As part of the Princeton University Library’s inaugural Archives Research and Collaborative History (ARCH) Program, 12 undergraduates and two graduate students from five historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) explored the connections among archives, historical narratives, and social justice at Mudd Library and Firestone Library from July 9 to July 13, 2018. They were asked to reflect on their experiences in writing. This post is the first in a short series of such reflections.
Beauty, Justice and the Future
By Adisa Vera Beatty, Howard University
Most, likely many, of the experiences and information I encountered will continue to surface in my mind for several weeks. However, some experiences that have left an impression would be processing part of a collection and visiting the conservation lab. I’m a memory keeper so it’s not a surprise that those two experiences resonated with me. There is something very poignant to me about experiencing the artifacts of someone else’s lived life. There’s some mystery, randomness and beauty about that experience but I’m sure it loses its charm when you do it every day. Then there’s the conservation lab where there is no sifting and sorting; this space is filled with deliberate acts. They slow down, revive and restore pieces of the past daily.
There’s something to be said about work that is done by hand. Those people are artisans and for the most part, the naked eye will never discern what took place to the books and paper that are healed there. And with care and luck those items will never reveal the labor that went into them or any other secrets. The other side of this selecting and saving is digitization. The digital realm is also marvelous but machines come between this type of artisan and their objects. They’re life savers too but those objects will live forever (most likely) and remain the same age as the day they were digitally captured.
In one way, I had no idea what I would encounter coming to the ARCH Program and I looked forward to that unknown. On the other hand, there were issues relating to archives, public history, history, art and the digital realm that had already been simmering. I’m interested in ethics, justice and agency as it relates to archives, history and knowledge production. The historiography of archives, history and knowledge production in this country is rooted in power and white supremacy. The archives are colonized and I say that because it is the entry point I must fan out from as well as encourage dissent from. How as future scholars, archivists, curators and other knowledge shapers do we manipulate these inherent biases? While I feel that scholars like Saidiya Hartman, Marissa Fuentes, and numerous others have contributed to changing this narrative, the silences, and violence of archives; there remains ethics, justice, and power.
I also thought a lot about being future-bound during the program. Much of archiving necessitates foresight and is influenced by our human desire to be remembered, significant. So there is some vanity and necessity in the role of archiving. As a Black woman, I can’t make a separation from the history of people of African descent in this country. With that ancestral memory in mind, I am bound to the future and intentionality. So my thoughts after our conversation this morning is that as HBCUs and descendants of Africans we must act everyday as if we believe in the future, a future that holds our descendants, institutions, culture and yes, history. To not respond from this perspective shortens our very existence.
The Power of the Archivist
By Taylor Brookins, Lincoln University
Throughout the week I had the amazing opportunity to learn what archivists do in their many capacities. They are essentially active agents in preserving people’s history. An archivist can singlehandedly shape the narrative of what we remember. They decide the value of what gets preserved and who stories get told. With this huge responsibility in its many forms comes great power.
In our many sessions we often discussed with the archivists from Princeton and a number of different HBCUs how they have the power to decide what is archived and even what is restricted. This power ultimately can and has been used in negative and positive ways. Archives in its early history primarily supported the prevailing power structures. These powers structures often supported racist ideals. The power given to archivist excluded people of color, glorified corrupt leaders, and gave one sided or skewed narratives. In my opinion, this is very unfortunate because people of color unknowingly put trust in archivists to preserve history but were ultimately not included. People of color, specifically African Americans, have been underrepresented in history through archives, especially in America, even though they have played very important roles in the development of this country.
It was interesting to examine and discuss the underrepresentation of people of color in the archives and institutions of power, when ironically most of these institutions were built or came about by the labor of African Americans. We even looked at Princeton and its efforts to change its narrative and its underrepresentation of African Americans with the Princeton and Slavery project. Although there have been negative ways in which archivists asserted their power over history, there are also archivists who have used this power positively and have made efforts to begin to shift the narrative. For example, there has been a wave of community archiving helping communities to become stewards of their own archives. In doing so archivists are helping people who are not typically represented have a voice and create their own narrative. The power and responsibility given to an archivist is very important, but what is even more important is how this power is used to preserve history and direct the narrative.