American Collections blog

77 posts categorized "Americas"

07 July 2020

Dancing in the archives...

This post by Robert Hylton is the first in a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across the Caribbean, Canadian and US collections.

In the early 1980s this thing called hip hop suddenly arrived in the UK from North America through videos like Malcolm McLaren's Buffalo Gals (1982) and films such as Wild Style (1983).  It marked the start of a global cultural change and, unbeknown to me, would help develop my future world as a choreographer, researcher and teacher.

In time, my curiosity would take me beyond the South Bronx of the 1970s to '50s jazz dance, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers and, eventually, minstrelsy.

An African American woman and man Lindy Hopping; the woman is wearing a long sleeved blouse, a striped skirt and white plimsolls while the man is wearing a long sleeve shirt and dungarees that are tight at the waist and full in the leg
Willa Mae Ricker and Leon James dancing the Lindy Hop, Life, 23 August 1943; shelfmark P.P.6383.cke

Minstrelsy and blackface was something I was aware of growing up in the 1970s as a mixed race child in the North East of England: The Black and White Minstrel Show was still on TV and racial relics were never far away.  Years later I began looking past the racially charged media of minstrelsy, seeing instead an innovative dance form which laid the foundations not only for hip hop dance but for entertainment as we know it today.  And so I began to ponder on the question: What happened before minstrelsy?  Which is what brought me to the Eccles Centre and the British Library.

My approach at the Library was to explore African diaspora dance practices in the United States from the early 1800s.  My prior knowledge of African based social dances was mostly limited to the 20th century and I knew there was so much more: More threads and meeting points detailing the myriad ways in which the African diaspora experience was carried to the US, became fractured and disrupted through slavery, and morphed into gospel, blues, ragtime, jazz, funk and hip hop.  My research enabled me to understand how African dance, including Gelede and Calenda, were exchanged and disrupted through gatherings such as corn shucking meets, leading in turn to secular dances like the turkey trot and the camel walk. 

An advert for a minstrel show, depicting a group of around 15 people singing and dancing in the moonlight by the side of a river
The Big Black Boom. Her Majesty's Theatre, Westminster c. 1878. Shelfmark: Evan.273 (Image taken from a collection of pamphlets, handbills, and miscellaneous printed matter relating to Victorian entertainment and everyday life. Originally published/produced in London, 1800 - 1895)

The key thing I realised through this research, however, wasn't even about dance.  It was about how information was passed, gathered and coded through slavery.  It was about the interactions between different African practices. I began looking beyond West African traditional dance forms to broader African practices.  This led me to explore the Muslim experience within Africa, the United States and slavery.  One story I came across was that of a 35-year old male Muslim slave in Sierra Leone during the eighteenth century. Waiting in irons for departure, sometimes he would sing a melancholy song and sometimes a Muslim prayer.  The song would eventually arrive in America to be heard by other Africans who may not have understood Arabic. Yet the cadence, experience and emotion enabled an experience of empathy that transcended words.  It was decoded through human consciousness as emotional unity through sound and movement.  It was understood, or misunderstood, and developed identity, social communication and African American culture.  These rhythms and experiences would resurface and be remixed into early blues; a remix that I suggest echoes into the sampling culture of hip hop.

Traces of Muslim practice may also relate to the Ring Shout (ceremonial dance) and the Kaaba and walking anti clockwise as prayer.  These exchanges of different African cultures, through shared experience and slavery, led me to think more about the subtleties and nuances of human exchange, gesture, symbolism and the cadence of both sound and movement: how scales of emotion and the body being read and misread is very much part of human learning, social patterns and coded cultures.

The African diaspora experience of slavery is one of the most heartless in human history and yet people survived, grew and emerged.  Of course, resilience in itself is a built-in human trait but how many times must it be tested and inflicted from one human to another to the degree of slavery and many other forms of violence, where carried trauma and disrupted African experiences seem to be in constant recovery and where culture acts to navigate and find better ways of living.

I think this research more than anything has led me to a deeper understanding of cultural development, human exchange, histories (my own) and the traces of experience that we carry and that are passed through generations.  Which brings me to the present, to my own creative practice and towards Afro futurism and how one can begin to develop African diaspora history(s) through speculation as a way to navigate future possibilities.  My hope is to develop projects embedded in my Eccles Centre research through dance, hip hop, visual art and education, exploring the question: What is hip hop's place in the twenty first century?

Robert Hylton, Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow, 2019.

Suggested Reading:

Abbott, L and Seroff, D. Ragged but Right: Black Traveling Shows, "Coon Songs," and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. (Shelfmark: m07/.15598 DSC)

Austin, A. African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles. New York; London: Routledge, 1997. (Shelfmark: YC.1997.a.3453) 

Diouf, S. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in The Americas. New York University Press, 1998. (Shelfmark: YC.1999.a.80)

Emory, E. Black Dance: From 1619 to Today. London: Dance, 1988. (Shelfmark: YM.1989.a.111) 

Gay, K. African American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations: the History, Customs, and Symbols Associated with Both Traditional and Contemporary Religious and Secular Events Observed by Americans of African Descent. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 2007. (Shelfmark: YD.2007.a.7641)

Glass, B. African American Dance: An Illustrated History. Jefferson, N.C; London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2007. (Shelfmark: m07/.12508 DSC)

Hammer, J. Safi, O. The Cambridge Companion to American Islam. Cambridge University Press, 2013. (Shelfmark: YC.2014.a.828)

Robinson, D. Modern Moves: Dancing Race During the Ragtime and Jazz Eras. (Oxford; New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015) (Shelfmark: YC.2015.a.12024)

Thompson, K. Ring Shout, Wheel About: the Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014) (Shelfmark: m14/.11623) 

Visual References:

Ring Shout: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQgrIcCtys0

Buzzard Lope: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dGamWaYcLg

Audio Reference:

Alan Lomax Recordings - Levee Camp Holler: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5EH3jsnUo38

24 June 2020

Remembering Dr King: US Black activism in the UK and beyond

This is the second of two blog posts responding to the murder of George Floyd, and the international Black Lives Matter protests.  Click to read the first post, “Hell You Talmbout”.

Following the assassination of Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. on the night of April 4th, 1968, the United States experienced rioting in over 100 cities.

While many who read the term ‘race riot’ think about African Americans rioting in their own communities, mass racial violence has a very long history in the United States as this comprehensive timeline on Wikipedia attests.Instances include attacks on Indigenous peoples, recent and established immigrant groups, and African Americans. This includes mass violence perpetrated by white Americans towards African Americans such as occurred during the Red Summer of 1919. The Red Summer witnessed one of the most deadly riots in US history, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of African Americans in Elaine, Arkansas.[1]  Similarly, in Tulsa in 1921, white Americans lynched the large and prosperous black community, burning down swathes of the city and killing hundreds.

 

Image of front cover. "The Arkansas Race Riot", by Ida B. Wells-Barnett, 1920.
Cover of Ida B. Wells’ journalistic account, The Arkansas Race Riots. This is available to read in full at the Internet Archive.

 

Nonetheless, instances of rioting in the twentieth century remained largely isolated until the 1960s which witnessed several waves of riots.  The ‘long hot summer of 1967’ was especially tumultuous, with 159 race riots including the Newark riot, the Watts riot, and the Detroit riot proving particularly destructive to life and property. Due to the continued unrest, President Lyndon Johnson formed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders which delivered its infamous “Kerner Report” the following year.  The findings were stark: “This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal…To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.” [2]

 

Image of front cover of the bestselling Kerner Report
Front cover of the bestselling Kerner Report

 

The commission’s stark warning identified racist policing practices as the primary factor that caused deep resentment amongst inner city African American.  However, they clarified:

The police are not merely a “spark” factor. To some Negroes police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression. And the fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes. The atmosphere of hostility and cynicism is reinforced by a widespread belief among Negroes in the existence of police brutality and in a “double standard” of justice and protection—one for Negroes and one for whites.

The commission identified that anger about the flawed criminal justice system was representative of much wider social divisions that were visible in all aspects of African American life.  Unemployment, inadequate housing, inadequate education, white racism, discrimination in consumer and credit practices, and ineffectiveness of political structures were just some of the grievances identified.  The commission’s finding was unequivocal: white racism in all forms of African American life was the direct cause of the riots.  It was an instant best-seller, demand outstripped supply.  This was exactly the point that Dr King had been trying to make in the final years of his life:

The only thing that can be done is to aggressively get rid of the intolerable conditions that bring riots into being… the culprit in this situation is not merely the one with a Molotov cocktail but the culprit is a Congress, is the recalcitrance of white society, the vacillation and ambivalence of white America on the question of genuine equality for the Black man. https://diva.sfsu.edu/collections/sfbatv/bundles/190101

Within weeks of the publication of the Kerner report, Dr King had been murdered.  Both the assassination and the rioting that followed received widespread international coverage.  Scenes from his funeral were widely televised, and many acts of solidarity took place around the world.  Authors, artists, and dramatists were inspired to commemorate him in verse, picture, and on stage, many examples of which can be seen throughout our collections.  These give an insight into Dr King’s position as an international speaker on matters of justice and race, and how the US was regarded from an outside perspective.  They are also indicative of conversations about race that were taking place locally, or in some instances, conversations that appeared to be about race but had other underlying purposes.

 

Cover of Benjamin Bharati’s play Murder of a Prophet: a moving and absorbing drama on the victorious life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Bombay, 1969)
Cover of Benjamin Bharati’s play Murder of a Prophet: a moving and absorbing drama on the victorious life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Bombay, 1969). Shelfmark: X.989/20837.

