'Back of the Big House'
Cover of: John Michael Vlach, Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993). q93/15775
Book open to show photographs and plans of buildings
Inside pages of: John Michael Vlach, Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993). q93/15775;

 

This book made a deep impression on me when I first came across it as part of an MA course on the built environment in America.  I was impressed by how thoroughly Vlach managed to bring the lived experiences of the enslaved into sharp focus through the architectural landscapes they had inhabited.  As he says himself in his Preface his “main objectives here are first to describe, in broad terms, the architectural settings of plantation slavery and then to suggest some of the ways in which black people may have transformed those architectural settings into places that best served their social needs” (p.x).  The major source for the visual material in the book is the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS).  Originally founded in 1933, it still operates as a division of the National Parks Service.  During the 1930s and later, HABS teams documented large numbers of slave buildings and associated spaces and Vlach uses these photographs and plans to great effect in his book.  These are then complemented by another Depression-era source, the oral histories of formerly enslaved people conducted by interviewers for the Federal Writer’s Project.  As Vlach explains “My description of the architecture of slavery thus meshes information from two archival projects that have been separated for more than half a century” (p.xiii).  I found this mixture of first-person accounts, as well as other archival evidence (business records, personal letters etc), with the structures that had shaped people’s everyday lives to be incredibly evocative.  I came away from the book with a deeper understanding of the importance of vernacular spaces to historical enquiry, as well as more especially a better understanding of the way the built environment shaped, and was shaped by, the lives of enslaved African-Americans and their white overseers and owners.  I’ve found myself thinking about this book often over the years, especially as discussions around how to more fully represent the experiences of enslaved people have come to the forefront in heritage and tourism contexts (for example, the incorporation of slave buildings and stories into the interpretation offered to visitors at plantation sites in the US, most notably at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home).

For more information on Federal Writer’s Project holdings at the British Library, including the accounts of former slaves, see the guide prepared by my Eccles Centre colleague, Jean Petrovic.

 
 
 
The Color Purple by Alice Walker (Boston, Mass: G.K. Hall, 1986), Nov.1987/702
 
Chosen by Rachael (Curator, American Printed Collections Post 1850)
 
Book cover of 'The Color Purple'
First edition cover of The Color Purple. Image from Wikimedia Commons sourced from Biblioctopus.

 

I was introduced to the The Color Purple while in my first year as an undergraduate at the University of Nottingham. It was like nothing I’d read before, in both voice and content. I’d never encountered a character like Cecile, nor the abuse she endures in a novel, and I remember being interested in the contrasting ways the various females in the book are portrayed. Told in an epistolary format as Cecile writes to God, she tells of the horrors she suffers at the hands of her father and later her husband, and the life that eventually leads her to Shug – a woman who opens her eyes to a different way of living. The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 and frequently features on lists of banned or contested books (see more of these on our Banned Books Week blog).

 
Land Rights Before Games poster (Brisbane, Australia: 1982) shelfmark tbc
 
Chosen by Lucy (Curator, Australasian Published Collections Post 1850)
 
Campaign poster on Aboriginal flag background with slogan 'Land Rights Before Games'
Land Rights Before Games poster (Brisbane, Australia: 1982) British Library shelfmark tbc

This poster represents a key piece of 20th century campaign material in Australian history. The 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane were the focus of a series of protests from Indigenous Australians who aimed to bring the issue of land rights to the international stage. The campaign called for rights over indigenous lands in Queensland and control over mining in those areas. The Queensland premier at the time, Joh Bjelke-Peterson, declared a state of emergency and banned street marches during the games. Yet around 2000 people still took to the streets of Brisbane on 26th September in support of the campaign and in protest of the continuing oppression of Indigenous Australians. Further sit-ins and marches were held throughout the games with hundreds of arrests made by police. The protests gained international attention and remain a significant moment in the indigenous civil rights movement in Australia. In 2012, the State Library of Queensland held an exhibition called 'State of Emergency' to mark the 30th anniversary of the protests.

 

 

 

03 October 2019

National Poetry Day

National Poetry Day is a UK-wide celebration of poetry held annually in October. The theme for 2019 is 'Truth' and this year also marks the 25th anniversary of the national event.  The British Library will be joining celebrations by hosting the Josephine Hart Poetry Hour in the evening of National Poetry Day with leading actors reading aloud the poetry of  Byron, Keats and Shelley. You can find out more information here.

On the theme of Truth, the Americas and Australasian team have put forward two of their favourite poems. The first marks truth in the sparseness of the text: a poem laid bare and stripped of punctuation and capitalisation.  The second offers truth in the language and the message: a bilingual poem for a bilingual country.

‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, found in Go Go by William Carlos Williams (New York: Monroe Wheeler, 1923), Cup.501.aa.35.

Chosen by Rachael (Curator, American Printed Collections Post 1850)

I love how Williams conveys such a vivid image with so few words in ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, and the fact that whenever I think about the poem I’m able to picture not only the scene the words create, but the layout of the words themselves. To me, the poem is as striking to look at as its flow is to hear when you read it aloud. I can’t help but pause for breath whenever I finish it; it makes me think of how it’s possible to find beauty in even the simplest or most seemingly ‘every day’ of things. The poem first appeared in Spring and All in 1923, under the title ‘xxii’. In Go Go (pictured here) it has the title we are familiar with and is printed alongside Williams’s ‘The Hermaphroditic Telephones’, which was the first time this particular poem had ever been presented.

