Four years ago, ShaRhonda Dawson was on the hunt for “Maud Martha,” the first and only novel written by Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Dawson combed through nearly every bookstore in and around Chicagoland and even searched online, only to find interpretations of the Pulitzer Prize winner’s work, not copies of the first edition.
So, Dawson dug deeper.
While on the lookout for Brooks, Dawson stumbled on a first edition copy of “Poems of Cabin and Field” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first Black poets from the 20th century to gain national recognition, according to the Academy of American Poets. Inside the faded hardbound book, Dunbar’s poems are paired with photos, some of which depict homes hidden behind bare trees, a hunting dog barking up a tree and portraits of formerly enslaved people. What’s more was that those photos were taken by a group of Black students, Dawson said.
“And those photos are so beautiful,” she said. “Each one of them is beautiful, and the poetry is beautiful. So, holding it in my hand was a completely different story and feeling an experience … There’s so much more in the actual book.”
That book is one of the many Black artifacts and mementos from Dawson’s growing collection, which is now on display for Black History Month at the Idea Box inside the Main Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake St. Dawson, a former Oak Park resident and education advocate, recently teamed up with Juanta Griffin, the library’s multicultural learning coordinator, to create an exhibit celebrating Black history. The exhibit, which is free and open to the public, opened earlier this month and runs until March 8. Exhibit hours vary each day and are listed on the library’s website at www.oppl.org.
A quick walk-through of the exhibit reveals a set of posters, including Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress and a candidate for president, next to civil rights icon John Lewis, who died almost two years ago. Images of Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, and Kamala Harris, the country’s first female, first Black and first Asian-American vice president, are hung above a small display of African dolls and woven baskets. The exhibit – which features a mix of items from Dawson and the library’s collection – recounts the history and contributions of Black people in politics, social justice, music, arts and entertainment.
Dawson and Griffin told Wednesday Journal that area residents have donated items to their homegrown collection, emphasizing the true meaning of community.
“It is a community collection,” Dawson said. “It’s a collection of love. It’s like all of this is Black history. Black history is American history, and I just love that.”
The two shared further that they considered the exhibit’s “energy,” as well as the messages behind the pieces on display. Looking around the room, Griffin said this was all about curating a space, especially for Black people to learn about their history separate from the tragedies.
“We know the story of enslavement. We know the story of Jim Crow. We know about lynching, but there’s also joy in survival,” Dawson said, pointing to an encased doll from the 1800s and whose head was made out of a pecan. “Somebody made that doll because we couldn’t afford dolls at that time, and [that’s] what somebody played with. We still had to hold on to our humanity and our creativity, and our children still needed to be loved.”
Inside the Idea Box, there’s a glass case that stands against a wall, featuring items like a vintage church fan with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s face; an old pair of Joe Louis children’s boxing gloves; a faded playbill for “A Raisin in the Sun” with the late actor Sidney Poitier. One of the room’s corners is decorated with a handful of African masks and drums. And in the center, there’s a 1970s board game on display called “Malcolm X: Stop the System by Any Means Necessary.”
“It’s a great responsibility,” Griffin said, as she reflected on her experience putting the exhibit together. “For me, I [had to make sure] I present these things with dignity, with pride. I’m responsible for the culture and for my ancestors.”
This work, to say the least, is personal.
“When you do Black History Month and you work for an institution – and you’re Black – it’s consuming. It’s challenging work. We often display Black excellence. That’s the push: To display the best of us,” Griffin said.
“But in doing that, we forget to display the fact that we’re breathing, the fact that we survived something that was meant to destroy us, the fact that our history started before something as tragic as slavery, the fact that it keeps evolving: That’s the story,” she shared. “That’s what I wanted to show here.”
Picking up a book from a table, Dawson flipped through the pages that showcased the Robert Taylor Homes, a public housing project in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the city’s South Side. Like Dunbar’s poetry book, Dawson said that the photos in the book she held were taken by another set of students – life the way they saw it, the way they knew it.
“When you walk in here, I didn’t want people to feel the pain,” Griffin said. “I want them to feel the life. And, so when [Dawson] just picked up that book and showed you, it’s not the best of us. It’s the all of us. It’s the all of us.”
For more information on the Oak Park Public Library’s Black History Special Exhibit and other events, visit www.oppl.org. Hours for the exhibit are as follows: Mondays and Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 2 to 5 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 3 p.m.