 

The above play, published in India, pays homage to Dr King's dedication to non-violence and the inspiration of Gandhi's advocacy of non-violence in campaigning against British colonialism.

 

Image of front cover of Drum Major for a Dream. Binding in pink silk
Cover of Drum Major for a Dream. Shelfmark: YA.1989.a.3738

 

This volume of poetry, Drum Major for a Dream (shelfmark YA.1989.a.3738), wrapped in beautiful pink silk, was produced by the Calcutta Writer’s Workshop. It includes Gwendolyn Brooks’ tribute poem Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

Image of front cover and illustration. Dolor por la Muerte de un Negro (Mexico, 1968), a poem by Manuel Aguilar de la Torre. Woodcut illustration by Arturo Garcia Bustos
Manuel Aguilar de la Torre’s poem Dolor por la Muerte de un Negro (Mexico, 1968) is powerfully illustrated by woodcuts. Shelfmark: X.908/19389.

 

This volume from Mexico carries vivid woodcut illustrations alongside a poem that reflects on Dr King’s words.  The woodcuts are by Arturo Garcia Bustos, who studied under Frida Kahlo and who was heavily influenced by Mexican muralism. Garcia Bustos also spent time studying printmaking in Korea and China. His work regularly touched on topics of political and social injustice, and revolutionary politics in Latin America.

 

Woodcut illustration by Arturo Garcia Bustos
Woodcut illustration by Arturo Garcia Bustos.

 

His treatment of Dr King’s murder takes on an agrarian imagery, similar to that of the workers and revolutionaries he depicted elsewhere. Dr King is thus depicted as a martyr for the world’s poor and oppressed.

One of the more interesting examples of international responses in our collections is this Soviet pamphlet, written the night of the assassination. Published by the Moscow based Novosti Press Agency Publishing House, a state-owned news agency, it is a treatise on racism in the United States and includes sections discussing the Watts riots, the Birmingham, Alabama church bombing, and the march from Selma to Montgomery.

 

Image of front cover of Fire Bell in the Night
Cover of Fire Bell in the Night. Shelfmark: X.808/4705.

 

The title Fire Bell in the Night references Thomas Jefferson’s comments upon Missouri’s petition to be admitted as a slave state in 1819, which demonstrates a detailed knowledge of the history of race in the US.  Often used as a shorthand for the superiority of communism, US race relations regularly featured in Soviet politics and culture. 

Indeed, throughout the twentieth century, many prominent African American and Caribbean creatives were invited to take part in projects with Soviet counterparts, which were unabashedly propagandistic in tone. Visitors to the USSR included authors Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Claude McKay, and singer Paul Robeson. Many of those who travelled recalled being met with a refreshing interest in their work and political opinions.  Hughes was particularly creatively inspired by his encounter with Soviet politics of solidarity and the promise of internationalist racial alliances, which can be seen in his selections of Soviet poetry for translation. Kate A. Baldwin writes: “As the poem "Kinship," written by Julian Anissimov and translated by Hughes, suggests, partnerships between "the Russian" and "the Negro" promised a shift from biologically determined links (that is, those fabricated through blood) to politically determined ones.”[3]

 

Front cover image of the anthology of ‘Negro poetry’ edited by Loren Miller, Africa in America (Aфрика в Америке)
The sponsored trips of Harlem Renaissance authors resulted in an anthology of ‘Negro poetry’ edited by Loren Miller, Africa in America (Aфрика в Америке). Shelfmark RB.23.a.36269. Some of the poems in the opening section of this anthology are likely to have been fabricated by the translator to make a clearer connection with Soviet politics.

 

Later, in 1976, Audre Lorde wrote about two weeks she spent in Moscow at the invitation of the Union of Soviet Writers in the collection Sister Outsider. In the essay she reflects of her experience: “I came away with revolutionary women in my head. But I feel very much now still that we, Black Americans, exist alone in the mouth of the dragon. As I’ve always suspected, outside of rhetoric and proclamations of solidarity, there is no help, except ourselves.” Her respect for Soviet culture but disillusion with the lack of pragmatic support for African American movements echoes that of the many authors and artists who preceded her, as they interrogated the motivations behind Soviet interest in US race relations. Notably, Lorde speaks of viewing positive relations between different ethnic groups on her tours of the Soviet Union, but of course she was not in a position to witness the treatment of Soviet’s own minority ethnic groups.

It is in this light, then, that we need to approach images such as the below which shows a meeting of workers at a Moscow automobile factory in memory of Dr King.  The placard reads “Shame on racist killers!”

 

Photograph from Есть у меня мечта. It shows a meeting of workers at a Moscow automobile factory in memory of Dr King
Photograph from Есть у меня мечта. Shelfmark: X.708/6833.

 

The Soviets were not the only Europeans whose interest in Black cultures and US racial politics reflected internal political dynamics.  Many have noted that their interest in such was quite late coming in comparison to say the post-WWI Negritude movement prominent in French arts and intellectual life (such as the jazz successes of James Reese Europe and the 369th Infantry, and the Pan African Congress of 1919 ). 

The first Pan African Congress, however, took place nineteen years earlier in London and was organised by a British based Trinidadian lawyer, Henry Sylvester Williams.  Notably it was attended by leading US black intellectual W.B. DuBois who would continue to organise the Congress after WWII, and later found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.  Anti-colonial activism, and international reciprocity between black intellectuals has thus been a long-standing feature of the British (and European) conversation about race.

French authors also were interested in US race relations.  Romain Gary’s book Chien Blanc (1970), set in Los Angeles, is a fictionalised account of the author’s attempts to re-programme a former Alabama police dog that had been trained to attack Black people on sight.  It is a tale of morality tale that reflects on the nature of racism, the California civil rights and Black power movements, and the hypocrisy of white activists (which included his ex-wife, actress Jean Seberg).

 

Image of front cover of Romain Gary’s Chien Blanc
Cover of Romain Gary’s Chien Blanc shows a graphic of a police dog attacking a Black protestor, against the backdrop of a Metropolitcan skyline. Shelfmark: X.709/10618.

 

In the UK, King’s death and the rioting was widely commented on.  Many spoke directly of Dr King’s work and sacrifice, and of concern for the social wellbeing of the US, that historically.  However, the occasion also provided a way to reflect upon race relations at home.  This was not a passing superficial comparison.  At the time, two key acts were being discussed in Parliament: the 1968 Race Relations Act (RRA) and the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968 (CIA).

The 1968 RRA act sought to bring in additional provisions that were omitted from the 1965 legislation (the first of its kind in the UK). The sections that proved most controversial to a British public at the time related to legislation around discrimination in housing, employment, and the provision of goods. The updated act also enabled civil proceedings against those who broke legislation in the earlier act. While the RRA gave more powers to the Race Relations Board which was seen by many as a previously ‘toothless’ organisation, the simultaneous passing of the CIA further restricted the rights of citizens from Commonwealth countries to move to the United Kingdom (building on 1962 legislation). 

 Just two weeks after Dr King’s death, Enoch Powell delivered his deliberately inflammatory ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech which resulted in a rise of racist incidents across the country, particularly in the West Midlands where Powell delivered his speech.  The author Hanif Kureishi who was 14 at the time recalls that “At school , Powell’s name soon become one terrifying word – Enoch. As well as an insult, it began to be used with elation. ‘Enoch will deal with you lot,’ and ‘Enoch will soon be knocking on your door, pal.’”  While Powell was summarily dismissed from the cabinet, his speech and the response to it made immigration a key Conservative issue.  The party’s win at the 1970 general election heralded policy changes in Commonwealth immigration that were a root cause of the deportations of British Caribbean citizens at the heart of the Windruh generation scandal .

It is no coincidence that just three years prior, Malcolm X had visited Smethwick.  He was invited to tour the area by the local branch of the Indian Workers’ Association (IWA) following an unashamedly racist election campaign by the local Conservative MP. Following successful lobbying by residents, housing segregation had become the official policy of the local Conservative council.  Malcolm X visited Marshall street where the council had agreed to buy unoccupied houses to block non-white ownership, and witnessed the colour bar in local businesses. It leads to his observing that Britain was worse than some parts of the United States where these activities were now outlawed.

 

Black and white photograph of Malcolm X taking a walk down Marshall Street in Smethwick, to inspect the housing segregation practices supported by the Conservative-led Council
Malcolm X takes a walk down Marshall Street in Smethwick, to inspect the housing segregation practices supported by the Conservative-led Council.

 

The then secretary of the Smethwick IWA, Avtar Singh Jouhl, recalls that Malcolm X said that “he was travelling to get more information and more education on the structure of how imperialism works. There was a big revolution going on inside himself.”  Part of this was looking at how this corresponded to British colonialism, and affected Asian as well as black communities.  His visit provided hope for local anti-racist activists and renewed inspiration to persist with their activities. “He reminded us that without struggle change can’t come.” 

While many white locals did not know who Malcolm X was, many were also outraged by his visit.  This included the Mayor of Smethwick who said that “it makes my blood boil that Malcolm X should be allowed into this country” and called his visit to Marshall Street “deplorable” and an incitement to increased tensions in the community. [4]

 

Photographic image of the blue plaque erected to commemorate Malcolm X’s visit to Marshall Street
The blue plaque erected to commemorate Malcolm X’s visit to Marshall Street.

 

This visit formed part of Malcolm X’s growing international itinerary in the last year of his life, which had contributed to his gradual development of an internationalist approach to race and racism.  He was killed 9 days after his visit to Smethwick. 

