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Trethewey's Civil War poem inspires display

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An exhibit using materials from Emory's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library grows out of the inspiration of a poem. Photo by Paige Knight, courtesy Emory Libraries at Emory University.

Vignettes of Civil War-era materials from Emory University’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL), accented with other items reminiscent of the time period, are the subjects of "What Must Be Remembered," a small photographic exhibit now open at Emory’s Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts.

The compositions were created using photos, letters, journals and other ephemera and books drawn from several collections at MARBL, including its Civil War collections and the Robert Langmuir African American Photograph Collection.

The exhibit was inspired by the Civil War poem "Native Guard" by Natasha Trethewey, the current two-term U.S. poet laureate and the director of Emory’s creative writing program. The poem begins with an epigraph by Frederick Douglass: "If this war is to be forgotten, then I ask in the name of all things sacred what shall men remember?"

Pellom McDaniels III, faculty curator of MARBL’s African American Collections and Emory associate professor of African American Studies, and Paige Knight, Emory Libraries archival photographer and digital photography coordinator, are co-curators of the exhibit, which will run through the end of February.

"It’s a wonderful opportunity for MARBL to explore the possibilities of creating different ways to use our materials," McDaniels says.

African American life during the Civil War

The five photographs reflect on aspects of African American life during the war, including womanhood, manhood, labor and commerce, childhood and education, and life as a soldier. Knight created the compositions using MARBL materials selected by McDaniels, as well as other items they both contributed such as shells, dried flowers, old pocket watches, and 19th century clay marbles, which emphasizes the three-dimensionality of the lives of African Americans as a whole.

"These images express elegance, strength, and determination," Knight says. "The photographs extend the dialogue with the poem; they provide a sense of time, place, ideals, and opportunities. In essence, we created a collection of curated memories for this exhibition."

The compositions are accompanied by quotes from African American civil and human rights advocates Sarah Parker Remond (1826-1894), Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), John Mercer Langston (1829-1897), William H. Crogman (1841-1931), and Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964).

New opportunities for research

McDaniels says the exhibit is "an example of how MARBL materials can be used to interpret the past and think about history."

"I really hope we can attract new researchers to MARBL as well," McDaniels says. "If we can create these types of spaces to demonstrate how our materials can be used, I think more people will be attracted to us as a resource – artists, in particular, who can use MARBL materials for their purposes."

Trethewey’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning collection of poems, also titled "Native Guard," is being adapted into a play, a collaboration between Emory’s Center for Creativity and the Arts and Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre that is part of a national program to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

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