African and African American Studies

Houghton Library contains an impressive array of materials connected to the African and African American Studies concentration. The collection and its wealth of content about black history and culture, in fact, effectively challenge the very notion that Houghton is a hermetic bastion of tradition and intellectual conservatism, demonstrating the library’s commitment to diversity.

The library owns a myriad items identified with famous figures in African and African American history. It holds, for instance, the James Baldwin papers (MS Am 3000, 014250328) and some of W. E. B. Du Bois’ letters (MS Am 2308, 009111242). Houghton also owns the papers of Chinua Achebe (MS Eng 1406, 008642044), one of the most important African writers of the twentieth century; the prison diaries of Wole Soyinka (MS Thr 427, 008412476), who won the Nobel Literature prize in 1986; and a 1901 copy of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Candle-Lightin’ Time (Typ 970 01.3417, 003009490), which can be studied through literary and linguistic perspectives. Black women are also a key part of the Houghton archive. The library possesses the papers of writer Mary E. Mebane (MS Am 2654, 011974424); Freedom, one of renowned artist Kara Walker’s pop-up books (Typ 970.97.8746, 008809633), which can be studied in conjunction with VES; and the Jamaica Kincaid papers, which are not yet fully catalogued.

Though diverse, Houghton also has a large collection of materials that discourse about African and African American culture from a non-African perspective. They include the correspondence of Charles Sumner (MS Am 1, 000602496), one of Massachusetts’ most celebrated senators and a staunch abolitionist; Henry David Thoreau’s papers for Civil Disobedience (MS Am 278.5 [14], 009065351), an essay that went on to inspire Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight against segregation almost a century after slavery ended in the United States; John Ogilby’s Africa (Afr 606.70, 004641554), a seventeenth-century treatise on the continent; the papers of Anne Eisner Putnam (MS Am 2369, 009787433), an American artist who spent years in what was then the Belgian Congo; and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions archives (ABC 1-91, 000602481) and African missions records (ABC 15, 009763477), both of which relate missionaries’ experiences in the continent. It also includes items that aggregate information about specific events in black history, such as the Wilbur Henry Siebert collection relating to the Underground Railroad and fugitive slaves (MS Am 2420, 008356048) and A Statistical Inquiry into the Condition of the People of Color (US 5261.162*, 006658027), a 1849 Philadelphia publication about African Americans in that city.

Houghton also possesses some curious and often overlooked items related to black history, which provide as much information about African and African American history as their more famous counterparts. For instance, the library owns a collection of black hero comics (AC95.A100.972, 014348221, above), which can be used to study popular culture and issues of representation. Students coming to Houghton also have access to a collection of printed ephemera from the Columbia protests of 1968 (MS Am 3088, 014736567), which were as much about black rights as they were about Vietnam. The library is also the proud owner of a collection of Blank Panther printed ephemera (AC95.B5665.969c, 009549376), which includes fliers, posters, and even a shopping bag that could have quickly disappeared but are available for study and research.

Finally, Houghton owns the Evert Jansen Wendell collection of contracts for the sale of slaves (MS Am 889.478, 009212152), a sobering reminder of a time period when human beings became property merely because of the color of their skin. The contracts and what they represent historically are a not only a significant research document, but also a warning against mindless prejudice—one that every Harvard student should see and reflect about before leaving the College.