Like Malcolm X, Dr King’s visits to the UK also informed his understanding of the causes of racism, which was becoming increasingly global in outlook.  He visited on several occasions.  In 1961, during which time he was interviewed in depth by the BBC’s John Freeman (available to watch in full on BBC iPlayer for UK based readers).

He visited twice in 1964. During one of these visits he preached a rousing sermon at St Pauls and this speech at an event organised by Christian Action. Looking across both speeches, it becomes clear that he was interested in drawing out the connections between racism and economic justice on the global stage.  He spoke of segregation in the United States, of South African apartheid, and finally of the situation in the UK: 

“… the problem of racial injustice is not limited to any one nation. We know now that this is a problem spreading all over the globe. And right here in London and right here in England, you know so well that thousands and thousands of colored people are migrating here from many, many lands—from the West Indies, from Pakistan, from India, from Africa. And they have the just right to come to this great land, and they have the just right to expect justice and democracy in this land. And England must be eternally vigilant. For if not, the same kind of ghettos will develop that we have in the Harlems of the United States. The same problems of injustice, the same problems of inequality in jobs will develop.”

Dr King also met with the Trinidadian historian and social theorist C.L.R. James, with whom he subsequently corresponded.  Notably, James gifted him his own influential book The Black Jacobins, and George Padmore’s Pan-Africanism or Communism?

 

Black and white portrait of C.L.R. James
C.L.R. James

 

Together they later met with British immigrant groups who explained in more detail the structural differences between British and American race relations, particularly the importance of Britain’s colonial past and its relationship to immigration. Dr King thus influenced British activism in turn: the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, an early pacifist campaigning group that coordinated activities by numerous Commonwealth migrant groups was established following this meeting.

Like Malcolm X in the West Midlands, Dr King’s visits to the UK formed one element of a larger international conversation (interestingly, the Jamaican poet and intellectual James Berry wrote to various people in the US including Dr King in the early Sixties, in an attempt to establish a Black Studies journal. These can be found in the James Berry archive). The flow of ideas and strategies was reciprocal, and was informed by a growing body of black scholarship, literature, arts and culture, as well as activism.

 

Black and white photographic image of a young man wearing a Public Enemy ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ jacket raises a Black Power fist by a statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square, London, on 6 June 2020
copyright Misan Harriman, WWS, Black Lives Matter march, London, 6 June 2020

 

We can see this political and cultural fusion in images of the protests that have taken place in London in the last few weeks.  In the image above, a young man wearing a Public Enemy ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ jacket raises a Black Power fist by a statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square.  Below, another man wears the black beret that was part of the US Black Panthers’ ‘uniform’ while similarly raising his fist.  The embroidery on his jacket is a quotation by Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

 

Black and white photographic image of a man wearing the black beret that was part of the US Black Panthers’ ‘uniform’ while raising his fist. The embroidery on his jacket is a quotation by Nelson Mandela
copyright Misan Harriman, WWS, Black Lives Matter march, London, 6 June 2020

 

Most people remember the Black Panthers as a US movement, but like Malcolm X and Dr King, their influence spread much further afield. In the UK, the Black Panther Movement established in London in the summer of 1968, a few months after the riots that followed Dr King’s assassination. You can find two representative issues of their newsletter Freedom News at shelfmark: RH.9.x.1790, (by coincidence the George Padmore Institute and Shades of Noir have just announced a digitisation project for these).

While unaffiliated with the US party, they were heavily influenced by their namesake.  Unsurprisingly, then, their activities focussed on policing and community programmes. 

 

Cover of ‘Freedom News’, June 1973. Headline reads "Police terror must stop"
Cover of ‘Freedom News’, June 1973. The headline and photograph highlights “growing police terror in South London” which resulted in a “police riot in Brockwell Park”. Courtesy of George Padmore Institute and Shades of Noir

 

Particularly noteworthy was the influential ‘Mangrove Nine’ case. This followed the arrest of nine protestors from the Black Panthers Movement after a march against repeated police raids on the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, which served as a meeting place for activists. The defendants followed the US Black Panthers’ radical defence strategy in the court room, calling to be tried by a jury of their Black peers.  While they weren’t entirely successful, they were able to dismiss 69 jurors for being unsuitable and find two black jurors.  All nine were cleared on the charge of riot, and the closing statement made by the sitting judge was the first in the UK to mention racial prejudice on the part of police.

 

Black and white photographic image of a young woman holding a placard which reads ‘I never liked pigs they’re haram anyways’, Black Lives Matter march, London, 6 June 2020
copyright Misan Harriman, WWS. Young woman holds placard which reads ‘I never liked pigs they’re haram anyways’, Black Lives Matter march, London, 6 June 2020

 

This image is particularly interesting in how it captures the overlap of popular and protest cultures between the US and the UK. The placard is clearly tongue-in-cheek in its anti-police sentiment, highlighting the woman’s pride in her (presumably) Muslim identity, but in the wake of the George Floyd murder, it is a serious and sombre message that carries echoes in the UK and internationally (depressingly familiar parallels can be found in policing tactics in France, and Brazil, for example). It could be taken straight from a US Black Panther publication, which regularly used the term and imagery of ‘pigs’ to refer to police, national guard, military, government figures, and US imperialism more broadly.  Particularly noteworthy here is the artwork of Emory Douglas (the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party) which featured regularly in the publication (of which we hold some examples at shelfmark: LOU.A499).

 

Image from the US Black Panther newspaper, copyright Emory Douglas
Image from the US Black Panther newspaper, copyright Emory Douglas

 

It is worth remembering that the Black Panther Party in the US was a varied organisation that carried out wide ranging activities.  As well as calling for “community control of police” as per the above image, they organised community programmes such as free breakfast clubs for families living in poverty which served approximately 20,000 meals per week across nineteen communities. They also became strong advocates of health as a human right, and established free health clinics in thirteen communities and ran a national sickle cell screening programme (a genetic disease that had previously been largely ignored because it mostly affected people of African descent).  It is because of activities such as these that the party had such a stronghold in Oakland and San Francisco, and it is why when Dr King was assassinated, these cities remained unaffected by the rioting that erupted across America: they were quiet, Bobby Seale said, “because we told them to be quiet.”  

This, often overlooked, aspect of the Black Panthers has striking parallels to Dr King’s radical later work with the Poor People’s Campaign and the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. While their route to this was substantially different (Karl Marx, via Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ for the Panthers), they nonetheless came to share a globally informed understanding of racism, and its relationship to economic and social injustice.

 

Image of woodcut illustration by Paul Pieter Piech, Words and Wisdoms of Martin Luther King, 1968
Woodcut by Paul Pieter Piech, Words and Wisdoms of Martin Luther King, Bushey Heath, Herts. The Taurus Press (1968). Shelfmark: Cup.510.bea.4.

 

The above work by Paul Pieter Piech was printed in the UK, in commemoration of Dr King. His woodcuts are set alongside quotations taken from his ‘Drum Major Instinct’ sermon', which was played at his funeral service.  It is one of many such items in the Library’s collections that recall Dr King’s civil rights work through his own words, and which treat as inseparable the issue of racial inequalities based and American nationalism.

Almost a year after Dr King’s assassination, Coretta Scott King who was an activist in her own right, followed in her husband’s footsteps and preached at St Paul’s Cathedral (the first woman to preach at a statutory service there):  "Many despair at all the evil and unrest and disorder in the world today, but I see a new social order and I see the dawn of a new day."  Many today would question whether that new day has yet dawned.

It is interesting, then, to compare the results of polling of Americans on their views of racism following the riots of 1967 to the protests of 2020.  Following the publication of the Kerner report, “Polls showed that 53 percent of white Americans condemned the claim that racism had caused the riots, while 58 percent of black Americans agreed with the findings.”  By contrast, this poll by Monmouth University Polling Institute shows that the George Floyd murder and the current protests have led to large numbers of Americans changing their perspective on racism, policing, and the justification for protests. 

Most Americans say the anger about black deaths at the hands of police officers that led to recent protests is fully justified, even if they do not feel the same about the actual actions. A majority of the public now agrees that the police are more likely to use excessive force with a black person than a white person in similar situations. Only one-third of the country held this opinion four years ago. The [poll] also finds that the number of people who consider racial and ethnic discrimination to be a big problem has increased from about half in 2015 to nearly 3 in 4 now.

It is deeply troubling to reflect that this shift was precipitated by a viral video of a murder.  Let us hope that no more such deaths or videos are now necessary to bring about the necessary urgent action to accompany these changes in perspective that are being demanded in the US, the UK, France, and beyond.

It feels fitting to end here with one of the poems in Drum Major for a Dream.  ‘After the Killing of Martin Luther King’, written by Lou Lipsitz.  It speaks of ways of finding consolation and strength when faced with intolerable injustice.  Like many African Americans before and after, Lipsitz finds strength and historical resilience in the blues and jazz traditions.

I listened to old music

all day

trying to console myself

- the New Orleans jazzmen,

Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie

McGhee -things

like

The Southbound Train

My Bucket’s Got

a Hole in It and Twelve Gates to the City

music out of the chain gangs

music out of loneliness, desolation

music of the poor who would not be humiliated

that shows you how to jump

the truck

out of history

and pick yourself up in the dust

damn near whole.

 

_______________________________________________________________________________________

[1] There is no clear final count of deaths, but historians agree it was over one hundred and likely in the several hundreds. One contemporary account by Louis Sharpe Dunaway places this as high as 850. For more information on this event, see https://ualrexhibits.org/elaine/

[2] For more on the Kerner Commission, see this wonderfully illustrated article from the Smithsonian magazine which accompanied an exhibition at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. See also “Riot Report Book Big Best Seller” in The New York Times, March 14, 1968, p. 49.

