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 fourth in a short series of such reflections.
Agential Community Archiving
By Madison Washington, Lincoln University
The ARCH program provided an introductory glance into the field by archival professionals. We convened on a daily basis with staff from Mudd and Firestone Libraries, visited the Princeton University Art Museum, and spent our final day of the program at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. Throughout the week we touched on various aspects of the field and ruminated over intense discussions. One of the discussions that resonated with me was that of Dunbar Rowland and William C. Bolivar. While the stories of these two men are starkly different, their commonalities present an important narrative on the importance of agential community archiving.
Though both men were archiving around the same time, their collections reveal vastly different perspectives. Rowland, a leading figure in the establishment of the Mississippi State Archives, worked in large part to support the fictitious idea of the former Confederacy’s “Lost Cause” by collecting papers that praised the Confederate South and its supporters as well as by compiling false and slanderous accounts to defame Blacks. At the same time, William C. Bolivar, an African American bibliophile and journalist from Philadelphia, was collecting a massive library of Africana literature. He frequented circles of other Black collectors in Philadelphia and also wrote articles in the newspaper reviewing the literature from his library.
Each man implemented agency towards a goal. The malicious intent of one is obvious and played a part in sustaining generational and institutional racism state and nationwide. Another, on the other hand, practiced community archiving that maintained literary narratives and historical accounts written by prevalent Black writers at that time. This tradition of maintaining archives in the Black community is being continued by historically black colleges and universities, as well as other institutions, nationwide and should be supported wholeheartedly by anyone with an interest in bringing progress to the field.
By Janelle Williams, Howard University
My interests lie within the liberation of marginalized people or “muted groups” (a term created by Edwin and Shirley Ardener that is used to describe those who are oppressed by the use of language, the language here being the lack of narrative given to legitimize those that are marginalized). I aspire to do so by investing in the preservation of our history (our tribulations, progress, and contributions to society) so our future can continue to progress and cultivate a sense of established confidence and legitimacy. There must be this sense of reassurance for future generations, that there were great people before us that were able to achieve the inevitable rather than succumbing to inferior self-conceptions. Not only do I see myself as a factor in helping this cause (letting our histories be told and guaranteed in the archives for reference and the production of educational resources), but I see myself engaging in multiple efforts to champion for the progress and to push for issues that will help secure hope for our futures. Securing knowledge of our histories, however, is the stepping stone to doing so.
It was quite interesting to dive into and engage in a quick overview of the dynamics of the archival world. I find myself at an understanding of the great necessity of promoting the archival of Black scholarship and the scholarship of people of color as a whole. Being from Howard University (an HBCU), I understand the importance of Black history first hand. It is a part of my life and it is a part of my curriculum and it is crucial that we hold our information within institutions that belong to us. However, we can only hold and acquire so much information, and not everyone will be able to benefit from the life lessons HBCUs have to offer. We also have to look at the dynamics of these highly ranked institutions and the influence they have on society. Let’s face it, the fact that people of color will be admitted to these initially all-White institutions is for the better, but it is time that these institutions reflect this (I commend Princeton University for reaching out and starting this transition). By this I mean it is crucial that people of color are represented within the archives of these predominantly White institutions by means of aiding in the understanding and promotion of Black history and the history of other people of color.
For instance, there were a few incidents where pictures of either prominent figures or relationships between individuals were not properly labeled. Inherently, this is misrepresentative of a museum’s purpose, which is to briefly educate the public on social and political icons as well as the prominent dynamics of our past that have influenced our current social and political dynamics. As an institution with access to so many resources, this should have never been factor, but mistakes will happen and its necessary to remedy these mistakes through the proper preservation and utilization of Black history and the histories of people of color. This is why we must allow for those of marginalized backgrounds to establish legitimacy in these archives to ensure that content is appropriately labeled, so the museums’ visitors will leave with some acquired knowledge or reassurance of a respected past. Perhaps there should be collaborations with HBCUs for funding the expansion with respect to the archival and research of Black history. One of my hopes is that prospective researchers will collect material and relay this information by means of inviting those who have limited access to resources, or by simply appealing to those who do not feel welcome in an educational climate to at least find a sense of purpose within the knowledge of their roots. Then perhaps, a sense of urgency to acquire knowledge and seek out tools for progression will further elevate the Black community politically and socially.
A greater appreciation for archiving was in fact formed as this program came to an end. I value this program not only with respect to the obvious, because history is important and we should all understand the value of each artifact due to them being the direct references to past struggles, political regimes, and the blueprints of change—a change in terms of each new variations of recycled circumstances and the new modes of persistence to combat these circumstances. This gave a contextual relevance to us in terms of our involvement in understanding the processes of preserving history. We further found an understanding as to how we must uncover and savor the receipts of our past that will be a piece to uncovering the puzzle of time, our truths. This allowed for us to not hear about it but be a part of it. As a Black woman I must take this seriously, but it should not just stop at muted groups but to all groups that are a part of this puzzle. However, it is crucial that we take in account that without the preservation of Black History, or any other histories from marginalized groups that are neglected, society will remain in a state of obscurity and therefore despair.