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

Daphne Muse (UC Davis Humanities Institute)

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 Quitman 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 Cox, Charlie 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. 

Davis: Who are some of the individuals at Fisk you encountered? 

Muse: Arna Bontemps hired me as his research assistant. I needed a job to help pay my tuition. At the time he was the librarian and I was tasked with going through mounds of papers, letters, clippings, and manuscripts some of which had names on them or referenced Gwendolyn Brooks, Zora Neale Hurston, WEB DuBois, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. I seem to have an affinity for bringing order to chaos. All of these materials were stacked in a room that probably was about 500 square feet. It turns out that Bontemps also was my neighbor and he would see me standing at the bus stop on the way to school and give me a ride. He was the kindest and most gentle of souls. I had no idea of his standing in literature and the arts, for Fisk did not offer classes focused on Negro literature. I wouldn’t become fully aware of who Bontemps was until we started selling his works at Drum and Spear and I read Black Thunder, his best novel, and discovered his children’s books.

Davis: In addition to your decades of work with a wide range of social movements—from Black Power to Free Angela to disability rights and anti-apartheid—you’ve accumulated considerable knowledge and expertise as a bibliophile and book and ephemera collector. How would you describe the historical and material value of your own letters collection? 

Muse: As part of the cultural, political, and ideological infrastructure of Black thought from the 1960s to the present, these materials including invitations to book signings, museum openings, musical events, demonstrations, and memorial services are “receipts” documenting Black lives and cultures and so much that remains undocumented.

Davis: Is there someone you corresponded with whom we probably don’t know about, but should? 

Muse: The FBI! They corresponded with me, not me with them. They left me a note requesting I call them. It was signed by Jim South the agent who was my “security” detail and did not specify why they wanted to contact me. The government wasted hella money paying someone to follow me home every evening, to the bank in the morning, and discussing with others what they knew about me and my activities. Selling books and educating people was a “high crime” according to J. Edgar Hoover who hated Black bookstores. This began during my service as a manager at Drum and Spear Bookstore.

Then Drum and Spear staffer Ralph Featherstone was killed in an explosion on March 9, 1970, I was so distraught that about four months later I moved to Phoenix, taught introductory composition at Maricopa Community College, and held a job at OIC where I taught writing. I had mailed my Scrabble Set, Fisk diploma, and a series of books including my prized collection of those by WEB DuBois and Marcus Garvey. My Scrabble Set and diploma were delivered unwrapped by a white hippie mailman to my parents’ home in DC and I never saw any of my books again. 

[Interviewer’s note: this incident is highly suggestive of the FBI’s “mail intercept program,” which the Bureau operated in those years.]

Davis: Do you still write letters today? 

Muse: I’ve begun writing a series of letters to my now two-year-old great-grandson and I continue to correspond via email with several friends including Jennifer Lawson with whom I’ve been corresponding since 1969. After a reading of a series of the letters at the global tech firm DocuSign, the young man who introduced me noted he was going to write me letters and he wants his own folder.

Davis: How do you envision the future of this collection and your future as a curator?

 It is my desire to find a new home for these documents so that they can further enrich an established archive that would commit to making them available to researchers, educators, scholars, historians, and community people. It’s part of the infrastructure of black thought from the 1960s to the present. 

I’ve also enjoyed speaking to various campuses and organizations in the last few years about my correspondence collection and hope to continue doing that work. And along these lines, I’m developing a college course with my letters that I hope to teach somewhere as a visiting professor, tentatively titled “On These We Stand: Collecting, Documenting, and Archiving Black Lives and Cultures in the 21st century.”  I do think my recent appointment as Elder-in-Residence in the Department of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley will support the facilitation of the enduring life-line of this collection and further enrich the legacy of Black lives and cultures.

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Joshua Clark Davis

Joshua Clark Davis is an assistant professor of history at the University of Baltimore. His book, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs (Columbia University Press, 2017) examines how natural foods stores, head shops, feminist businesses, and African American booksellers emerged from social movements in the 1960s to advance the goals of political transformation and cultural liberation. Follow him on Twitter @JoshClarkDavis.

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

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    Quite impressive! Letter writing is a somewhat lost art form. Thanks to Ms. Daphne Muse for bringing letter writing to the fore once again…Would love to follow her. Please pass along my email address to her. I’m an David letter writer as well and would love to take one of her classes.

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    What an inspiring interview with Sister Muse. It is a guide to me as a writer of the importance of sustaining our writing and making it avaible to others. I really hope some university is smart enough to acquire her collection.

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