Keeping It Real: Are Our Lives Worth Saving? If So, Why Do We Not Know or Support Black Archives?
June 2011

In her recent book, Black Gotham: A Family History of African-Americans in 19th-Century New York, Carla Peterson makes an astute and critical observation about the preservation, dissemination, and location of black life and culture. She tells us: “having reached a dead end (in my research), I turned to the archives, those storehouses of memories that have been painstakingly preserved on scraps of paper and in other forms, from paintings and photographs to digital images. Archives are man-made. Not all communities have the power to establish them, since they require material resources - money, buildings, technologies of writing and preservation - as well as cultural resources, including literacy and historical knowledge.  Those who have the means assemble, classify, and deposit what they deem worth preserving and discarding what they consider trivial, irrelevant, or even threatening to their way of life.  They create history, determining what can be forgotten, and what must be remembered and passed on to future generations.  Even after archives have been assembled, they never remain static monuments, but are imbued with a sense of impermanence. Materials get damaged, lost, sold, removed from their original site and forgotten, destroyed through political upheaval or just sheer carelessness.” (Carla Peterson)

These issues are still urgently on the table for black people as we settle into the 21st century, where white supremacists and culture warriors seek to eradicate Ethnic Studies, as well as America’s history of enslavement and other forms of brutality and oppression from textbooks, archives, and courses of study at universities. In essence, they want to steal and erase our history, while they simultaneously recreate themselves. They have the power to achieve their goal in a white-centered technocracy, where digitizing books, newspapers, and photographs and scaling back on libraries are already under way.
Yet, we do not blink an eye, and we move forward with childish trust without asking the hard questions that lead us to a collective strategy of making sure that our lives and culture are preserved.  The questions on the table are:

(1) Who will decide whose history will be preserved, dismissed, trivialized, and forgotten in a society that is not post-racial, but continues racism and a tradition of using knowledge to buttress white power and aggrandize whiteness, while diminishing black people? 

(2) Is it naïve to turn our papers and cultural artifacts to white institutions on the assumption that these institutions will care for them properly or allow the community access to them, despite their long history of cultural and intellectual imperialism and exclusion? Are these questions not worth a collective conversation? 

(3) Why do we not work together to strengthen black archives, rather than dismissing them as inferior, under-resourced, and poorly managed?  If you believe this, then you should work to strengthen them, rather than strengthening the capacity of white institutions.

I recently visited the Moorland Spingarn Research Center at Howard University to research the lives of Lucy Diggs Slowe, the first black dean of women at Howard University and Mary P. Burrill, a prominent playwright in the 1920s. They were a known and beloved lesbian couple in Washington, D.C., whose circle of friends included Mary McLeod Bethune, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Marion Cuthbert, A. Phillip Randolph, Kelly Miller, Benjamin Mays, Howard Thurman, and Georgia Douglas Johnson. Without the Moorland Spingarn Collection, important aspects of their lives would have been lost or expunged. We have Dorothy Porter Wesley, my friend, confidant, and one-time Dean of African Letters, who was the prime mover of the Moorland Spingarn Collection, to thank for saving our lives. As did her friend and my friend, Jean Blackwell Hutson, who laid and grew the foundation for (what is known today as) the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

My last trip to the Moorland Spingarn Collection made me marvel at how Dorothy Porter Wesley and her colleagues built a magnificent and awesome archive with far less resources than we have at our disposal today. They did their work! Are you willing to continue to save and preserve our life and culture, or will you cede this task to people and institutions with shady pasts and predispositions for historical lies and erasure?


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