With everything happening in the news that frightens me about the future of this country and world, I turn back again to the importance of the archive, storytelling and truth-telling for marginalized communities. Last month, I went to archivist and writer Joyce LeeAnn and researcher and writer Akeema-Zane’s workshop In the Middle of Things: The Poetics of Archival Praxis, which was part of Pioneer Works’ series Fact Craft.
Etymology of Legacy: late 14c., legacie, “body of persons sent on a mission,” from Medieval Latin legatia, from Latin legatus“ambassador, envoy, deputy,” noun use of past participle of legare “send with a commission, appoint as deputy, appoint by a last will” (see legate).
Can the archive be our arsenal and the archivist our warrior in this current war on memory and information? As ambassadors of the black archive, what stories are we sending out and leaving behind? Going in October and last month to the Weeksville Center’s The Legacy Project and their events centered around black archival work and memory reinforced that for me. The Legacy Project is “a continuum of James Weeks’ self-determining actions.” James Weeks, a freedman, purchased land in Brooklyn during the pre-Civil War era and with that land created what became the second largest known independent Black community in the U.S. Under threat of being forgotten, “in 1968, a small group of community activists rediscovered these four dilapidated houses that were rare residential remnants of historic Weeksville. Its rediscovery led to the restoration of the Hunterfly Road Houses, and the formalization of the Society for the Preservation of Weeksville and Bedford-Stuyvesant History, later known as Weeksville Heritage Center.” “The Legacy Project will continue this evolution through activating WHC’s archives, building annual public programs, public training workshops, and an internship program for students of color” interested in archival work.
What happens when an enslaved person is given the tools to express her desire for freedom after being captured? When a young child taken from Senegal to Boston and renamed after the slave ship on which she was brought is then taught to read and write in not her own language and history, but in the language and history of Europeans? You get what the first black person to publish a book of poetry in America, Phillis Wheatley, wrote in “On Imagination.” Written a few years before she was granted her freedom, her poem, filled with allusions to Greek mythology and personifying Imagination as if it is a goddess of fertile creativity, is reminiscent of Fred Moten’s concept of the “fantasy in the hold.” This dream or possibility of movement while still in bondage, while still held back where you currently are. But also the tensions between exploration in a ship (whether on water or space) to other places and being shipped as a commodity. Is it the awe of coming to a new world, or is it violent abduction? Maybe both, like being raptured by a god common in Greco-Roman myths.
Wheatley’s poem portrays Imagination as a powerfully creative guiding spirit that breaks boundaries and hybridizes a particular experience of the world with the alien world it encounters to discover new meaning. Her use of Winter throughout the poem clearly shows her awareness of oppression of her mobility as an enslaved person and imagination is her muse for liberation. At a time (she wrote it in 1773) when Enlightenment principles taught that reason, often attributes to white, hetero-masculine power, governed over all other faculties of human expression, Wheatley celebrates the Imagination as a feminine, fertile power moving as part of a spacecraft traveling beyond limits placed on it. In the quote above and the rest of the same stanza (From star to star the mental optics rove,/Measure the skies, and range the realms above./There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,/Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul.), she describes Imagination exploring beyond the sky to different stars and even different worlds in what she calls, “the mental optics.” Remember this is 1773 and she is an enslaved black woman and yet she is imagining traveling in a spaceship. If that isn’t Afrofuturistic and the mind of a Black speculative writer, I don’t know what is.
Imagination, like her, is a genius in bondage and struggles to be free. Imagination was what allowed Wheatley to see and be aware of the fullness of the cosmos and through which she could envision new spaces.
It is a surreal feeling to know that you could go to war and fight for your country, survive the war and instead of coming back as a celebrated hero, be assaulted and lynched by the people whose freedom you fought for them to have. That was the reality of many black veterans who returned from World War I and World War II, a history that is not taught. For fear of black people becoming to “uppity” and demanding their rights after coming back from war, there were white people who needed to make examples of black veterans and keep them in their place, that they owed nothing to these soldiers who went off to fight a fight for them.
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 attendedSummoning the Archiveat 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?
Remember this song from Ludacris and Mary J. Blige? “Runaway Love” came to my mind last week when the stories of the Missing DC girls started to spread throughout media. One particular story highlighted a young girl who ran away because she felt mistreated in foster family.
Much too often the mistreatment of young black girls are ignored and neglected. Black girls stories go untold. Society, including black culture does not see them as being as much in harm’s way as young black boys. But young black girls are in danger too, including suffering from the risk of sexual assault committed by grown men, boys and even authority figures, abusive and neglectful families, and also receiving higher rates of suspension, expulsion and harsher punishment from schools and police than their white counterparts. For example, this story of Ashlynn Avery, who was attacked by her suspension supervisor for falling asleep in class and then violently arrested.
Recently I received a copy of Octavia Butler’s Kindred graphic novel, which was adapted by Damien Duffy and John Jennings. Reading the story in graphic novel form gave me a chance to see aspects of the book that I didn’t pay as much attention to as before. One was the mechanism by which Dana traveled back in time. On her second trip back to the past, Rufus mentions to Dana that he had seen her in the water right before she came traveled back to the past to rescue him. Rufus tells Dana that he saw her with his eyes closed and that he had stepped into a “hole” in the river where he saw her in a room full of books. He also heard both Dana and Kevin before the second time Dana came back. Rufus, although problematic, has inklings of visionary insight, but does he because of his connection to his future legacy in Dana (Rufus only has black descendants as he only had children with Alice) or because he was at the edge of imagining a different society but the slaveholding, racist, sexist, generally oppressive society around him impeded that?