Liberatory Archives: Towards Belonging and Believing (Part 1)

This is part 1 of the text of my co-keynote address (along with Jen LaBarbera) delivered at the first Community Archives Forum hosted at UCLA on October 21, 2016. Please see part 2 here. Many thanks to the following archivists for their words and conversations that greatly contributed to the ideas present in this talk: Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez, Micha Broadnax, Carmel Curtis, Joyce LeeAnn Joseph, and Mark A. Matienzo. All faults present are my own.


I’m really excited and honored to be here this morning to address this historic forum of community archivists, but I want to start by acknowledging everyone who had a hand in convening this space today, especially those who physically prepared the space, such as the maintenance workers, the janitors, and the facilities staff. I see you, I value you, and I thank you.

I also want to thank IMLS and the institutions responsible for securing the grant to have this quartet of critical conversations. I recognize the labor and time you devoted to organizing this venue, and I want to go on record, personally, to thank you for bringing together a dynamic group of people and asking me to speak to that dynamic group of people; especially at 8:30 in the morning on a Friday! I’m skeptical about whether I’m the right person to get everyone woken up today, but I guess in 30 minutes we’ll know one way or the other.

I’m also skeptical about archives. More specifically, I’m skeptical about archives in the United States. Even more specifically, I’m skeptical about archives in the United States that adhere to the standard tradition of archives in the Western world. I’ve spent hours and hours of my time this year and last reading, thinking, tweeting, and writing about the origins of my skepticism, while also reconciling what it means that I am so very much a part of the problem that I see in this work and trying to advocate for the abolition of the archaic, anti-black, transphobic, elitist and misogynistic aspects of archival administration.

But today represents a small but significant shift in that thinking. This forum is an opportunity, I feel, to pivot from breaking down and pivot towards building up. It’s an opportunity to forget the oppressor and focus on the oppressed. It’s an opportunity to see not only what is but also see what can be. It’s an opportunity to probe our potential and invest in our imagination. It’s an opportunity to unshackle our chains and unlock our futures as humans, as community members, as archivists, and as memory workers. It’s an opportunity to be free.

To get us started on that justice-filled journey, I have two goals I want to accomplish with this address. The first goal is to heighten your awareness to common characteristics of the archival endeavor that I hope community archives will avoid replicating. The second goal is to investigate the import of liberatory archives — which are a type of community archive — by focusing on two actions that these spaces have the potential to engineer: the action of belonging and the action of believing. The action of belonging and the action of believing are two of the most fundamental exercises of the human spirit, and it’s my argument that liberatory archives possess the potential to engender both actions within communities whose humanity traditional archives fail to recognize and respect.


A risk arises, inevitably, that in seeking to create new things — governments, institutions, or archives — that the new things will in fact be lightweight versions of the old things or worse yet much more malicious. In other words, people and communities often times will emulate the oppression from which they seek to sever, and rather than construct an institution that is truly transformative will instead construct an institution that adheres to the hegemony, patriarchy, and paternalism laced within the logic of the institution that preceded it.

I love the way Paul Gilroy, the British literature scholar and thinker, puts it during a 2007 speech given on the occasion of the bicentennial commemoration of Britain’s abolition of the slave trade. When referring to the need to problematize collective memory around the British slave trade and modern capitalism and imperialism, Gilroy makes reference to William Wilberforce, who, to make a crude comparison to the American context, is the UK’s earlier equivalent to Abraham Lincoln, in that Wilberforce is also a white man given too much credit for black freedom. Gilroy states about Wilberforce:

“Now, we don’t fix that problem [of memory and abolition] by shunting one great man off the stage and wheeling another one on; or, a great woman in the form of Nanny. We don’t fix it. We have to do some damage to that idea of history.”

Gilroy’s requirement — that we do damage to oppressive ideas and not simply tinker with them — makes me think of the origins of a now-defunct institution in my current city of Philadelphia: Eastern State Penitentiary. At the time of its opening on October 25, 1829 — almost 187 years ago to the date — Eastern State Penitentiary sought to transform the way the world went about administering prisons. The idea behind Eastern State, which was brought forward in the late 1700s by a prison reform group known as The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, was that prisons should focus less on punishment and more on penitence. This emphasis on penitence birthed a new word: penitentiary.

