Black Studies: Getting Started in a Specialty

by William P. French

[As a bookselling specialty, black studies has been growing rapidly in recent years and has attracted many dealers to the subject. In the following article William French, who for more than two decades worked for Walter Goldwater, a pioneer in the field, offers an account of his early experiences with black studies, along with a survey of the problems in the field. Since Goldwater’s death in June of 1985, French has continued his friend and mentor’s business, specializing in books relating to black studies, Africa, the Caribbean, radical literature, and Vietnam. — JLC]

I graduated from high school in 1959, and being just 16, took a year off before going to college. I already had begun collecting books in a modest way —Faulkner (smart move, that), Sherwood Anderson, what little William Blake I could afford, and others. The bookshops on and around Fourth Avenue in New York City had been my weekend and vacation haunts for a couple of years, and when my family moved from Westchester County to Greenwich Village, I became a regular visitor to, and occasional customer of, all the local bookshops. I particularly liked the University Place Book Shop, where I struck up a friendship with the proprietor, Walter Goldwater. In February of 1960 I asked him for a job at the shop, and in March he hired me.

The first few weeks of my first (and so far only) job were spent in the cellar, where I alphabetized thousands of radical pamphlets. I then moved up to the shop itself, where much of the stock consisted of books in the field now known as Black Studies — a field of which I knew as little as many another white middle-class suburban youth in 1960: Lincoln freed the slaves, civilized people say "Negro," not "nigger," . . . If asked to name books in the field, I doubt I could have gone far beyond Up from Slavery and Uncle Tom’s Cabin — oh yes, and Little Black Sambo. But as an inquisitive teenaged booklover I began to absorb some knowledge.

In September of 1960 I entered New York University as a freshman and stopped working for Walter. But since the shop was three blocks from the University and I lived another few blocks away, I was a constant visitor and occasionally minded the shop when Walter was away.

In May of 1961, bored with college and having quarreled with my girlfriend (she is now my wife, but that’s another story), I took a cheap freighter to Tangier and spent the next two years hitchhiking around the world, mostly in Asia.

The world being round, I found myself back in New York in May of 1963, where I found an apartment (230 E. Third St., rent $42.32 a month) and resumed working for Walter.

By then I was a world-traveled and sophisticated 20-year-old with a book-business background, and my job was mostly cataloguing books. Walter would buy them, price them, add any comments necessary ("Negro author," "1st ed." or whatever) and I would type them up on slips and shelve them in their appropriate sections.

Although Walter had made it clear to me that my job at the shop did not consist of sitting around and reading books all day, when I catalogued a book I had to look at it and see what it was, and ask myself why it was worth $7.50 instead of the usual $2.50-$4.50. Walter bought many books from England and Europe, and I soon learned to list Portuguese and Danish books on Africa as well as other exotic material.

Black Authors

Meanwhile the world kept turning; it was the summer of 1963, and sit-ins, freedom rides and the August 28 march on Washington, along with the rapid accession to independence of many African and Caribbean nations, had a powerful effect on black consciousness and white consciences. Corresponding with worldwide events was an upsurge of interest in, and demand for, books on Black Studies.

After work, I again haunted local book-shops, but now I also looked for, and bought, books for Walter. One of the writers I had become interested in from cataloguing his books at the shop was Chester Himes, and I started collecting his first editions for myself, largely because most of them were paperback originals, published at 25 cents or 35 cents, and thus when found second-hand, were affordable.

Black history ranges chronologically and geographically from Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania where human remains some two million years old were discovered in 1959, to Howard Beach in New York City, where some more recent human remains were discovered a year ago.

But one area collectors tend to concentrate on is books by black authors, on any subject. The question of who is or is not black, while usually easy to decide, sometimes becomes a problem.

Walter originally got into the field when, shortly after he had opened the shop in 1932, Arthur B. Spingarn, a founding member of the National Association for Advancement of Colored People and later its president, came in and said that he collected books by Negro (as they were then called) authors and would buy any he did not already have. Before long Walter had accumulated a substantial number of titles, including many Spingarn did not buy, since he already had them.

