Local collector donates rare works by African American authors to WSU
By Tiana Kennell
Imagine waking up next to Langston Hughes, having breakfast with Rosa Parks, watching television with Ralph Ellison and coming home every evening to Phillis Wheatley. This is a typical day for a former English teacher, whose entire house is filled with more than 18,000 different titles by African Americans ranging from Amiri Baraka to Zora Neale Hurston. More than 5,000 of the books are rare, autographed, first editions from greats like Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.
Now get ready for this—he’s giving them all away.Jay Charles Levine, 58, already has deposited more than 400 volumes of African American literature into the “Jay C. Levine Collection,” located in the Special Collections Room of Wayne State University’s Adamany Library. After about 40 years of collecting, the WSU graduate school alumnus says this is “the right time” to donate.“The purpose of collecting is that you want others to benefit,” Levine says. “It’s much more rewarding than keeping them in my house.”When the administrators and staff of WSU learned the size of his donation, they were overwhelmed. Barton Lessin, Adamany Library’s assistant dean, says, “I’m excited because it gives an opportunity for people to learn and study firsthand from material that is some of the greatest literature in the U.S.”The first shipment was received on December 28, 2006, and many more will follow over time as Levine spends his days preparing box after box of rare African-American literature from what he calls “Jay’s Library and Museum of African Descent.”Levine’s personal library has grown to take over his entire house, leaving only narrow paths to walk along. Over 300 autographed photos of artists like Billie Holiday and Sammie Davis Sr. and Jr., hang on the walls. The floors are covered with boxes of authentic documents, some signed by Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass. There are even Playboy magazine articles written by Alex Haley, journalist and author of “Roots.” With these are movie posters of Paul Robeson, Dorothy Dandridge and Josephine Baker and other legends. Also gracing the collection is classic memorabilia from the Negro League, including autographed photos, posters, team cards and baseballs. And African statues accent the museum, paying tribute to the motherland.WSU will receive books and articles from the personal library, but Levine says he is still searching for the perfect place to donate the other items. This may be a wise move since Levine’s home has been subject to past natural disasters. In 1985, his house burned down leaving only the collection standing. Two years ago, it survived a bad water leak.Although some items were destroyed, neither fire nor water could extinguish Levine’s passion. Since childhood, Levine has loved reading and greatly admired a number of authors. His love grew into a hobby that not only entailed finding books, but also getting the authors to personally sign them.The first writer to sign for him was Nikki Giovanni at a book signing in Detroit. On that day, Levine says he was encouraged by her to find more authors to do the same. However, it was at a Chicago book conference about 15 years ago where Levine met the woman who truly impacted and inspired him to continue his hobby, Gwendolyn Brooks. A long line of fans stood in front of the table where Brooks sat, signing one book at a time. Levine stood to the side with a huge box of about 50 copies of various books by his favorite poet. “I didn’t know if I’d get one signed!” Levine says.He knew that the odds of getting all of the books signed were against him, but he kept hoping. After the conference, when the crowd had cleared, Levine heard the kind words that he’d never forget. “Go get those books!” Brooks ordered him. Levine did as he was told and joined her in a room where they privately talked while she signed every copy in his box. He would later dedicate the “Jay C. Levine Collection” to the late poet.Since the beginning of his quest, Levine says he has met every living contemporary author he has ever admired and taught in his classroom, including Margaret Walker, Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez. For more than 30 years, Levine brought these authors into Detroit’s Kettering, Southeastern, Fine and Performing Arts, Crosman Alternative high schools and Jackson Middle School, where he was a teacher and counselor. Several years ago, he had created one of the first African-American Literature classes in Detroit schools, opting to use books from his home instead of the schools textbooks. He says to earn an A in his class, students had to read a minimum of four books from the stock during the school year.“Many of the students never had read one,” Levine says. “They never had the opportunity.”He allowed students to take the books home to read, and if a student lost one of the books, the fee was a quarter. “You can tell how long ago that was,” Levine chuckles.Teaching in Detroit neighborhoods where gangs were rampant, Levine introduced authors that students could relate to, learn from and enjoy, such as Donald Goines, who wrote from experience about brutal street life. One school term, Levine says he asked a student who was a gang leader to serve as editor of the Kettering newspaper and yearbook. Years later, the young man was featured in a New York magazine for his testimonial story of leaving street life behind to make a better life for himself.Many of Levine’s former students have won writing awards, attended college, become authors and poets and lead successful lives. He was honored at a banquet for being the most influential teacher in a young girl’s life, and still receives “thank you’s” and graduation and wedding invitations from past students who keep in touch. Regarding finding rare books, Levine says, “A lot of times you find things by accident. Other times there are auctions or used bookstores. I guess over time, I’ve been fortunate.”
African American Family Magazine April 2007