Andre Elizee: Archivist and Intellectual
On Sunday February 28, 2010, the Schomburg Center memorialized Andre Elizee, archivist and intellectual in what was more than a simple acknowledgment of his extraordinary 26 years of service. It was a ceremony that featured testimonies from his coworkers, colleagues, scholars and researchers, and readings from his guides to the collections which illuminated for many the indelible footprint he left on the Center’s collections and the Center itself. Andre’s intelligence and dedication to the library’s collection development, maintaining and making available to the public the library’s holdings, was a testament to a life lived with purpose and far-reaching vision.
Rousing beats and robust vocals pulsated throughout the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Reading Room, engaging the heart and ear. The room was packed. We had come to this place to remember him, to pay our respects. We had come from near and far, young, old, male, and female, Africans, African Americans, Haitians and Haitian Americans, Armenians, and European Americans. More than a few of us wiped our eyes throughout the service. Heads hung low.
The poignancy of this idea resonated throughout the ceremony. For Andre Elizee, who passed away on January 10, 2010, had worked in the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division for over a quarter of a century, this ceremony was a homecoming. Here was a house Andre helped furnish with invaluable information. He was a conduit who facilitated communication among scores of people from various communities and introduced many people to the vast and rich resources of the Center.
Among the over 100 people in attendance, Andre’s widow, artist Rejin Leyes, and two of his three children, Vanelle and Georges, sat in the audience among relatives, friends, colleagues, scholars and researchers as several people stood at the podium to share their recollections, their sorrow, and their love for Andre.
Andre Elizee was born in St. Louis du Nord, Haiti, January 30, 1955. A passionate, engaged thinker, he attended Notre Dame high school. After graduation he taught in Haitian secondary schools, in the areas of Greek, Latin world history and Haitian literature. He spent two years at the Universite Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, France, where he studied medicine, history and political economy. After moving to the US in the late 1970s, he enrolled in York College?s Black Studies programs and participated in study groups. Around that time, Andre completed an internship at the Queens Public Library.
In 1982 Andre joined the New York Public Library as a library technical assistant at Mid-Manhattan; a year later he transferred to the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where he found his niche. “Almost immediately after Andre came to work in the division, I recognized his talent as a “budding” archivist from the questions he asked or didn’t ask, especially after I read a few of his finding aids,” said Diana Lachatanere, curator of the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division. “His grasp of the work and of the content was evident from the start; her totally ‘got it.’ As the years went by and our friendship deepened, I came to rely on him to help me think through a variety of issues. We didn’t always agree, but Andre’s advice was always thoughtful and to the point.”
Andre brought to the Center a wealth of knowledge about Haitian history, politics and culture, as well as French-speaking Africa and the Caribbean. He also had a profound grasp of African-American civil rights and labor history, and the fundamentals of Black Nationalism, the Black Arts Movement, Communist history and theory, and other related areas. In addition to processing collections and providing access to materials in the Center, Andre also helped to create interpretative programming for the Center. Between 1988 and 1989, he co-curated (with then Exhibitions Coordinator, Miriam Jimnez Roman) two major exhibitions, “The French Revolution in the Americas,” and “Dechoukaj! Contemporary Social and Political Developments in Haiti, 1986-1988.”
Jimenez Roman remembers Andre’s quality of work. “Andre insisted on a comprehensive treatment of each of the periods we were examining and in the face of his reasoned arguments I could do nothing but acquiesce.”? She adds: “Once this commitment to excellence was made, however, the looming deadline required that we approach the work with almost maniacal dedication. What Andre invariably brought to each project was a fascinating and layered intelligence. Even when not directly involved with Center exhibitions, Andre was an invaluable resource for me. I could always rely on him to help identity specific archival materials that would best illustrate a historical moment,” Jimenez Roman said.
Andre also organized a film/lecture series at the Center and Hunter College on Haitian politics, economics, history, migration, culture and religion to further explore themes featured in the “Dechoukaj!” exhibition.
Still, the largest and most substantive impact Andre made at the Schomburg Center was through the many collections he processed. Highlights include the papers of Malcolm X, Ralph Bunche, Fredi Washington, Paul Robeson, Ewart Guinier, Alpheus Hunton, John Henrik Clarke, Benjamin J. Davis, Jr., and several Haitian subject collections including the Maurice Dartique Papers, additions to the Kurt Fisher Collection, the Haiti Miscellaneous collections, as well as supervise the processing of the Ira Gollobin Collection by two New York University students, Chantal Johnson and Nathalie Pierre. He also contributed articles to the African Heritage on the manuscript sources on Haitian history, Paul Robeson and Preston Wilcox, and served on the editorial advisory committee.
When I arrived at the Center in 1998, I quickly discovered that processing manuscript materials can be challenging. To get a sense about how to create guides to manuscript collections, I read a few of Andre’s. “Finding aids are the most boring things to create,” he once told me. “You have to stick to the facts.” However, the guides he wrote were clear, concise and interesting narratives that helped researchers understand not only the scope and content of a collection, but also provided rich contextual insights into the individual, organization or subject. The Julian Mayfield Papers guide is especially interesting to read due to Andre?s sparkling rendering of Mayfield as a man of his time, a creative thinker amid social upheaval in the US in the 1960s, and as one of the proponents of the burgeoning Black Arts Movement.
