Houghton Library, the Harvard Caribbean Club, and Emily Dickinson’s Birthday

Tess Kelley, Harvard College ’23, visited Houghton Library for an unusual birthday party.

When Emily Dickinson quickly jotted down her black cake recipe to send to a friend, she probably didn’t think people would be following it almost 200 years later. But what better way to celebrate the American poet’s birthday than with a cake made according to her own handwritten recipe?

On December 8th, Harvard’s Houghton Library, home to the world’s largest Dickinson archive, hosted its 9th annual Emily Dickinson party in its Edison & Newman Room. To commemorate her 193rd birthday, various Houghton staff members followed Dickinson’s recipe to bake their own version of black cake, a dense, sticky cake that, if made in full, calls for 19 eggs and two pounds of butter.

Yet this year, the celebration featured not one but two types of black cake. While Dickinson’s recipe was penned in her native New England, black cake, along with the ingredients required to make it, made its way to the region from the Caribbean as a product of colonialism and the slave trade. Upon arrival in New England, some key ingredients were modified by Dickinson: the cake typically calls for rum and burnt sugar, yet her recipe features brandy and molasses.

Attendees were able to try a Caribbean iteration of the cake made by the Black Cake Company, sharing the spotlight with versions of Dickinson’s recipe baked by Library staff. Both types of cake were displayed on cake plates and tables from the Apple TV series Dickinson, part of a large donation of props, scripts and other objects from the show’s production made to Houghton’s archives in 2021.

A traditional Caribbean black cake was not the only addition to the poet’s 193rd birthday. This year’s celebration initiated a collaboration between Houghton Library and the Harvard Caribbean Club. As attendees mingled and ate cake, event organizer Emily Walhout, Houghton Library Reference Assistant, recounted a brief history of celebrating Dickinson’s birthday at Houghton.

Walhout and the other members of “Team Cake” at Harvard Library first decided to try out Dickinson’s recipe in 2015. As they made the poet’s version of black cake they began to study its ingredients, making the connection to its Caribbean origins. Then, Team Cake received a mention in a 2019 essay by Canadian-Trinidadian author M. NourbeSe Philip. Titled “Making Black Cake in Combustible Spaces,” the piece describes its author’s own relationship to black cake as a Caribbean food in conjunction with the Caribbean ingredients and vernacular Dickinson absorbed in her home’s kitchen, in the wider context of colonialism.

When Walhout discovered the article, she was further convinced to feature Caribbean influences in the 2020 celebration. Unfortunately, Houghton would not host another in-person birthday for Dickinson until 2022, postponing her plans. This year’s party marked the first full-scale in-person birthday celebration for Dickinson, which finally provided the right moment to highlight both the poet and black cake’s Caribbean heritage.

After Walhout’s introduction, a lineup of Library staff and members of the Caribbean Club paired Dickinson’s works with those of Caribbean authors. Daniel Foster ‘23 began with a reading of one of his own poems, “At Once, Indigenous,” emphasizing an ingredient key to Dickinson’s and Caribbean black cakes as well as the legacy of colonialism connecting the two: sugar. Reflecting on the past and present of indigeneity, he noted that “we are uprooted, but we sink our feet in the cool soil that we tilled.”

Other members of the Caribbean Club followed with readings from Caribbean poets, one from Louise Bennett-Coverly recited in Jamaican patois and another from former poet laureate of Port of Spain Eintou Pearl Springer. Houghton Technical Services Assistant Michael Pasternak recited Dickinson’s poem “Some keep the Sabbath,” a reminder that one can find faith beyond the confines of a church. And Anne-Marie Eze, Associate Librarian for Collections and Programs at Houghton, recounted a poignant story of bonding with her aunt over her aunt’s black cake recipe, a conversation which turned into a 30-minute oral history recorded by Eze.

Finally, Adam Batholomew ’26 took a turn on the steel pan. He explained that the Trinidadian instrument, originally made from everyday materials such as oil barrels, at first faced stigma due to its association with lower-class Trinidadians. As attendees finished what was left of the cakes, Bartholomew played two songs: a timely steel pan rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and “Iron Man” by Trinidadian calypso artist Lord Kitchener. For his final song, he played along to a recording from his uncle, a professional steel pan artist whose musical style incorporated the instrument with jazz.

Massachusetts native Emily Dickinson likely never celebrated her birthday with the steel pan, and she was born over a hundred years before Lord Kitchener’s music career. Yet her life in 1800s New England was still tied to the Caribbean thousands of miles away. Her 193rd birthday party at Houghton brought into focus the cultural landscape existing around her when she mailed a quick recipe to a friend almost 200 years ago.