Soon Walter began issuing catalogues of books on the Negro, using an asterisk to indicate those by Negro authors. Both Spingarn and Arthur A. Schomburg. another avid collector of Negro authors and founder of what is now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library, told Walter that M. P. Shiel (1865-1947), best known as an Irish writer of fantasy novels, was a Negro, and in due course Shiel’s books started appearing in Walter’s catalogues, complete with asterisk.

This prompted a query from Carl Van Vechten, another major collector in the field at the time, who asked Walter to write to Shiel and inquire whether he was a Negro. Walter did so, and received the following reply:

Dear Mr. Goldwater:

Yours to hand. I’m afraid I am an Irish Paddy — very mixed blood — Andalusian, Moorish — but perhaps no "Negro" except in so far as Roosevelt, the Mikado, that so ‘Aryan" Hitler, are Negro, each of them having had four grandparents, each of those four by which geometric progression one soon gets to the population of thc globe. Andalusian girls have brown skin, light-brown hair, pretty green eyes — deucedly pretty. One of my sisters has jet-black hair, brown eyes — a throw-back perhaps to some dim Negro, while I, after a gold-haired youth, have nearly-black hair (but Irish-gray eyes). Thanks so much for your interest.

M. P. Shiel

This seemed convincing to Walter (though less so to Spingarn), and Shiel’s books stopped appearing in Walter’s catalogues.

Some 40 years later Walter learned that in 1979 two intrepid Shielians, A. Reynolds Morse and Jon Wynne-Tyson, visited the island of Montserrat, West Indies, where Shiel was born. They probed through the records until they found a notice of the birth of Shiel’s mother, Priscilia Ann Blake, born in Montserrat on April 13, 1828, and described in the Birth Record Book as "Free" — a term which would have been superfluous had she been white.

Another West Indian writer, the Jamaican W. Adolphe Roberts (1886-1962), author of some two dozen books including novels, poetry and miscellaneous non-fiction, reacted somewhat differently to being listed as a Negro. In a letter addressed to the shop dated September 29, 1954 he wrote:

Dear Sirs:

I am informed that you are sending out a list of "Books by Negro Authors," on which you include my name and several of the titles of my novels.

Please be advised that I am not a Negro. or of Negro ancestry. Will you please remove my name from your list.

Yours truly,               
W. Adolphe Roberts

This certainly seems definite enough (Indeed, one can’t help wondering how he could have been so certain), and though Walter continued, and I continue, to stock Roberts’ books, it is as a West Indian author, without any racial designation.

In the summer of 1964 the German scholar Janheinz Jahn visited the shop and bought some books. In passing he mentioned to me that he was in the process of compiling a bibliography which would list all editions of all books of creative writing in all languages by black people ever published. I politely acknowledged that this was an admirable idea, though privately I felt that if such a work ever saw the light of day it would be hopelessly inadequate.

A year or so later there appeared a book by Jahn entitled Die Neoafrikanische Literatur: Gesamtbibliographie von den Anfangen bis zur Gegenwart (Dusseldorf: Diederichs Verlag, 1965). This astonishing tour de force listed, in considerable detail, 3,566 titles in more than 50 languages (including, e.g., Bulu, Chuvash, Tajik and Tswa). In spite of the numerous errors and omissions inevitable in such an undertaking, for the first time I, and the rest of the world, had some grasp of the totality of black literature.

I soon began a regular correspondence with Claus Peter Dressier, Jahn’s assistant and bibliographical amenuensis, and, armed with a steady flow of information from Dressier, Jahn’s bibliography, and Walter’s years of experience and knowledge, began buying — and reading — more and more books by black authors and in the general field of black studies, just at the time when the demand for such material from libraries, collectors and scholars throughout the world was skyrocketing.

I discovered that the first edition of the first "novel" (so described on the title-page, though the book is only 40 pages long) in English by a black South African was still in print from its original publisher and, including postage, cost about a dime. This was An African Tragedy by R.R.R. Dhlomo (Lovedale, South Africa: Lovedale Institution Press, 1928).

Closer to home I found that Samuel French still had copies of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s play Plumes (New York, 1927), and that the Little Blue Book Company of Girard, Kansas, was still in business and had copies of titles by such black authors as W.E.B. Du Bois, Wallace Thurman and Walter White. These cost only a nickel, though when I reordered copies a couple of years later I found that the price had doubled.

