Liberatory Archives: Towards Belonging and Believing (Part 2)

This is part 2 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 1 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.

And it’s the last point of establishing their own sets of concerns that transitions me into the second goal of this address, which is to investigate the import of liberatory archives — again, one form of a community archive — by highlighting two actions that these spaces can engender: the action of belonging and the action of believing. But before I talk about those two actions of belonging and believing, let me offer a definition. Actually, I said that incorrectly. Let me cite a definition, and I’m going to cite the definition of a woman — hashtag #CiteHerWork — who’s written about and done a great deal of intellectual and physical labor to bring about this forum in LA and create these conversations in the field.

And I have to say, as an aside, that before I submitted my abstract and title for this address, I hadn’t read this definition and the book chapter in which it is found. If I had, I likely would have used a different title or a different theme. All of this to say: and I’m speaking specifically to the self-identified men in the room. If you think of an idea that you think is ahead of the curve or new in any way, be assured that a woman — often times a black woman, but not always — probably thought of the idea first. So do the research. Do the reading. Cite her work. And don’t be an oppressive, patriarchal jackass who erases and undermines the work of women and folks who don’t subscribe to the gender binary. Fellas if you aren’t finding the sources that speak to whatever idea it is you’re interested in exploring, that isn’t because those sources don’t exist or haven’t been written. It’s likely because they haven’t been cited, and they likely haven’t been cited because she’s a woman. Just my thoughts.

Okay; back to the definition! Michelle Caswell, in her book chapter “Inventing New Archival Imaginaries,” really sets a fiery foundation on which to engage this concept of a liberatory archive. Again, please read this work in full if you haven’t. If you need access to a copy of it, holla at ya boy or contact Michelle directly. Once you read the chapter in its entirety, I’m sure you’ll be struck by this line that reads:

“…through the lens of liberatory archival imaginaries, our work as community-based archivists does not end with the limits of our collection policies, but rather, it is an ongoing process of conceptualizing what we want the future to look like.”

So you see in her definition that liberatory archives are not things so much as they are processes. Understanding them, then, is not a ‘what’ question as much as a ‘how’ question. Let me now expand on the ‘how’ question of liberatory archives and focus on two processes and actions for us to consider explicitly integrating into the work of community archives.

The first action I want to unpack in the context of liberatory archives is the action of belonging. And to unpack that, I want to offer another anecdote about a prison, but this time about a contemporary with which I have direct experience. Some of you may know that I have co-taught a few semesters of college classes at different prisons in New Jersey through the Princeton Prison Teaching Initiative. Any of the students whom I have taught can tell you about my obsession with words. Besides saying too many of them and using awkward ones, I also like to explore their origins, a motivation likely attributed to my day job as an archivist in which it’s important that I know the origins of things.

Exploring words and exploring archives, I think, complement each other quite naturally. Both are technologically arbitrary symbols of social construction that, due to their lack of inherent value, would lose all import the moment humans deemed them worthless. In this sense, humans don’t need words or archives. What humans do need, though, is belonging, and I teach in prisons because I belong there.

Where I belong. Classroom, Stillwater Prison (MN). 08/25/1951. Image found at the Minnesota Historical Society.

Commonly held views of belonging — reflected in nearly every modern English dictionary — suggest that to belong is to be ‘rightly placed in a specified position’ or to ‘fit in a specified place or environment.’ Humans are quite adept at erecting this view of the word, constantly reinforcing socially constructed boundaries of belonging. Those of us who have endured this reinforcement can recall these experiences quite vividly.

My “specified place” became crystal clear when, as an 18 year-old college freshman at a predominantly white university, classmates would follow their initial question of “what’s your name?” with the inevitable question of “what sport do you play?”

My “specified position” became ever evident when, as a 22 year-old first-year graduate student at this same university, security guards accosted me to demand identification while I attempted to enter my very own graduate school orientation along with hundreds of other white students who proceeded unmolested.

My “specified environment” became readily apparent when, as a 27 year-old college instructor at a prison, I was forced to remove my orange Polo shirt and teach in an 80-degree, non air-conditioned classroom wearing a black zipped-up North Face jacket because orange is apparently the new, old, and still black.

I could give you these stories for days, but suffice it to say that according to its common definition, I haven’t belonged in many of the spaces I’ve occupied and still occupy. But to accept the common definition of belonging is to undermine the word’s capacity. Its Middle English origin reveals a richer perspective: a simple contraction of the verb ‘long’ and the intensifier ‘be’ — as used in bewilder, bemoan, or bespeak. Quite literally, to belong is to intensely yearn or pine for something; as if yearning or pining wasn’t already intense enough.

I yearn and pine to teach in a prison because I serve students who, on that 80-degree teaching day, volunteered the shirts off their backs so that the sweat would stop running down my face like a leaky faucet.

I yearn and pine to teach in a prison because I learn from students who, in the midst of sharing stories of their personal loss of immediate family members, prayed for the health and welfare of my immediate family members.

I yearn and pine to teach in a prison because I know students who, despite the inhumanity they’ve encountered inside and outside the wall, dare to retain their dignity.

Seen through the eyes of my past students, to belong is to show empathy, to exude compassion, and to feel freedom. This definition of belonging invigorates and liberates, and it challenges us — has challenged me — to imagine the world for what it might be and not just for what it already is. This new understanding has invariably increased my capacity to imagine and, just as importantly, belong.

