Howard Rambsy, photo2

Wikimedia Fellow Kristen Owens and Scholar Howard Rambsy II

On the Past, Present, and Future of Black Bibliographic Practice

Published Thursday, Feb 2, 2023

Kristen Owens, whose interdisciplinary research, writing, and curatorial work is situated in African American and Black diasporic studies, is the Librarian for African American and Black Diaspora Studies at New York University Libraries and the inaugural Wikimedia Fellow with Pace. Her research in the Wikimedia Fellowship—which was established in 2022 as part of an ongoing partnership between the gallery and Black Lunch Table, a nonprofit organization working to build a comprehensive and robust digital archive of Black artists’ stories—has been grounded by the late scholar Carolyn Fowler’s 1981 book Black Arts and Black Aesthetics: A Bibliography and a recent essay on Fowler’s work by Howard Rambsy II, a professor of literature at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Inspired by histories of communal resource sharing, Owens has composed a new, public-facing bibliography for Black arts and aesthetics. She has also assembled a special selection of publications focused on Black art and visual culture in Pace’s library at 540 West 25th Street in New York. Titled [action=query]: Black Arts and Black Aesthetics, this presentation, which functions as a reading room, continues through February 25, 2023.

To mark the opening of [action=query]: Black Arts and Black Aesthetics, Owens spoke with Rambsy about the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the changing landscape of archival and bibliographic practices, and more. The following conversation has been edited and condensed.

Kristen Owens: Can you tell me what inspired your years of study of African American bibliographic work and why this subject is important to you?

Howard Rambsy II: I had a number of experiences as an undergraduate student at an HBCU—I went to Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. There were all kinds of positive things about it, but it was under-resourced in some ways. So, when I did a summer program at Emory University, and then later an exchange program at New York University, I got to access these massive libraries. I really appreciated seeing how much material is out there. I only connect these three universities because I think if I had been at a well-resourced library from the beginning, I might have taken it for granted. But I could see the difference in the physical buildings and what they possessed, so that helped me start building up an interest in collecting and identifying various works.

I went to Penn State for graduate school, and that university has an amazing library as well. In particular, it has a collection of materials related to what would be become the subject of my dissertation: the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

I was starting to build my own collection of materials—really that started when I was at New York University for a semester in the 1990s. I met this guy—Donald Garcia, who had a marvelous book collection at his house—and we would go around the city to used bookstores. I slowly started collecting that semester. Back then it was really small, but I got like 30 to 50 books when I was in New York, and that was more books than I had ever purchased at any one moment, all from used bookstores. That semester in New York really hooked me on book collecting. Actually, one of the writers Donald introduced me to was bell hooks—he had all of her books at the time on his shelf.

Along the way, when I was writing about the Black Arts Movement, I would look into what they call the Black aesthetic. As I was collecting books and looking at materials, which were sometimes hard to find, one of my professors from Tougaloo who had studied poetry and the Black arts said, ‘You should look into this woman named Carolyn Fowler.’ I was really impressed when I saw her bibliographic text.

The other key influence on bibliography for me—I was studying the writer Richard Wright at the time and there was a bibliographer named Keneth Kinnamon, who kept an extensive bibliography on Wright. I would say Carolyn Fowler’s work and Keneth Kinnamon’s bibliography of Richard Wright really inspired me to start doing Black bibliographic work.

KO: That’s amazing. Did your professor at Tougaloo tell you how he first encountered Carolyn Fowler’s work? Did he know someone who knew her?

HR: He was part of the what’s called the College Language Association (CLA), and she wrote a history of the College Language Association. CLA was created because they weren’t really letting Black people into MLA. So, professors at Black schools created CLA. He knew her from CLA—he knew her personally. He kind of passed that interest on to me.

KO: You mentioned that Keneth Kinnamon’s Richard Wright bibliography—and its length—blew you away. What was it about Carolyn Fowler’s work that drew you in?

HR: She’s been so influential for me. Her work is crucial to how I think about, in some ways, just the idea of collecting materials. People at the CLA conferences kind of kept her name in the conversation. It was kind of like folklore—you had to hear people talking about her.

In trying to talk about a Black Arts Movement, you had to have Black books.

Howard Rambsy II

KO: Something else I’m interested in talking about in terms of your bibliographic practice is your book The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetry. It offers a close examination of the literary culture in which the Black Arts Movement operated—the small presses and the literary anthologies. Do you view that book as part of your bibliographic practice, since you’re really focusing on materiality?

