Collecting the African American Experience: Dr. Jacinta R. Saffold

Credit: Amanda Evans Photography

Our Bright Young Collectors series continues today with Dr. Jacinta R. Saffold, one of the inaugural winners of the David Ruggles Prize in book collecting.

Where are you from / where do you live?

I am from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Over the last ten years, I have lived in Atlanta, Georgia; the Pioneer Valley in Western Massachusetts; and Washington, D.C. Thanks to the pandemic, I split my time between Milwaukee and New Orleans these days.

What did you study at University? What do you do now for an occupation?

In college and graduate school, I concentrated in African American Studies. Today I am an assistant professor of African American literature and the endowed chair of Africana Studies at the University of New Orleans.

Please introduce us to your book collection.  What areas do you collect in? 

I began collecting books with the first book I was able to read independently, Just A Nap by Mercer Mayer. I still pull Just A Nap out every once in a while as a reminder of how far my journey with books has taken me.

I first learned to read in English at six years old after learning the same in French. I attended a language immersion elementary school that taught me how to read and write in French before English, which made reading in any language a struggle. With the support of my parents (my mother is a high school English teacher and my father is a retired firefighter) I persevered and fell in love with the magical places books take me. Fast-forward to today, I work in the Department of Language and Literature at the University of New Orleans. Learning French from a young age helped me gain an appreciation of Black francophone culture, which has contributed to my love of African Diasporic literature.

Since leaving residence as a doctoral candidate in the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to work at Howard University in 2015, I have been building a digital archive of each text ranked on the bestsellers’ list published in Essence Magazine from 1994-2010. I started the Essence Book Project to support my research agenda, telling the literary history of Hip Hop’s golden age and it has blossomed into incredible Afro-digital-possibilities. For more information on the project and to see a conversation with myself and Kinohi Nishikawa on “Black Bestselling Books and Bibliographical Concerns:”

The Essence Book Project adds nearly 1,000 discrete electronic books to my sizable physical collection of books focused on the African American experience with an emphasis on twentieth and twenty-first century novels.

How many books are in your collection?

I have never counted my collection. And these days it is split among my offices on campus, my house in New Orleans, and my mom’s house in Milwaukee so I cannot give you an exact figure, but I would guesstimate that my physical collection is in excess of 500 titles.

What was the first book you bought for your collection?

I purchased my first book, The Rose That Grew From Concrete by Tupac Amaru Shakur, at nine years old with money I saved from doing my weekly chores.

How about the most recent book?

Recently, I purchased a first edition of Richard Wright’s Black Boy and second edition of Jean Toomer’s Cane from Black Rock Books, a Black owned bookstore in Barbados. I was vacationing on the island when I happened by the store by chance. The next day, I returned with intention. Black Rock Books is reminiscent of my favorite bookstore back home in Wisconsin with books as far as the eye can see. But this was a particularly wonderful experience because the store caters to Black readers. It was an amalgamation of things that make me happy.

And your favorite book in your collection?

I honestly do not have a favorite. But I recently had the pleasure of a lifetime interviewing Alice Walker for her new book, Gathering Blossoms Under Fire. In my preparation for our conversation, I went back to my signed copy of her second novel, Meridian. I acquired that copy from the archive dedication ceremony Emory University had for Ms. Walker when I was in college. I remember being spellbound by her and hoping with the depths of my heart to get a peek at the treasures contained in her archive (some of which is still embargoed). And by the magic of books and hopes I not only got that glimpse through Gathering Blossoms, I got to ask her all about it.

I am also partial to my signed copy of The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I read it for the first time in high school. Then my English teacher took us to the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre to see a play adaptation of the book. Pecola Breedlove and peculiar notions of what it means to “be outdoors” have always stayed with me. Morrison signed my first edition at an event with Sonia Sanchez and Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey and the Rock at UMass.

Best bargain you’ve found?

This is a hard question to answer because nearly all of my books were bargains or gifts. I have always intentionally shopped at used bookstores and collect through unconventional means. Now that I am a professor, publishers practically give me books.

In addition, until recently—with the response to the murder of George Floyd—Black print culture generally was inexpensive. I remember buying titles like The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah for literal pennies when was only a book re-sale site.

How about The One that Got Away?

I cannot think of any that have gotten away. I have always found that books find me when the time is right.

What would be the Holy Grail for your collection?

I am very excited for the day that I can add my first monograph to my shelf. I am hoping to make that a reality in the next couple of years.

Who is your favorite bookseller / bookstore?

When I was a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, every summer and winter break I trekked back to Wisconsin where I would go to Schroeder Used Books & Music in West Allis. I affectionately called it the Harry Potter bookstore. Sadly it closed permanently during the pandemic.

I loved it because there were books from floor to ceiling, paper crammed in every crevice and cranny. If I stayed pursuing the semi-organized shelves long enough, I swore I saw some of the stacks move. The delight of finding a hidden gem had me convinced that I was the Black Hermione Granger.

The Renaissance Book Shop in the Milwaukee airport is a close second. Buying books before catching a flight feels like taking a piece of home with me wherever I travel.

What would you collect if you didn’t collect books?

Before I seriously started collecting books, I was a sneaker collector. I worked at Journey’s shoe store in high school and went to a public school that defined cool by how often you were able to get the new Jordans—numbers not teams. My collection ranged from trendy Jordans, Air-Force Ones, and Adidas to limited run Nike Dunks and Blazers, DC and I think I even had a pair of Pastrys by Vanessa and Angela Simmons.