In the words of archivist and scholar, Saidiya Hartman, “The archive is a living, moving thing, the sources of which are changing as we speak.” Defined most broadly as primary source records used to document and interpret history, archives are neither absolute nor objective. And how could they be? Hartman goes on to say, “I was wrestling with what it means to have the colonial archive, the archive of the Western bourgeoisie, dictate what it is we can know about [our] lives.” Conditions of the past and present — white supremacy and centralized state power — become fossilized in an archive.
No collection of documents, images, or ephemera can hold the complexity of a human life. Yet for years, scholars relied on archives maintained by colonial powers to dictate truths about marginalized populations. Jacques Derrida argues, “[T]here is no political power without control of the archive, if not memory. Effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation.”
Thankfully, a new generation of Black archivists and community archival projects are documenting our stories with the care and nuance they deserve. Works like Black Futures, Black Film Archive, Black Archives, and Ujima’s very own Black Boston Image Archive are counter-narratives that attempt to authentically reflect Black life, stories, and possibilities today.
In this edition of the Ujima Wire, we examine major contributions by Black archivists through the years, the changing role of the archive, and the importance of cataloging the present. Memories, however, cherished, are fleeting, but archives are forever.
The Work of an Archive
Archives in the traditional sense serve as historical records, and there is, naturally, power in knowing the facts. And yet, knowing the truth of such atrocities as slavery doesn’t explain how slaves endured such conditions. Knowing the facts surrounding the civil rights movement doesn’t speak to the inner thoughts of activists on the ground. Ephemera in the vein of diaries, letters, and the alternative sources referenced by Hartman, deepen the archive in nuanced ways.
As such, the work of any Black archive must be to broaden hegemonic narratives, and in the case of Black writers like Octavia Butler, assert power.
As Phoenix Alexander explains, “I foreground the archive as [a space] offering a form of narrative agency for the archive-builder recording her own life. [Octavia’s] journal entries, in particular, served as an authoritative, yet protected space for her to articulate her own ambitions and concerns about her career, and granted some form of control in how she imagined her work to be read.”
The autonomy imbued in the construction of an archive allows the archivist to correct historical wrongs and speak authentically, but not without a responsibility to the truth. In “The End of Susan, The End of Everything,” artist Dell Hamilton, curated the belongings of her former mentor Susan Denker for the Institute of Contemporary Art. Both art and archive, the exhibit is modeled after Denker’s apartment filled with her ephemera — take out menus, maps, and oh so many books. “There’s this accumulation of objects, and Dell is sort of putting herself at the middle of an exercise and trying to answer that question about making meaning,” says assistant curator Jeffrey De Blois. And perhaps that is the Black archive’s final task: to make and explore meaning.
The Black Archive: A Brief History
My mother remains a diligent record-keeper. From my first baby teeth to school photos and report cards, she’s hard-pressed to throw anything away. I once had a childhood friend whose mother kept a clipping of the umbilical cord that once bonded them together. It’s no wonder that the biggest contributions to the Black archive were made by Black women.
The widely-celebrated Black Futures anthology, a mixed-media celebration of Black life in the digital age, wouldn’t be possible without forebears like Toni Morrison’s Black Book. The Black Book is regarded as a compendium of the Black American experience from 1619 to the mid-20th century; Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham pick up where Morrison left off.
“I’ve really been looking at how Black writers, artists, and thinkers were working in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. A lot of similar heaviness was happening around the same time, especially in dealing with globalism and grappling with the feeling of potential for change — as well as the sameness of this country,” Wortham says of the creative process surrounding Black Futures.
It’s wild to imagine twin archives in conversation like this because you begin to see how little has changed from when Morrison began her archival endeavor in 1974. Would any Black archive be defined by the same three segments: wonder, variety, and trauma?
And then there are the literary anthologies that document Black life as well as any archive. The Black Woman: An Anthology and Conditions Five: The Black Women’s Issue both illuminate feminist thinking of the 1970s and 80s. Comprising essays, poems, song lyrics, and short stories, both works capture the lives of Black women under patriarchy. Understanding Black life of the past requires such creative readings of the archive. “For several decades, Black female scholars like Hortense Spillers, Sarah Haley, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Tera Hunter, Farah Griffin, and Deborah Gray White have been reconstructing the experiences of Black women using such alternative sources as cleaning manuals, Black newspapers, musical productions, and buried correspondence,” Hartman says.
Also notable are works like Fire!!! Magazine, curated by Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and other contemporaries in 1926. Only one issue was ever produced, but Fire!!! succeeds at documenting the concerns of Black creatives during the Harlem Renaissance.
“Memory work is often gendered as a feminine activity, along with other household chores,” Micha Broadnax, a Black Archivist at the Harvard University School of Education explains. “Stewarding keepsakes like photo albums, family recipes and scrapbooks often falls on the women in a family, from a desire to center the margins.” All of the archival examples above attempted to lend significance and primary focus to the stories others might call marginal.
Archiving the Movement
Reflecting on Black Futures, Kimberly Drew remarked, “One of the successes I hope this book achieves is that people understand the importance of their gestures. Understand that their contributions on Twitter or the care they take in themselves or their contributions in a recipe from the family book by putting their own twist on it — those things are worth retaining. Those things are worth celebrating.”
Generations ago, Black families under slavery kept hidden personal belongings, photos, and papers between pages of The Bible. The proliferation of the internet in the digital has democratized the archive and allowed frontline activists to control their own narratives.
“In 2014, Makiba Foster was on the front line of the Ferguson, Missouri, protests over the death of Michael Brown. She approached local organizers about the importance of documenting their actions as a counternarrative to corporate media reports on the protests that tended to demonize grassroots strategies,” writes Lynnee Denise.
For those thinking of starting your own archive, don’t wait. Assemble objects you’re interested in preserving. Sort and organize ephemera by categories: letters, photos, objects, etc. Document what you know about these objects, and don’t be afraid to learn more context from family or friends. Consider digitizing your collection, and make sure you have a safe place to store it.
Lastly, remember that great archives tell a story, and even better if it speaks to a community. As Renata Cherlise, Founder of Black Archive says, “It’s essential for us to be in community with one another, to collectively take part in this process of remembering and imagining Black life. To see ourselves, to inspire new works, new worlds, and sometimes to even depart and imagine new ones.”
Paige Curtis is the Culture & Communications Manager at the Boston Ujima Project.