During the last several years increasing effort has been made to identify how community-based archives can best ameliorate the oppressive effects of dominant archival institutions, as well as support the ongoing labor of what is most generally understood as social justice work. There is seeming consensus as to what a community-based archive should do, and how it should conduct itself. But what is it that will make this work possible? That’s is, what are the core values that enable the sustainability of archives that, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, were never meant to survive?
No matter how fundamental, guiding values cannot exist outside of history. Our work, while connected to and informed by the legacies of those who have gone before us, must be rooted firmly in the present. We have arrived at this moment through social movements demanding acknowledgement that we too deserve breath and the joy of life. In response, dominant formations of power have sought to rescue the contradictions of social exclusion and potential attending ruptures, through affirmation, recognition, and legitimacy of minoritized life.
In this context, it is not inevitable that community-based archives represent an alternative to mainstream repositories. In fact, it is more likely that we will serve to undergird the very structures we mean to displace. Today, as foundations, universities, museums, and the like, marshal resources to colonize what remains of the memories of the dispossessed, and author discourses that legitimate such acts — the values we must practice are ones of refusal. Refusal not as an act of negation, but as a condition of possibility.
We must refuse the rules of inclusion, and vocabularies of recognition and legitimacy that are meant to contain our histories. We should not echo articulations that we do not already exist in the archive. We are not marginal or other to the archive, but integral to it. We may be silenced or made invisible, but we have always been present.
Rather than set out to find or discover what has been lost, or made illegible to forms of whiteness, let us begin with the understanding that we have always been here — becoming.
That what, to some, are unofficial or oppositional archives hold the contour of our lived realities, our struggles to exist in landscapes only made possible by our premature death.
A signature achievement of racial capitalism has been to make the pursuit of inclusion and recognition the horizon of our desires. However, inclusion is dialectically tied to exclusion, and the fee for those of us lucky enough to get in is paid by others who do not meet the requirements of empire. As Barbara Smith has noted “Black history’s underlying agenda frequently has been to demonstrate that African Americans are full human beings who deserve to be treated like Americans, like citizens, like men.” That is, to be incorporated into the existing order of capitalism, American exceptionalism, patriarchy and violence.
We must refuse this siren call to offer redemptive narratives and accept conditional affirmation. Too often we struggle to provide archives that offer proof of our innocence. That the violence directed toward us is unjust because we were unarmed, had our hands up, went to good schools, were sober, married the right person, etc. If anything, we should seek to restore the complexities of our humanity, acknowledging the limiting historical conditions that have shaped our choices, and let that serve as the only claim we need to make for a right to peace.
If we are to restore and document our humanity, we must refuse the spectacle for the everyday. The archive has privileged the spectacle to our detriment. Today we can chant the names of a handful of the dead, but these are not litanies for survival. Even community-based archives have proven woefully inadequate in recording the names suffering slow deaths of incarceration, poverty, and environmental toxicity. We must first seek to archive lives lived in spaces of impossibility.
This archival practice necessitates a refusal of the professionalization of the field. Our communities have always had memory-keepers that intentionally documented and shared our stories. However, the degreed archivist, and approved archival practice, have come to represent the only legitimate way to do this work. Soon there will be institutionally approved ways to do community-based memory work, with attending certification, funding, awards/recognition, and accountability. We should do our best to benefit and learn from the accumulated wisdom of the existing profession, but also refuse attempts at incorporation which will only further alienate our communities from themselves.
In these refusals lie the possibilities of sustainability. Most materially, by refusing offers of inclusion and recognition, and instead demanding redistribution. Our archives have always existed and our communities have always done archival work. It’s being dispossessed of things like our land, our housing, even our health that have made our archives unsustainable.
What we need most are not new institutions with new foundation support, as welcome as that may be, but to continue the struggles for justice and sovereignty for all our communities so that we can continue doing the memory work we have been doing from the beginning.
In the trick of politics we are insufficient, scarce, waiting in pockets of resistance, in stairwells, in alleys, in vain. The false image and its critique threaten the common with democracy, which is only ever to come, so that one day, which is only never to come, we will be more than what we are. But we already are. We’re already here, moving. We’ve been around.
— Fred Moten and Stefano Harney
*Yusef Omowale is the Director of the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research.