You may be wondering: what does this have to do with liberatory archives and community archives more broadly? The point is that too often communities, states, and governments set the terms of belonging on artificial, xenophobic, ethnocentric, queerphobic, and racist terms of engagement; “the specified position” view of belonging. We have a candidate for this country’s highest office who’s running an open campaign on belonging, and most of the white people in this country will vote for him. I hope, truly, that community archives do not become another site in which to play the politics of belonging, excluding aspects of identities that the majority community finds undesirable or unworthy and playing into the patriarchy. Liberatory and community archives cannot have enough intersectionality, and if you haven’t heard that term before, look up Kimberlé Crenshaw.

To put it another way, let’s not pretend that we are about freedom if really we are about power; the power to exercise the same violence and dominion as the white cishet man. For the case of archives, this means that we don’t need black community archives that require people to choose whether they are either black, queer, or a woman. We don’t need Latinx community archives that require the same thing. Liberatory and community archives, I think, should lean towards the Middle English view of belonging, which is a deep yearning. Who are the people with a deep yearning or pining to be in commune with the community? Who are the people on the margins of that community? What steps is the liberatory or community archive taking to center those on its margins? At your so-called liberatory archive, do black lives matter, or do all black lives matter, including disabled black lives, poor black lives, queer black lives, and Muslim black lives?

All black lives matter. Photo sourced from Johnetta Elzie.

I’ve gone on at length about the action of belonging, both because it’s the action I feel most passionately that community archives must get right and because the second action, believing, is a bit more nebulous to me, but I think it’s important to address it still. And I want to connect the action of believing and liberatory archives by shining light on a project taking place in my city of Philadelphia that I think is on the cutting edge of liberatory archives and community archives, even though that is not the language they invoke. As with many things about belief, I can show you better than I can tell you.

A project that embodies believing in the context of liberatory archives is Community Futurisms: Time & Memory in North Philly. Led by two black women artists who form the collective Black Quantum Futurism, Community Futurisms is:

“a collaborative art and ethnographic research project exploring the impact of redevelopment, gentrification, and displacement within the North Philadelphia neighborhood known as Sharswood/Blumberg through the themes of oral histories, memories, alternative temporalities, and futures… BQF Collective will operate Community Futures Lab, a gallery, resource and zine library, workshop space, recording booth, and time capsule, recording oral histories/futures in North Philly.”

Did you catch that at the end of their project description? They will be recording oral histories and futures. This isn’t an archival project that exists solely to recast the past. Rather, their efforts are about impacting the future, which can only happen if one 1) believes there is thing such as a future and 2) believes that one’s fate in the future is not fixed. What the Community Futurisms project articulates is that the story on gentrification and removal in North Philly is not yet complete, bulldozers and redevelopers be damned. Theirs is a vision of the archive that has a malleable future and a malleable past. Actually, their vision of the archive has a malleable future because it has a malleable past.

The vision of BQF contextualizes the Community Futurisms project:

“Black Quantum Futurism (BQF) is a new approach to living and experiencing reality by way of the manipulation of space-time in order to see into possible futures, and/or collapse space-time into a desired future in order to bring about that future’s reality. This vision and practice derives its facets, tenets, and qualities from quantum physics, futurist traditions, and Black/African cultural traditions of consciousness, time, and space. Where these three traditions intersect exists a creative plane that allows for the ability of African-descended people to see “into,” choose, or create the impending future. Under a BQF intersectional time orientation, the past and future are not cut off from the present — both dimensions have influence over the whole of our lives, who we are and who we become at any particular point in space-time.”

There is nothing more I can add about the action of believing as it pertains to liberatory and community archives that isn’t already stated here. This project exudes belief in an alterable, changeable future that is directly connected to the past. It provides an example for all of us to appreciate, follow, and learn from as we move forward with our respective liberatory or community archive projects. Quite literally, the Community Futurisms project is reason enough to believe in the transformative power of liberatory and community archives.

I want to close in a fashion similar to which I opened. Again, I want to uplift the invisible and unseen labor required for the convening of this space at UCLA and for the latter convenings in New Orleans, Chicago, and New York.

In a way, one hope I have for liberatory archives and community archives is that they make seeing the unseen a regular and not radical action. Much of what is happening in our society and country right now can be traced back to a refusal to confront who we have been, who we currently are, and who we would like to be. No profession deserves more blame for that refusal than archivists. Not journalists. Not historians. Not politicians. The archivists are the bearers of the blood-stained records of the past and the present, yet we have been wholly complicit, under the delusion of neutrality, in our country’s hastening descent into chaos.

But here’s where you come in. You, as current and future memory workers in this space of liberatory and community archives, have the ability to use your talents, your skills, and your humanity to create spaces for transformation to occur. You can convene community events in which community members are invited to enjoin the experience of connecting with the past. You can engage in practices that allow for the richest, fullest representation of those in the archival records you assemble, shifting the current mode of archives that’s predicated on cold data to a mode focused on warm data, as described by Alice Royer in the project Index of the Disappeared.

The possibilities of the futures before us are not inevitable. I maintain that all is not lost, and I am convinced that our ability to act upon yesterday on today will make a difference tomorrow. I may be wrong about this. But, I belong to a community of believers who say otherwise, and I’m happy to be here today amongst a community of believers who share that belonging and who share that belief. Let’s get free. Let’s get to that future. Thank you.