By Terell Wilkins, The Advocate
LSU has obtained one of the country’s largest collections of African-American poetry, including a book once owned by Frederick Douglass and a collection of works by 1950 Pulitzer Prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks.
The collection, assembled by book collector and dealer Wyatt Houston Day, includes more than 800 works from the 18th century, the Harlem Renaissance and up to the present day. It will be available for public access at Hill Memorial Library once it has been properly catalogued and preserved.
The LSU Libraries have plenty of records where African-Americans are talked about, from manuscripts to plantation records, said John Miles, curator of books for Special Collections. But the new items in the collections are a way to have Black voices tell their own stories.
“What I’m really excited about is that this really is a symbol of our dedication to incorporate African American and Black voices speaking themselves into the collection,” Miles said.
Mona Lisa Saloy, Louisiana’s current poet laureaute, sees the new collection as part of a larger effort to remember and reflect on Black poetry–and what it says about the state’s past.
Saloy was in Baton Rouge recently for a poetry reading and book signing during a commemoration of the Southern University Museum of Art’s 21st anniversary. She spoke about her ties to Louisiana, being named poet laureate and the importance of preserving African American poetry.
“A lot of Black poets have gone by the wayside because of time or death or moving to another part of the country or even out of the country,” she said. “So having a huge collection of a variety of Black poets is outstanding and there are a lot of poetry books that are out of print, so that’ll be invaluable for anyone who loves poetry, especially Black poetry.”
Saloy said she was surprised to learn about her appointment of poet laureate due to the subject of much of her work.
“It’s a great honor and something I thought never would happen because my work is very Black and without apology,” she said. “I celebrate our traditions because I’m a folklorist.”
A former LSU student and professor, Saloy said she was thrilled that the special collections library could obtain items so valuable to the Black experience she was used to growing up with in New Orleans.
“I was raised reading Black poetry because that was the voice of the revolution in the 1960s, and so as a young person coming up and hearing that, I was thrilled to hear our stories because it sure wasn’t taught in the schools during Jim Crow,” she said. “I’m the last of the Jim Crow generation and so it’s been an honor to pass that on, and now to be awarded by the state of Louisiana as poet laureate is indeed a great award.”
Saloy expressed gratitude to both the LSU Libraries and African American poets of the past for helping to protect the authentic written experience of African Americans from the 18th century to the modern day.
“Those Black voices are our culture and history, so any literature–but especially poetry, because it’s passed on often by word of mouth, is written down and then it’s saved so we can revisit who we were internally,” she said. “Our expression, how we celebrated life, how we grieved life. Poetry is human history and is what happens between the important dates of events, it gives you insight into people’s lives and traditions.”
Miles said the LSU Libraries feel the same about protecting these works and possibly growing the special collections project in the future.
“This is just the beginning of a larger project, this is not a closed collection,” Miles said. “We’ll continue to add to it, and its going to be my job to make sure we get those Louisiana-specific authors in here. I’m really excited to see how it’s being used in classes as well as by faculty members who can begin to use this as a research collection as well.”
Appraised in September by antiquarian Henry Wessells of James Cummins Booksellers in New York, the Day collection is valued at $612,940. LSU purchased parts of the collection, but Day also gifted some of them.
Miles said the thing started with him reaching out to Day about purchasing just one book.
“One thing led to another, we got to talking and he told me about another thing that I might be interested in involving the collection,” Miles said. “The conversation kind of went from there and he had another couple institutional offers but he eventually decided it would be better here with us.”
According to Miles, Day has no ties to LSU and just wanted his collection of items to have a single institutional home.
“The Wyatt Houston Day collection compliments existing literary holdings at LSU, but it also means an enormous boost to the representation of works by writers who have been historically marginalized,” LSU Libraries Dean Stanley Wilder said in a statement. “The acquisition of this collection is a significant contribution to LSU’s efforts as they relate to diversity, equity and inclusion.”