Gather Out of Star-Dust: The Harlem Renaissance and The Beinecke Library

A Conversation with Melissa Barton and Kassidi Jones

In this interview, co-curators Melissa Barton and Kassidi Jones discuss “Gather Out of Star-Dust: The Harlem Renaissance and The Beinecke Library.” Originating as a highly popular exhibition in 2017, the web version uses the same narrative framework, but also provides supplementary resources and an adaptability unique to the digital format. Melissa and Kassidi explain the roots of this exhibit—the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection from 1941—and the archivist’s responsibility to capture the past. They dig into the various depictions of the Harlem Renaissance, and how this culturally significant and rich time period contributed to the concerted effort to collect and archive the work of Black artists, writers, and creators. Melissa and Kassidi also touch on the malleability of the curation process and highlight their own favorites and hidden gems from the exhibit.

How would you describe this collection to a perfect stranger? What’s the inspiration behind the exhibit’s title, “Gather Out of Star-Dust”?

Melissa Barton: I would describe the exhibit as having something for nearly anyone interested in the history of African American expression. For someone completely unfamiliar with this history, I would describe it as documenting a time when African American culture vibrantly captured the national narrative and influenced the mainstream in ways that are still apparent today. Many people know the phrase “Harlem Renaissance,” though this period is called by many names. We used “gather out of star-dust,” because this period was a time of gathering: not only of the parties, entertainments, and literary salons that are better known, but also of tremendous artistic collaborations, rising print culture, and the consolidation of political power in organizations like the NAACP. “Gather out of star-dust” is the first line of a poem by Langston Hughes called “Dream Dust,” and it captures the magical acts of getting together, pulling together, collecting, and mustering.

Who is the intended audience of the exhibit? How do you envision researchers or non-academics using the collection?

MB: Our primary imagined audience is educated readers wishing to know more about this period and the sources that support its history. We figure that’s likely to be college and some high school students as well as a general readership. We try very hard to write accessibly and avoid academic jargon, and we also expect that some researchers will learn of these items from this site and may want to see more, either by visiting us or requesting full scans. The physical exhibit was seen by thousands of people, many of whom don’t spend every day in an academic setting. Similarly, we hope that interested people will find the web exhibit, and find it engaging.

Picture of case from the 2017 exhibit. Includes showcased visual art, including sculptures and prints.
A case in the 2017 exhibit showcased visual art from the period, including collaborations between artist Aaron Douglas and poet Langston Hughes and sculptures by Richmond Barthé, Augusta Savage, and Meta Warrick Fuller.

As you mentioned, “Gather Out of Star-Dust” originated as a physical exhibit in 2017 at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Was there always an intention to turn the physical exhibit into a web version? What was the digitization process of materials like?

MB: The physical exhibit completely guided the online exhibit: most of the sequence and organization, text, and object selection for the online exhibit came directly from the original 2017 exhibit. We had previously worked on creating an exhibit of just the chronology portion, but the project had been shelved until the combination of the pandemic and last year’s response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many others. With many people at home and many newly interested in recognizing and celebrating Black lives, we realized the material could find a large audience online. Fortunately, we’d set ourselves up well for the lift required: an intern who worked on this exhibit previously had already helped me review and identify what was already digitized, which for both that student and Kassidi involved cross-referencing several different lists and folders of material in addition to our digital library. We also had digital images of about 75 objects from preparing the catalog for the exhibit.

Kassidi Jones: To me, the Harlem Renaissance was special because of the widespread recognition of Black arts, so getting as much of the material online as possible was really important. I spent a lot of time pulling images, writing alt-text, and hyperlinking different pages so that readers have the chance to learn more. The web version expanded the possibilities for sharing the highlights of an era beyond the walls of the single institution.

Starting with a physical exhibit must engender a fascinating curation method. How did you choose which objects to include—or exclude? Did you bring certain aspects to the foreground that perhaps weren’t as present in the physical?

MB: Our exhibits are very influenced organizationally by our physical space, so the overarching organization of the online exhibit into essentially five parts is a result of that. We chose objects to represent a wide variety of formats—from manuscripts and first editions to photographs and ephemera to personal letters and artworks. Kassidi deserves full credit for recreating and reinventing the chronology in the web exhibit—it’s a part of the physical exhibit I was really proud of, and I am so pleased with how it turned out in her hands.

KJ: The chronology really came to life online. The virtual version of the timeline allows users to play with the material in a way that would not be allowed in the archives. Expanding and narrowing the timeline lets users see how these objects relate to each other chronologically. I think that relativity really comes to the fore online. We added elements like YouTube videos and links to other institutions’ digital collections, things that would not be so easy to do with a physical exhibit.

