African American Arts and Letters

February 23, 2013

Although the Beinecke Library is not an art gallery or museum, the visual arts have long played an informative role in literary life, just as they continue to enhance our appreciation of the book as material object. The James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection in particular highlights the close relationship between “Arts” and “Letters,” and the history of African American cultural production cannot be understood fully without inclusion of the visual arts and the attendant issues that surround the idea of “representation.” Literary papers in the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection are bolstered by the work of Augusta Savage, Aaron Douglas, James Van Der Zee, Romare Bearden, and Roy DeCarava, among others, while related depiction of African American subjects can be found in the work of Miguel Covarrubias or the extensive Randolph Linsley Simpson Collection of photographs. The latter spans the early history of the medium, from daguerreotypes and cabinet cards to photographic postcards and snapshots, ca. 1850 – 1930. Reflecting the Library’s strengths in children’s literature (the Betsy Beinecke Shirley Collection), the artist, illustrator, and Caldecott Medal-winner Tom Feelings pairs image and text, often poetry, with vibrant, playful color (Soul Looks Back in Wonder; 1993), while the haunting black and white imagery in his book for older readers, Middle Passage: White Ships, Black Cargo (1995), captures the “unspeakable,” graphic aspects of the transatlantic slave trade.

Image:  Savage, Augusta Green Apples [bronze statue], undated.

Related James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection; African American Writers’ ArchivesAfrican American Arts and Letters; Arts & Letters

Collection Highlights Exhibited in Multitudes: A Celebration of the Yale Collection of American Literature: Materials from the Tom Feelings Collection, including maquettes and first editions.. African American Arts and Letters — Checklist & Object Descriptions