New Jerseyís African American Women Authors Are Featured at Newark Public Libraryís Black History Month Salute
Their books had been published, but many were not widely publicized or reviewed. A majority of the authors were largely invisible until their inclusion in the national and state award winning work, African American Women Writers in New Jersey 1836-2000: A Biographical Dictionary and Bibliographic Guide by Sibyl E. Moses.
Now the public will have an opportunity to get acquainted with the works and lives of these women as The Newark Public Library showcases the reference book and its author as the central program for its Black History Month celebration.
This unparalleled exhibit, The Creativity and Imagination of African American Women Writers in New Jersey, curated by Moses, details the lives of these authors and their publications. Through the authorsí words, letters, books and photographs, this exhibition presents the world view of a group of women in New Jersey from the antebellum period through the twentieth century.
Moses is the featured guest at a gala opening reception for Black History Month, Wednesday, January 31 at 6 p.m. in Centennial Hall of the Main Library, 5 Washington Street. The exhibit will be housed in the second floor gallery. It will be on view from January 22 through March 3, 2007, and is free and open to the public during regular library hours.
"As a body of work, this book offers us a lens through which we can see the community life of African Americans in New Jersey and these womenís roles in the community," Library Director Wilma Grey maintained. African American Women Writers in New Jersey 1836-2000 transcends the category of reference. The book brings these women and their works into the public eye. This exhibit will help highlight a very important aspect of the literary heritage of this state," Grey said.
The women showcased in the exhibit are making their contribution not only to the stateís literary voice, but also its history, says Moses. Included the exhibition and in her book are biographies of authors who are participants in the African American struggle for racial justice on the local, state, and national levels and chroniclers of racial integration in New Jersey, as well as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, a Broadway playwright, a founder of a national African American teacherís sorority, a granddaughter of an African American member of the Virginia House of Delegates (1869-1871) and a historian cited in the 1954 NAACP brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court in the Brown v. Board of Education case. Among other authors are pastors of churches, Sunday school superintendents; presidents of missionary societies, nurses units and church choirs; outstanding educators in language arts and Islamic education, and a manufacturer of beauty care products.
Moses, a Newark native and graduate of Weequahic High School, is a reference specialist in African American History and Culture at the Library of Congress. She spent 15 years identifying the authors and their publications during her off-hours and in her free time. A magna cum laude graduate of Spelman College, she holds a masterís degree from the University of Ife in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, and earned a masterís and doctorate in library and information science from the University of Illinois. Her publications have appeared in American, British and Nigerian journals.
"The publications by African American women writers in New Jersey are representative of the creativity and imagination of a people," said Moses. "Now future generations will understand who we are, will understand the role of African American women in New Jerseyís history, and how we viewed and molded their worlds."
All the women included in the book were born in New Jersey or lived in the state for at least 15 years. Each has at least one published work. They have written everything from novels to autobiographies and text books to poetry. Their works include romance novels, literary criticisms, juvenile literature, and satire.
Work on the reference book started when Moses, who was contributing to a newsletter on African American history, was asked to compile a list of New Jerseyís African American women writers for the publicationís Womenís History Month issue.
"I knew of four: Dr. E. Alma Flagg, Ntozake Shange, and Norma Jean and Carole Darden," said Moses. "I knew there had to be more."
When it was published, the newsletter About Ourselves, listed only eight writers. That dearth of names impelled Moses to search for additional writers. The quest resulted in a roster of 118 names. Some, like Flagg, Shange, and the Dardens, were already well-known in the Newark community. But the others were discovered through hard work, diligence, years of interviews, thousands of miles of driving and serendipity.
At first Moses tried using the standard biographical tools. When they proved inadequate, she resorted to the "small world theory," by Stanley Milgram, which had proved that any two strangers can be connected through intermediaries.
"I identified the gatekeepers of the African-American community and asked them," Moses said. She interviewed close to 400 people--the leaders of local womenís clubs, church elders and officials, politicians, teachers, librarians, building maintenance workers and housekeepers.
In her quest, Moses attended countless womenís clubs luncheons and struck up random conversations with strangers, always asking if there were any published local women writers.
"I was traveling to Camden with Grace Plater, a retired librarian, when she decided to stop in Bordentown. I asked the woman whom we were visiting if there were any black people in the area who had written a book. She replied 'the woman up the road in Allentown wrote a book,' so I went to visit her," Moses continued, describing how she found Lenora Dorin, author of My Adopted Family. Dorin was at home and had an entire box of her books to sell, Moses said, describing the work as autobiographical. "I interviewed her right then and there."
"Gertrude Williams Pitts was an African American woman, a Republican Third Ward District Leader in 1949, and the owner of a Swedish massage parlor in Newark. I knew she existed, but I had a problem verifying her biographical information," Moses said, explaining that she physically examined every publication included in her book and documented every interview and source consulted.
It was Mosesí late father, John E. Moses, along with her neighbor, Mrs. Daisy Gibson, who helped track down Pitts. Gibson, former Newark Mayor Kenneth A. Gibsonís mother, told her that Pitts had attended Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church.
"So my father walked around the corner and struck up a conversation with a worker at the church, who knew a woman who had lived with Ms. Pitts," Moses continued. "That woman, Ms. Ophelia Pasley, gave me a photograph and copy of the funeral program for Ms. Pitts. Mrs. Gibson gave me a copy of the book Pitts had published in 1939: Tragedies of Life, a story about an enslaved family that did not know they were free because no one knew how to read.Ē
Another Newark woman, Eddie Mae Livingston, is known for her bridge playing and poetry. Livingstonís poem was published in Mayor Gibsonís inaugural program. Today, she is considered as a poet laureate of Newark, said Moses. "She is a poet chronicler, writing about the lives of the people in Newark and in her bridge club."
Moses, who worked as an academic librarian in Nigeria for a decade, loved reading biographies as a child. "I read all the lives of the explorers because thatís what was in the collection," Moses said, explaining that she often used the Clinton Branch of The Newark Public Library.
Currently, Moses is working on a companion volume on African American male authors in New Jersey.
In her spare time, she serves on the National Archives Committee of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., and is the Imperial Directress for Archives and History in the Imperial Court, Daughters of Isis (PHA).
"Adding to the cultural and literary heritage of New Jersey is my driving force," Moses said. African American Women Writers in New Jersey, 1836-2000, published by Rutgers University Press, was recently selected as a New Jersey Notable Book for 1995-2005, by the New Jersey Center for the Book. The book also was recognized with an award from the American Association for State and Local History.
For more information or to arrange a tour, please call Allison Capel at 973-733-5411 or Heidi Cramer at 973-733-7837 at The Newark Public Library or log onto the Web site at www.npl.org.
©2007 The Newark Public Library