Here at UC Berkeley, the number one public university in the world – yes, I’ll take any chance to say that – we are offered opportunities that are pretty special, and ones that are offered to us alone. Usually when we think about these kinds of things, the first thoughts that pop into our heads are the incredible chemists, physicists, astronomers and physicians that work on our campus, that are always on the edge of the newest discovery in their fields, making waves in the scientific community. However, though not as often basking in the spotlight, our bank of resources is not limited to the sciences; we also have a wealth of rare and remarkable literature at our disposal.
Ok, fine, of course, I’m biased; I’m an English major, after all – but hear me out. Right now I’m talking about the Bancroft Library – you know, the place you trudge through on your way to the North Reading room to hunker down and get some serious studying done. But hiding in plain sight, just beyond the main entrance, is a demonstration of just some of the many gems the library has to offer: the gallery exhibit “The Gift to Sing: Highlights of the Leon F. Litwack and Bancroft Library African American Collections.”
I had the incredible delight of visiting said gallery. Inside the gallery are displays of an array of old, worn, but remarkably well-conditioned first-edition novels and newspapers written by African Americans and/or about the experience of being African American over the past two centuries. Mounted proudly on the walls facing the doors are large-scale renditions of different covers of novels. The moment I stepped inside the doors, I was stopped by the eyes of the little girl staring at me expectantly from the blown-up cover of “Sula”, Toni Morrison’s literary masterpiece.
Somber music plays throughout the room, providing me with a soundtrack as I walked through time, taking in the numerous pieces of impactful African American works throughout the different eras of literary history. The gallery encompasses slave narratives, newspapers, and an impressive collection of works from the Harlem Renaissance. Just to give you an idea, the displays included first-edition copies of works such as The Red Record and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. (Yeah – impressed yet?)
Eventually, I reached the source of the music: a small video playing on a loop at the end of the exhibit, a jarring montage of the all-too-frequent lynchings that occurred over the centuries. It was a final, striking reminder of the bloody and painful past of the African American community in our country.
By the end, I was crying. Seriously. I was so moved not only by the artistry born from this painful past, but merely by the content of the gallery itself; I couldn’t believe we had all this, right under our nose, right at the heart of our campus. And these were just the highlights! There is a whole collection out there, waiting to be devoured by my eyes. Leaving the gallery, I felt prouder than ever to be a Cal student.
The exhibit will be on display until February 17, 2017 – the entire collection is expected to become available for UC campus viewing in the future.