Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 30, 2018
Melissa Barton Gather Out of Star-Dust: A Harlem Renaissance Album New Haven: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, 2017. 144 pp.; 140 color ills. Paper over Board $25.00 (9780300225617)
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library (01/13/17–04/17/17)

In Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, Jacques Derrida theorizes the archive in terms of two conflicting forces: the pleasure principle (eros) and the death drive (thanatos). Through these antithetical terms, he suggests that archives are defined by a struggle over what they preserve or save and what they forget or destroy. This leads Derrida to define the “archivization” process as that which “produces as much as it records the event.”1 To some, beginning a review of Melissa Barton’s Gather Out of Star-Dust: A Harlem Renaissance Album with Derrida may seem incongruous, especially given that Barton makes no mention of his theories. While Barton’s beautifully designed book is not about archives per se, its significance as well as its shortcomings cannot be fully understood without reference to Derrida’s meditations about archives as sites of both inclusion and exclusion, remembrance and forgetting.

Gather Out of Star-Dust is a companion volume to the 2017 exhibition Gather Out of Star-Dust: The Harlem Renaissance & the Beinecke Library at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book Manuscript Library. The impetus for this exhibition was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Beinecke’s widely consulted James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letters (JWJ Collection). Founded in 1941 by novelist, critic, and photographer Carl Van Vechten in the aftermath of Johnson’s tragic death in a car crash in 1938, the JWJ Collection, which formally opened in January 1950, today boasts “over 13,000 volumes, 3,000 pieces of sheet music, countless pages of manuscripts, correspondence, photographs and ephemera, and 11,000 digital images” (6). Like the exhibition, the book focuses on material from the JWJ Collection’s core strength: the Harlem Renaissance. But where the exhibition featured three hundred artifacts, Barton highlights only fifty items in the book.   

In returning to these archival materials from the Harlem Renaissance, Barton acknowledges the tremendous role they have played in informing “major works of history, biography, and criticism” (7). But ultimately, it is not the “scholarship, inquiry, and homage” generated by these items that strikes Barton as most significant (6). Instead, through this collection of materials, especially her organization of them under five synonyms for the word “gather,” Barton attempts to “show the complexity of the era” so that “we can ask [questions,] remember, but also enjoy” (8). It is here that Barton at once points to the value of her volume but also does not push its scope far enough, for it is not only the looking at, thinking about, or even remembering of these items that is pleasing. More significantly, they are also the product of pleasure, even affection.

Derrida’s pleasure principle is especially evident in those archival materials grouped by Barton under the headings “Entertain” and “Get Together.” Highlights from these sections include a 1928 photograph of entertainer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, personally inscribed by Robinson to his “dear friend” Van Vechten; Charles S. Johnson’s 1924 invitation to novelist Jean Toomer to what would become the famous Civic Club Dinner in Greenwich Village (because of which Paul Kellogg would decide to do a special issue of Survey magazine that would eventually turn into Alain Locke’s landmark 1925 anthology, The New Negro); the signed guest book and corresponding guest commentary from the Manhattan home of James Weldon and Grace Nail Johnson; a 1927 design by Aaron Douglas for a mural in Van Vechten’s bathroom; and a 1942 photograph of the infamous 267 West 136th Street, or “Niggeratti Manor,” which was known during the Harlem Renaissance as much for the cultural luminaries who resided there as for its parties. Together these objects call attention to the importance of friendships, collaborations, and networks during the Harlem Renaissance and signal how the JWJ Collection was itself formed, structured, and organized through these systems of exchange. The “convivial, frank, and affectionate” (86) letters between writers Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, as well as Van Vechten’s massive 650-page catalogue of items initially donated to the JWJ Collection by such individuals as Dorothy Peterson, Walter White, Harold Jackman, Hughes, McKay, Arthur and Amy Spingarn, and Fannie Hurst, among others, only strengthen such a claim. At the same time, while the development of the JWJ Collection and the Harlem Renaissance, more broadly, is a testament to these dinner parties, informal gatherings, and personal relationships, archives, as Derrida reminds us, are also produced by that which is not remembered, even excluded. It is this manifestation of the death drive that could be pushed further in Barton’s volume.