HR: It is. When I was collecting books and when I was at Penn State looking into this subject … the Penn State library has all these anthologies from the 1960s—Black anthologies. I was just so moved by that, and my book is on the production of African American poetry, but it’s really focusing on how anthologies help circulate Black arts. I see bibliography at the center of my work, and then I wrote a book to explain how we got those books. What were those books doing? How did those books shape the circulation and transmission of Black poetry during the time? And not only how they shaped the transmission, but also how they shaped the name of the Black Arts Movement. The word ‘Black’ comes up over and over again in the titles of books produced in the movement—in trying to talk about a Black Arts Movement, you had to have Black books.

KO: Is that also part of the aesthetic?

HR: Definitely. You couldn’t have the Black Arts Movement without these books on the shelves, in the bookstores, in your bibliography that said ‘Black.’ That was crucial to the aesthetic. It seems like a given, right? But it’s not a given—if I gave you a list of 50 titles from the 1990s, you wouldn’t see the word ‘Black’ as much, so you wouldn’t be inclined to call it that.

KO: Figures in the Black Arts Movement were also independently publishing as well, is that correct?

HR: Yeah. The most well-known Black-owned press was Broadside Press, which was founded by Dudley Randall in 1965. He started with these broadsides, which have poems on these kinds of posters. But then he started publishing little volumes of poetry and the first collection he produced had poems about Malcolm X.

KO: I’m getting interested in small presses. Alice Walker, I just found out, talks about the press she had, and Audre Lorde as well.

HR: I was thinking about Third World Press recently…

KO: Yes!

HR: Third World Press, which was founded in 1967, had flooding in their offices in Chicago in December 2022. They lost a lot of inventory, and they sent out messages about their GoFundMe—they needed $95,000. I gave my little bit, and then the basketball player Kyrie Irving gave $50,000. So, they’ve reached their goal. He just gave quietly, and you see his name on there. I said, ‘How did Third World Press get on his radar?’

KO: Exactly! That’s what I want to know, too. So, on another topic, your website (opens in a new window) Cultural Front, has this checklist of anthologies featuring Black writings. In your essay on Carolyn Fowler, you talk about the Black Studies Blog, which is what the site was originally called, and how you started it in 2008 to promote and report on public programming in Black Studies at your university. What prompted you to shift the focus of the site?

HR: I was the director of Black Studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where I still teach now, from 2007 to 2013. I was blogging about the public events, and I had just finished my book on the Black Arts Movement, and I wondered what I would do next. I thought, ‘I’ll do some of the same bibliographic work but focused on contemporary poetry.’

I went on sabbatical in 2011 and that’s when I just started writing about poetry in an expansive way. So, I started writing in a big way in 2011, and it stuck for years. I can do a little bit of scholarly writing for the blog, but I can also do lists, I can do bibliographic work. And then I started doing timelines.

KO: Can you tell me more about the timelines?

HR: So, in 2011 I really started blogging about poetry. In December of that year, I decided to give readers some highlights. I wrote a piece for the blog called “The Year in African American Poetry” for 2011, and I’ve been doing that every year since. That’s one kind of timeline. Another timeline I’ve done examines poetry from 2000 to 2019. Another timeline spans 1773 to 2017, starting with Phillis Wheatley and all the way up to Tracy Smith becoming poet laureate.

KO: This is phenomenal. It makes me think about this idea that Black production is often a communal action—Carolyn Fowler shared her bibliography with students and colleagues, and you talked about how her legacy has depended to some degree on word of mouth.

One of the outputs of the Wikimedia Fellowship at Pace is a program dedicated to facilitating a conversation about the ways that the archive is understood as a site of history and futurity simultaneously. I’m interested in your thoughts on this idea.

HR: Well, when I was at NYU, I met a graduate student named Alondra Nelson, and I kept in touch with her when I went to grad school at Penn State. She mentioned that she ran a listserv called Afrofuturism, and this was in 2000. That project really circulated by word of mouth during her visits to archives in California—she wrote her dissertation on the Black Panther Party. And this all has made me think about the intersections of race and technology, and Alondra now leads the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and is Deputy Assistant to President Biden.

So, having said that, this really relates to my work. How can technology be used for distributing materials and information? When I was writing my book on the Black Arts Movement, the archive was very much this place, like a library, that you went to. But now it’s shifted. I did a chapter of my 2020 book Bad Men: Creative Touchstones of Black Writers on Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, and, for me, the archive for that was lists of articles about them that I built on my blog. To me, that’s an archive, and then you start to reimagine what collections are as well.

KO: They can take so many different forms. My last question—what is the future of African American bibliographic practice? It’s a big one…

HR: All these other questions have taken me a long time to answer, but this one is very easy. You’re the future of it.

KO: I appreciate that. I love that. Thank you so much.

  • Essays — Wikimedia Fellow Kristen Owens and Scholar Howard Rambsy II on the Past, Present, and Future of Black Bibliographic Practice, Feb 2, 2023