[3] Kate A. Baldwin, “The Russian Connection: Interracialism as Queer Alliance in Langston Hughes’s The Ways of White Folks”, Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 48, No. 4, Winter 2002, pp. 795-824.

[4] “Malcolm X in Smethwick” Birmingham Daily News, Saturday 13 February p. 1 and 34. You can see this article and other responses in local newspapers using the British Newspaper Archive https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/

 

Reading list

This Oxford Press bibliography has some great reading recommendations related to African Americans and communism:

https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780190280024/obo-9780190280024-0023.xml

Saladin Ambar, Malcolm X at Oxford Union: rcial politics in a global era. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014.

R. Kelley and S. Tuck (eds.): The Other Special Relationships: Race, Rights, and Riots in Britain and the United States

Audio: Archive on 4: Malcolm X in Oxford: listen here (UK only) https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04tcbd2

“Britain’s Most Racist Election: the story of Smethwick, 50 years on”, The Guardian, 15 October 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/15/britains-most-racist-election-smethwick-50-years-on

The London Black Panther Movement newsletters are digitised on the website Shades of Noir: http://www.shadesofnoir.org.uk/artefacts/black-panther-newsletters/#

The George Padmore Institute holds a rich archive of material relating to the black community of Caribbean, African and Asian descent in Britain and continental Europe. https://www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org/

The Black Cultural Archives has an ongoing programme of exhibitions and events related to Black British history: https://blackculturalarchives.org

 

[Blog post by Francisca Fuentes Rettig -Curator, North American Published Collections]

 

18 May 2020

¡La lotería! palabra mágica¡ ¡palabra encantadora!* The lotería! Magic word! Charming word!

Since I received greetings cards featuring the illustrations of the colourful Mexican game la lotería, I had wondered what we have in our collection at the British Library. I have soon discovered an amazing selection of books, and catalogues of linocut and woodcut prints, collected over the years.

 

Colourful image of a set of la Lotería board game cards
La Lotería board game cards. Image sourced by flickr. Uploaded by Andreanna Moya, August 2008. Some rights reserved.

 

Here began my journey into the magic of the divination game, and its representation through history. From early prints to variants of the digital age at the time of the Pandemic, this has been a multi-sensorial encounter with la lotería. An experience involving sight, imagination and spirit.

A triumph of Mexican colours and vibes, and a vibrant selection of charms, the traditional game of the lotería has its origins in 15th century Italy, a game played for noble and charitable causes, to collect money in support of the poor and commercial activities in financial crisis. It is then thought to have been adopted by Spain in the 16th century, before finally arriving in Mexico in 1769. Initially played by the colonial Mexican elite, the lotería was spontaneously embraced by all classes of society. It would become a mean for communities and families to interact, and to celebrate of traditional events, such as fairs and anniversaries [1].

¡La lotería! ¡Oh! ¡Palabra mágica¡ ¡palabra encantadora! ¡La lotería! [2].  Ignacio Cumplido, a prolific worker of arts and culture in the early 19th century Mexico, was a printer, writer and Mexican politician of liberal ideology. Alongside those pursuits, he also worked for the Museo Nacional of Mexico City, and in 1829 he became director of the press responsible for the printing of the Correo de la Federación Mexicana. He was later in charge of El Fénix de la Libertad, and El Atleta.

In 1844, while elected senator of the state of Mexico, he continued working as a printer and founded a printing school giving jobs and hope to young orphans and the marginalised. In the same year, the Cumplido’s press issued La Lotería, one of the first interesting essays on the phenomenology and psychology behind the fascination with this game of chances [3]. 

Although Cumplido’s essay refers to the origins and development of the bigger-scale lottery game, where contestants play with numbers printed on tickets previously bought, it is worth drawing attention on the similarity of both games, their origins, and their long-lasting coexistence. It argues that everyone is seduced by the lottery game, a source of illusion and hope, a sort of happiness or, at least, an apparent solace [4].

 

Black and white image of the title page of the book La Lotería printed in Mexico by Ignacio Cumplido in 1988. It depicts a man sat on the floor in the act of emptying his sacks full of coins, result of his lottery win
Screenshot. Title page of the British Library digitised La Lotería, Mexico: Impreso para Ignacio Cumplido, 1844. Shelfmark: DRT Digital Store 8226.aa.26.(3.).

 

In his series of twelve iconic linocuts for the Lotería cards and fortune poems, the artist Artemio Rodríguez combines mastery of the linocut art of print with the rich “politically-inflected imagery of José Guadalupe Posada”. Made between 1995 and 1998, the artist embodied his linocut illustrations in the traditional Mexican lotería card format.

 

Image of the front cover of the book ‘Lotería cards and fortune poems’. It shows an image of one of Rodríguez’s linocuts on a red background with watermarked illustrations
Lotería cards and fortune poems: a book of lives, linocuts by Artemio Rodríguez; poems by Juan Felipe Herrera, San Francisco, California: City Lights Books, 1999. Shelfmark: YC.2002.a.11813.

 

Huasteca is a region of the eastern part of Mexico, an area culturally and ethnographically rich in traditional arts, music and dance, with a precious heritage of indigenous civilizations. In this woodblock collection of prints, Alec Dempster  gives his personal interpretation of this beautiful land, the theatre of the Mesoamerican civilization period, organising visual messages and concepts in an oneiric resolution translated into lotería cards images.

 

Image of the front cover of the book ‘Lotería Huasteca’. It shows one of Dempster’s woodblock prints and depicts a mermaid, a mythological creature part woman and part fish.
Image of front cover. Alec Dempster, Lotería Huasteca, woodblock prints [illustrated], Erin, Ontario: The Porcupine's Quill, 2015. Shelfmark: YD.2016.a.231.

 

Google has been recently Celebrating Lotería in their Make the most of your time at home project, relaunching some of the most popular Google Doodle games from the Google Doodle Archive.

A smile instantly comes to my face every time I think of Lotería … I think of being with my extended family in Mexico for the holidays …  think of the laughter, the excitement, and how all the worries of the world melted away as this game brought us together, even if just for a few hours. It was exciting to collaborate with five Mexican and Mexican-American illustrators to reimagine many of the classic Lotería game art for the Doodle—along with some new cards for a fun sorpresa! (Perla Campos –Google Doodles, from Celebrating Lotería on the presentation of the game and on how she has been in spired by her memories of her family holidays in Mexico).

 

Screenhot from Google page ‘Popular Google Doodle games’. It shows a colourful set of 5 cards depicting La chalupa, El sol, El mundo and El CorazónScreenhot from Google page “Popular Google Doodle games”. Make the most of your time at home with popular past Google Doodle: Lotería 2019.

 

5. El Paraguas. Para el sol y para el agua. The umbrella. For the sun and for the rain.

When I received my first greeting card of the series La Lotería, it was to celebrate an important achievement. A very traditional black umbrella on a blue white-stitched sky background. Come rain or shine, come hell or high water, the umbrella, and what it symbolises, is there to protect me.

 

Photo of two lotería game cards. Card no. 21. La mano / The hand, shows a neat illustration of the hand on a blue-sky background. Card no. 5. El paraguas / The umbrella, shows an open umbrella on a blue white-stitched sky backgroundPhotographic image of greetings card featuring La mano, no. 21, and El Paraguas, no. 5. From La Lotería Notecards, by Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2014. Personal collection.

 

21. La mano. The hand. La mano de un criminal. The hand of a criminal.

The second card I received, a neat illustration of the hand, was in this instance a fun representation of the need to wash our hands. The advice accompanied a basket of goodies given to me during the first days of the lockdown due to the COVID-19, when it was almost impossible to find bread and pasta on supermarket shelves.

Coincidentally, I then came across new versions of my two greeting cards, La mano and La esperanza, amongst a collection re-designed by the Mexican artist Rafael Gonzales Jr. In Pandemic Lotería, a pop-art portrayal of realism and hope, he reinterprets the traditional signs to represent life in the time of the quarantine.

 

Images of lotería game card no. 21. La mano / The hand. It shows the hand holding a pink soap, and card no. 5. La esperanza / The hope. It shows an open umbrella. The stick of the umbrella is a syringe. They represent the importance of washing hands and the hope that scientists will find the COVID-19 vaccine Pandemic Lotería: La Mano and La Esperanza. Sourced by Instagram, uploaded by Rafael Gonzales Jr. (pinche_raf_art). March 2020. ©All images Rafael Gonzales Jr.

 

¡Viva la lotería! Hooray for the lottery!

Blog post by Annalisa Ricciardi, Cataloguer, Americas and Oceania Collections post-1850.

 

Bibliography and suggested reading:

*La Lotería, Mexico: Impreso para Ignacio Cumplido, 1844. Shelfmark: DRT Digital Store 8226.aa.26.(3.), page 3.

[1] On the history of the game of la lotería, visit Teresa Villegas digital project History of La Loteria, and take the chance to explore her digital installation: Traveling exhibition "La Lotería: An Exploration of Mexico". Mexico and USA.

On the history and origins of the lotería game see also Cumplido’s essay, from pages 4-5  [bibliographic details on note no. 2]

[2] La Lotería, para Ignacio Cumplido, 1844. Shelfmark: DRT Digital Store 8226.aa.26.(3.), page 3.

[3] On the very charismatic Ignacio Cumplido, intensely active in the arts and culture of 19th century Mexico, see the British Library digitised: Tipo que contiene parte de los caracteres y demas útiles de la imprenta de la calle de los Rebeldes num. 2, dirigida por Ignacio Cumplido [por Ignacio Cumplido], México, [Impreso por Ignacio Cumplido], 1936. Shelfmark: DRT Digital Store RB.23.a.34189.