The back cover of Gather Out of Star-Dust is made up of a list of individuals whose names are repeated in the book’s index and highlighted throughout the text in bold typeface. While the repetition of names rightfully celebrates these individuals whose materials make up the JWJ Collection, their visual prominence also raises questions about who is omitted and why. The complicated relationship that Van Vechten, as a white, gay man, had to black culture offers one possible answer. For each of the objects that Barton includes in her volume, she pens a mini-essay to contextualize the selected works. It is here that bits and pieces of Derrida’s death drive come most clearly into focus. For instance, in the entry on Van Vechten’s photographic portraits of writer Zora Neale Hurston taken between 1934 and 1940, readers learn that Van Vechten was an amateur portraitist who built his own darkroom in the kitchen of his double apartment on 54th Street. In 1932 he began to photograph his friends and acquaintances and, in 1939, took it upon himself to make portraits of “every established or promising African American he could cajole to sit for him” (90). Totaling over twenty thousand images, Van Vechten’s collection, nearly half of which he donated to the JWJ Collection, is remarkable for whom it includes and excludes. Not everyone that Van Vechten approached, the text explains, agreed to sit for his camera. Most notably, actor Sidney Poitier, political activist Louise Thompson-Patterson, and novelist Ralph Ellison all refused, “perhaps distrustful of a white man who still had a bad reputation as an ofay playboy in Harlem’s seedy speakeasies during the Twenties” (90). Since these individuals are not part of the collection, their names are not bolded in the text or included in the index or on the back cover. Yet, it would seem that they are just as consequential to the development and organization of the JWJ Collection. Moreover, their refusal also underscores an often unspoken aspect of the history of saving and collecting the US African American past: the role of white patrons and white institutions.

With the acquisition of the JWJ Collection, Yale University became “the first predominantly white academic institution to begin seriously collecting African American literature” (130). Though the collection is now a celebrated resource, its formation by a white collector cannot be fully discussed without reference to the black collectors who served as prototypes for Van Vechten. These include, as Barton acknowledges in her introduction, black theologian Jesse E. Moorland, who donated his private library to Howard University in 1914, and Afro–Puerto Rican scholar, collector, and curator Arthur Schomburg, whose massive collection was donated to the New York Public Library in 1926. Certain materials in Barton’s volume likewise raise questions about the stewardship of African American archival materials. In the text that accompanies Johnson’s dinner invitation to Toomer, for instance, Barton notes that it “bears stamps from Fisk University Library.” Here Barton refers to but does not outright name the legal battle that took place in the 1980s between historically black Fisk University and Yale over the control of Toomer’s papers, which were formerly at Fisk but had been given to Yale by Toomer’s widow when she became concerned they were not being used. In suing Fisk over who held ownership over Toomer’s papers, was Yale acting as a kind of “Negrotarian,” using Zora Neale Hurston’s term for the white benefactors of the Harlem Renaissance? How different was Yale from white patron Charlotte Osgood Mason, who insisted that those African Americans, whom she supported monetarily during the Harlem Renaissance, call her “godmother”?

Barton certainly recognizes the problematic aspects of white patronage within the JWJ Collection. Her selection includes an assortment of gift cards that Mason inscribed in cursive to her protégée, Langston Hughes, which he in turn saved in an envelope bearing the label “godmother’s cards.” This condescension is even more palatable in Mason’s letters to Hughes, which, as Barton points out, repeatedly reference him as “boy.” While Van Vechten’s patronage and support of African American culture should in no way be equated with Mason’s insolence, his function as a white benefactor nonetheless brings up critical issues around the relationship between archives, black agency, and self-representation that demand further investigation. A starting point for such a discussion might be to return to Hughes’s poem “Dream Dust,” from which Barton takes the title of her volume. Though Hughes begins more euphorically—“Gather out of star-dust”—he ends on a distinctly different note: “One handful of dream-dust. Not for sale.” It is these looming questions, then, not only about what archives include and exclude, remember and forget, but also who holds the rights to determine their uses and meanings that attest to the value of Gather Out of Star-Dust and signal what remains to be scrutinized further.

1. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996),  17.

Erina Duganne
Associate Professor, School of Art and Design, Texas State University