Talking Book

Word Up: KTCA's Daniel Bergin documents African American letters in Literature & Life.

I WATCHED THE movie, but preferred the book. So goes the tired adage that must have haunted documentarian Daniel Bergin as he created Literature & Life: The Givens Collection for KTCA. For within this collection, housed at the University of Minnesota, are 6,000 books, manuscripts, playbills, musical scores, and letters representing many of the great works and writers in African American literature--a tough act to equal on television. Named after Minneapolis community leader Archie Givens Sr., the Givens Collection includes a 1773, first-edition copy of Phyllis Wheatley'sPoems--the first published work by an African American--and rare or inscribed copies of works by Jean Toomer, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Richard Wright, and Lorraine Hansberry.

Daniel Bergin has approached this difficult assignment with all the tools in a documentary maker's kit: dramatic readings, written texts, music, and interviews featuring writers, illustrators, and scholars. One of the priorities in the process, according to Bergin, was to construct a work that appears "more urgent and functional than conventional history documentaries have been" by expressly connecting past and present. In one segment, for example, a grandmother in an adult-literacy program enthuses that she felt "the same feeling experienced by my ancestors" when she learned to read--an observation that Bergin juxtaposes with the experience of Frederick Douglass, who explained in his autobiography that learning to read led him to "understand the white man's power to enslave the Negro." Later in the film, drama and poetry students at St. Paul's Central High place their own efforts in the context of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

While many students of African American culture have emphasized the oral components of the movements, one cannot view Literature & Life without being struck by the central place of the written word. Beginning with Douglass's three autobiographies and scores of other slave narratives, and continuing through the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s to the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, this film explores the relationship between the written word and the struggles waged by African American women and men. Dramatic readings breathe life into passages from Harriet Jacobs, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, and Gwendolyn Brooks.

Though a large part of the Givens Collection was assembled by an academic in Brooklyn over a 20-year span, Literature & Life pays tribute to the Twin Cities' lively African American intellectual community. Several of the writers (Gordon Parks, August Wilson, and Alexs Pate) whose work figure prominently in the Givens Collection have lived here, and, in interviews, they bear witness to the role this community has played in their development. Most of the scholars who offer insights about the literary work in the collection continue to work here as well. Moreover, with the Guthrie Theater's Isabelle Monk narrating, other local African American actors serving as readers, and the Penumbra Theatre's Lou Bellamy offering commentary, Bergin emphasizes the place of drama within the community.

Last, and hardly least, there is Daniel Bergin, the local filmmaker who wrote, produced, and directed Literature & Life, telling his own story through that which came before.

Literature & Life: The Givens Collection airs at 9 p.m., Wednesday, January 7, and 10 p.m., February 15 on KTCA, channel 2.

 
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