Picture of a display case from the 2017 exhibit. Includes a copy of Cane,Jean Toomer's groundbreaking collection of short fiction and poetry, and a music sheet for the Charleston from the musical Runnin' Wild.
Jean Toomer’s groundbreaking collection of short fiction and poetry Cane appeared the same year as the Charleston dance craze in 1923. The first edition of Cane was exhibited in 2017 alongside sheet music for the Charleston from the musical Runnin’ Wild.

In the exhibit introduction, you discuss the changing narratives that surround the Harlem Renaissance as we gain a more nuanced understanding of the time period. The collection’s intention is “to show the complexity of the era through the juxtaposition of its artifacts.” Can you give some examples of these juxtapositions? How can the archival and curation process reveal intricacies that may get lost over time?

MB: Many people view this period solely in terms of the nightclub scene, or solely in terms of literary production. Part of the idea behind the exhibit is to demonstrate that those scenes coincide, overlap, and inspire one another. Jean Toomer’s experimental poetry-fiction collection Cane was published the same year that the Charleston became popular, in 1923. Josephine Baker moved to Paris the same year that the landmark anthology The New Negro was published, in 1925. Being immersed in a collection with chronology and first-hand accounts that mention new books, celebrities, and fads suggests a kind of contemporaneity of these trends that sometimes get divorced from each other in teaching.

The exhibit details how the perception of the Harlem Renaissance—though debated, a time period roughly between 1917-1939—in the public and academia has changed throughout the decades. Can you talk about the role exhibition work plays in constructing narratives of the past? Is there a tension between the malleability of curation and the assumed veracity of archival materials? How does this collection on the Harlem Renaissance hope to characterize or frame that period?

MB: The exhibit is very much tied to the collection from which it is drawn. It strives to offer a comprehensive sampling from the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, which was founded and built partly in commemoration of this period (it was founded in 1941, and the 2017 exhibit was in honor of its 75th anniversary). It would have been impossible for the people building this collection to capture the period perfectly, and there are gaps, but the exhibit aims to reflect the richness and diversity of Black cultural production at this time. For many people in the period, Black cultural production was viewed as a political program, and the exhibit also tries to capture the programmatic, intentional aspects of the Renaissance and its diverse leadership. I hope the exhibition provides more layers of understanding, and more complexity, to a period that many people already know something about. But it’s impossible to be completely comprehensive, and a danger of an exhibition like this one, where we have such a wealth of materials, is that it will appear to be comprehensive when it actually has real omissions.

Display case from 2017 exhibit. Includes picture of performer Josephine Baker and a copy of The New Negro, an anthology of writings and art edited by Howard University professor Alain Locke.
Performer Josephine Baker moved to Paris and catapulted to stardom in 1925, months before the appearance of The New Negro, an anthology of writings and art edited by Howard University professor Alain Locke.

In the exhibit introduction, you highlight how the Harlem Renaissance “produced a revolution in the act of saving and collecting the Black past.” Can you talk about why this period of gathering of art and history from the Black community was so significant? Why was this collection of materials not only valuable to academia, but to a community who had long been shut out of or restricted in both popular (film, music, dance) and “academic” (literature, theater, fine arts) artforms?

MB: This period has long been recognized for its significance, especially in the influence of its music, dance, and style on popular culture, and also for the astonishing level of recognition from the white establishment that Black writers achieved—these are aspects for which the movement was criticized by subsequent Black artists. But many participants recognized that archives help make history, that being represented in archival collections matters deeply, and what they saved established the period as one of the best documented there is. The richness of source material on this period reflects it as a social movement, reveals the surprising intentionality behind much of what happened, and demonstrates the aspirations of its participants, many of whom were just in their early 20s.

While this exhibit is extremely visual—containing sculptures, paintings, photographs, and more—many objects also lend themselves to private, long-form study with novels, musical compositions, playbills, letters, and magazines. Do you have a favorite object or piece of music, artwork, or writing? Are there any materials in the collection that you believe deserve more attention?

MB: Someone who emerges in this exhibit as incredibly dynamic and charismatic, and who is seldom studied, is Gwendolyn Bennett. She was a poet and visual artist and had a column in Opportunity. Bennett was also a co-editor of Fire!!, a landmark publication of the period, and was friends with Langston Hughes, Harold Jackman, and others. Her letters to Harold Jackman from 1925-26 when she was on fellowship in Paris are so rich with the zeitgeist. I also recommend the fiction of Jessie Fauset, another under-recognized figure in the period.

