The circulation of "good books" can shed light on a vibrant network of readers and their interactions, all traceable in the inscriptions, signatures, and markings left behind in the volumes they owned. Handwritten annotations sometimes preserve conversations between authors and readers, capture moments of inspiration, and document a work's reception. In several of the exhibited books, the annotators were well-known writers; in the case of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, it is the author of the book who gets the last word, commenting on Lady Bradshaigh's earlier annotations. Presentation copies hint at networks of authors, as is the case of the items from James Baldwin's library. Powerful annotations in red ink allow us to see Toni Morrison's analysis of Uncle Tom's Cabin; and Langston Hughes' typescript letter reckons with his fraught reception by audiences in the still-segregated South. This section provides windows into robust communities of readers, many of whom were also writers; its books ask us to consider how authors established relationships with one another through what they wrote and what they read.

Samuel Richardson (1689–1761). Clarissa, Or, The History of a Young Lady… 7 vols. London: Printed for S. Richardson, 1748.

Lady Dorothy Bradshaigh (1705–1785) corresponded with Richardson regarding Clarissa and allowed him to reply to the commentary she had written in its margins. Re-reading volume 3, Bradshaigh complained of the roguish Robert Lovelace: “every good thing he says raises my indignation.” Richardson commented, “Now madam, at last you see him!” In volume 6, wishing to prevent a tragic ending, Bradshaigh yearned to “write privately” to Mrs. Norton; again, the author responded approvingly.

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896). Three Novels. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life among the Lowly. The Minister’s Wooing. Old Town Folks. New York: The Library of America, 1982. Toni Morrison Papers.

This is Toni Morrison’s copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. At an unknown date, she began underlining the author’s preface in red pencil. By the novel’s second page, exhibited here, she had switched to annotating in bright red ink. The marginal notes on the dialogue between a slave-trader and a slave-owner (including the comments “racist” and “immoral”) punctuate Morrison’s insightful reading of Stowe’s well-intended but stereotyped characterizations of fictional African Americans.

Venture Smith (1729–1805). A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture a Native of Africa: but Resident Above Sixty Years In the United States of America. Connecticut: J.S. Stewart, 1897.

First published in 1798, Smith’s is the only 18th-century narrative of enslavement to eschew discourses of religious conversion retelling his journey to freedom. Rather, Smith details his kidnapping in Guinea and experience of forced bondage that carries him from Anomabo to Barbados and Rhode Island. Smith, who purchases freedom for himself and his family after 30 years of enslavement, provides a rare depiction of slavery in colonial New England. The 1897 edition bears an ownership marking of Smith’s great-grandson, Charles. It was later acquired by the family of Ann Petry, acclaimed Harlem Renaissance author, and was part of the extensive library she kept and used as research for her writing.

Ann Petry (1908–1997). The Street. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1946.

Petry’s choice of a female protagonist helps foreground the complicated experience of Black motherhood and womanhood in an era of post-war respectability politics. The record-breaking thriller was an immediate success, making Petry the first Black woman to sell over one million copies. Charles Blockson, historian and Black bibliophile, gifted this item to his friend and fellow book collector Oliver Franklin; it was later inscribed to him by Petry.

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906). Candle-Lightin’ Time. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1901.

Dunbar incorporates powerful visual imagery alongside the use of African American dialect. The fifty accompanying photographs constitute an archive of late 18th-century Black life, and the poems’ use of dialect and modernist aesthetics refuses to essentialize Black figures. This item bears the ownership marking of Charles Blockson and his inscription to a fellow book collector, Oliver Franklin, reading: “To a great collector of Dunbar and a friend, Happy Collecting.”


In the midst of a nascent civil rights movement, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks released her debut novel, Maud Martha, while James Baldwin published Go Tell It on the Mountain. These two authors, both engaged with the question of African American advancement in American society, offered divergent perspectives: one as a queer male transatlantic exile in Paris and the other as a woman in the Midwest.

Amidst the challenges of the Great Depression and Jim Crow policies, both diligently translated the experiences of Black Life in America. They sought solace in a community of authors who recognized literature as a critical intervention, addressing deferred dreams and promising futures.

James Baldwin (1947–1987). Go Tell It On the Mountain. New York: Knopf, 1953.

Once published, Baldwin’s first major work became an instant American classic. The protagonist, modeled after Baldwin, struggles to reconcile his sexual identity with his religious upbringing. Baldwin would later describe the writing experience as cathartic, saying it “is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” This copy is inscribed to Peter Lemay, a close friend and Knopf editor, and his wife, Dorothy.

Lorraine Hansberry (1930–1965). A Raisin In the Sun: a Drama In Three Acts. New York: Random House, 1959.

Expanding upon Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred,” Raisin explores the fraught nature of Black integration amidst Jim Crow segregation. So moved by the portrayal of “so much of the truth of Black people’s lives…on stage,” Baldwin formed a close working friendship with Hansberry shortly after the stage production. In working together, they grappled with the politics of race, queerness, and fissures in the American public sphere. This signed copy comes from Baldwin’s personal library.

Maya Angelou (1928–2014). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House, 1969.

Baldwin, a close friend and confidant of Angelou, was central in persuading her to publish Caged Bird. Angelou, who resisted repeated urging to write an autobiography, relented upon being challenged to do so by Baldwin, who claimed: “writing an autobiography as literature was almost impossible.” In defiance, Angelou, a renowned poet and playwright, would prove herself to be a masterful memoirist. From Baldwin’s personal library, this copy was inscribed by Angelou.

Langston Hughes (1901–1967). Letter regarding Attitude of the Southern Critical Public to Negro Literature. Autographed typescript, 15 May 1934.

Hughes describes his reception by white audiences in Southern states on the eve of the publication of his first book, The Ways of White Folks. During the lecture, audience members confronted Hughes about his poem, “Christ in Alabama,” wherein he evokes the wrongful arrest and conviction of nine falsely accused Black youths in Scottsboro, Alabama. The Scottsboro case is largely recognized as a central flashpoint of the civil rights movement and influenced countless poems, novels, and critical essays.

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917–2000). We Real Cool: The Pool Players Seven at the Golden Shovel. Broadside. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1966.

In the 1960s, Brooks began working with fledgling Black publishing houses. In leveraging the acclaim of her Pulitzer Prize, Brooks sought to further the political work done by smaller publishers who were striving to democratize access to, and expand distribution of, books by minority authors. This broadside of Brooks’ 1959 poem allowed her to engage new audiences using this new publishing format.

Ntozake Shange (1948–2018). For colored girls who have considered suicide, when the rainbow is enuf. California: Shameless Hussy Press, 1975.

Shange was the second Black woman to have a play on Broadway, after Hansberry. The innovative format, which replaced a traditional three-act structure with on-stage dramatized poetry depicted Black women navigating sexism and racism and became an “electrifying Broadway hit.” It sparked discussion about gendered behavior and sexual violence. Shange collaborated with a women-owned feminist press for the print adaptation; this very early printing bears a typo in the spelling of Shange’s name.

Nikki Giovanni (1943–). Black Talk, Black Feeling. Privately printed pamphlet for Gwendolyn Brooks, 1968.

Frustrated by the constraints of her MFA program, Giovanni fundraised $700 to copyright and publish the first 1,000 copies of her first book of poetry. Giovanni self-delivered copies to local booksellers, ultimately selling 10,000 copies without the support of a publishing house. This privately printed copy is inscribed lovingly to friend and mentor Gwendolyn Brooks in August 1968, reading “often we find we have nothing but a poem, which is love.”