In their own words

Penn State Beaver's African-American autobiography collection is one-of-a-kind
A photo of Russ Brignano sits beside books on a shelf.

Former Penn State Beaver English professor Russell Brignano, center in the photograph, started the library's African-American autobiography collection with a book donation in the 1990s. It's since grown to 663 titles.

Credit: Penn State

MONACA, Pa. — Each year, around the same time, a check arrives at the Penn State Beaver Library. It’s not much, laments the sender. But it’s enough for Beaver Librarian Amy Deuink to buy a few well-reviewed titles.

“March,” by John Lewis.

“Michelle Obama: A Life,” by the former First Lady.

“Mo’ Meta Blues,” by Questlove.

Deuink takes the books to a cozy spot in the library, behind the couches, near the main doors, and adds them to the ever-growing collection of African-American autobiographies — the only collection of its kind in the Penn State system — now 663 titles strong.

There on the shelf, next to Sunny Nash’s “Bigmama Didn’t Shop at Woolworth’s” and Yolanda Young’s “On Our Way to Beautiful,” is a photograph of the man to whom the collection is dedicated; the same man who sends that check each year: retired Beaver English professor Russell Brignano.

Brignano was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin when a professor encouraged him to write his dissertation on Richard Wright, the author of classics “Native Son” and “Black Boy.”

That dissertation soon spun into a book — the University of Pittsburgh Press-published “Richard Wright: An Introduction to the Man and His Works” — and a grant to work on another book — the annotated bibliography “Black Americans in Autobiography”.

By the time Brignano was ready to retire from his position as an English professor at the Beaver campus, he’d amassed a collection of autobiographies in his office that spanned time and topic, from slave memoirs to political thought pieces to celebrations of athleticism.

He had even more books at home, so many that he and his wife made a pact — when they acquired a new book, they must give one of their old books away.

So Brignano went to Beaver’s librarian at the time, Martin Goldberg, and asked if he had any interest in taking the collection.

Not only did Goldberg have an interest, but he had an idea. Brignano had pushed hard for African-American literature classes to be taught on Beaver’s campus, he’d written books about such literature, he’d offered a bookcase of autobiographies as a gift to the library. Why not dedicate the collection in his honor?

So with Brignano’s donation and $5,000 from the Penn State Equal Opportunity Planning Committee, the collection took its place by the library’s main doors.

Since then, it has doubled in size and served as the only African-American autobiography collection at the University. Though it is meant to enhance awareness of African-American literature on the Beaver campus, the collection is also available to the public through a free community borrower’s card.

For those who are interested, Brignano even has a suggestion — start with Wright’s “Black Boy.”

“It holds up well,” he said.

Barack Obama, just before he left office, in his last speech to the nation, took a moment to reflect on the relationship between democracy and diversity, and pulled a line from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us needs to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction — Atticus Finch — who said ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’

Deuink was watching Obama’s speech that night, and she immediately grabbed a scrap of paper and jotted down the words. They were so fitting for this story about Brignano’s collection, she thought.

“Because that’s what autobiographies do,” Deuink said. “They give you compassion and appreciation for the struggles of others.”


April Johnston

Public Relations Director, Penn State Beaver

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