Reflecting on more than a century of attempts to archive African American literature, Jacqueline Goldsby and Meredith McGill — directors of the Black Bibliography Project — recently argued that “Black bibliography reminds us that organizing knowledge is a vital and deeply political act”. For Daniel A. P. Murray (1853–1925), only the second Black American to work at the Library of Congress, the recovery and preservation of a literary tradition could help grant dignity previously withheld. “As literature is the highest form of culture and the real test of the standing of a people in the ranks of Civilization”, he wrote in a 1900 article for Colored American Magazine, the multitude of works unearthed from previously neglected writers “must undoubtedly raise the Negro to a plane previously denied him.” Having dedicated his life to books, serving as an assistant librarian for forty-one years, Murray’s proclamation took aim both at gatekeepers of belles-lettres and the violent rhetoric of racial inferiority in 1890s America. During “Bibliographia-Africania”, a 1904 essay penned for The Voice of the Negro, he quotes Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique — “All the world, except savage nations, is governed by books” — before asking a question of his readers: “Have [Black American writers] produced anything in the literary line worthy of recognition and preservation? That is the test. If they have, let us see it, so we may justly assign to them their proper place in the ranks of civilization.”
In 1900, Murray had a chance to invigilate this test on a global stage, preparing a Preliminary List of Books and Pamphlets by Negro Authors in anticipation of “The Exhibit of American Negroes” at the Paris Exposition — an event that would be attended by more than forty-eight million visitors. As Elizabeth McHenry tracked in last year’s To Make Negro Literature, Murray built on the “Works by Negro Authors” compiled for the Bureau of Education’s Report of 1893–1894, adding an additional 117 titles before printing the list as a circular in an effort to elicit reader contributions. In its preface, Murray writes that his goal is “to secure every book and pamphlet in existence, by a Negro Author”, to be used in the “Exhibit of Negro Authorship” and later archived in the Library of Congress. His Preliminary List includes Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson’s Violets (1895), Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave (1853), the classical scholarship of William Sanders Scarborough, and novels by William Wells Brown, as well as authors such as Martin Delany and Sojourner Truth who would be later excluded from the canons of Black bibliographers such as Benjamin Brawley. In compiling his list, Murray found himself frequently cut off from the past by the dearth of historical record, sometimes resorting to the study of title-page portraits as a method for confirming an author’s race. Teaming up with Thomas J. Calloway and W. E. B. Du Bois for the Paris curation, Murray displayed books and pamphlets from the Preliminary List alongside a vast collection of photographs and stunning infographics designed by Du Bois and his students at the University of Atlanta. Intended to make visible the history of “the American Negro”, his “present condition”, “education”, and “literature”, the exhibition was a great success — despite the reticence of many American newspapers to review it domestically.
While Murray’s circular was not the first document of Black bibliography — it was preceded, for example, by abolitionist Henri Grégoire’s 1808 De la Littérature des Nègres — the list had a considerable afterlife. The Library of Congress’ first bibliography of African American literature, Murray’s Preliminary List eventually grew to contain more than two thousand titles, laying the groundwork for a project of Alexandrian scope: Murray’s Historical and Biographical Encyclopedia of the Colored Race Throughout the World, which promised twenty-five thousand biographical sketches, six thousand titles, and five thousand musical scores. Despite never completing this project, Murray’s efforts and ambitions inspired a sizable bibliography of later bibliographical projects, such as Du Bois’ Select Bibliography of the Negro American (1901), Monroe Work’s 1912–1938 Negro Year Books, Benjamin Brawley’s The Negro in Literature and Art in the United States (1918), the New York Public Library’s The Negro: A Reading List (1925), and Dorothy Porter’s North American Negro Poets (1945). In Murray’s “incompleteness”, present-day critics find an invitation to continued conversation. As Shirley Moody-Turner writes: “To bequeath a capacious field of study, one that could be dismantled, reassembled, and debated: such was the imagined future of the ‘preliminary lists’ and ‘incomplete’ biographies that marked African American knowledge production at the turn of the century.”
October 18, 2022