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Treasures From The Trash Bins
3/19/2014 3:36:47 PM

By Hakim Abdul-Ali

The word genius is a word in the English language that’s oftentimes overstated by many casual speakers and writers. When it applies to certain ethnic groups the word has to clarified in terms of specific endearment.

Hopefully, today, after reading my usage of the term in reference to a truly great and somewhat unknown brother of color, you’ll see that I’m using it in very appropriate manner. It’s important for you to understand that as you read on.

I’m using the term now in reference to an African-American gentleman named Joseph W. H. Cathcart. He’s no longer among the living, but when he was alive he shed new light on the word genius.

I love this brother of color’s genius in that he made me feel that all the generalized efforts of “Afro-ourstorians” in collecting, preserving and maintaining Black memorabilia are and were not in vain.

Mr. Cathcart, who was from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was brought to my attention by the editors W. Paul Coates, Elinor Des Verney Sinnette and Thomas C. Battle in their momumental book, “Black Bibliophiles and Collectors,” which was published by Howard University Press in 1990. This book is a must have for all serious collectors of African-American collectors’ histories.

Mr. Cathcart, as stated by the editors, was a janitor who collected news clippings from newspapers, etc., during the 1800s. He had a passion for this task as he felt that both the good and bad needed to be preserved about the Africana race and culture.

He was a collector even when working at the places where he was employed, going through the trash baskets, collecting and retrieving discarded articles from the tossed aside newspapers and magazines that were placed in the waste bins.

His interest in discovering and learning as much as he could about Black History drove him to do undercover research in and from the “trash” baskets materials he found in those bins where he was employed. He did this habitually, constantly scanning and looking for any and all articles on or about the African world that were hidden within the printed pages of his town’s and other area local newspapers, etc.

He was a common man, but he had the where with all to be focused and absorbed enough to acquire as much he could about the happenings of his people.

Mr. Cathcart did this with such gusto that he amassed over the years amazing folders in numerous scrapbooks containing some of the most vital and unpublished elsewhere insights into and about Black happenings and going-ons during his natural life.

Many of these isolated printed occurrences were unknown even to some of the most educated historians of Black culture. “Black Bibliophiles and Collectors” states the significance of Mr. Cathcart’s dedicated pursuits by informing us in their book that latter day scholars were amazed at the wealth of previously unknown tid bits of vital information that were contained in Mr. Cathcart’s brilliant scrapbook collections.

This brings me where I’m at today in informing the unaware, the generic and the serious collector of Afro related “our-storical” and memorabilia artifacts about books, artworks and other things relating to preserving “our” stories, bad and good, including those things that may exist in old and discarded magazine and newspaper articles. Brother Cathcart knew that knowledge of “our-story” is treasure everywhere waiting to be discovered. Do you?

“From the Trash Bins” of America and beyond, I’ve searched high and low for “treasured” things relating to Black folk, no matter what they said or say about us. Like Mr. Cathcart, I’ve been driven by this solo obsession and passion to collect and preserve Black “our-storical” things, even if they are from from news clippings, in order to keep it in from of the people.

I owe much to brothers and sisters like Mr. Cathcart, who without any type of acclaimed academic portfolios, have treked through the trash bins and piles of discarded things to obtain “treasured” things about Black and other colored souls of creation. Remember that someone else’s trash is someone else’s treasure.

Knowledge is powerful, but “only” if we use it properly. When you study “his-story” objectively, you may find that there are lies “his” teacher never told you about because he or she never thought that you’d have enough intelligence to “know” the difference.

Mr. Cathcart obviously knew that every bit of information attained, even if it came from the trash bins and rubbish containers where he worked, would and could serve legitimate, future thinkers and seekers of true knowledge in some small way.

I salute Brother Joseph W. H. Cathcart because he’s one of my unknown heroes, and he’s been an inspiration for me to realize that collecting comes from many different sources, outlets and venues. If you are a collector or even slightly interested in Black “Our-Story,” I suggest that you buy a copy of “Black Bibliophiles and Collectors” and study this masterpiece very, very carefully. Again, I say that “each one should teach one,” because legtimate knowledge of one’s culture is only useful unless you use it properly.

“Black Bibliophile and Collectors” is a wonderful literary insight into the worlds of many famous and unknown collectors and preservers of “our-stories.” It touches on many scholarly points behind the importance of what makes collecting the Black Experience such a valuable commodity today, even to non-Afro-centric minded “colored” folk.

My point of emphasis today was to briefly tell you about one rather obscure and relatively unknown brother of color, who made an impact with his self-driven desire to retrieve Black related info from the trash bins of Philadelphia where he worked. His unswerving, tireless and relentless efforts yielded knowledge that’s still valuable today because Black “Our-Story” is an ever loving pursuit and ideal full time preoccupation.

I’d like you to see what Mr. Cathcart and others like him did when you peruse through the pages of “Black Bibliophiles and Collectors. It should hold you in suspence until you read the book because, again, “knowledge is only useful if you have it and use it properly.”

To that end, as I have done over the last 40 years or more, wherever I’ve been in the world, I never forget to look for and retrieve Africana-related info, even it comes from the “trash” bins of the world’s locales. If Mr. Joseph W. H. Cathcart could do it during the 1800s, then you and I assuredly can do it in the 21th Century.

For today and always, please remember that we’re all continuing students learning more and more of and about ourselves and others.Get your read on, and that’s, “As I See It.”

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