Engraving of Eastern State Penitentiary from the early 1830’s. Image found here.

But although the reformers within the Philadelphia Society thought they were setting down a truly revolutionary path and breaking with the traditions of existing prison systems — such as the one in New York State — their idea of prisoner penitence rested on the notion that to become penitent, prisoners must be isolated during the entirety of their incarceration. At Eastern State, inmates were allowed out of their 8 x 12 x 10 foot cells just one hour per day for exercise. Even then, guards escorted inmates out to their exercise yards with hoods covering the prisoners’ faces, which was done to prevent any communication between prisoners, for any communication would breach the process of penitence, which the reformers believed could only happen through complete silence, solitude, and surveillance.

Over the course of the 19th century, Eastern State’s new approach to prison reform attracted the envy of hundreds of prisons worldwide, and in the process it accelerated the adoption of a practice that to this very day is one of the most vile and vicious form of prisoner abuse: solitary confinement. A project that started as a separation from the old way of doing prisons actually ended up further entrenching the problems that the old way of doing prisons had caused. To loop back into Paul Gilroy’s analysis, Eastern State Penitentiary didn’t do enough damage to the idea of incarceration, and by not doing enough damage, Eastern State would wind up doing more damage than what already existed.

Hooded Inmate. Eastern State Penitentiary. Image found here.

This brief account of Eastern State should be instructive to the work of community archives. Reformation of oppressive institutions — be they prisons, police, or archives — only yields more mature manifestations of oppression. Trying to reform, rather than damage, oppressive structures is like washing a wound with salt water. Relief may come momentarily but pain will come certainly. I once heard a talk from a bright young man who had been incarcerated but since his confinement went to college and became involved in prison education. He said, and I’m paraphrasing here:

“I don’t believe in prison reform, because I don’t believe in prisons. You cannot reform oppression. There was no way to reform slavery. And there can be way to reform prisons.”

As I have said elsewhere before, I’m an archives nihilist. I don’t, on a fundamental level, believe there is a way to reform the traditional way of doing archives. It is, to me, beyond salvage, as are the lot of its professional organizations. They are fruit of a poisonous, oppressive root, and regardless of the sweet sensation in one bite, demise is inevitable. Call me cynical. Call me pessimistic. Call me realistic. I call myself informed.

But this dismal diagnosis of the traditional archive need not leave us despondent. Instead, we should learn from traditional archives the common characteristics of their oppression and the eclectic elements of their inequality. I think these sites are ripe for study and analysis; much like the push to study whiteness — shoutout Claudia Rankine; black women, leading the way, AGAIN — and masculinity, both of which I feel similarly nihilistic about. In past talks, I’ve discussed a range of oppressive aspects of traditional archives. I honestly do not have enough time in my day to count the amount of structural racism, classism, and all the other -isms that are baked into the normal operations of traditional, mainstream archives.

Given that it would be impossible within 30 minutes to cover all of them, I want to delineate just three characteristics of traditional archives that I hope community archives will examine, challenge, and avoid. I actually already mentioned them today when discussing the vision of Eastern State Penitentiary. Those three characteristics are silence, solitude, and surveillance. I will breeze through my usage of these terms and highlight how each of them is ill-suited, I believe, to the notion of a community archive.

On silence, archivists typically invoke the term’s usage in the context of the absence of certain groups of people and communities from the archival record. My brother Rodney Carter — Canada, stand up — authored one of the most formative pieces of writing on the topic of this type of silence, and that piece is worth your full read after this forum. But that’s not the type of silence to which I am referring today. I am describing, instead, the type of silence enforced at Eastern State, the type of silence many of us traditional archivists observe everyday at work. It’s the silence and solemnity of the reading room, which we tacitly encourage if not outright require.

