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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., December 4, 2012—The Williams College Chapin Library of Rare Books has acquired a trove of poetry, plays, prose, anthologies, studies, recordings, and personal communications by hundreds of famous and less well-known African-American writers of the 20th century.
The collection comes from the estate of Paul Breman, a London collector, publisher, and antiquarian bookseller. It includes files of books, pamphlets, and broadsides by Paul Laurence Dunbar, W.E.B. Du Bois, Gwendolyn Brooks, Countee Cullen, Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Audre Lorde, and Williams’ own Sterling Brown ’22. Among the 4,000 volumes is the life’s work of scores of other poets, playwrights, novelists, artists, and musicians who have defined black arts and culture over nearly 100 years.
Paul Breman became interested in African-American poetry through his exposure to jazz music as a student at the University of Amsterdam, and devoted years of his life to finding, commun-icating with, and publishing African-American authors.
Bob Volz, Custodian of the Chapin Library, calls the Breman Collection, “one of the most focused and skillfully crafted collections of printed sources that I have encountered in over 45 years as a rare book librarian. Unrivalled in it are the more than 300 American and Caribbean anthologies that collect the poetry of the African Diaspora.”
Also in the collection are Breman’s own books, written in his native Dutch, about African-American music, the anthologies of African-American poetry he published, and the entire Heritage Series of Black Poetry published between 1962 and 1975, each volume dedicated to a single poet. The resources Breman used to find new voices for his publications are also now housed at Chapin, including periodicals and anthologies from the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa; more than 300 anthologies of African-American poetry published in English; and a handful of anthologies of African-American poetry published in other languages. Among those published in German is a volume Volz asserts is the first major collection of African-American poetry, titled Afrika Singt (Africa Sings), published in 1929. “There is very early Langston Hughes poetry together with poems from Countee Cullen and W.E.B. Du Bois. Hughes especially was a close friend of Paul Breman’s,” Volz reflects.
Philosophy major Andrew Langston ’13, who is working with Volz to catalogue the manuscripts and correspondence in the collection, points out that some of the most interesting pieces are not themselves poems, but the personal communications between Breman and poets, musicians, and artists. “There are small items that are not the main emphasis of the collection, but which piece together details of the lives of the creative contributors to the collection,” he says, describing as an example a series of beautifully crafted Christmas cards, each a piece of artwork on its own, which the expatriate African-American actor, director, singer, and artist Gordon Heath sent to Breman over the years. For more than 25 years, Heath and his life partner Lee Payant conducted L’Abbaye bar anglais on the Left Bank, where they performed American folk, gospel, and blues songs for French audiences and Americans in Paris, including the likes of Art Buchwald and Rita Hayworth. “It is in the mid-50s in this file,” Volz says, “that we find the seeds of the Black literary and artistic traditions growing rapidly in Paul Breman’s consciousness.” By 1959 he had published his detailed studies, titled Spirituals, and in 1962, Blues. Between 1962 and 1975, Breman published 25 slim volumes, each devoted to one individual black poet, a self-published anthology titled Sixes and Sevens, and an anthology published by Penguin Books titled You Better Believe It.
“The Bremen Collection is extraordinarily rich and beautifully conceived, and so presents a wonderful opportunity to explore a set of closely related materials in one setting,” says Peter Murphy, dean of the faculty and professor of English. “I anticipate that this collection will find an immediate place in the ongoing work of several faculty members and students, and that it will, by its simple presence, inspire future projects, as scholars and students discover what is here.”
Founded in 1793, Williams College is the second-oldest institution of higher learning in Massachusetts. The college’s 2,000 students are taught by a faculty noted for the quality of their teaching and research, and the achievement of academic goals includes active participation of students with faculty in their research. Students’ educational experience is enriched by the residential campus environment in Williamstown, Mass., which provides a host of opportunities for interaction with one another and with faculty beyond the classroom. Admission decisions are made regardless of a student’s financial ability, and the college provides grants and other assistance to meet the demonstrated needs of all who are admitted.