Archives, Liberation, and Black Feminist Theory

This is the third time I’ve tried to write this post on archives, liberation, and black feminist theory. The previous times delved into a long-winded explanation, a veritable literature review of my foray into readings.

Friends, that is not the post I wanted to write, although I have included at the end of this post a meaningful bibliography of black feminist theory and social justice readings that resonated with me.

What I wanted to write about, to connect on, is that place of tension within myself that, in turn, informs my archival practice.

In one of my many readings, bell hooks said simply and profoundly:

“decolonize your mind.”

In Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown stated:

“what we practice at the small scale sets the pattern for the whole system.”

Inevitably to change these systems of oppression, the necessary work, that ripples out must start with me. I must decolonize my mind, reckon with its toxicity wrought by a straight, white supremacist capitalist patriarchal (and evangelical) culture (S.W.S.C.P.E). How do I hinder myself? Oppress others? How do I keep drinking this poison and expecting those who are doing the harm to get sick or die?

To envision liberation, I must first liberate myself. This is what comes up most often in my readings. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it, unpacking it in my day to day.

At the same time, I ponder the influence of this culture on archives and archival practice.

Black feminism brings stern critique, a hyper awareness of the interplay of different identities (race, class, sexuality, etc) and an understanding of power dynamics but it also speaks with love, even leads with it.

How do I bring this into my archival practice? How does my identity as a cisgender hetero middle class black woman inform my approach? How do these identifiers come into tension with S.W.S.C.P.E? After all, as discussed on Twitter, the voices and writings that are upheld as the cornerstones of archival theory are straight white men.

If I do not liberate myself by recognizing how I support the systems of oppression, leaning away from the dominant colonialist narrative/approach, and halting my tacit demand of others to adhere to it as well, I will only replicate them within the archivist-donor-researcher paradigm. That is not leading with love. That is leading with power and centuries of domination. “I know something you don’t. I am the authority.”

I am not advocating to throw the whole basis for archival theory or practice away, as tempting as that may sound. Rather I advocate revisiting it, revising it if we can, and if not, then discarding it in order to create something new.

What encourages me to propose the aforementioned statement is the present, changing landscape of archival theory and practice. It is expansive and diverse. I look at the work and writings of Jarrett Drake, Michelle Caswell, Bergis Jules, Staci Williams, and so, so many others who bring marginalized communities to the table as equal partners to share in the transformational work of reimagining archives to be an inclusive environment and experience. (Yes, it is an experience to engage with archives.) I think to myself, why isn’t this embedded in our archival theory and practice? Why does the profession persist in setting itself apart? This is work we ought to reckon with because in continuing to exist in this manner only aligns ourselves with systems of oppression. It continues to distance marginalized communities.

The work has shifted toward bringing in diverse collections but not actively and consistently creating an inclusive space for marginalized communities to engage and interact with their collection….with their own history. Is that not still gate keeping?

In response, we see the rise of community archives. The community taking ownership of their history and the preservation of their records.

How do we reimagine archives? How do we dismantle the hold of these systems of oppression and what does that look like?

Again, I return to brown, as that is my current reading and most present in my mind, what is the vision for liberation? What does it look like? What are we working toward?

From there, I ask myself and ask of you, how are we honoring that vision? How are we moving toward it? How are we replicating it now in our lives and in our encounters with others?

Why is that important? Because we are the system. These systems of oppression are us. We sustain it. We nourish it. Now hear me out, the system is predicated on people playing their part or, in the case of marginalized communities, “staying in their lane.” To continue to play the role it has designated for us, not the role we hope for or envision for ourselves.

When we stop participating the way the system (aka others) expect of us, when we recognize and assert the right to determine the course of our own lives, THAT is where change is possible. That is where liberation comes. That is when systems can be dismantled. But, that is also where the tension lies….and also the potential for violence from the most staunch supporters of said system.

It won’t be easy. It will be hella tough because this is a system that has thrived for centuries. It is a system where folks are still invested in it, whether they openly admit it or not, whether they know it or not.

Fin.

For now.

The words for this post came to me while I was eating breakfast at my dining room table. Thank goodness for a pen nearby and this envelope. I ended up tearing it along the seams to continue writing.

The words for this post came to me while I was eating breakfast at my dining room table. Thank goodness for a pen nearby and this envelope. I ended up tearing it along the seams to continue writing.

___

Meaningful bibliography

adrienne maree brown. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Chico: AK Press, 2017.

Audre Lorde. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2012.

bell hooks. Ain’t I A Woman? Black Women and Feminism. Boston: South End Press, 1981.

bell hooks. All About Love: New Visions. New York: William Morrow Paperbacks, 2000.

Barbara Ransby. Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018.

Brittney C. Cooper. Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers her Superpower. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018.

Ricardo L. Punzalan and Michelle Caswell, “Critical Directions for Archival Approaches to Social Justice,” Library Quarterly 86 (2016).