Silence is an important exercise of control and power. By preventing or discouraging verbal communication between people, the enforcers of said silence — whether prison guards at Eastern State or monitors of reading rooms — remove our human instincts to connect with other human beings as human beings. How oppressive it is of archivists to expect users to consult documentary records that chronicle the peaks and valleys of humanity — love, hate, war, abuse, joy, humor — and display no auditory or affective response. Traditional archivists are, in that sense, no different than the National Football League in its staunch commitment to eliminate what it deems to be excessive celebration after touchdowns. Both groups, the archivists and the NFL, want thinking, loving, caring human beings to engage their humanity but only so far. I dare say that visits to most reading rooms of traditional archives would show two common features: pictures of old white men, and silence. The patriarchy in these parts is palpable and pleased.

On solitude, common practices of providing access to records in a reading room involve delivery of documents to a single researcher stationed at his — usually, it’s his — desk, and during the entirety of his visit, he consults the contents of each box to his heart’s content, rarely if ever inviting others to partake in the experience with him. In fact, in some traditional archives, if he dares to break the solitude of the performance by wanting to photograph a document and post it to a blog or a social media account, he must first usually get permission from the archive to do so, or risk censure from the archive or worse.

The impact of this solitude — again, another feature of Eastern State Penitentiary — is very real both for the actual users of the archive and the potential users of the archive. Actual users are impacted because they are discouraged or disallowed from engaging with the archive in a way that makes sense for them and corresponds to how people expect to share content in this millennium; can you imagine seeing a YouTube video that you enjoy and being forbidden from posting it to Twitter or Facebook? Potential users of the archive are impacted because they don’t get the chance to see the Tweet, Facebook, or Snapchat video that never got posted due to the archive’s archaic affinity for solitude and solemnity.

Lastly, on surveillance, traditional archives swim through surveillance like fish swim through water. I wonder, truly, if our field would be what it is without its reliance and reification of surveillance. A poignant piece on this topic is a 2002 article by Eric Ketelaar entitled “Archival Temples, Archival Prisons,” of which I also encourage a full read. But in the nearly fifteen years since the article’s publication, we’ve seen both an intensification of the United States’ war on terror and an increase in incarceration rates and the number of people under correctional supervision. Both of these trends depend on surveillance, and that dependence has eroded many facets of quotidian life, such as visiting an archive.

At many of our reading rooms, users of archives are often required to show photo identification, an act for which we have the data proving that ID requirements disparately impact communities of color, the elderly, the poor, and the rural. In addition to the photo ID requirement, users may be subject to additional search or inspection of bags. If users pass this level of screening, the archive furthers the surveillance apparatus by keeping records of the materials that users request and view in the reading room. And finally, while in the reading room, users may be surveilled by multiple staff of the archives and increasingly by closed-circuit camera. Also while in the reading room, users are consulting records that very well may be surveilling and offering intimate details about the people and activities described in the documents.

1836 Plan of Eastern State Penitentiary. The hub and spoke design, thought to be reformative for its day, allowed a watchman to stand at its and watch all cell blocks at once. Image found here.

Surveillance, to many archives, is a narcotic. We are so addicted to the drug of surveillance — again, this was another core pillar of Eastern State Penitentiary — that we can’t see the damage it’s done to ourselves, to our society, and to our neighbors. The impact of this bad habit is felt by the most disenfranchised and disempowered communities. Arab-American communities. Muslim communities. Latinx communities. Queer communities. Black communities. Indigenous communities. These communities, plus more, are enemies of the white supremacist state — of which our nation is a proud leader — and thus these are the communities most susceptible to the consequences of our dirty habit. We need to get clean, and get clean soon.

I walked you through these three common characteristics of archives to demonstrate that, to a certain extent, the traditional ways that archives do business are in many ways antithetical to the notion of a community, so in many ways the push for the creation of community archives is actually a coup of thinking and doing for many people who identify as archivists. Archives and archivists as we have come to know them don’t care about community; they care about components, they care about control, and they care about capital. If community archives are to be the transformative spaces that I believe they have the capacity to be, they must not only resist the temptation to replicate these capitalist concerns but also must establish their own sets of concerns that challenge traditional archival praxis and theory.

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