The Past is Contemporary

Eric Reynolds, 2021-2022 Black Women Writers and Intellectuals FellowEric Flohr Reynolds (PhD Candidate, Department of Comparative Literature) is the 2021-2022 Black Women Writers & Intellectuals Fellow in the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. His project centers on the role of Black creatives during times of social and political unrest. 

Despite some exposure to a few of Rose Library’s collections in my work as an audiovisual conservator in the Libraries’ Digitization department, my scholarly engagement with the Black Women Writers and Intellectuals (BWWI) collections really didn’t begin until I started this fellowship. I am excited to be working with these collections, and through learning about their place within Rose Library, coming into a new understanding of my own place at Emory, in Atlanta, in a South that seems to somehow get older and newer at the same time. I feel truly grateful to have that classic experience of exploring archives, where it might seem as if one is looking for some dead thing from a distant past, but you actually discover something living, something which feels so close to your contemporary moment; texts which are still being written, speeches that are still speaking, and thoughts which continue to think. 

Picture of Pearl Cleage

Pearl Cleage, Pearl Cleage papers

When I was first familiarizing myself with the collections I began with some basic situating questions: what are the creator/namesake’s connections to Emory, why are these specific collections included in these archives? What were these individuals’ connections to the South in general, to Atlanta specifically, did they grow up in the area or did they come here from somewhere else, and if the latter, what brought them here? Are there aspects of these stories that are less visible than they could be? These spatial, geographical, regional questions naturally led to political/ethical ones: Should Black art be in the possession of historically racist white institutions? What can historically racist and sexist institutions like Emory do to actually make amends for their past wrongs? Does Rose Library itself present one answer to that question, by preserving, celebrating, and highlighting an archive like the collections included in the BWWI? What can white male academics like myself do? Or put differently, what are the best ways we can help, what are we not doing enough of that we need to actively participate in, and what are the things that we are doing that are causing harm or perpetuating injustice that we can stop doing.   


Cleage’s handwritten notes for the “Redemption Songs” speech delivered at Emory, March 1998. Pearl Cleage papers

After my initial general exploration of the collections I chose to focus on the papers of Atlanta-based novelist and playwright Pearl Cleage. In learning basic biographical information about Cleage I noticed some personal connections to my own life. She and my father were born in the same town in Western Massachusetts in the early 1950s. This caused me to reflect on the differences between their experiences, one a White boy whose father ran the county fair, the other a Black girl whose father was a preacher. I also noted our own shared experience of choosing to move from the North to the deep South. I was born in a Virginia suburb of Washington, DC and had lived in New York City for several years before moving to Atlanta in 2015, whereas Cleage’s path took her from Western Mass, through a childhood in Detroit and early college years at Howard University in DC, before she arrived in Atlanta in the early 1970s.  My initial approach to Cleage’s collection was rooted in a sense of place: what was her relationship to the region, to Atlanta specifically, and what if any connection did she have to Emory? I read articles she had written for Atlanta newspapers and other non-fiction writings which reflected on being a Black woman writer in the South, and on the city of Atlanta’s meaning to Black Americans, and the contrast between Atlanta’s media depiction (particularly around the time of the 1996 Summer Olympics) and her own experience of the city. This exploration of Cleage’s local connections led me to two speeches given at Emory University in the 1990s and early 2000s (“Remarks at Emory” March 1998, and “The Writer’s Role in Wartime,” April 2005) which would later bring forth the themes which would ground my fellowship project. 


Cleage’s handwritten notes for the speech “The Writer’s Role in Wartime,” which she developed and revised multiple times in the years immediately following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. The Rose Library collection includes several versions of this speech, with the Emory version delivered in April 2005. Pearl Cleage papers

Both of the speeches addressed the topic of the role of the writer, and the question of the relation of individual creative work to the broader social-historical moment and its ethical-political conflicts. She also outlined some of the types of stories which had been conventionally accepted pathways for a Black writers, and offered some critiques of these genres and tropes as well as suggestions for alternative possibilities. I wanted to return to her question of the responsibilities and possibilities of Black women creators but try to frame it in a different way and open it up to a new audience. Her initial pitch of the question in “Remarks at Emory” is addressed to literary fiction writers specifically, writers whose work belongs within the field of popular culture rather than the ivory tower of academia. Therefore, the examples that she offers for the conventional types of stories they can tell are very much oriented to a specific format and style, not to mention the context of the late 1990s. It feels appropriate to expand this question in 2021 to include creators working in a variety of mediums. How would contemporary Black women creators feel about Cleage’s question and the pathways that she outlines? Would they find it useful but in need of updating for the 21st century? Would they appreciate the basic framing but take issue with the specific approaches she outlines, and either contest aspects of one or more of them or suggest that other possibilities exist which she did not speak to? Or would they reject it entirely?

Given the practical realities of our ongoing pandemic, organizing this conversation into a public in-person event seemed impractical and doomed to potential cancellation or perpetual rescheduling like so many other events over the past year. Rather than trying to recreate the energy of a one-off event through a video conference, I believe that this project will be best served by creating a series of videos, each highlighting different contemporary Black women creatives and giving them a platform to reflect on Pearl Cleage’s ideas and the question of their responsibilities and possibilities and how this does or doesn’t relate to their work. I see my role as primarily one of making space for this conversation, helping to provide a platform and in turn contribute something new to the archive, to carry Cleage’s words forward through a new generation in order to speak to the role of the creative in this era of permanent crisis which somehow simultaneously feels like a perpetual state of hyperspeed flux and slow motion catastrophe. The series, Black Women Creatives Speak, will be released through Rose Library’s YouTube channel and each video will be shared here on the Rose Library blog along with some additional information on the featured creator and their work starting next month.