Meanwhile other books were rising in price too; over the years Walter had accumulated as many as a dozen copies of Phillis Wheatiey’s Poems on Various Subjects (1773), which by the mid-l960s were priced from $35 to $65, depending on condition and whether they were signed, which a few were. In 1965 the Seven Gables Bookshop issued one of their justly famous catalogues of "First Books by American Authors’’ in which the Wheatley was listed for $60.

Walter had never been particularly eager to sell his Wheatleys, preferring to keep them tucked away in a hidden drawer and only revealing one now and then to an especially importunate or likeable customer. He was, however, a close friend of John Kohn, co-owner of Seven Gables. and after John had sold the copy in his catalogue and started getting additional orders Waiter would, somewhat grudgingly and one at a time, produce copies for John to satisfy his customers.

Eventually, of course, the well ran dry, and Walter and I quickly discovered that finding more copies wasn’t easy, even at a substantially higher price level. About six years ago I found a nice signed copy at a book fair, but the price was $1,000, and I passed it up. It stuck in my mind though, and half an hour later I found myself back at that same booth, saying that I would take the Wheatiey after all. Meanwhile, however, it had drifted across the aisle to another dealer’s booth, where the price was substantially higher, so I passed it up again — two mistakes in half an hour.

Haitian History and Literature

Walter got into the field of material on Haiti the same way he had gotten into black studies in general — a customer came into the shop and said he would buy what he didn’t have. This time it was H. P. Davis, author of Black Democracy (New York, 1928), the book which was, at that time, the best and most thorough history of Haiti in English. Davis was working on a revised edition (which came out in 1936), and Walter was able to find much useful material for him, mostly from France.

In 1938 another friend of Walter’s, the Trinidadian polymath C.L.R. James, published The Black Jacobins, a brilliant account of the Haitian revolution, and Walter’s interest in Haiti continued.

By the early 1960s one of his regular sources for modern Haitian material was Max Bissainthe, former director of the Bbliotheque Nationale in Port-au-Prince and author of the standard bibliography, Dictionnaire de Bibliographie Haitienne (Washington: Scarecrow Press, 1951). When Francois Duvalier took power in 1957, Bissainthe was fired from his librarian’s job, and he went into the book business while nervously waiting for Papa Doc to drop the other shoe. In his correspondence with Walter he had been indicating for some time that his situation in Haiti was far from secure: about 1967 he wrote to say that he thought his only chance of staying alive would be to find someone who would buy his entire stock of books and sponsor him as an immigrant to the United States.

Walter agreed to do both of these, and in due course large quantities of Haitian books started arriving at the shop, followed by Bissainthe himself, who soon got a job as reference librarian at New York University.

Bissainthe’s stock, while in a sense fairly pedestrian — there were no great rarities — was certainly unusual. Haitian books in general are not common, and here were thousands, most of them not to be found even in major American libraries — a situation which Walter was quickly able to rectify.

Meanwhile I had discovered another new literature, this time from the other side of the Atlantic. In 1965 the Ugandan magazine Transition published an article entitled "Onitsha Market Literature." Onitsha is a large town on the Eastern bank of the Niger River in Nigeria, where, starting in the late 1940s, a number of pamphlets by local authors were published.

By the 1960s the number of titles had grown to more than 200 (I myself have handled perhaps 175). The titles were intriguing — The last days of Lumumba, the late lion of the Congo; £9,000,000,000 man still says no money; Caroline the one-guinea girl; Beautiful Maria in the act of true love; Mabel the sweet honey that flowed away, her skin was so sweet and sexy it could make your blood flow in the wrong direction (these last two titles by one "Speedy Eric"), Life turns man up and down, money and girls turn man up and down. . . .

The Transition article was illustrated with reproductions of several of the covers of the pamphlets being discussed, and on one of them the printer’s name and address were clearly readable. I wrote to the Chinyelu Printing Press at 1, Iweka Road, Onitsha, Nigeria, and asked for 12 copies of Rosemary and the taxi driver and two copies each of any other pamphlets available. A couple of months later, a battered package arrived at the shop. containing a dozen copies of Rosemary and two copies of each of another dozen titles.

Although subsequent letters to other Onitsha printers mostly went unanswered, I soon accumulated large quantities of these pamphlets. In 1966 a librarian friend went to Onitsha and thoroughly combed the stalls of the market, bringing back multiple copies of more than 100 titles; Walter found a cache in a London bookseller’s cellar, and I purchased a batch of some 80 titles from a book scout on West 72nd Street in Manhattan.

