Some of the readings we looked at this week were unfortunately poignant with recent events in Charlotte and Tulsa where a black man in each community was killed by police, and those communities responded through demonstrations. Unfortunately, these types of incidents involving police have been common in the African American community for generations in our country. However, many more individuals now have the ability to readily document events with cameras on their smartphones, so we now are able to see much more clearly what is all too common for many individuals in this country.
With readily available data through photographs, videos, tweets and other materials available online, there is a treasure trove of information ready to be captured by museums and archives. As information professionals, I think the key term we have to focus on is responsibility when taking up the task to document such painful times in our history. We must be responsible by working with communities to acquire items that really capture their voices and experience, and we must be responsible in monitoring any biases in how we arrange and describe the events.
As Katie Shilton and Ramesh Srinivasan acknowledged in their article, “Counterpoint: Participatory Appraisal and Arrangement for Multicultural Archival Collections,” cultural heritage institutions have favored the majority culture with the “power to represent” what is held in their institutions and what they view as culture. This has led to the silencing of stories of those who have been oppressed throughout history. There is no doubt that the African American population has been marginalized, abused, and mistreated in this country for centuries. In the presentation by Bergis Jules, he looks back on stories of demonstrations and rebellions similar to the Black Lives Matter movements we are seeing today, but sadly found little primary source documentation available. Events like the Watts Rebellion of 1965 and the Hough Rebellion of 1966 did happen, but because of the bias in whether or not these events were considered worth collecting, there are very little first person narratives on the experience of these events.
While the country has slowly marched towards more equality between races, we are now seeing news outlets viewing excessive police force in a more fair manner. In addition, most civilians now have the ability to capture life events with our smartphones, allowing archivists the ability to establish collections focusing on voices of the marginalized. When looking at how to create such an archive, they should follow the advice of Shilton and Srinivasan and “actively empower the records, projecting voices spoken by and for the community that reflect the original context and knowledge structures of their community creation.”
This chart found in the Shilton and Srinivasan article show steps that archivists can make when creating an archive with the help of the community the archive is documenting. This is done by having the community have a role in deciding what should be collected, discussing the provenance of how or why certain objects were created, and how the ordering of the collection can help show interrelatedness of the materials.
The presentation by Jarrett Drake was particularly tough to read, but I believe he has a point that cultural heritage institutions in the United States are inherently patriarchal and white driven. I admittedly found myself struggling over the idea he presented about only collecting items around the Black Lives Matter movement if we prepared to be allies. Granted, I already feel as though I’m an ally of the movement, so that part wouldn’t be a problem for me. However, I felt a twinge of “taking sides” and thought about how an archivists should be unbiased when documenting events. The Shilton and Srinivasan article made me feel better about this concept of allyship when it talked about how institutions of the past have been focused on creating archives about communities instead of being of communities. By becoming of the community, the archivists get extensive contextual knowledge that will help them build a well representative archive, while also helping reduce the possibility of implicit bias that one might have when writing descriptions. A good example of bias found in documentation can be seen in how we describe some of these events in the past. When I first read the Jules presentation, I saw his section on the LA Rebellion and my first thought was “right, the LA riots.” The term riots has a much harsher and violent meaning than the word rebellion. If I was putting together a description prior to reading this article, I most likely would have instinctively used the term riots instead of rebellion.
In more positive news of historical movement in the right direction, this afternoon while waiting in line at Starbucks, I spoke with an African American woman in her early 70s talking about how excited she was for today’s opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. She told me how the museum is looking to capture stories from African Americans documenting their own experiences and the experiences of their family. She beamed as she spoke about how she can’t wait to visit the museum, but how she also wanted to participate in their oral history project by telling the stories of her grandfather who was born in DC in 1875. Rep. John Lewis spoke at the dedication of the museum today and made an apt statement on how the exhibits will allow for citizens to reflect on events from the past, and help them relate to current issues that African Americans currently face.
If we look at the glass-topped casket that displayed the brutalized body of Emmett Till and hear his story, we may better understand the exasperation and anger Americans feel today over the deaths of Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice.
If we see that an everyday leather wallet is what’s left of Harry T. Moore — a man who fought for the right to vote and died in a bombing meant to silence his activism on Christmas Day in 1951 – perhaps we will see why so many are fighting to protect any encroachment on that most sacred right today.