Maryemma Graham, an English professor at Kansas University, has been working for 30 years to track down novels written by black writers. In fact, she’d like to get all of them.
At least, that’s how the idea began.
“There’s no way that we can complete that goal,” Graham acknowledged this week. She’s the leader of KU’s Project on the History of Black Writing. Though the project lists more than 1,050 novels on its website, it claims about 3,000 works overall, including some rare books that are not housed at KU, but rather at other sites. The project has taken a different turn today, expanding its mission.
The group draws on its extensive collection and has begun examining them and putting on workshops for high school teachers. A recent workshop focused on author Richard Wright. Many of the workshops have received federal grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
On Thursday, the group shared some of its work with the public. It hosted a Black Literary Suite that focused on literature in New York. It was the third such event the group hosted and allowed visitors to use MP3 players to listen to commentaries and view displays related to the period.
The project is working to make novels in the public domain available online. They’ve also got other digital efforts, including a blog, a Twitter feed and a Facebook page, said Kenton Rambsy, an English graduate student and the project’s digital initiative coordinator.
Rambsy said that the project has agreements with a number of different publishing companies that still send them books, but it’s still hard to keep up.
“We’ve had a recent bit of trouble,” Rambsy said, in collecting newer novels, with the rise of independent publishing and the online book market.
Most of the collection is before 1980, going back to the first known American novel written by a black writer in 1853.
Graham and a small group of graduate students are still working at the original goal. She began the work nearly 30 years ago while she was working at the University of Mississippi.
When the project first began, Graham said, there were probably 5,000 novels written between 1853 and 1970. She figured it might take a few years to collect them all. But they kept coming. Between 1970 and 1980, Graham guesses another 3,000 were written. And then another 6,000 between 1980 and 1990.
“We know that it’s doubled, tripled, quadrupled,” she said.
It’s not the largest collection of novels by black writers, she said. That distinction likely belongs to the Schomburg Center in New York, she said. But what KU’s project has that the Schomburg Center doesn’t is the analysis made of the works, Graham said. Through the years, graduate students have helped to organize the works by author, by date and by thematic material, to make it easier for people interested in studying the novels.
And how many of the works in the collection has Graham actually read?
“That’s an interesting question,” she said. “I have read, over 30 years, maybe about a fourth (of the works).”