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.


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).

Presidential Candidates for 2020 and white allyship

The road has been fucking long since the last presidential race of 2016. Perspective Democratic candidates have come out of the woodwork to vie for top pick in 2020.

*checks calendar*

This is going to be a long road with sound bites, hot takes, and candidates trying to demonstrate how relatable and cool they are. I decided to write this post to talk specifically to white allies.

These last few years have been a growing and unlearning season for some of y’all. And you’re maybe even patting yourself on the back for how far you’ve come and how much you’ve grown. I’m here to say that white supremacy and patriarchy are potent.

And, let’s be honest, y’all been drinking from this kool-aid for a long time. I’m already seeing the subtle turns in the conversation and the denigration toward people, especially people of color, who have tangible criticisms of presidential candidates. This is popping up, yet again, in dismissing and shouting down people of color, tone policing, and sealioning. It is not our place to do the work for you. And, in one fell swoop, you can undo all the goodwill you’ve spent time cultivating.

A couple of things:

  • Women (white and of color) tend to get criticized more harshly by comparison to men (specifically white and of color). Ask yourself if your level of criticism and skepticism is being applied with the same intensity to all potential candidates. The propensity to go white and male is still strong without critically analyzing their position and why people (specifically people of color) are not checking for the same candidate. And, recognize when candidates, as the competition gets stiff, start employing dog-whistle politics.

  • Maya Angelou once said “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” I reference this particular quote to say to you, white allies, to compare what potential candidates say to their track record. Compare what they don’t say (or refuse to acknowledge) against their track record. This is the kind of labor people of color have been doing for years, determining which candidate is the best or, at the very least, are likely to do the least harm to their community.

  • To do the work of selecting a candidate will mean listening, practicing mindfulness to know when you are taking up too much space, in real life or in the digital world, doing your research, checking and re-checking your privilege at the door.

Above all, these are people vying for the top pick to go up against 45. Now is the time to nitpick and eliminate the poorer choices.

Decolonize Your Mind

I love bell hooks. I love the way she thinks and writes ever since reading her book Teaching To Transgress. My reading of the book coincided with my reading of Teaching with Primary Sources from the Society of American Archivists, in which I wrote a blog post. From that auspicious beginning, I read Killing Rage: Ending Racism and Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. A recurrent theme of hooks’ is “decolonize your mind.” Her work, in many ways, validated my experience as a black woman but it also cast a critical lens on this life I live. White supremacy is a helluva drug and I’m realizing that it’s a drug I have steadily consumed for 33 years.

Point of clarification, before proceeding further, I am writing from a black, cis-het, female perspective. I’m writing for minority audiences, specifically black people. Decolonizing our minds is a concept we must begin to grapple with as a community. For white readers, since this is public, I challenge you to read thoughtfully and thoroughly as I hope you too will learn something from this writing. But know this isn't a space to hear how you feel or what you think.

Let’s take it back (for those who know this, indulge me)

Scientific racism (aka race biology) was pseudoscience promulgated as scientific fact by Europeans (read: white) to study biological differences. Not so coincidental is that this type of “scientific study” popped up as soon as Europeans expanded beyond their borders to conquer and colonize the world. They encountered people different than them. So they treated the people they encountered as specimens to be studied, put on display, and bodies to be dissected. They defined progress and culture on their terms and any civilization or peoples not up to that level were regarded as inferior. Heathens. They studied the skulls of Africans, Asians, etc and developed theories to back up these racist ideas of their superiority and the inferiority of “the other.” Some of the top (white) thinkers of the day believed this bullshit such as Thomas Jefferson.

In turn, these beliefs laid the foundation for justifying slavery in the United States, apartheid in South Africa, and even the Eugenics movement which advocated selective breeding and compulsory sterilization. This movement in particular was popular in the 20th century and can be seen in the Nazi Germany regime.

I write this for context. In a video, anti-racism activist Jane Elliott (known for her Blue/Brown eye experiment) put it succinctly, “we started out as one human race but then we were divided into categories.” From that European-created division, they demarcated who was superior and who was inferior. Guess who was at the top? Their shitty “science” was a mask to cover up their sins of racism and colonization. These beliefs accepted as fact.

scientific racism.jpg

In the case of American black people, we supposedly felt less pain, are predisposed to hard labor, and intellectually inferior. Slap on the yoke of slavery, the white conversation shifted to slavery being good for us. In fact, the best thing to happen to us as a people because it got us out of “dirty, filthy Africa.” Because we were regarded as lesser, families could be broken up and black women raped because we were lower life forms. The desire for freedom, kinship, and education were regarded and treated by white enslavers as a mental disorder. Something was wrong with us because we wanted to be free. The powerful yearning for freedom led to uprisings and revolts which tacked on a fear among whites. This led to policing black bodies and an unease of too many black people gathered together, especially black men. With the American Civil War and Reconstruction, black people were free….but not really. Now, because we expected more and didn’t want to work for free, we were called lazy (actually enslaved people were called lazy throughout slavery). U.S. Freedmen Bureau records, a short-lived government agency established during Reconstruction, are replete with letters and other documents of white people complaining about the laziness of black people, their former slaves. Or, black people, men in particular being arrested for “loitering.” Now prisons became the new plantation.