On Complido’s art of printing and typography see: Cumplido, I., Establecimiento tipográfico de Ignacio Cumplido: libro de muestras, México, Distrito Federal, Instituto Mora, 2001, (1871facsimile edition). Shelfmark: YA.2003.b.763.

Garone Gravier, Marina, Nineteenth-century Mexican graphic design: the case of Ignacio Cumplido, in Design Issues, Vol. 18, no. 4 (Autumn, 2002), pages 54-63. Shelfmark: 3559.976000. 

[4] La Lotería, para Ignacio Cumplido, 1844. Shelfmark: DRT Digital Store 8226.aa.26.(3.), page 4 etc.

Lotería cards and fortune poems: a book of lives, linocuts by Artemio Rodríguez; poems by Juan Felipe Herrera, San Francisco, California: City Lights Books, 1999. Shelfmark: YC.2002.a.11813.

Artemio Rodríguez, on British Library catalogue.

Juan Felipe Herrera, on British Library catalogue.

For a more accurate understanding of the linocut art of Artemio Rodríguez, check the article Ingenuity and Homage: Poetic Lotería by Artemio Rodríguez, written by Katherine Blood for On Paper: Journal of the Washington Print Club (Fall 2016 Volume 1, No. 2) and available as a reprint in the blog session of the Library of Congress website: https://bit.ly/3dq5gqG

Dempster, Alec, Lotería Huasteca, woodblock prints [illustrated], Erin, Ontario: The Porcupine's Quill, 2015. Shelfmark: YD.2016.a.231. Check the author’s website for a more detailed explanation of the book.

Beezley, William H., Mexican national identity: memory, innuendo, and popular culture, University of Arizona Press, 2008. Shelfmark: m08/.25229

Loaeza, Guadalupe, De mexicanos, como la lotería: anécdotas que marcan su lugar en la historia, México: Ediciones B Vergara, 2009. Shelfmark: YF.2010.a.25316

 

 

28 April 2020

The Library Quest: Andrés Bello (1781-1865)

Image of the bust of Andrés Bello photographed at the window of a conference room in the British Library
Bust of Andrés Bello (BLWA 91) at the window of a conference room in the British Library

 

Do you know this man? – His name is Andrés Bello and he was one of the most influential thinkers and makers of post-independence South-American nation building. Bello was born in Caracas in 1781 into the Spanish empire and, in his twenties, enjoyed a short career in the colonial administration, before the struggle for independence across his continent made him a life-long exile. In 1810, Andrés Bello joined the diplomatic mission of the continent’s foremost military leader Simón Bolívar in an effort to trump up political and financial support from the British government. Little did he know that the events unfolding back home would leave him stranded in London for what turned out to be almost 20 formative years from his late twenties to his late forties.

The long fight for independence meant that diplomatic funds quickly ran dry and Bello had to find other ways to make ends meet as a private tutor and translator. Sometimes better-off intellectual friends lent him a helping hand: the Scottish philosopher James Mill, best known today as the father of his more famous son James Stuart Mill and as collaborating with the founder of utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham, was able to pay Bello for his help in transcribing some of Bentham’s manuscripts (Weinberg 1993/2000: 3). In these times of economic hardship, the British Museum Library, predecessor of the British Library, became his refuge and undoubtedly also a meeting place with other like-minded intellectuals. This was not yet the grand round reading room the outline of which is still visible today in the circular structure in the atrium of the British Museum, but the older, more intimate reading rooms of the previous building at Montague Square.

And no matter how dire his life and the prospects of ever returning home, Bello found solace in his work at the British Museum Library, painstakingly transcribing the fruits of his labour into his London Note Books, which were published in a critical edition in 2017 fittingly bearing a contemporary picture of the reading room Bello would have visited on its front cover.

 

Image of the front cover of Cuadernos de Londres by Andrea Bello, the critical edition published in 2017, edited by Ivan Jasik and Tania Avilés. It shows the reading room as depicted in a drawing by Thomas H. Shepherd (1792-1864) engraved for print by Henry Melville in 1841
Front cover of Bello, A., Jaksic, Ivan, editor, & Avilés, Tania, editor. (2017). Cuadernos de Londres. It shows the reading room as depicted in a drawing by Thomas H. Shepherd (1792-1864) engraved for print by Henry Melville in 1841. Shelfmark: YF.2018.a.9297.

 

When I started working as Curator for Latin American Published Collections (post 1850) at the British Library at the end of this January, colleagues offered to show me the way to the reading rooms. Although I had been an avid user of the library for years, I had yet to learn to navigate the secret passageways at the periphery – or backstage, as I call them – that surround the light-flooded public spaces and reading rooms. It allows us staff to help today’s users at the centre of the library efficiently and discreetly. So I tried our catalogue on Andrés Bello, whose work I know well, both from my student days at Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main, and as a professor of Hispanic Linguistics teaching his writings on language and grammar. Yet, what I thought was a safe bet, the British Library catalogue turned into a surprise. I certainly didn’t expect to find a bust:

 

Screenshot of the catalogue record showing the description of the record of the bust of Andres Bello: the research starts from Exploring Archive and Manuscripts catalogue of the British Library. The record shows title, author of the bust, collections areas, access conditions and other details.
Screenshot of the catalogue record showing the description of the bust of Andres Bello

 

This catalogue entry would become my unofficial induction course to the collections, which I began to inhabit over the course of my search for the elusive bust. The next couple of weeks, I continued to search the catalogue and asked many members of staff along the way, until I found the bust at last in a small meeting room at the end of an open space office at the end of a long corridor – or so it felt to me as I was asking my way to the goal: the bust of Andrés Bello made by his Venezuelan compatriot Lorenzo González in 1938, or what is more likely, a bronze copy of the original bust.

In the temporary absence of libraries (see blog from 13 April 2020), I feel it is important to remember that libraries are also physical spaces that provide more than knowledge and enlightenment, although Andrés Bello would have been the first to hail them for these important services. Thinking of the physical space and its objects, the light-filled atrium and the piazza, where readers and staff mingle in the summer, reminds us of the individuality of different libraries with their specific collection histories; and of their many readers and visitors, most of them not as famous as Andrés Bello, but who, like him, find intellectual nourishment, solace and joy within their walls. We look forward to having them back!

[Blog post by Iris Bachmann, Curator, Latin American Published Collections (post 1850)]

 

Bibliography and suggested readings:

Bello, A., Jaksic, Ivan, editor, & Avilés, Tania, editor. (2017). Cuadernos de Londres / Andrés Bello ; prólogo, edición y notas de Iván Jaksić y Tania Avilés ; con la colaboración de Miguel Carmona Tabja, Claudio Gutiérrez Marfull y Matías Tapia Wende ; epílogo de Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. (Primera edición ed.). Shelfmark: YF.2018.a.9297. 

Bello, A., & Jaksic, Ivan. (1997). Selected writings of Andrés Bello / Andrés Bello ; translated from the Spanish by Frances M. López-Morillas ; edited, with an introduction and notes by Iván Jaksić. (Library of Latin America). New York ; Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Caldera, R., & Street, John. (1977). Andrés Bello : Philosopher, poet, philologist, educator, legislator, statesman / by Rafael Caldera ; translated [from the Spanish] by John Street. London: Allen and Unwin. Shelfmark: YC.1998.a.612 

[A readable short introduction to the life and work of Andrés Bello written by a young Rafael Caldera, later to become two-time president of Venezuela.]

Jaksic, I. (2001). Andrés Bello : Scholarship and nation-building in nineteenth-century Latin America / Iván Jaksić. (Cambridge Latin American studies ; 87). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Shelfmark: YC.2001.a.12217. [Definitive academic biography]

Weinberg, G. (1993/2000). ‘Andrés Bello (1781-1865)’. Prospects: the quarterly review of comparative education (Paris, UNESCO: International Bureau of Education), vol. XXIII, no. 1/2, 1993, p. 71-83. Online version ©UNESCO: International Bureau of Education, 2000 at: http://www.ibe.unesco.org/sites/default/files/belloe.pdf (accessed 15 April 2020)

 

24 April 2020

Poems from the edge of extinction (part 2)

Welcome to part 2 of our blog on poetry in endangered and lesser-known languages in collaboration with our European Studies colleaguesIn part 1 of this blog, we considered examples of poetry in Tongan and Yucatec Maya, and here in part 2 we look at examples in Patwa/Jamaican Creole and Yolngu Matha. If you've never heard of these languages, read on!

Patwa/Jamaican Creole

Front cover of book Miss Lou : Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture by Mervyn Morris
Miss Lou : Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture by Mervyn Morris. BL shelfmark YKL.2014.a.5466

Bun an Cheese by Louise Bennett-Coverley

Dem Bwoy dah jeer Miss Matty,
An a mock her an tease,
Dem a kill demself wid laugh mah
An a call her Bun an Cheese
 
Dem sey from Good Friday mawnin
Her jawbone no get ease
Mawnin  noon an night bedtime
She was nyamin Bun and Cheese
 
Fe breakfuss lunch an dinna
She got so-so bun and cheese
She kea it go a church an
Movin pictures if you please
 
She no count saltfish an ackee
Cut her y’eye pon rice an peas
Hear her “me put pot pon fire
When me got me Bun and Cheese!”
 
Easter time gwine come an go weh
Days an moment fly like breeze
But as long as Matty live dem bwoy
Gwine call her Bun and Cheese!