KJ: First and foremost, I’m always pushing for the revival of the work of Georgia Douglas Johnson, a poet, playwright, freelance writer, and party host. She got a brief shout-out in the “Collaborations” section of “The Making of a Renaissance” for her legendary Saturday Nighters Club, a weekly literary salon hosted in her home. She has quite a few letters scattered throughout the collection, as well as some first editions of her books that are really difficult to get your hands on (trust me—I’ve tried) so I’d encourage people to check her out.

A display case from the 2017 exhibit. Includes James Weldon Johnson's scrapbook and a photograph of the New York Silent Protest Parade.
A case from the 2017 exhibit featured a chronology full of interesting juxtapositions: here, James Weldon Johnson’s scrapbook features a program and review of Ridgely Torrence’s one-act “Negro plays” and a photograph of the New York Silent Protest Parade, both of which took place in 1917.

The last section of this exhibit, “Gather Out of Star-Dust: Collecting a Renaissance for the Present and Future,” explains how this collection—and Harlem Renaissance scholarship in general—is possible in large part due to archival and librarianship efforts: “The Harlem Renaissance remains one of the most studied periods in American history; this tremendous output of scholarship has been enabled in no small part because Renaissance contemporaries championed archiving African American history, from the advocacy of Carter G. Woodson to the pioneering librarianship of Dorothy Porter Wesley.” What part do you think archivists and librarians have to play in advocating for the preservation and study of materials from those who have been ignored, sidelined, or silenced?

MB: One thing we definitely wanted to show—and that many people don’t realize—is that many of the great library collections of Black materials were founded during or immediately following the Harlem Renaissance. These include the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and our own collection at Yale. Collecting with an eye to posterity was a huge aspect of the movement and has shaped how we understand it. Without the material documenting the period, you lose some of the amazing texture and sensation in the histories that have been written about it. You also don’t get the documentaries, the dramas, the other homages to its glamour and complexity.

KJ: You also start to see these figures’ growing awareness of the value of their own records. They’re thinking about negotiating prices for their collections, and writing to each other about potential repositories for their manuscripts. In that way, they have archivists, librarians, and future readers and researchers in mind as they curate their collections. Preservation is a group effort; archivists and librarians become stewards and champions for folks who are trying to be remembered in a particular way.

Why do you think the Harlem Renaissance is such a celebrated, interrogated, and studied period? What are its implications still felt today?

KJ: Recognition. That’s the word that comes to mind when I think about the “Harlem Renaissance,” which is the most common name for a literary movement that extended far beyond Harlem. Never before was there so much room in mainstream literature for Black writers to enjoy success simultaneously. Though the examples are extremely few, the fact that any Black folks were able to support themselves through writing relatively quickly after some Black folks were legally barred from writing altogether is amazing (just over half a century separates these writers from the end of the U.S. Civil War). And still, in the process of defining Black literary culture, such animated debates arose about what Black writing was supposed to be. We’re still unpacking all of the different viewpoints the movement had to offer. As we continue to push for more Black representation in literature and beyond, at times fighting the same battles our literary ancestors had to fight, the need for this history is ever-present.

About the interviewees:

Melissa Barton headshot

Melissa Barton is Curator of Drama and Prose for the Yale Collection of American Literature, which includes the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letters at Beinecke Library, Yale University. At Beinecke, Melissa has curated exhibits including “Casting Shadows: Integration on the American Stage” and “Gather Out of Star-Dust: The Harlem Renaissance and The Beinecke Library,” which was visited by thousands of people over its three-month run in 2017. The accompanying catalog Gather Out of Star-Dust: A Harlem Renaissance Album was co-published by Beinecke and Yale University Press. Melissa led a team of librarians from Yale, collaborating with the Black Bibliography Project, a multi-institution effort led by Jacqueline Goldsby and Meredith McGill, to create a linked data knowledge graph about Black American print throughout its history. Her scholarship has appeared in TDR and will be included in African American Literature in Transition: 1940-1950, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

Kassidi Jones headshot

Kassidi Jones is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in African American Studies and English at Yale. Her dissertation is an exploration of nineteenth-century ecopoetics, focusing on pleasure as an experience central to the relationships between Black people and the nonhuman members of their environments. A Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellow, she also studies the Harlem Renaissance with an emphasis on Georgia Douglas Johnson. Kassidi’s interest in archival work is demonstrated by her position as a Curatorial Fellow in Beinecke, and her research assistantship for the Black Bibliography Project.

To learn more about Gather Out of Star-Dust: The Harlem Renaissance and The Beinecke Library, visit:

This interview was conducted by Sabrina Cofer. She is the digital media producer at Choice.

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