Black Women Building Their Own Archives, A Practice

Monet Lewis-Timmons

Monet Lewis-Timmons is an English PhD candidate at the University of Delaware and an alumna of Emory University (℅ 2018) where she double majored in English and African American Studies. Her dissertation research focuses on the genealogical lifecycle of Black women’s archives through Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s personal papers. This semester she is interning at the Rose Library where she is receiving curriculum support on teaching undergraduates on how to use archives for seminar research and  processing the collection of Black woman writer and poet J.J. Phillips, author of the 1966 novel Mojo Hand. 

“My diary is going to be a valuable thing one of these days.”

            -Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935), September 21, 1928 diary entry

            My investment in Black women’s archives began as an undergraduate during my sophomore year at Emory. While taking courses with professors such as Dr. Nagueyalti Warren and Dr. Michelle Gordon, they encouraged me to conduct original research at the Rose Library, leading me to the papers of Alice Walker. I was amazed by the vastness of Walker’s collection as I learned more about the literary figure beyond her written work. Being able to witness her writing process through manuscript drafts, correspondence, and her personal experiences gave me a greater appreciation for the novels I grew to know and love. Beyond Walker’s manuscripts, I also learned more about Black women’s literary networks through an organization called The Sisterhood, a group of Black women writers that consisted of Toni Morrison, Louise Meriwether, June Jordan, Ntozake Shange, Nana Maynard, Audrey Edwards, and Walker. Formed during the Black Arts Movement in 1977, The Sisterhood sought to create its own publishing company that prioritized Black women writers and other marginalized groups in response to the lack of representation and publication of their works. I remember reading the minutes of this organization, inspired by their commitment to care and community while simultaneously asking myself: What happened to The Sisterhood? Why haven’t I learned about this group before? How can I use these minutes from the archive to shed light on these women’s narratives? Little did I know, these initial questions would lead me to ask a new set of questions as I entered my graduate program at the University of Delaware and engaged with the papers of Alice Dunbar-Nelson.

The Sisterhood Members, 1977. (front row from left) Nana Maynard, Ntozake Shange, Louise Meriwether (back row from left) Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, Alice Walker, Audrey Edwards, Toni Morrison and June Jordan. Alice Walker papers

When I think about Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s above diary entry, I am in awe of her foreshadowing and awareness of what it meant to build her own archive. While she is most well known as the former wife of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, my research utilizes her personal archive to present her various roles as a writer, poet, educator, and activist to understand how she contributed to Black American literature and history. As an early twentieth century Black woman writer, Dunbar-Nelson actively redefined herself through the curation of her collection, ultimately allowing future generations of scholars (such as myself) to learn more about her life and legacy beyond her limited status as the first wife of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Her collection, housed at the University of Delaware’s Special Collections, not only highlights her position as a literary figure, but it also reveals her commitment to Black education as an English teacher at Howard High (the first high school for Black students in the state of Delaware), it reveals her activism through anti-lynching campaigns and the women’s suffrage movement; it reveals her struggles with mental health and financial security; it reveals her experiences with police brutality and intimate partner violence; and it reveals her romantic relationships with several women in her life. I had the opportunity to capture these complexities of Dunbar-Nelson’s life when I co-curated the digital exhibition “‘I Am An American!’ The Authorship and Activism of Alice Dunbar-Nelson” with Dr. Jesse Erickson through the Rosenbach Museum. Creating this exhibition not only provided me with curatorial experience, but it also revealed the possibilities of Black women’s archives for public engagement and education.  

Image courtesy of the Rosenbach Museum’s digital exhibition “‘I Am An American!’ The Authorship and Activism of Alice Dunbar-Nelson,” curated by Jesse Erickson and Monet Lewis-Timmons

While my dissertation work prioritizes Dunbar-Nelson’s personal papers, I cannot help but think about other twentieth century Black women writers such as May Miller, Mari Evans, Lucille Clifton, Alice Walker, J.J. Phillips, and Pearl Cleage who also participated in a similar personal collecting practice to define themselves and their literature. Despite these writers having a wide readership today, most of their literary works went into obscurity at some point due to publication issues or their work not receiving the attention it deserved during its time of publication. It often required future generations of Black women writers to recover and revive these “hidden” works for them to receive recognition. These women’s commitment to preserve their materials sheds light on a longer tradition of Black women reimagining themselves through their personal collecting practices. 

 What is the significance of Black women literary figures keeping and preserving themselves through written materials and objects? What did they hope to accomplish when building their archives? Did they imagine future generations engaging with their collections? How do academic institutions such as the Rose Library honor these women and their papers? How do these women resist erasure and obscurity through the formation of these archives? These questions inform my passion for Black women’s archives as I make sense of the collections’ formations while investigating the genealogical lineage of these papers. There is so much we can learn from Black women’s collecting practices, both as researchers and archivists. While these practices were intimate and personal, I would also like to think of these practices as radical; these women sought to define themselves on their own terms using their own materials. During my semester internship at the Rose Library, I will write additional blog posts that return to these questions as I process the collection of J.J. Phillips, another Black woman writer whose life and literature have not received the recognition it deserves. My hope is that my engagement with these collections will honor these women’s lives and legacies, allowing future generations to continue this work.