Robert Penn Warren and Who Speaks for the Negro?
As part of its 20th anniversary celebration, the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities is pleased to announce the launch of a new web archive of interviews Robert Penn Warren conducted with Civil Rights activists. This archive, created in partnership with the Jean and Alexander Heard Library of Vanderbilt University, is now available to the public at http://whospeaks.library.vanderbilt.edu/, and it features over forty previously- unheard interviews with Civil Rights leaders from across the country. It comprises a landmark collection of interviews, correspondence, and other research materials related to Warren’s 1965 book Who Speaks for the Negro?
In 1964, Robert Penn Warren began traveling around the United States to conduct interviews with activists and scholars for a new book on the Civil Rights movement. He took with him a reel-to-reel audio tape machine and recorded nearly everyone he met along the way, from nationally recognized leaders to those working in the trenches of the Black Freedom movement. When it was published in 1965, Who Speaks for the Negro? was a ground-breaking work, weaving literary, journalistic, and oral history traditions in an attempt to find a voice, or voices, for the turbulent. movements of the 1960s. The book has been out of print for many years.
Included in Who Speaks for the Negro? are long, transcript-style passages from many of the original interviews, as well as snippets from Warren's “notebook” and commentary on the people and places he encountered on his journey. Yet for all he covered in its 450 pages, Warren edited out large sections from his multi-hour interviews, and he even deleted some interviewees entirely. Many of these voices thus never registered in his volume, and his interviews with several leaders and activists have gone forgotten and unheard.
In 2007, the Warren Center discovered that the original reel-to-reel tapes from Who Speaks for the Negro? were still intact—some held at the University of Kentucky and others at Yale University. With assistance from Kentucky's Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, Yale's Beinecke Library, and Vanderbilt's Heard Library, the Warren Center initiated a process of digitizing all of the existing tapes for a web archive. Thanks also to the generous support and encouragement of Warren's children, Rosanna Warren and Gabriel Warren, Vanderbilt now holds the only complete digital collection of these original audio recordings of the interviews from 1964.
The tapes, as well as their transcripts, are all now available in searchable, streaming form on the website. Included among the interviews are Warren's conversations with giants of the movement, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Stokely Carmichael, James Farmer, and Malcolm X, as well as leading academics and writers of the time, like Kenneth Clark, Ralph Ellison, Carl Rowan, and Stephen Wright. Most importantly, perhaps, Warren's interviews include many of those whose names have been lost in the official history of the movement: Clarie Collins Harvey, Ezell Blair, Gloria Richardson, and others. The Warren Center also found in the collection a previously-unknown interview with Septima Clark, the “grandmother” of the Civil Rights movement, which never appeared in Warren's book or the records of his papers.
Once this audio collection was brought together at Vanderbilt and on the web, the Warren Center worked with Professor Lucius T. Outlaw and Reverend James M. Lawson, along with partners at the Race Relations Institute at Fisk University, to create a program that would revisit unresolved questions raised in Warren's book and by its provocative title. Together, they hosted the conference titled “We Speak for Ourselves: A Poet, a Prophet, and Voices for the 21st Century” from April 3-5, 2008 to commemorate both the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Center, as well as the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Warren Center invited a diverse group of scholars and activists, including five of the original interviewees from Who Speaks for the Negro?, to participate in several activities over the course of the three days. The group attended a screening of the film Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, produced by Lolis Eric Elie, a journalist and writer whose father, Lolis Elie, was interviewed by Warren for Who Speaks for the Negro? On Friday, April 4th, the anniversary of King's death, Angela Davis, Professor of History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, gave a lecture entitled “We Are Not Now Living the Dream: Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Human Rights in the 21st Century” to an overflow audience of nearly 500. Later that day, the group—which featured Houston Baker, Distinguished University Professor and Professor of English at Vanderbilt University; Richard King, Professor of American Intellectual History at the University of Nottingham; and Ruth Turner Perot, Executive Director of the Summit Health Institute for Research and Education, who was interviewed by Warren in 1964 when she was Executive Secretary of the Cleveland Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)—joined in a panel discussion of Warren's book. A keynote address by Reverend James M. Lawson, Distinguished Visiting Professor at Vanderbilt University, who was also interviewed for Warren's Who Speaks for the Negro?, took place that evening at the Fisk University Chapel, with a performance by the Fisk University Choir. The group of participants also gathered for a final full day of closed-door sessions, marking a set of discussions among this diverse group of scholars and activists to continue the much-needed conversation on community and justice in the history and future of the movement.
All of the sessions of the conference—from the public lectures to the private conversations— have been recorded on video and will join the original audio recordings, Warren's correspondence, notes, and transcripts on the web archive of Who Speaks for the Negro? Viewed together, this collection is a valuable set of materials for academics, students, and activists interested in the movements of the 1960s and the legacy carried forward to the 21st century. This record marks a major contribution to the history of the Civil Rights movement, and it offers an unprecedented opportunity to hear so many important figures speak candidly in their own voices.
For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.
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