The moment I entered the Schomburg Center I sat down on a bench to recover from the heat and collect myself for a few minutes. Outside, the temperature is in the nineties, and Harlem always feels a few degrees hotter than the rest of the city. Maybe its the open avenues with too few trees or the crowds seeping up from 125th street, but the open hydrants spewing water do little against the hot plate sidewalks. The Schomburg Center for Black Research and Culture, like many of the public libraries around New York City, serves as more than a place for scholarship; the quiet air-conditioned space acts as a retreat for cranky, overheated residents. Next to me on the bench is a young Harlemite slouched back scrolling through her phone. We sit facing a drive-in sized screen that projects film of Martin Luther King Jr. addressing a crowd from Ely Landau’s 1970 documentary, King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Selma. I think to myself, He must have been warm in that suit.
The Curators’ Choice: Black Life Matters exhibit unearths the library’s vast quantity of material from Black artists and authors spanning different media including visual art, photography, letters, audio files, and children’s literature. The librarians have curated the exhibit themselves and the material reflects the enthusiasm inherent to archivists. At first I wonder how they will connect the paraphernalia here with the exhibit’s namesake, the current campaign that has been fostered on social media since the death of Trayvon Martin in 2013. Black Lives Matter is decentralized, grassroots movement that sparked what is increasingly referred to as the new civil rights movement. The exhibit is a mixed bag of materials ranging from in-depth solo exhibitions, audio files from the Selma march, and personal letters that explore sexual orientation. The disorientation of media bridges high art and everyday life and reminds me that this is not a museum, it is a library. This is the exhibit’s strength as it surrounds the viewer with multiple entry points to help us understand the depth of a social movement.
Every artist has an archive and the collection showcases some new, never before seen angles to the big names. One can see the sculptor Elizabeth Catlett’s smooth, clean lines applied to a two dimensional canvas, a smaller scale John Biggers sketch as opposed to his murals, alongside myriad other lesser known artists.
Nothing matches aesthetically or temporally, another realization that Black art differs from Black artists. Like their central piece, a Jacob Lawrence painting that is of the same year and style of the Great Migration series, the art here is fringe to the token pieces in the bigger museums. While the tourists crowd the Great Migration at the Met downtown, the lawrence paiting sits in a sparse, unassuming room. I have all the time and space I need to admire his work. This is an internal collection and it reflects as much. One has the impression that Tammi Lawson, the visual art curator sifted through and grabbed the pieces she thought were the most pleasing to the eye. The words ‘diverse’ and ‘representative’ complete for space on the information pamphlet, but I think they could have dropped the rhetoric and just said, isn’t this gorgeous?
Even the most well-known artists presented—James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Lorraine Hansberry—still have unrecognized angles. The collection dedicated to their personal correspondence has been curated by Steven G. Fullwood in a sarcophagus-sized display case in the center of the Edison gallery. In the letters they describe their sexuality, Baldwin writes to Angelou, Hansberry writes to an unknown lover in a 1958 letter and states, “I have sensed an element of truth that disturbs or perhaps confuses me… you and I have never allow the word ‘homosexuality.’” Above all, they express frustration over trying to publish gay material and reveal a darker side to the industry.
I appreciate the benefit of an archivist’s perspective, to bypass the expected and search for other angles, to get patrons excited about obscurity and most importantly to raise ever-so-relevant questions: why don’t people know about this? and why is this collecting dust in a basement under Bryant park (or in a warehouse in New Jersey or wherever they keep the NYPL collections these days)? Unfortunately, we ask these questions much too frequently when looking at black cultural artifacts such as the Richard Saunders photograph collection, which I would argue is the highlight of the exhibit.
The curators devote ample wall space in order to highlight the little-known photographer’s breadth of work and serves as a welcome contrast to the sample style of the other half of the visual art exhibit. It presents a series of black and white non-intimate photographic portraits: a young girl beams at the camera to showing off her umbrella; two students at the Harlem school lean towards each other mischievously; Malcolm X stands at the foot of his prayer rug in his home Elmhurst. Saunders captures a younger, more vulnerable side of Malcolm X in a series of photographs dedicated to capturing his image. As he preaches on street corner he appears smaller than usual, and when he poses with his family, he looks away from the camera with an embarrassed smile. The collection collapses civil rights movement icons with everyday people and the intimacy of people who make there lives public for the sake of social change. In fact, it bridges the current Black Lives Matter movement in its intimacy and attention to the unexplored areas of activism. What I see when looking at Saunders’ photographs is the same dynamic that is so beautifully captured in today’s quick pic social media: the art and activism in people’s living rooms or local parks.
By the time I reach the children’s literature exhibit, the sadness and frustration at cultural absence has set in. The books stand out for the beauty of their illustration and their relative obscurity. So few of these titles are represented in mainstream children’s literature, except of course one or two token titles. Representation indeed. Through the unlikely medium of children’s literature, the archivists offer an explanation as to why Black lives are valued less by society: after all this time Black art is still missing an appropriate place in the cultural history of the U.S. The exhibit asks what could be different if Black people were represented in history, literature, and visual arts with the cultural weight that the black experience deserves. Shola Lynch, the curator of the moving image and recorded sound section mixes together LP’s of spoken word, poetry and other alternate sounds beyond popular music I desperately wanted to hear A Rap on Race with Margaret Mead and James Baldwin, but unfortunately the local iPad meant to play the audio is missing from the wall. On the other remaining iPad is a series of audio files from a performance artist, Ken Dewey, who traveled down to the South as part of freedom summer. In one he interviews a sixty-five year old anti-march protestor claiming that people should “clean their own backyards” and claiming that race relations were fine before those “damn Yankees” came down to stir things up. As Dewey presses him further, the interview reveals the man’s lack of information, understanding, and common sense. It also sounds much too familiar in the wake of the confederate flag controversy and evidences that there is no “new” civil rights movement. The effort to represent Black life through art and culture is an ongoing struggle with no clear origin and, unfortunately, no conclusion as of yet. The archives give some hope that there are still area to be explored and information to publicly disseminate in the community so that even a look backward into the past can somehow feel like moving forward.