Dark Testament Research Guide

Dark Testament Research Guide

This blog post appears as part of Exploring the Writing Process with Primary Source Materials. Funded by a grant from the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources program, Exploring the Writing Process with Primary Source Materials complements classroom writing instruction with activities using primary source materials from the Library of Congress’s digital collections that inspire, motivate, and empower students to write.

The American Writers Museum’s exhibit and education initiative Dark Testament explores racial injustice in America through the work of Black American writers from the end of the Civil War through the Civil Rights Movement. To celebrate our newest exhibit and as part of our Exploring the Writing Process with Primary Source Materials initiative, we have created this helpful resource guide highlighting primary source materials from the Library of Congress’s (LOC) digital collections both that expound upon the themes in Dark Testament and demonstrate the writing process.

Please note that this research guide is not comprehensive, just a selection of the many primary sources in the LOC’s digital collection. For tips on finding primary sources, please read our post on how to find and use primary sources.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes


Collections are groups of materials that have been grouped together due to shared characteristics, such as provenance, subject, or form. The following collections study authors or topics featured in our Dark Testament timeline. A general description of each collection as well as tips on how to use sources to study the writing process is provided.

Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress

A photograph of Frederick Douglass in January-February 1864, taken by Benjamin F. Smith in Portland, Maine. Courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
Photographer: Benjamin F. Smith, January-February, 1864 Location: Portland, Maine National Park Service, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

Brief summary of the collection:

This collection contains papers of the renowned author and activist Frederick Douglass spanning the years 1841-1964, with the bulk of the material dating from 1862 to 1895. The collection consists of diaries, correspondence, drafts, manuscripts, speeches, articles, legal and financial documents, and other miscellaneous items.

Studying the writing process:

Frederick Douglass’s papers offer fantastic insight into almost every stage of the writing process. Diaries illustrate Douglass’s journaling process, his correspondence highlights the importance of collaboration, and drafts and manuscripts provide examples of revision and editing.

Use the items to observe and study Douglass’s writing process. Are there techniques that are new to you or ones that you can incorporate into your own writing process?

African American Perspectives: Materials Selected From the Rare Book Collection

Brief summary of the collection:

African American Perspectives features a collection of materials that highlight and celebrate African American history and culture. The collection takes from two collections in the Library of Congress’s Rare Books and Special Collections Division: the African American Pamphlet Collection and the Daniel A.P. Murray Collection with a date range of 1822 through 1909. Most pieces in the collection are written by African-American authors, though some are written by others on topics in African American history.

Studying the writing process:

The African American Perspectives collection features an impressive variety of genre, including sermons, slave narratives, speeches, pamplets, and poetry. Consider how genre influences or impacts the creation and consumption of a work. The materials can also be used to research questions of purpose, voice, and audience.

As you study a source, ask yourself the following questions: What was this author’s purpose? Who was their audience? How did the audience impact this writing? Additionally, consider the definition of “publishing.” While we consider publication to be the final step in the writing process, formats such as public speaking or self-disturbed pamphlets challenge our ideas of what is considered a “published” work. Consider different ways of publication for writers today. How does the method of publication affect our writing process?

Zora Neale Hurston smiling and wearing a hat at an angle.
Zora Neale Hurston. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Brief summary of the collection:

The Zora Neale Hurston Plays at the Library of Congress collection features previously unpublished typescripts by celebrated writer Zora Neale Hurston. The plays were deposited as unpublished typescripts in the United States Copyright Office between 1925-1944, and they remained unpublished and unproduced until their rediscovery in 1997. The collection contains six full length plays as well as four sketches, and they reflect Hurston’s own life experience and expertise on African American South folklore.

Studying the writing process:

Materials like scene settings, set design sketches, and annotated scripts provide fantastic insight into the steps of the writing process for theatrical works. Discuss how the writing process can differ by genre and format, but also invite aspiring writers to incorporate or experiment with strategies that work best for them.

This collection also features The Mule-Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life in Three Acts, a script written in collaboration with with Langston Hughes. The Mule-Bone was never finished due to a falling out between Hurston and Hughes. Consider the benefits of collaboration in writing but also discuss potential hurdles or challenges that may arise when writing with others.

Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature

James Baldwin, seated and smiling with a closed mouth
James Baldwin. Carl Van Vechten, photographer. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Brief summary of the collection:

The Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature offers nearly two thousand recordings of authors reading from their work at the Library of Congress. Please note that not all authors featured in this collection have work pertaining to themes in Dark Testament, but some examples of related authors include Gwendolyn Brooks and James Baldwin.

Studying the writing process:

Hearing authors read their work can be an enlightening experience. We can hear how authors view their own piece or how they prefer their piece to be read. As you conduct research, think about these questions: How does voice affect the work? How does hearing a work affect our understanding and experience?

When you are writing, read your piece out loud. Is the rhythm and flow of your piece what you desired or intended it to be? Is there anything that you noticed after reading your work out loud that you missed while writing or reading silently to yourself?

As part of Exploring the Writing Process, the American Writers Museum offers teacher-created lesson plans that use primary sources from the Library of Congress’s digital collections to help students learn more about the writing process. Students will study these primary sources to learn more about the author’s writing process and how they can implement similar strategies, techniques, or skills into their own research and writing process. These lesson plans come with both teacher notes and student handouts that can be used for either in-person or virtual instruction. Three lesson plans feature primary sources from authors featured in or related to our Dark Testament exhibit.

You may download these lesson plans and other resources on the main curriculum page for Exploring the Writing Process with Primary Source Materials.

Photo of Courtney Borjas

Written by Courtney Borjas

Courtney started at the AWM as a Storyteller in April 2017. She has since moved into education where she enjoys sharing the contextual significance of American literature with students and helping to empower future writers. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a B.A. in History and earned an M.S. in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Content created and featured in partnership with the TPS program does not indicate an endorsement by the Library of Congress.

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