Co-workers recall Andre not only as a gifted thinker, but also as an individual with strong, informed opinions on politics and culture. Berge Turabian, a cataloger with the Center, worked with Andre for a number of years, and enjoyed having a “French-speaking erudite person” with whom he could converse. “The short meetings and conversations we had once a week would leave me in a warm and dear feeling of happiness; these conversations would always relate to abstractions, ideas, concepts that can only be appreciated intellectually,” Turabian recalled.
For many, Andre was a living archive. “It didn’t take long after joining the division for me to realize that there were certain research queries that could only be called ‘Andre’ questions,” remembers Edwina Ashie-Nikoi, an archivist in the Manuscripts Division. “If the answer wasn’t in a finding aid, it was in his head! He was diasporic in a way that very few people are. A true loss,” said Ashie-Nikoi.
“He was my friend for twelve years, but I did not easily approach Andre. It seemed to me that he was always working, always thinking deeply. He knew too that I would not dare approach him until I saw him smile. His smile gave me a sense of his approval, that he would give me as much time as I needed,” said Christopher Moore, Schomburg Research Coordinator. “Whether he was guiding me through the collections; or sharing an opinion on virtually every topic imaginable, Andre was both an historian and great philosopher. Personally we shared many interests, including a mystical view of the world and its afterlife. For that I am so pleased, as since his passing, he has helped me at least twice,” Moore continued.
“I came to the Center in 1987 and immediately became engaged with Andre,” said Aisha Al-Adawiya, secretary in the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division. “First he sized me up rather closely and then decided that I was someone he wanted to engage! How fortunate I was that he did. Through the years our relationship grew from colleague to friend to family. He was also my mentor to whom I turned for advice on the most important issues of the day and his council was always wise and compassionate. Andre was truly gifted and wise beyond his years,” she remarked.
Researchers from all over the globe sought his perspective on a variety of subjects, and were enriched by his expertise and wisdom. “I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to work with Andre,” said Chantalle F. Verna, Assistant Professor at Florida State University. “Each time I remember him, my charge to continue to researching and writing about Haiti at the highest level is renewed.” Herb Boyd, author of “Baldwin’s Harlem,” and a journalist for the Amsterdam News wrote of Andre’s expertise as “peerless.”
Pearl T. Robinson, assistant professor at Tufts University and currently working on an intellectual biography of Ralph Bunche, said “Andre contributed to making the Schomburg a place of cultural joy for me.” With all of the accolades acknowledging Andre?s intellect and vision, he was also the best kind of co-worker to have. “I loved the summers in the early years when we would eat lunch on the roof outside the third floor landing and dubbed it Schomburg Beach,” said Christine McKay, archivist, who had known Andre for years. “What I think I will miss most was his laugh.”
After the memorial, a friend recent shared that not everyone is so remembered. Indeed, the memorial was a moment to recall not only Andre’s tireless efforts to preserve black culture, which are revealed in the exceptional work he leaves in the stacks for generations to come, but also his kindness and warmth. Andre was a voracious reader and fecund thinker, who, through a life of learning and practice, had distinguished himself as an archivist and intellectual.
How grateful are we to have had him for the time we did. How terribly grateful I am.
Take Care of Your Blessings: Items from the Essex Hemphill/Wayson Jones Collection
A unique take on the life’s work of poet Essex Hemphill is the subject of an extraordinary exhibition, Take Care of Your Blessings: Items from the Essex Hemphill/Wayson Jones Collection now on display at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library. The Black Gay & Lesbian Archive, the largest archive of materials created by and about black queer life, produced the exhibition as a part of The Audre Lorde/Essex Hemphill Memorial Lecture, an annual event meant to commemorate the lives of the American poets, Audre Lorde (1934 -1992) and Essex Hemphill (1957-1995), as well as encourage exciting scholarship and literary production within the communities to whom their poetry and prose spoke.
Essex Hemphill (1957-1995) was a groundbreaking thinker, writer and activist whose published works include Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry (1992), Conditions: Poems (1986) and Earth Life (1985) and his poetry and prose have been published widely in anthologies such as In The Life: A Black Gay Anthology (1986) and Tongues Untied (1988), and periodicals such as Thing, Pyramid Periodical, Essence, and Gay Community News. He was also the editor of Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men (1991).
Take Care of Your Blessings: Items from the Essex Hemphill/Wayson Jones Collection featured rare and unpublished manuscripts of Essex Hemphill’s as well as copies of his first two chapbooks, Plums (1982) and Diamonds Was in the Kitty (1983), assorted photographs, fliers, posters and programs. Wayson Jones, a musician who collaborated with Hemphill in Cinque, performance group (along with Larry Duckette) and later as a duo (Hemphill and Jones) in the 1980s, donated the material to the Black Gay & Lesbian Archive.
The 2nd Annual lecture on November 8th featured poet Cheryl Clarke 2010 who used Hemphill?s poem, “Heavy Breathing,” as the centerpiece for her talk. The lecture was sponsored by the Africana Studies Concentration and co-sponsored by the Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean, the PhD Program in English at CUNY and the Black Gay & Lesbian Archive Project, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library. Films featuring Hemphill and his work, Tongues Untied and Black Is…Black Aint also premiered at the Anthology Film Archives in conjunction with the lecture.