The Art of Black Letter-Writing: A Conversation with Daphne Muse

Historians in the News
tags: African American history, primary sources

More people should know Daphne Muse. Born and raised in Washington, DC, Muse grew up with a curiosity for the world around her, and as a teenager she began exchanging letters with pen pals as far away as India. In 1962 she graduated from McKinley High School and then left for Nashville to attend Fisk University. In 1966 and 1967, Muse attended and helped organize Fisk’s Black Writers’ Conferences, which drew an impressive line-up of Black writers and activists that included Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, John O. Killens and many others. The conferences had a major impact on Muse’s life. She credits Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer Willie Ricks, who attended with Stokely Carmichael, with urging her to get involved in the movement in Nashville and in turn sparking her lifelong engagement with political activism.

After graduating from Fisk, Muse returned to DC, first to teach in the city’s public school system and then to work at Drum and Spear, one of the country’s leading Black bookstores, which a group of SNCC veterans including Charlie Cobb, Judy Richardson, and Courtland Cox established in 1968. In 1969, Muse traveled to Sunflower County, Mississippi at the invitation of SNCC organizer Ed Brown (and brother of H. Rap Brown) to work on the Freedom Farm Cooperative, where she worked closely with SNCC veterans like Jennifer Lawson. 

One day Lawson told Muse she wanted to introduce her to someone, so she took her to meet a middle-aged woman working hard in field with a hoe. The woman was Fannie Lou Hamer. Mrs. Hamer asked Lawson several times if she’d “seen Harry lately.” Later Muse asked who “Harry” was, and Lawson explained Mrs. Hamer was inquiring about her crush, Harry Belafonte.

In 1971, Muse moved to California and took on a new job: secretary for the Angela Davis Legal Defense campaign. As part of her work for Davis, she also became acquainted with members of the San Quentin Six, with whom she corresponded regularly. After Davis’s acquittal in June 1972, Muse made her home in Oakland. Over the last five decades, she’s remained engaged in numerous movements, including various struggles for Black liberation, the global campaign against apartheid in South Africa, and the fight for disability rights.

All along the way, Muse has written letters, maintaining correspondence with a dizzying array of Black thinkers, organizers, writers, and artists. Today she’s proud of the nearly 5000 handwritten letters she’s received from her friends, colleagues, and interlocutors, a collection that she hopes will ultimately find a home in an academic archive.

This is an excerpted version of a conversation Daphne Muse and I recently had about her letters collection.

Joshua Clark Davis: First, can you tell us who some of the prominent individuals are whose handwritten letters are in your collection? 

Daphne Muse: My close friend Jennifer Lawson—veteran of SNCC and Drum and Spear Bookstore and retired executive from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting—is the person with whom I’ve corresponded the longest. I have letters from Angela Davis, including one from prison that she ended with a brief postscript: “PS Thanks for the Tampax.” I also have letters from the San Quentin Six, including Fleeta Drumgo, Luis Talamantaz, Johnny Spain, and John Cluchette. 

Other letters are from Alice Walker, June Jordan, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, Richard Pryor, Courtland Cox, Charlie Cobb, Garry Trudeau, Michelle Obama, Afeni Shakur, Sir David Adjaye, Shirley Graham DuBois, Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Robert Allen, Louise Thompson Patterson, and Dr. Walter Rodney and Pat Rodney.

Davis: How did you get started writing letters—and why have you kept doing it for over 60 years?

Muse: It all began in 1959 with an effort to be awarded a Girl Scout Merit Badge and that particular badge required having a pen pal named Saswati Ghose in Calcutta. But the effort really ramped up during the time I was a manager at Drum and Spear Bookstore fielding requests from people who were incarcerated, responding to correspondence from Courtland CoxCharlie Cobb, and Jennifer Lawson when they were living/working in Tanzania on behalf of Drum and Spear and its parent company African American Resources and people like Amy Jacques Garvey whose correspondence began with requests to order books and segued into deeply personal political and familial detail. 

Read entire article at Black Perspectives

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