 

English translation

Those boys jeer Miss Matty
And Mock and tease her
They are killing themselves with laugh
And call her Bun and Cheese
 
They say from Good Friday morning
Her jawbone got no ease
Morning noon and nighttime
She was eating Bun and Cheese
 
For Breakfast lunch and dinner
She got only bun and cheese
She took it to church and
Moving pictures if you please
 
She does not count saltfish and ackee
Cut her eye on rice and peas
Hear her “I put my pot on the fire
When I got my Bun and Cheese!”
 
Easter time come and go away
Days and moment fly like breeze
But as long as Matty live those boys
Going to call her Bun and Cheese!

 

Coming off the heels of Easter, this is one of my favourite Louise Bennett-Coverley poems. “Miss Lou” as she was affectionately called is one of the most loved and highly respected Jamaican poets.  She uses the themes of food culture and local traditions in this timeless work. These themes highlight the love affair the protagonist “Miss Matty” has with the popular Jamaican Easter treat “bun and cheese”, closely associated with the popular English “hot cross buns”.  The use of the Jamaican dialect, Patois (Patwa) by Miss Lou makes this poem even more expressive and exciting. Regardless of the time of day, place and alternative food options Miss Matty is only interested in her tasty treat. This poem encapsulates the happy atmosphere that surrounds one of Jamaica’s most delightful Easter traditions.

Chantelle Richardson (Chevening Fellow at the British Library and Special Collections Librarian at the National Library of Jamaica)

 

Yolngu Matha  (Australia)

*Please note: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that these pages may contain images, voices or names of deceased persons in photographs, film, audio recordings or printed material.*

Illustration of four kangaroos grazing
British Library Image taken from page 360 of 'New Homes for the Old Country. A personal experience of the political and domestic life, the industries, and the natural history of Australia and New Zealand. ... With ... illustrations' (BL shelfmark HMNTS 10492.g.19.)

 When a list of 200 Aboriginal Australian words was recorded in the north of Australia during James Cook’s voyage in 1770, it was assumed that these words would be spoken by all the Indigenous people in the country. One of the words on this list was ‘kangaroo’ (kanguru or gangurru), which was provided by the Guugu Yimidhirr people in what is now known as Far North Queensland. Yet, when European settlers arrived in 1788, in what would become Sydney, and tried to make use of the list, the word 'kangaroo’ was met with confusion by the local Aboriginal people who believed this to be an English word. Only later did the Europeans realise that the First people of Australia spoke more than 250 different languages, including 800 dialectal varieties, at the time of European settlement. For a visual representation of this language distribution, see the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia which attempts to represent all the language, tribal or nation groups of the First peoples of Australia. Of the 160 varieties still spoken, only 13 are spoken by children and 90% of Indigenous Australian languages are in danger of dying out.  

One of the 13 languages still spoken by children, and in somewhat less danger, is the language group known as Yolngu Matha (or Yolŋu Matha). Yolngu Matha, has around 2,000 speakers and is a member of the Pama-Nyungan family of languages. It is spoken by the Yolngu people in the north-eastern part of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. There are a dozen dialects of Yolngu Matha, each with its own name and with significant variation between them, though there is some mutual understanding between the dialects. During the 1930s, missionaries developed various ways of writing Yolngu Matha, which are still used today, though there is no standard spelling system. This linguistic complexity of variant spellings, and clan and dialect distinctions in Yolngu Matha (as with all the Indigenous Australian languages), has now been mapped to a great extent in the AUSTLANG database. This landmark project by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) provides the means for institutions to begin the process of attributing the correct language to bibliographic records, as is being done through crowd sourcing at the National Library of Australia.

Front cover of Nganajungu yagu by Charmaine Papertalk Green
Papertalk-Green, C. (2019). Nganajungu yagu. Victoria, Australia : Cordite Books. BL shelfmark YD.2019.a.5930

When we look at the British Library records for poetry by Indigenous Australians, although we can find recent examples written in English (see Ellen van Neerven, Alison Whittaker, or Lionel Fogarty), those written in Indigenous Australian languages are far scarcer (although a welcome example is Nganajungu yagu by Charmaine Papertalk-Green which mixes Wajarri, Badimaya, and English - shelfmark YD.2019.a.5930). And while we can attribute this partly to historical collection practices which favoured non-Indigenous languages (and similar discrimination in the publishing industry), this is also due to the history in Indigenous cultures of spoken word over written language. 

Front cover of Song spirals
Gay'wu Group of Women (2019). Songspirals: Sharing women's wisdom of Country through songlines. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. (awaiting shelfmark)

A particularly rich poetic oral tradition in Indigenous Australian culture can be seen in songlines. Also known song spirals or song cycles, these living archives of cultural knowledge and wisdom are preserved and passed on through song. Using cues from the land, sky and sea to navigate through space and time, songlines are handed down through generations. A member of the community acts as the custodian of the songline and these are rarely shared with outsiders. For this blog, I have chosen to highlight a 2019 Yolngu Matha collection, Songspirals: Sharing women's wisdom of Country through songlines  by the Gay'wu Group of Women (Allen and Unwin 2019 - awaiting cataloguing at the British Library). Here women’s roles in songlines are explored and the authors share five song spirals in Gumatj, a dialect of Dhuwal (also Dual, Duala), one of the Yolngu Matha languages.  

Below is an excerpt from Wuymirri, the Whale 
 
Nguruku miyamanarawu Dhangaḻa aaaaaaaa... 
Waṉa nyerrpu miyaman ngunha marrtji Bangupanngu. 
Miyaman marrtji Balwarri Nepaway, Maywuṉdjiwuy. 
 
Bawaywuyngu miyamara Dhuḻuḻwuynguru; 
Bawaywuyngu miyamara Rrawuḻuḻwuynguru; 
Nguruku miyaman ngarra marrtji Rrawuḻuḻwuynguru. 
 
Of that body of water I sing, I sing of the body of water. 
The arm of the paddler is knowledgeable, over there is Bangupanngu. 
I am singing about Balwarri, the whale, Nepaway, the open sea. 
Of the place between sunrise and sunset I sing, 
 
Where the whales swim with open mouths, scooping water,  
   filtering fish; 
A pod of whales, flipping and jumping, playing and roaming; 
A gathering of many people; 
For that I sing Rrawuḻuḻ, the place where the whales 
   are feeding.  
I sing for those people, the ones far away. 

 

In Indigenous Australian culture, languages with few or no speakers are described as ‘sleeping’, and there are some welcome initiatives to re-awaken these sleeping languages. These include the formation of the AIATSIS foundation to record languages and songlines and publish 15 dictionaries of languages a year over the next decade. An exciting effort to re-awaken language through poetry has been developed through the Poetry in First Languages project, devised by Gunai poet, Kirli Saunders. In this program, Indigenous poets, Elders and Language Custodians work directly with Indigenous students to write poetry in their cultural language. 


To hear Yolngu Matha in a musical context, take a listen to the award-winning Yolngu rapper Baker Boy who seamlessly mixes this language with English in his performances such as 'Marryuna' (Let's Dance) below.

 

 

Lucy Rowland, Curator of Oceania Published Collections post-1850

 

Further reading:

General

Chris McCabe (ed.), Poems from the Edge of Extinction (London, 2019), [BL shelfmark: ELD.DS.463137] 

Read more about the Endangered Poetry Project

Patwa/Jamaican creole

Morris, M. (2014). Miss Lou : Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture. BL shelfmark YKL.2014.a.5466

Bennett, L., & Morris, M. (2003). Auntie Roachy seh. Kingston: Sangster's Book Stores. BL shelfmark YD.2005.a.1825

Bennett, L (1983) Selected Poems. Kingston, Jm. : Sangster's Book Stores. BL shelfmark X.958/29332

Bennett, L (1949) Jamaican dialect poems. Kingston , Jm : printed by the Gleaner Co. BL shelfmark X.909/29896

Yolngu Matha  

Dyungayan, G., & Cooke, S. (2014). George Dyungayan's Bulu Line : A West Kimberley song cycle. Glebe, NSW: Puncher & Wattmann. BL shelfmark YD.2017.a.916 


Gay'wu Group of Women (2019). Songspirals: Sharing women's wisdom of Country through songlines. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. (awaiting shelfmark) 


Papertalk-Green, C. (2019). Nganajungu yagu. Victoria, Australia : Cordite Books. BL shelfmark YD.2019.a.5930 

 

21 April 2020

Bernard and Mary Berenson at Villa I Tatti

On the first days of the lockdown, while making peace with the idea of being forced home by an enemy I couldn’t even see, confined in my cosy flat, and comforted by the pleasure of reading, I started leafing through my art books. I recalled those days, whose exquisiteness I was never enough aware at the time, when I had to lock myself in my room to prepare for my art history exams, back in the good old days of literary leisure as a university student.

 

Image of the painting The Compleat Angler by Arthur Hughes (1832-1915). The painting depicts a young woman lying on a meadow on the shore of a river, and dedicated to her readings
How I reimagine myself back in the good old days of literary leisure as university student. The Compleat Angler, Arthur Hugughes (1832-1915) Photo sourced by flickr uploaded by Amber Tree ©All rights reserved.

 

Among the very strict iconographic parameters, and names, and dates, and gallery details to be remembered by heart, there were those curious anecdotes that pleasantly livened up the monotony of the study routine. Today, I have certainly lost the pedantry of remembering the details but the anecdotes, I surely remember those, and so I recalled the story of Bernard and Mary Berenson.

I remember the story of how Bernard had been inspired to read more extensively the books of his library due to the confinement of a long period of isolation in his house, Villa I Tatti in Florence, and the story of his wife Mary. Ghost writer, art historian, suffragette, feminist and poet, and member of the Bloomsbury Group, together with her daughter Karin Stephen who had married Virginia Woolf’s brother, the story of Mary Berenson, has always fascinated me.