Do you see the pervasiveness of white supremacy? Do you see how its seeped in? Do you see in the history how those words and actions are parroted now?

White supremacy is codified in the DNA of white people and accepted as fact, even among white people who profess to be liberal. They have breathed it in from birth. (Side note: for white readers here is a great Twitter thread on white fragility and white supremacy)

It’s easy to point the finger at white people but now let’s shift to the heart of this essay. Black people, we have not escaped unscathed. White supremacy is the poison and we have drunk from the same water.

White supremacy is most apparent in the stanning and policing of each other based on white supremacist standards and defense mechanisms.

It is embedded in the ongoing conversation of colorism where lighter skin is regarded as beautiful and aspirational. Darker skin regarded as ugly. This has led to generations of infighting amongst us and self-hatred. I see it on social media as dark-skinned black people, more often black women, are fighting to be heard and included (see pretty much any tweet by @IWriteAllDay_). It is present in the favoritism parents, family, and society give to the lighter-toned among us. It is in the family members that tell you not to play in the sun too much or, as they warn, you’ll get “too dark.” It is to be asked, as a black woman, if you are mixed or biracial because the only accounting for your beauty is if your blackness is diluted. (I shit you not, I had a 30ish black man ask me this because he couldn’t believe that my curly hair came from having two fully black parents.)

It is in the black police officers who participate or turn a blind eye in the “extreme policing” of black lives. The most recent example is the image of black police officers violently dispersing protests after Chicago barber Harith Augustus was killed. They are steeped in white supremacy where black (and brown) lives are suspect and must be policed.

It is present in violence that we, as black people, perpetuate on other people of color. We accept the white supremacist view of difference and spread its toxic out. See this story.

It is commenting and policing each other’s hair and then claiming it was a joke.

It is weaponizing Chicago and other economically-depressed areas as an example of crab mentality without educating ourselves on the systemic issues in that area and the work of folks on the ground.

It is the easy acceptance of white allies who show an elementary grasp of basic human decency. (You don’t deserve a cookie or an invite to the cookout because you recognize that black people are people.)

It is tearing each other down by holding each other to this (invisible) white supremacist standard.

And when this behavior is called out, it is met with scorn, dismissal, and a refusal to see an alternative point of view. Sound familiar?

The thing is white supremacy and those who uphold it will always try to move the goal post of acceptance. Keep it just outside of black reach.

To decolonize our minds, means to be cognizant of and examine our responses to things internal and external to us. Is the thought or action rooted in policing black behavior and and bodies? For example, I had to confront my unease regarding groups of black men. One Saturday morning, I glanced out my 2nd story window to see on the street corner three men, ranging in age from 20-40ish. I stopped and watched them. An unease creeping in me. They chatted, laughed, and went their separate ways. It was then I realized they were just a group of guys talking but why did I feel so uneasy at the sight of them. I sat with that feeling for days. I realized that because of white supremacist culture, I had viewed them with suspicious, with fear.  I assumed them guilty of something or up to no good based on NO evidence.

I’ve had many a moment where I had to grapple with my reaction and thoughts to things. To find myself ready to police another black person’s behavior or words when they were merely pointing out the problem. It means learning and educating myself about black history, black intellectual thought and black feminism, to understand how much of white supremacy I have consumed.

Know that to walk this path of decolonization will open you up to a world that you cannot unknown. To see how problematic you are, your family is, or your friends.

If we want to create a world beyond white supremacy, we have to grapple as a people, as a community, with the damage it has wrought on each other and our psyche. If we don’t, we risk replicating this world, these systems, in the next iteration.

To be truly free, we must decolonize our minds. It is imperative.


A Statement

Upset by the state of this country, I took to Facebook to post the following statement:

"As a student of history, these unfolding events are eerily similar to post-Reconstruction era and the rise of fascism in the 1920s. I do not rattle easily friends and I am rattled.

[Speaking to the silent Trump supporters on my friends list]

If you voted for this man, feel no remorse for what havoc he is causing (separating families, lying, possibly colluding with Russia) nor protesting or resisting in some form or fashion, simply, we cannot be friends. Remove me from your friends list.

Your actions and continued support of this man means your compassion ends at your own humanity at the expense of others. Nothing I say will change that because I, in your eyes, deep down, am not deemed worthy of compassion.

If you proclaim to be a believer, then I give you over to God because I cannot.

I don’t have the time nor the inclination to teach (or show) you the error of your ways not when others and myself are fighting for our right to live and thrive in this country. My efforts are best spent elsewhere. To lift each other up. To console one another. To live to see another day."