The last lot was especially interesting, since they had been bought in Onitsha in April of 1967. In May of that year the Eastern Region of Nigeria, where Onitsha was located, seceded from the Federation, and became Biafra. In the following two-and-a-half years of civil war, Onitsha was captured by Federal troops, retaken by Biafra, fell again, etc. By the time the war was over in January of 1970, even the rubble of Onitsha had been repeatedly destroyed. Although the town was later rebuilt, the local printers and publishers never recovered, and I have found no further batches of Onitsha pamphlets, though I still have a few.

In 1974 or so a prominent Dutch book dealer visited the shop and gave me a copy of his current catalogue. As he looked over the shelves, I looked through his catalogue, and discovered a book entitled Staatkundig-godgeleered onderzoekschrift over de slaverny . . . , published in Leiden in 1642, whose author was one Jacobus Elisa Joannes Capitein, "een moor uit Africa." Although I had never seen a copy of this book, I knew of it; the author was an African, born in what is now Ghana, enslaved at an early age, and eventually brought to Amsterdam, where he was educated by a rich merchant. Capitein later published this dissertation, whose thesis was that slavery was a good thing, "not contrary to Christian liberty."

The price of the book worked out to about $100, and I ordered it. When the book arrived, however, I found that the Dutch cataloguer had made a serious mistake: he had failed to notice that a second work was bound in at the end. This was Capitein’s only other book, Uitgewrogte predicatien ...(" Rousing sermons"), also published in 1642. This was a pleasant surprise indeed, and though I have since had a couple of other copies of Capitein's dissertation, I have never seen another copy of his sermons.

Reference Works

Prior to the appearance of Jahn’s 1965 bibliography, the best available lists of black American fiction and poetry had been Maxwell Whitman's A Century of Fiction by American Negroes. 1853-1952 (Philadelphia, 1955), and Dorothy B. Porter’s North American Negro Poets: A Bibliographical Checklist of Their Writings 1760-1944 (Hattiesburg 1945). As the 1960s became the l970s and the quantity of material being published kept increasing, it seemed worthwhile to try to keep track of what existed. Together with Frank Deodene, a New Jersey bookseller who also specialized in black studies, I compiled two pamphlets which we modestly subtitled "preliminary checklists:" Black American Fiction since 1952 (Chatham 1970), and Black American Poetry since 1944 (Chatham 1971).

I especially enjoyed, if that is the word, working on the poetry list, since I found it more of a challenge; while books of fiction tend to be fairly substantial volumes issued by real publishers, anyone with access to a mimeograph machine can produce a pamphlet of poetry.

A few years later I was offered an opportunity to co-edit a bibliography for Gale Research company and jumped at the chance. This eventually came out as Afro-American Poetry and Drama, 1760-1975 (Detroit 1979) and, though anyone who got a look at my own marked-up reference copy would quickly see that it has its share of errors and omissions, it does list some 1,500 individual volumes of poetry (two-thirds of the entries were published after World War II) as well as numerous anthologies, bibliographies and general background works.

I recently read a book of memoirs by an English dealer, published around 1920, in which he grumbled at considerable length that, dig around as one will in junkshops or private attics, Caxtons are no longer to be found — not even imperfect ones.

While the standard complaint of booksellers and collectors alike that "The good stuff doesn’t turn up any more" is as true in this field of black studies as in many others, there are plenty of interesting modern books to pick up while waiting for a Capitein or a Wheatley — for instance, there are now six black Nobel Prize winners, all of whom have published books in English (though I suspect that most AB readers, and indeed many collectors of books by black authors, would be hard pressed to name all six).


PHILLIS WHEATLEY (1754?-1784), brought to New England from Africa in 1761 and purchased by John Wheatley of Boston as a gift for his wife, was the author of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), the first collection of poetry by an Afro-American.

JACOBUS CAPITEIN, born in Africa and enslaved at an early age, was later educated in Amsterdam and was the author of a dissertation and a collection of sermons, both published in Leiden in 1642.

SOURCE: AB Bookman's Weekly, February 22, 1988, pp. 737-739.

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