Through the door

An introduction to the Black Writers Museum

“A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.” 
― Jorge Luis Borges

 If Borges is right, then an archive of books is also a being, albeit a larger one, representing a far more vast “axis of innumerable relationships.” The Black Writers Museum in Germantown, Pennsylvania, bears out this theory, placing books at the center of a community’s identity and its plight. Its founder, poet and activist Supreme Dow, happens to also be something of a human athenaeum; a trove of knowledge of black literature, history, and civil rights. And so this particular archive is not the dusty repository of a distant past, but a being in relationship that breathes and walks among its readers.

 National in its scope—the only museum of its kind in the US—but also deeply local in its power and importance, Dow envisioned the museum as a place where he could expose the chasm between the way the media portrays black Americans and the way black Americans have written their own history, their own lives onto the page. In this sense, the museum would hold not only the past, but spin a new future—one that, in revealing these narratives, could inspire different possibilities for its visitors and for the community it serves.

 The narrative Dow constructs begins in physicality and architecture. Housed in a commanding colonial mansion in Vernon Park, the museum is all light and gleaming wood, meticulously restored by the city, and by Dow himself. Built in the 1700s, the house is distinctly “wealthy white forefather” in its styling, the kind of building whose walls typically hang with the portraits of patriarchs and their kin, whose mantles hold busts of these same men. But here, black ancestry disrupts this expectation and we find not the faces of elder German powerbrokers on the thick plaster walls, but those of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Ida B. Wells, Zora Neale Hurston. Wooden carvings from Africa take stage above the fireplaces, and the wingback chairs share the floor with African stools and carved wooden chests. When I visited, an exhibit of the Black Arts Movement included a display of early works by Amiri Baraka beneath a framed 1960s Time Magazine cover of a black child lying dead in a pool of his own blood. In short, the space of whiteness—white artifact, white history—erupts with the assertion of blackness, always vital to American life—literary or otherwise—but long denied equal voice or equal standing.

 Upstairs, the archive itself has exploded out of its shelves, and is in the process of being moved to a larger adjoining room. This is because the community is constantly adding contributions to the collection, sometimes leaving boxes like swaddled infants on the front steps at night. As Borges would have it, the books and artifacts they leave bring the being of the library to life, turning the archive into a simultaneously impressive holding of black literature and a stunning relic of this community’s reading habits and obsessions.

One of the stories Dow told me involved a woman who arrived at the museum holding a large dresser drawer crammed with clippings from Philadelphia newspapers, which documented the entire Civil Rights era. Her mother had saved them and wanted the museum to have them upon her death. Dow was thrilled to accept the collection (though he returned the drawer itself).  Part of that woman, it seems to me, is now part of the museum, which calls upon Borges’ axis of innumerable relationships in a unique and complex way. She selected the history she thought important to preserve—she culled the text. And now it lives inside a museum that shares her dedication to this process, but which culls other texts from other sources, adding and attaching new limbs to the being; a new plexus of relationships from its central axis.