Sunday, July 31, 2016

Donna Akiba Harper at the Toni Morrison Society Conference

Donna Akiba Sullivan Harper snapping photographs at the Toni Morrison Society (TMS) conference in NYC

Dear Spelman College,

Please request, strongly encourage, pray, beg, and plead for Donna Akiba Sullivan Harper to consider giving aspects of her papers and digital files to your university special collections. If she decides to do so, you can thank me later.

On your campus, Professor Harper presents herself as a mild-mannered literature professor and Langston Hughes scholar. However, I've observed her on the conference circuit for more than 16 years now. Just before hoping on flights to conferences, she walks into a phone booth and emerges fully equipped to leap tall buildings and out-run speeding locomotives.

Harper and novelist Edwidge Danticat

Seriously, she has been one of our most vital critical cultural witnesses over the years.  She has been actively documenting arts and scholarly gatherings among the peoples for decades now.

She and I were recently at the Toni Morrison Society (TMS) conference in New York City. As always, Professor Harper was there in the mix, interacting with literature scholars and authors. She was jotting down notes during talks, and as she has done and countless conferences, she was snapping away with her camera.

Scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin and Harper at the TMS conference

Edwidge Danticat? Check. Angela Davis? Check. Toni Morrison? Check. Professor Harper was in the mix photographing them and many others at the conference. 

As quiet as it's kept, Professor Harper was there at the beginning of the TMS. As a founding member of the Langston Hughes Society, she was sought out for guidance on to get an author society started. And when and if you take a look at the photographs from the first TMS gatherings in the 1990s, you'll see Professor Harper there in the mix.

Maybe it's too early, and Professor Harper is not yet ready to donate much of her collection. Fine. In the meantime, someone should ask her about sitting for a series of oral history interviews? Consider the valuable of a record of her reflecting on interactions with hundreds of scholars and even more students across the decades. Imagine her commenting on what inspired her to chart so many cultural gatherings, that is, documentation behind her motivations for documentation.

Harper and scholar Herman Beavers

Whatever the case, I began thinking again about Professor Harper's devotion to documentation and her skills as a journalist and historian as we moved around the room at the Toni Morrison Society conference. She's one of our great critical cultural witnesses, and we could do more to ensure that far into the future, she gets many witnesses. 

A few lessons from the Toni Morrison Society Conference  
Literary Scholar as Photographer, Chronicler: The Case of Dr. D.A.S.H. 
The hues of Hughes, the dynamism of D.A.S.H.   

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