Reflections on “Revealing Her Story” Project

MARBLandNHPRClogos “Revealing Her Story: Documenting African American Women Intellectuals” is a two-year project funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to arrange and describe the personal papers of nine African American women writers, artists and musicians. Collections included in the project are the Pearl Cleage papers; additions to the Delilah Jackson papers; the Samella S. Lewis papers; the Almena Lomax papers; the May Miller papers; the Undine Smith Moore papers; the Geneva Southall papers; the Mildred Thompson papers; and the Sarah E. Wright papers. To read the press release announcing the project, click here.

As our project is reaching its conclusion, naturally we are all reflecting on the amazing women whose lives we were able to trace as we processed their personal papers. I think one of the things I have appreciated most about working on these collections is that, through our processing of the materials we have gotten to know one aspect of the collection (and the woman behind the collection), and when looking at our work as a whole we see that it adds up to a great portrait of a person’s life as an artist, as an academic, and as a human being.

A few days ago Tricia, my fellow Graduate Student Processing Assistant, asked me which collection was my favorite. I didn’t have a good answer for her, and I still don’t. Each collection was different, each collection offered its own challenges, and each collection yielded its own really exciting discovery. When trying to get my hands around Undine Smith Moore‘s collection, I unearthed the first edition of Langston Hughes‘ first collection of poetry. And that was before I had even started putting together the different handwritten drafts and arrangements of her most famous composition, Scenes From the Life of a Martyr.

It was exciting to find drafts of May Miller‘s play The Cuss’d Thing and uncollected poems that people will finally get a chance to read. Putting together the drafts of Geneva Southall‘s three-volume work on the life of pianist Blind Tom was a really great way to see how an academic work goes through the process of research and revisions ahead of publication. Most recently, while going through a first sort of author Pearl Cleage‘s collection I came across a handwritten first draft of her novel Some Things I Never Thought I’d Do. Amber, a huge fan of Cleage’s work, enthusiastically took out of my hands. I think, more than having particularly fond memories of a particular collection, those are my favorite things about these collections–coming across those things that are really interesting and something I never would have seen, or even thought to look for.