All of the libraries that Porter consulted for guidance relied on the Dewey Decimal Classification. “Now in [that] system, they had one number—326—that meant slavery, and they had one other number—325, as I recall it—that meant colonization,” she explained in her oral history. In many “white libraries,” she continued, “every book, whether it was a book of poems by James Weldon Johnson, who everyone knew was a black poet, went under 325. And that was stupid to me.”
Consequently, instead of using the Dewey system, Porter classified works by genre and author to highlight the foundational role of Black people in all subject areas, which she identified as art, anthropology, communications, demography, economics, education, geography, history, health, international relations, linguistics, literature, medicine, music, political science, sociology, sports, and religion. This Africana approach to cataloging was very much in line with the priorities of the Harlem Renaissance, as described by Howard University professor Alain Locke in his period-defining essay of 1925, “Enter the New Negro.” Heralding the death of the “Old Negro” as an object of study and a problem for whites to manage, Locke proclaimed, “It is time to scrap the fictions, garret the bogeys and settle down to a realistic facing of facts.” Scholarship from a Black perspective, Locke argued, would combat racist stereotypes and false narratives while celebrating the advent of Black self-representation in art and politics. Porter’s classification system challenged racism where it was produced by centering work by and about Black people within scholarly conversations around the world.
The multi-lingual Porter, furthermore, anticipated an important current direction in African American and African Diaspora studies: analyzing global circuits and historical entanglements and seeking to recover understudied archives throughout the world. In Porter’s spirit, this current work combats the effects of segmenting research on Black people along lines of nation and language, and it fights the gatekeeping function of many colonial archives. The results of Porter’s ambitions include rare and unusual items. The Howard music collections contain compositions by the likes of Antônio Carlos Gomes and José Mauricio Nunes Garcia of Brazil; Justin Elie of Haiti; Amadeo Roldán of Cuba; and Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges of Guadeloupe. The linguistics subject area includes a character chart created by Thomas Narven Lewis, a Liberian medical doctor, who adapted the basic script of the Bassa language into one that could be accommodated by a printing machine. (This project threatened British authorities in Liberia, who had authorized only the English language to be taught in an attempt to quell anti-colonial activism.) Among the works available in African languages is the rare Otieno Jarieko, an illustrated book on sustainable agriculture by Barack H. Obama, father of the former US president.
Porter must be acknowledged for her efforts to address the marginalization of writing by and about Black people through her revision of the Dewey system as well as for her promotion of those writings though a collection at an institution dedicated to highlighting its value by showing the centrality of that knowledge to all fields.
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