The M(N)STRY: The Arkive

Thoth and His wife Seshat, a fellow scribe and The Mistress of the House of Books (aka the Patroness of Libraries/All Writing and Architects)

The Arch. The Ark. The Archive. The Arcane. The Archon. The Architect. The Archangel. The ArchAndroid.

The Chief Holder of a Culture’s Knowledge for Future Recollection.

The Cybernetic Helms(wo)man of the Ship Sailing to a New Horizon.

Last weekend, I attended Summoning the Archive at NYU. Attending it inspired me to think of the “archive” in relation to communities of color and Afrofuturism. A few archivists/librarians/curators of color have existed in speculative fiction. For example, remember the bluesman Peter Wheatstraw from Ellison’s Invisible Man who carried discarded blueprints in his cart? How about Akomfrah’s data thief in the Last Angel of History? Or the Puerto-Rican librarian at Columbia University, Nydia Ochoa, who helps Sierra (breaking the rules of the institution as Sierra is not a student) find out more about her cultural heritage in Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper? Or Wanuri Kahiu’s Pumzi, which follows a museum curator who braves the outside world because of her dreams that life can exist out there?

Could Janelle Monae’s ArchAndroid be an archivist or archive? If we think of archives as like external hard drives or cloud systems in which we collect data and contextualize it through time. An external memory system that reflects what we hold valuable in a culture. Archives are cyborgian in nature. ArchAndroid as the Last Angel of History?

As described in the Schomburg Center’s exhibition, Unveiling Visions: The Alchemy of Black Imagination, in its section — “The Living Arkive,” we could have a reimagination of the possibilities of the archive: “The archive, or as our curators call it, the ARKive, is a constantly shifting space that allows for a great deal of flexibility on how artwork is shown and represented within the gallery space. It allows us to travel through the objects on display. The ARKive is a space of discovery, interaction, and constant growth. Each day, a new aspect of our culture is discovered, created, and re-contextualized. Unveiling Visions treats the arts and design as part of an ever-evolving discourse between the past, present, and future.” The archive and/or museum is not a dead space filled with dead objects but constantly changing. A living space much like Janelle Monae’s “Q.U.E.E.N.” video.

Current archivists of color are doing that in their work, including Kameelah Rasheed, Joyce LeeAnn Joseph and Shawnta Smith. As Rasheed says, “America loves a linear history and a linear history wants us to think about things as discrete events. We should instead be thinking about history as sets of logic and systems that preserve power.” Speaking of Schomburg, he and other archivists, like Mayme Clayton and Charles Blockson, started their archives to challenge those powers who create “official” histories, to show history as dynamic and in dialogue with present and future not just linear.

As I wrote in the Summoning the Archive zine: “Archival and library work are one of the main actors in facilitating the availability of materials that are obscure or are ignored in favor of more mainstream literature. These kinds of institutions and organizations allow for people who may not be able to find or afford these materials to be able to interact and be in dialogue with those works. bell hooks said the public library is one of the most subversive institutions. James Baldwin wouldn’t have been the writer he became if it wasn’t for access to the library. But I also think of Arturo Schomburg and that he started his archival and library career as a result of a teach telling him that black people had no history. I think of other archivists like Charles Blockson and Mayme A. Clayton. Their work as archivists and librarians allowed for the general public to re-envision the history originally presented to them; that the work we consider as history and canon is often constructed based on who has power (which has been mainly white and male) and is only one perspective of that history, that moment in time. By having these collections available, I and others have been able to do research that may not exist in other collections or not seen as worthy of collecting. As someone who regularly attends libraries, does research and collects printed material, I do notice how materials from people of color, women, lgbtq, poor and other marginalized groups are more difficult to obtain or discover and requires much more detective work and digging because of their lack of availability. That’s why more radical archivists like Schomburg, like Clayton are needed.”

“The Invisible Universe documentary reveals the history of the representations and participation of Black people in the genres of fantasy, horror and science fiction, or speculative fiction (SF). Framed through the POV of a time traveling Archivist, the documentary explores 150 years of speculative fiction literature, its origins, developments, key personalities and current state, all through the perspective of Black people and history.”

Writing Prompts: Below are a couple of art pieces from artist Julie Dillon. Write a short response in the form of fiction prose, non-fiction prose, or poetry.

Scholar’s Tower


The Archivist


Further Reading

Arturo Schomburg’s The Negro Digs Up His Past

Where are all the Librarians of Color? The Experiences of People of Color in Academia

Archives of the Black Atlantic: Reading Between Literature and History

Archiving in Color

Walter Mosley’s Fearless Jones Series  (the importance of librarians in shaping the narrator)

Henry Dumas’ Ark of Bones (The Slave Ship/Noah’s Ark as Arkive)

Dry Bones Breathe in The New Inquiry

Chimurenga Magazine Library

Kapwani Kiwanga


Zetta Elliott’s Milo’s Museum

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