 

Black and white photographic portrait of Bernard and Mary Berenson at Friday’s Hill, Fernhurst, England. Around 1901. The photo shows the couple leaning on a low wall while looking at each other in a contemplative attitude
Bernard and Mary Berenson at Friday’s Hill, Fernhurst, England. Unknown photographer, 1901. Courtesy of the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Biblioteca Berenson, I Tatti -The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, Bernard and Mary Berenson papers, Photographs. Hollis No. olvwork178672.

 

Born Mary Withall Smith, from a couple of Quaker preachers from Pennsylvania, she was an art historian, and has been reassessed as an important author in her own right rather simply a ghost writer.

In 1885, after marrying the Scots-Irish barrister and political reformer, Frank Costelloe, Mary moved to England. Together with her parents, who had moved with her, she became very much involved in the social and intellectual life of the country, often hosting poets and philosophers such as Walt Whitman, with whom Mary was connected through mutual feelings of friendship and esteem for life1.

 

Black and white portrait of Maria wearing an elegant dress with fur trims, sitting on a chair, facing forward and holding her papers
Mary Berenson (née Smith) by unknown photographer. Albumen print on card, 1885. NPG Ax 160646. Sourced via ©National Portrait Gallery.

 

Mary had studied at the Harvard Annex, later Radcliffe College, a women’s liberal arts college and female counterpart to Harvard College, very well known for being the host of the late 19th century intellectual, art-inspired, and independent-minded female students2. Her personal inclination towards the arts, politics and culture were clearly stimulated in the Harvard intellectual environment. Supported by her feminist mother, Mary became involved in the women's movements in the United States and later in England, publishing articles and making speeches on feminism, suffrage and women in politics.

 

Black and white portrait of Mary on her horse Anticellere at Smith College in 1883
Mary Berenson (née Smith) on her horse Anticellere at Smith College by unknown photographer. Bromide copy print, 1883.NPG Ax160580. Sourced via ©National Portrait Gallery.

 

Not long after the marriage, probably displeased with it, and feeling constrained by the weight of the social convention, she abandoned the life of a devoted spouse and loving mother to return to her latent interests in art and design, and pursue a career in the arts. Focusing on art research, Mary rapidly became an art authority with a prolific output of journal articles, and particularly after the publication of a pamphlet, in 1894, on the history of the Italian paintings at Hampton Court, a work strongly influenced by the presence in her life of her mentor Bernard Berenson, whom she met in 18903.

The common passion for the Italian Renaissance art, and the several journeys to the continent and in particular to Italy, where Mary studied art under Bernard’s tutorage, made the couple fall in love with each other. By that time, Mary was energetically committed to work on Bernard’s projects and his public image, contributing to his essays, and writing reviews promoting his publications, and eventually moving to Florence to Bernard’s estate Villa I Tatti.

“… she played a major role in the writing of the Venetian Painters of The Renaissance, which listed Bernard as the sole author due to the social delicacy of their association … she published less as she devoted more of her energy to supporting Bernard's work (Mary Berenson)”4.

With such an established and undisputed calibre of art scholarship, it will not be difficult to imagine how the role of Mary in Bernard's works has been widely re-evaluated in the latest years. It appears now, that her hand in Bernard’s writing production and fame, is unquestionable.

***

Colour photograph of the terrace garden at Villa I Tatti, Florence, taken in 1925 by Frances Benjamin Johnson (1864-1952)
Villa I Tatti, Ponte a Mensola, Settignano, Florence. Frances Benjamin Johnson (1864-1952) photographer. Photo taken sometimes in 1925, from the album “Gardening in colour”, The Library of Congress, prints & Photographs Division. Sourced via flickr.

 

During WWII, Bernard Berenson, a Jewish American, and one of the most influential art critics of his time, was forced to live as refugee in his own house, Villa I Tatti, a beautiful countryside estate in Settignano, Florence, for around one year.

“With the war upon him, B. B. faced a terrifying future. In time of crisis some people go to church, some take to drink, others simply run away. B. B. turned to his library … His library is his fortress and is filled with the smoke of the battle raging outside"*.

In 1942, confined to an indefinite period of isolation when it was not safe to be a Jewish-American living in the Italian peninsula, protected by the American ambassador in Italy and by the people of the town, he challenged himself to a more extensive reading of his library, believing this would help him to stop from thinking too much about the war and all its consequences.

 

Screenshot image of the title page of Bernard Berenson’s book One year’s reading for fun (1942), published in New York by Alfred A. Knopf in 1960
*From the introduction to One year’s reading for fun (1942) by John Walker. (New York, Knopf, 1960), pages ix and xi. Screen shot image of title page.

 

In 1959, when the University of Harvard inherited the Berensons’ library, the whole nucleus consisted of more than 50,000 volumes, a collection of works mainly about Mediterranean art and culture, but including also a rich collection of works on Oriental art and archaeology, and of around 170,000 photographs. Mary and Bernard had put together this treasure in Villa I Tatti from 1907 onwards, when the estate was purchased, probably starting from combining their own private collections. In addition to a room which served as a proper library space, the collections had grown rapidly and consistently so that other eleven rooms were added to the main space in the following years.

 

Black and white portrait of Bernard Berenson in his study at Villa I Tatti surrounded by a few his books
Bernard Berenson in his study at I Tatti. Unknown photographer, winter 1948-1949. Courtesy of the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Biblioteca Berenson, I Tatti -The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, Bernard and Mary Berenson papers, Photographs. Hollis No. olvwork631213

 

Berenson collated the notes from his reading of his library in a work that was posthumously published in New York in 1960 by Arnold A. Kpnof, and edited by John Walker, director of the National Gallery of Art and Berenson’s pupil.

And you? What about your quarantine reading? What lively quotations have you come across?

 

Bibliography and suggested reading:

Oakley, Maroussia, The book and periodical illustrations of Arthur Hughes: 'a spark of genius' 1832-1915, Pinner, Middlesex: Private Libraries Association, [2016] (shelfmark: YC.2018.b.2604).

1 Of Walt Whitman Mary said: “You cannot really understand America without Walt Whitman, without Leaves of Grass ... He has expressed that civilization, 'up to date,' as he would say, and no student of the philosophy of history can do without him”, see Reynolds, David. S., Walt Whitman: a cultural biography, New York: Knopf, 1995, page 4 (shelfmark 95/35007). Check the British Library digitised Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1867), and see also the eBLJ article on Walt Whitman by Dorian Hayes who discusses the poet’s virtues and the iconic first edition (1855) of Leaves of Grass held at the British Library (shelfmark: C.58.g.4.).

2 About Radcliffe College and its role as female college see: Kendall, Elaine, Peculiar institutions: an informal history of the Seven Sister colleges, New York: Putnam, 1976 (shelfmark: X:809/28730, or 76/23169).

3 Logan, Mary, Guide to the Italian Pictures at Hampton Court: with Short Studies of the Artists (The Kyrle Pamphlets; no. 2), London, 1894 (shelfmark: 07813.aa.7.). Mary Berenson wrote the pamphlet under the pseudonym of Mary Logan.

4 In 1984, the publication of Venetian Painters of The Renaissance, established Bernard Berenson’s reputation as an art historian of undisputed international fame, a book largely written by Mary. Check the British Library copy The Venetian painters of the Renaissance, with an index to their works, New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons [third edition], (shelfmark: 7858.r.37.). On the case of Mary’s role in Bernard’s publications see: Barbara Strachey and Samuels Jayne, Mary Berenson: a self-portrait from her letters & diaries, London: Hamilton, 1985 (shelfmark: X.958/31629).

Berenson, Bernard, One year’s reading for fun (1942), London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1960 (shelfmark: 11878.gg.36).

Rocke, Michael, The Biblioteca Berenson at Villa I Tatti, in Art Libraries Journal, vol. 33, no. 1, 2008, 5-9 (shelfmark: 1733.461500)

Weaver, William, A legacy of excellence: the story of Villa I Tatti, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997 (shelfmark: YC.2001.b.988)

 

[Blog post by Annalisa Ricciardi, Cataloguer, American Collection. American and Australasian Studies]

07 April 2020

Online Access to United States Government Printing Office Publications

My former colleague and Head of the Eccles Centre for North American Studies, Professor Philip Davies, would always start his remarks of welcome to Eccles Centre events by saying that the North American collections and resources of the British Library were the best in the world, outside of the Americas.

Professor Davies was most likely right on that count based on the pure size of the North American collections which have been systematically developed for around two centuries.  Nevertheless, these collections housed in the Library’s cavernous basements and storage buildings are now inaccessible due to the to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, for the scholar, reader, or anyone who’s interested, there is a rich collection of North American digital resources available from the British Library website which are free to access.

One of these is the collection of the United States Government Printing Office publications available through Explore the British Library. The Government Printing Office (GPO) is the printer to the US Government and since 1861 it has played a pivotal role in keeping Americans informed about the business of government. Being official publications are meant for public circulation, a portion of these works are freely available to access via the catalogue.

To access the collection simply use the search term “Government Printing Office” in the British Library catalogue. Under Access Options select “Online” where it will list in excess of 15,000 records. By selecting the “I Want This” option on any of these records it will direct the user to a view online option and from there select US Federal Government Document by clicking “Go”. This will take you directly to the digital version of the publication.

