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“On These I Stand”: rare book exhibit opening

Rare book collection makes its way back to Mills College. (Grace Forrest)
Rare book collection makes its way back to Mills College. (Grace Forrest)

As some peer through the glass, carefully looking at the many rare books and memorabilia, small groups are off in deep conversation. With a warm smile, Daphne Muse’s eyes light up as she leads others around, carefully showing them parts of the exhibition and introducing old friends with new.

On Sunday, Nov. 2, an opening conversation for, “On These I Stand” with Ajuan Mance, Mills professor of English, and Daphne Muse, collector and social commentator,  took place in the Mills College Heller Room. The audience of at least 50 gathered to hear a conversation about Black history, rare black books, social change and the connection between history.

In 1966, Muse’s father took her to the World Premier of Antony and Cleopatra at the Metropolitan Opera House, an event, she says, that sparked her love of history and collecting and ultimately led her to create this exhibit first in 1978 and now in 2014. The programs that night were printed  on silk.

“Negro, a term I no longer use to identifyBlack or African-Americans, was what we were still called at that time,” Muse wrote in an email. “I had no idea that Black people were so revered/accomplished at that level in opera that the opening of the Met would feature Leontyne Price and Alvin Ailey.”

Mance introduced Muse as possibly the woman of our century because she radiates knowledge and wisdom; for Pamela Balls-Organista, a close friend of Muse’s, that is certainly true.

“She is a phenomenal woman,”  Organista said. “I will take time out of my Sunday to see what wisdom she can impart. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to know about the things she thinks are important.”

Muse  and Mance discussed the role that technology plays in the world.

“It [technology] has revolutionized the capacity for me to do my job. It has democratized history,” Mance said.

By connecting our interests and thoughts with history, we expand our genealogy outside of our families and create relationships with history and people from centuries earlier, Mance and Muse explained.

For decades all historical information could only be found in libraries, but now, with information online, technology gives the opportunity and ability to learn.

One should not have to be a tenured professor to have access to the information that makes you feel that you belong,” Mance said.

Especially for those who didn’t get a change to learn about their history when they were younger, the room filled with people learning about history, people and experiences was certainly amazing and special, as several audience members pointed out.

“I grew up during the Jim Crow era — we had no access to this history,” said Rasheed Otey, whose niece goes to Mills.

Mills Senior Sharon Robinson came because she is interested in the stories that Muse had to tell.

“It is my history,” Robinson said. ” It is incredible that we have this here. It is one of those things that you want to savor.”

81-year-old Tina Williams came to see the exhibit because she was interested in the progression of history and the slaves and their stories of survival.

As the conversation came to a close, Muse reminded the audience that previous generations made it possible to sit in an academic institution and have this conversation, and she advised everyone to go home and see what pieces of history they had.

 “You have something that is going to inform American History,” Muse said. “Everyone has a trinket, something special that was given to them. Look closely at it, breath on it, make love to it.”

Mary Louis Patterson, a friend of Muse’s, who contributed to the exhibit and whose family was very close to Langston Hughes, perfectly summarized the essence and importance of the conversation.

“The importance of recognizing each of our roles in the making of history. That is what everyone is saying,” Patterson said.