This post originally appeared on the LAIP in February 2016.

Today’s feature is brought to us by Jay Peterson from Coffee House Press’ CHP in the Stacks, the publishing company’s creative-in-residence program. One of their most recent residencies is with the Givens Collection of African American Literature at the University of Minnesota. Part of the residency explores a wonderful and important new search tool to help researchers mine information related to African American history. ~Laura

Since early November 2015, artists Erin Sharkey and Junauda Petrus, co­founders of the collective Free Black Dirt, have been exploring the archives of the Givens Collection of African American Literature at the University of Minnesota as artists in residence with the Coffee House Press In The Stacks program.

Ex-Slave Narratives from Coahoma County, MS, Carrie Campbell (transcriber), 1937. Givens Collection of African American Literature, University of Minnesota Libraries.

Ex-Slave Narratives from Coahoma County, MS, Carrie Campbell (transcriber), 1937. Givens Collection of African American Literature, University of Minnesota Libraries.

Petrus and Sharkey were invited to be among the first users of Umbra: Search African American History (umbrasearch.org), a new digital tool dedicated solely to African American history and culture. Developed by the Givens Collection of African American Literature at the University of Minnesota in partnership with Penumbra Theatre Company, Umbra brings together the world’s most extensive digital collection of African American history, including materials from over 500 archives, museums, and cultural heritage institutions.

Read an interview with Givens Collection Curator Cecily Marcus about Umbra.

Petrus is currently the performance and installation artist for the Naked Stages Residency at the Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis. Sharkey is an MFA candidate in the creative writing program at Hamline University in St. Paul. Since founding Free Black Dirt, they have sought to spark and engage in critical conversations through performance art, curation, and literature. The duo create original theatre and performance, host innovative events, organize local artists, and promote and support emerging artists of color in the Twin Cities.

In approaching the Givens and Umbra collections, the pair were particularly interested in the works of writers and artists like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Sekou Sundiata, Ntozake Shange, Zora Neale Hurston, and Claude McKay, but also explore a broad range of cultural and historical themes, including family history, urban agriculture, Afro­futurism, theatre, jazz, American and Caribbean history, African cosmology/spirituality, and Astrology.

“Erin and Junauda’s work gives us a chance to learn more about the Givens Collection, too,” says Cecily Marcus, Givens Collection Curator and the director of Umbra. “We go into the Givens vault looking for pamphlets and ephemera related to radical feminism and come out with materials even we hadn’t seen before.”

Through routine blog dispatches and a public performance, Sharkey and Petrus help shine a light on the value, breadth, and accessibility of the Givens Collection and the creative/intellectual possibilities opened up by Umbra search tool.

On February 18th at 7:00 pm, Sharkey and Petrus presented an interactive and dynamic recap of their findings and learnings. Their presentation was followed by a panel conversation featuring curator Cecily Marcus, Tana Hargest, Executive Director of the Givens Foundation for African American Literature, and Jay Peterson of Coffee House Press.

Free Black Dirt’s residency and presentation are part of In The Stacks, a program developed by Minneapolis ­based publisher Coffee House Press. The two­ year ­old program has placed writers and artists in residencies at the Walker Art Center, American Craft Council, Quatrefoil Library, Poets House, American Swedish Institute, The Bakken Museum, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to create new bodies of work and to encourage artists and the general public to think about libraries as creative spaces.

You can view dispatches from the Free Black Dirt residency at chpinthestacks.tumblr.com and myumbrasearch.tumblr.com.

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