 

Screenshot of the British Library catalogue, “Explore the British Library”, showing how to access the collection of the United States Government Printing Office using the search term "Government Printing Office", and related results
Step 1. How to explore: using the search term "Government Printing Office"

 

Screenshot of the British Library catalogue, “Details” / “I want this”, showing how to select and request a digital item
Step 2. How to explore: selecting and requesting a digital item

The breadth of what is published by the GPO is quite bewildering, so where would one start? In normal circumstances a suggestion might be to visit the forthcoming British Library exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, which explores the complex history and battles for women’s rights. 

At the moment, it might be appropriate to suggest a collection of 150 plus digital publications relating to Women’s Bureau between the 1918 -1963, which can be accessed via Explore the British Library. These publications include the Women’s Bureau Bulletin and their annual reports, along with a range of reports, legislation and studies on a Federal and State level proving rich research resources for range of disciplines. By way of an example:

“Women's Employment in Aircraft Assembly Plants in 194”: Women's Bureau Bulletin, No. 192-1.

Screenshot of Women’s Bureau Bulletin [Public –no. 259 – 66th Congress]. Title reading: “An act to establish in the Department of Labor a bureau to be known as the Women’s Bureau”. … Approved, June 5, 1920
Women's Bureau Bulletin

The United States Women’s Bureau was set up in 1920, as part of the Department of Labor to create parity for women in the labour force through research and policy analysis. Its role was to educate and promote policy change, and to increase public awareness. The Women’s Bureau is still in existence and is celebrating its centenary this year.

Furthermore, the collection contains a wide range of contemporary titles published by the Government Printing Office including:

A Grave Misfortune: The USS Indianapolis Tragedy / Richard A. Hulver; Peter C. Luebke, associate editor.

The Final Report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission

Women in Congress, 1917-2017

Keeping America informed: the U.S. Government Printing Office: 150 years of service to the nation.

All the above titles can be accessed via Explore by searching the title. Bear in mind that if you are searching for a specific document, or report, this item may be part of a larger series. 

For a more in-depth insight in to the Library’s collection, there is a downloadable guide on the US Federal Government publications collection page. 

[blog post by Jerry Jenkins. Curator, Contemporary British Publications, Emerging Media]

 

24 March 2020

Happy birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti

American poet, painter, activist, pioneering figure in the Beat movement, and co-founder of City Lights Bookseller, Lawrence Ferlinghetti turns 101 on March 24 2020

The Library’s collections are rich in Beats and Ferlinghetti material (take a look at our Beats bibliography if you’re interested to see a comprehensive overview of holdings). But with so many pages of ground-breaking content to leaf through, what would be appropriate to feature to mark the artist’s 101st birthday?

Black and white photo of Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading
Photograph of poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Image taken by Christopher Michel on 2 July 2012, sourced via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Pictures of the Gone World seemed like a good option (fifth printing edition held at BL shelfmark 011313.t.3/1.). This was Ferlinghetti's first book, published in 1955 by his own City Lights Books, in a 500-copy letterpress edition (City Lights Booksellers & Publishers website). Two years earlier, he had co-founded City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco together with college professor and editor of City Lights magazine, Peter D. Martin. The store was the first all-paperback bookshop in the United States (The Guardian online, Interview with a Bookstore: San Francisco's historic City Lights) and would become ‘the launching pad for the San Francisco Writers Renaissance’ (Douglas Street in the Southwest Review, Vol. 66, No. 2 [Spring 1981], p. 228. Access via JSTOR, available in British Library Reading Rooms). For more than 60 years, City Lights “has served as a ‘literary meeting place’ for writers, readers, artists, and intellectuals to explore books and ideas.” (City Lights Booksellers & Publishers website).

Front cover of Pictures of the gone world
Front cover of Pictures of the Gone World (Fifth Printing) by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1955) BL shelfmark 011313.t.3/1.

Pictures of the Gone World was Number One in the Pocket Poets Series launched by the City Lights Books. One of the series focuses was to provide paperback, and thus more affordable, content to readers, and the book’s publication helped to extend Ferlinghetti’s ‘concept of a cultural meeting place to a larger arena.’ (City Lights Booksellers & Publishers website). With mentions of London, Paris and the harbour of San Francisco in the poems’ titles, the collection not only documented Ferlinghetti’s artistic development but also acted as a kind of ‘travel journal of the place in which he had lived’ and visited (Ferlinghetti: A Biography by Neeli Cherkovski, page 82), taking readers around the world as they dipped in and out of his work, while the small design allowed for them to carry Ferlinghetti around with them on their own travels.

The Pocket Poets series went on to include several Beat classics including Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and other poems (1959 edition held at BL shelfmark 011313.t.3/4) – Number Four in the series – which was published in October 1956 and met with immediate, if controversial, success. The landmark poem’s concept, together with Ginsberg’s powerful delivery at group readings, made it ‘a crucible of cultural change. Except for the response to Dylan Thomas’ readings in America, never before had a modern audience reacted so passionately, or identified so completely with a poet’s message.’ (Naked Angels: The Lives & Literature of the Beat Generation by John Tytell, page 104). You can read more about the reaction to, and impact of, Howl in our blog from 2013. Other early items in the Pocket Poets series included William Carlos Williams’s Kora in Hell: Improvisations, Marie Ponsot’s True Minds and Poems of Humor & Protest by Kenneth Patchen.

Pictures of the gone world back cover showing the price of 75 cents
Back cover of Pictures of the Gone World showing other titles in the Pocket Poets series

The little paperback held by the British Library features the unassuming, yet at the same time, striking black and yellow cover – the style of which would be replicated through the Pocket Poets series and at just 75 cents a pop, whose simplicity made it something that could be available to many. As the series’ name implies, the collection ‘can be carried in a pocket, and read in less than an hour.’ (Beat Poetry by Larry Beckett, page 17)

Between the pages readers are greeted with some of Ferlinghetti’s most memorable works including ‘The world is a beautiful place’ – a melancholy and ironic ode to one’s bittersweet existence on earth. In Ferlinghetti’s style, readers are ping-ponged across the page, yo-yoing between scenes of beauty and happiness, ‘smelling flowers’ and ‘swimming in rivers’, then thrown into despair: ‘if you don’t mind a touch of hell’ and ‘some people dying all the time’. Swayed back and forth, the reader is constantly reminded of being destabilised each time something comforting is mentioned: ‘The design… reflect[ing] Ferlinghetti’s continuing concern with the way the poem looked on the page… [he] was satisfied that the arrangement of the words enhanced the meaning of the poem.’ (Ferlinghetti: A Biography by Neeli Cherkovski, page 82)

Many of the poems in this collection are said to ‘reveal…the quiet struggle of ordinary people. The unusual distribution of lines on the page, and the inventiveness with word play and rhyme, show Ferlinghetti’s sense of freedom, itself a key notion in his work.’ (Beat Culture: Lifestyles, Icons, and Impact edited by William T. Lawlor, page 106)

‘The world is a beautiful place’ can certainly be seen to exemplify such a statement.

The world is a beautiful place first page
The world is a beautiful place…to be born into… if you don’t mind happiness…not always being…so very much fun (BL shelfmark 011313.t.3/1.)

Despite being written in the mid-20th-century, this timeless poem doesn’t feel out of place when read in 2020. It’s a testament to Ferlinghetti’s skill and intuition; to be able to tap into subject matter and raise questions that feel as relevant today as when he first wrote them some 65 years ago.

Happy birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

The British Library holds a number of items from City Lights Books Pocket Poets Series and publications from Ferlinghetti, including first editions, some inscribed by the poet himself. Below is a selection of suggested reading. Follow the link to our Beats Bibliography for a more complete overview of Library printed holdings on the subject.

[Blog by RSC]

Bibliography and suggested reading

A Coney Island of the Mind: poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti; portraiture by R.B. Kitaj (San Francisco: Arion Press, 2005) shelfmark RF.2007.b.21. Note: A fine press special edition of Ferlinghetti’s famous work from Arion Press.

Beat Culture: Icons, Lifestyles, and Impact edited by William T. Lawlor (Santa Barbara, California; Oxford: ABC-CLIO, 2005) shelfmark YC.2007.b.56

Beat Poetry by Larry Beckett (St. Andrews, Scotland?: A Beatdom Books Publication, 2012) shelfmark YK.2014.a.4349

City Lights Booksellers & Publishers website (accessed 11 March 2020) 

Ferlinghetti's Greatest Poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti; edited by Nancy Peters (New York: New Directions Publishing, 2017) shelfmark YD.2018.a.4686

Ferlinghetti: A Biography by Neeli Cherkovski (Garden City: Doubleday, 1979) shelfmark X.950/10246

Open eye, open heart by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (New York: New Directions, 1973) shelfmark RF.2002.a.49. Note: Inscribed by Ferlinghetti with cover photograph of Ferlinghetti by Ilka Hartmann.

Pictures of the Gone World (Fifth Printing) by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1955) shelfmark 011313.t.3/1.

Naked Angels: The Lives & Literature of the Beat Generation by John Tytell (New York; London: McGraw-Hill, c1976) shelfmark YA.2000.a.11944

The Guardian, Interview with a Bookstore: San Francisco's historic City Lights (accessed 16 March 2020)

The Guardian, San Francisco's City Lights: the bookshop that brought us the Beats (accessed 16 March 2020)

Review of Ferlinghetti: A Biography by Neeli Cherkovski in Southwest Review, Vol. 66, No. 2 (SPRING 1981), pp. 228-230, by Douglas Street. Accessed via JSTOR, available from Britsh Library Reading Rooms (accessed 12 March 2020)

Who are we now? by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (New York: New Directions, 1976) shelfmark YA.2002.a.19832. Note: Signed and inscribed by Ferlinghetti.

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