The Museum of African American History and Suffolk University are once again collaborating to bring to life the museum’s new exhibit, Freedom Rising: Reading, Writing, and Publishing Black Books.
The exhibit, which runs through December 2015, examines African American works of literature from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in conjunction with more contemporary works from many genres, ranging from literature to medicine and music. It follows an earlier Black Books exhibit hosted by the Boston Public Library.
Finding new life in old texts
A deeper look into the history of African American writing will bring about a “revitalized and re-envisioned” image of what we have come to understand as true, according to L’Merchie Frazier, director of education and interpretation for the Museum of African American History. She says the exhibit’s reflection on both the old and the new will “expand the conversation between antique and contemporary books.”
The bulk of the Freedom Rising: Reading, Writing, and Publishing Black Books exhibit will be drawn from volumes contained in Suffolk University’s Clark Collection of African American Literature, housed in the Mildred F. Sawyer Library. The collection, with a special focus on New England, includes more than 6,000 volumes of work from more than 2,700 African American authors. The Freedom Rising exhibit will offer a tantalizing sample of that extensive collection while deepening the collaborative relationship between Suffolk and the museum.
History of a people and a nation
Because the exhibit covers centuries’ worth of writings, “it gives a sense of the length of time that African American literature has been around,” says Suffolk History Professor Robert Bellinger, director of the Clark Collection of African American Literature. He notes that this body of literature predates the Constitution of the United States.
“The exhibit itself showcases the literary achievements of people of African American descent,” says Bellinger. He adds that it will “raise awareness of the names of the authors and the subjects they wrote about.”
But the history portrayed in Freedom Rising moves beyond race and helps integrate various parts of the story of our nation. Bellinger believes the audience will take this point home, as the exhibit will “increase knowledge of African American literature that is important to American history.”
Partners in education
The Freedom Rising theme was introduced through this year’s Annual Teacher and Faculty Summer Institute Series, a three-day teacher development and training session for Boston schoolteachers hosted by the museum and Suffolk University.
The institute took place in July, with College of Arts & Sciences Dean Kenneth S. Greenberg. delivering introductory remarks and Sociology Professor Felicia Wiltz engaged in the sessions.
The Boston K-12 educators focused on the Freedom Rising: Reading, Writing, and Publishing Black Books theme that eventually became the exhibit title. The group engaged with the theme through museum and walking tours and extensive workshops, group discussions, and scholarly lectures, including one on the Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano by Suffolk History Professor and Chair Robert Allison.
Open for discussion
The 2014 summer institute focused on finding ways for teachers to begin a conversation with their students about the history and influence of black books and to incorporate them into the classroom curricula.
In this way, teachers and students can use black books to create a new dialogue about literature and history in America, says Lois Brown, Class of 1958 Distinguished Professor of African American Studies and English at Wesleyan University, who conducted a “Black Books” workshop during the institute. By reexamining these books and the context in which they were written, “we get to rethink the history that we think we know and see the landscape anew” she says.