- Robert Penn Warren's Who Speaks for the Negro?: An Archival Collection
In 1964, the famous novelist and cultural commentator Robert Penn Warren traveled the country to interview men and women involved in the struggle for civil rights, people who were, in his words, "making the Negro Revolution what it is—one of the dramatic events of the American story." His book, Who Speaks for the Negro?, published by Random House in 1965, included excerpts from many of those conversations along with Warren's reflections on the civil rights movement.
Warren made a point of speaking not only with well-known leaders but also with everyday people involved in the grassroots struggle, which has made his volume a useful resource for students of the movement. But a new digital archive created by the Robert Penn Warren Center at Vanderbilt University dramatically enriches and extends the project of this important book in an excellent and effective website.
Robert Penn Warren's Who Speaks for the Negro: An Archival Collection (https://whospeaks.library.vanderbilt.edu) brings together original materials relating to the book's content, its publication, and its reception. All of the material comes from the libraries of the University of Kentucky and Yale University, but the digital archive makes them much more widely accessible and searchable in a well designed and easy-to-use website that offers a valuable resource for students and scholars of the civil rights movement.
In addition to background information on Robert Penn Warren, the site offers three main categories of materials: archival materials related to the book's creation, writing, and publication; reviews of the work and coverage of it in the media; and original recordings of Warren's many interviews with participants and leaders in the civil rights struggle.
The most compelling material on the site, and that which is likely to be of greatest interest to a wide audience, are the audio recordings and transcriptions of the [End Page 192] complete interviews that Warren did as he worked on the book. The "Interviews" section includes full original audio recordings of forty-six different interviews, some done with individuals and others with small groups (such as a group interview with four students from Tougaloo College). Warren interviewed some of the most well-known figures from the movement, including James Baldwin, Stokely Carmichael, Septima Clark, Bob Moses, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X, among many others. But there are also interviews here with lesser-known but important civil rights attorneys, local leaders such as Aaron Henry or Gloria Richardson, and black and white scholars.
Each interview includes a short, helpful biography of the interviewee, the audio of the Warren's original cassette recordings, and a full transcript, which is text searchable. In addition, every document on the site is cross-referenced, so that any related material either by the same subject or that references that subject appears in a "Related Documents" section of the page. The quality of the audio recordings is quite good and a sidebar warns if there are issues with the audio, such as if the tape starts or stops abruptly, if the recording in a particular section is hard to hear, or if it is difficult to distinguish between different people speaking to Warren as part of a group.
Other material available in the "Correspondence" and "Miscellaneous" sections of the digital archive includes letters that Warren or his editors wrote to interviewees, letters from interviewees about fact-checking or other details, notes about the publication of the book, advertisements, and details about the production and printing of the work. The site also includes nearly forty reviews of Warren's book that appeared in venues ranging from Newsweek to Playboy. All material is presented both as images of the original documents and as text-searchable transcripts.
Making the site even more useful for scholars is the "Topics" section, which categorizes the archival resources by a wide range of topics, including by geographic place (Baton Rouge, Los Angeles, or...