Tātai Whetū: Seven Māori Women Poets in Translation edited by Maraea Rakuraku and Vana Manasiadis (Wellington, New Zealand: Seraph Press, 2018) YD.2018.a.3672

Chosen by Lucy (Curator, Australasian Printed Collections Post 1850)


Cover image of book Tātai Whetū: Seven Māori Women Poets in Translation   Text of the poem Rākau by Alice Te Punga Somerville

Tātai Whetū is a delicately handbound chapbook in the Seraph Press Translation Series celebrating Māori writing and te reo Māori (the Māori language). This bilingual collection of poems from seven women writers has text in both te reo Māori and English. The featured poets are Anahera Gildea, Michelle Ngamoki, Tru Paraha, Kiri Piahana-Wong, Maraea Rakuraku, Dayle Takitimu and Alice Te Punga Somerville. Their poems have been translated by Hēmi Kelly, Te Ataahia Hurihanganui, Herewini Easton, Jamie Cowell, Vaughan Rapatahana and Dayle Takitimu

From this beautful collection, I have chosen the poem pictured above. Rākau is by Alice Te Punga Somerville, an indigenous scholar whose poem was selected for the 2018 publication of Best New Zealand Poems journal. The poem has been translated from English into te reo Māori by Te Ataahia Hurihanganui and you can listen to Rākau in both languages here on the Best New Zealand Poems site.  'Rākau' refers to both wood and a tree in the Māori language and the poem explores the link between the careful carving of wood and the acquisition of a language which has long been hidden in the learner.

Below is the poem in English.

We know that carvers coax something or someone
Who’s already there in the wood.
They remove small pieces of timber, one by one,
until it’s ready.

         
We both know a language is waiting inside my tongue.

Please put down the adze, the skillsaw, the file:
Speak gently to me so I can recognise what’s there.

No, don’t chip away at pink flesh and taste buds:
Oozing and swollen, I will choke on my blood
before you’re done.

The wood you’re trying to carve is still a tree.

 

 

25 September 2019

From the Collections: Pacific

Or_16453_plate_5 (Perry in Japan)

A Japanese manuscript illustration of Commodore Perry's ships, BL: Or.16453.

I have been fortunate in my career to be asked to write not one but two books by British Library Publishing (BLP). The second of these, released on Monday, is Pacific: An Ocean of Wonders and it draws from work on the collections I was fortunate to do while variously curating the Australasian, Canadian and United States collections.

The origin of the book lies in Lines in the Ice, my first with BLP, which raised a question, what was it about the Pacific that was so important people were prepared to risk freezing temperatures, starvation and death in order to find an Arctic passage to the ocean? During my subsequent work with the collections I had various opportunities to get glimpses into the why of this, trade, politics and power being the most significant parts of any answer. Through this research, however, something else became apparent, that the agency, influence and continuing significance of islands in and around the Pacific Ocean is often undervalued. These places, upon which narratives about sailors such as James Cook are most often constructed, should in fact be the focus of our attention in and of themselves. As with many before me, I am indebted to the writings of Pacific scholar Epeli Hauʻofa whose argument that the interconnectedness of the islands of the Pacific and their cultures is key to understanding the human history of the ocean at large.

14000_i_zoophytes_plate_4 (Dana corals)

Above: One of J. C. Dana's many plates depicting Pacific corals, from the atlas of the United States Exploring Expedition, BL: 14000.i.

Hauʻofa’s work shaped the focus of Pacific and led to its broad scope which traces a history through and around islands across the whole expanse of the ocean. What made this possible, ultimately, is the collections of the British Library. The book does use materials from elsewhere, generously provided by the Library of Congress, David Rumsey Map Collection and other institutions, as well as extremely helpful individuals, not least Bob Patterson and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, but the core of the book draws from the Library. As the old promotional line used to say, the British Library is, ‘The World’s Knowledge’, a vast, polyglot and interconnected collection that provides access to myriad historical and cultural perspectives. Pacific therefore draws not just from the printed books, manuscripts, maps and other collections from North America and Australasia, it also utilises collections relating to China, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Russia, Spain and many others.

Which brings me, eventually, to the point of this post. Despite my career as a curator I would not have been able to find many of the wonderful, insightful items used in Pacific without the help of my curatorial colleagues. That being the case, this post is a public thank you to them. Very (and I mean very) few things in a public collection are ‘discovered’, almost everything held has been through the hands of cataloguers, stampers, conservators, curators and many other colleagues who, in different ways, know these collections intimately. Non-specialists in their areas (myself included) may often forget or miss what is held in institutions like the British Library, but they know the collections intimately and are our remote (through catalogue records, and so on) and direct guides. For Pacific, I am particularly grateful to Hamish Todd and colleagues for their help with the Library’s Japanese collections, as well as Nick Dyke for the tireless cataloguing work he and his team have done on modern maps. On top of this, colleagues across the Western Heritage, Asian and African and Americas and European Collections, as well as our teams working on cataloguing, placing and in the reading rooms all had a hand in making this book possible.

Kalakaua and Grant (v2)

President Grant receives King Kalākaua of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 2 January 1875.

All of which is to say that this book, like most other research conducted in libraries, archives and so on, is a huge work of collaboration that would be impossible without all the often unattributed hands that go into making the research underpinning it possible. And it doesn’t end there, the British Library Publishing team, including editor Abbie Day and picture editor Sally Nicholls, their designers, copy editors and proof readers, the Library’s Events team, our Shop and many, many others all played a huge part in getting the book made, completed and into the hands of the public. So, really, this is less a post to promote Pacific and more an acknowledgement of all the people who bring a project like this to completion. Everyone who worked on the book and cares for the collections it displays had a role in bringing it to completion and we should all have our names on the front cover.

[PJH]