Labors of Love: Proposing Participatory Archival and Para-Archival Practices
Kareal Amenumey, Christian Bryant, Veronica Careton, et al
By Kareal Amenumey, Christian Bryant, Veronica Careton, Amber Edmond, and Shanell Kitt
“Is it possible to exceed or negotiate the constitutive limits of the archive?” —Saidiya Hartman, "Venus in Two Acts," Small Axe 12, no. 2 (June 2008): p. 11
Black presence in the many historic archives is inextricably tied with anti-blackness, violence, and exclusion. Often we appear in these archives as nameless objects stripped of our humanity, culture, and dignity. Engaging with archives as Black people—whether to recover buried histories or to go beyond them and memorialize material and digital future histories— necessitates the disruption of their harmful narratives, practices, and structures. Writer Saidyia Hartman questions the possibility of the archive as we know it, one where recovery is limited by systemic forces of erasure. Despite the limits of traditional archives, Black people have long developed our own multi-modal systems of memory keeping through oral tradition, folk music and spirituals, textile arts, and hair-braiding to name a few.
This group recognizes the power and the desire to archive as a way to maintain collective history and memory, especially for marginalized peoples. In thinking with Hartman, this paper begins with an exploration into the limits of traditional archives as white supremacist and colonial projects which perpetuate violence. What follows is an exploration of archiving as care. Similarly to historian Marisa Fuentes, we are interested in “not limiting our archival readings simply to the logic of white colonial officials, but doing the decolonial work to challenge the authority of archival records produced within conditions of white supremacy and black precarity.”1 We further explore discussions of alternative forms of archiving and the maintenance of archives. Additionally, we expand on the definitions of the archive, its forms, and its resonance. Our aim is to imagine not only what is possible within the remains of these brutal colonial structures but also to conceive new structures that are rooted in a radically different ethos.
Working Within the Archive as We Know It
In 1995, Carrie Mae Weems intervened in the colonial archive to create From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, a series of found images she modified to describe a history of violence enacted on Black people through racial slavery and colonialism until today. It includes four images of South Carolina slaves Delia, Drana, Jack, and Renty, which Weems found in the archives of the Harvard University Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Harvard ethnologist and zoologist Louis Agassiz commissioned these images to prove Black people as biologically natural servants, justifying slavery. The original images are daguerreotypes, an early photographic process that produces one image on a single metal plate. Despite agreeing not to use the museum’s images without permission, Weems photographed the metal plates and then reprinted the images.2
Weems exposes the photographs to viewers who had not gotten permission to enter the archive. Captioning them with “You Became a Scientific Profile,” “A Negroid Type,” “An Anthropological Debate,” “& A Photographic Subject,” she verbalizes the violence behind the pictures. However, engaging with the archive raises questions about the harm done by Black people’s exclusion from and inclusion in it. When the archive is “a death sentence, a tomb, a display of the violated body, an inventory of property,”3 can we use it to address harm without reproducing the violence? Can we push beyond the archive to learn more about the person that became the violated body?
To answer these questions is to read the limits of the archives and the dominant perspectives from which it is created. Weems’s work asserts that we can go beyond the violence of the archive to see the person. However, this reading cannot bring back the dead, especially from the violence of the Atlantic slave trade.4 Many traditional archives tell us but so much about Black people when Black people are considered unworthy of care or remembrance and excluded from archives or Black people are archived as cargo or criminal. In the case of Weems’s work, the Harvard University Peabody Museum still owns the daguerreotypes, demanding payment whenever Weems reproduces the work, while a Harvard art museum owns copies of Weems’s creation.5 It is ironic, or perhaps fitting that a work that addresses the violence that created the daguerreotypes benefits the institution that produced them. This sort of contradiction is often the case when working with traditional archives. However, the idea of archiving should not be disregarded, as there are a number of histories, objects, and stories that need to be cared for in order to be remembered. And this work is already being done in a number of ways.
Archival Importance of Vernacular Memorials
Vernacular culture is a term used to describe traditions created and upheld by community members; such feature actions of expressing love and appreciation for life and others include scrapbooking, constructing commemorative shrines, storytelling, and family albums. In thinking further about cultural practices of remembrance, vernacular memorials are honorary altars made by family and community members that visually honor the life of a deceased loved one. Usually placed outdoors near the departed’s home, such monuments feature symbolic objects like photographs, flowers, teddy bears, candles, T-shirts, balloons, liquor bottles, and personal letters. Artistic elements and design principles such as color, shape, balance, and emphasis are also customarily observed. Due to their public placement, “street” or “makeshift” memorials, as they are often referred to, are unfortunately subject to regulatory removal or are eroded by nature’s elements. What are the psychological impacts of the structure’s ephemerality? How can vernacular cultural practice be protected?
When my father passed away on August 25, 2014, my family and community members gathered to build as a tribute to his life while managing emotional trauma. The structure assisted with the grieving process, spoke to intuitive ancestral practices of commemoration as well as the cultural notes of the Bronx, New York, where I grew up. Expanding canonical archival practice to include the documentation and preservation of objects from such a labor of love would solidify and amplify the authentic expressions of historically marginalized people. According to the National Archives and Records Administration, an archive is, “a place where people [can gather] firsthand facts, data, and evidence from letters, reports, notes, memos, photographs, and other primary sources.”6 While there are few institutions, such as the National September 11 Memorial & Museum7, that preserve memorial objects, and noting memorial preservation challenges,8 the inclusion of vernacular memorials into the canon of archives would provide people with a space to continue commemorating their loved ones, while feeling uplifted and acknowledged.
Labor of Love
Preserving vernacular memorials, and sustaining archives in general, takes an intense amount of labor and money. Archives located within museum institutions take hundreds of hours and millions of dollars to maintain and cultivate. According to an article published by the LA Times in 1988 “Art world officials say that costs generally run at least $125 a square foot for new repositories and an additional $2 million a year for maintenance.”9 These numbers generated in the late 80s continue to rise as inflation goes up and embedded in this growing price is the cost of building/maintaining archives. The construction of archival spaces can be as expansive as creating an entirely new structure and can take months or years of building time. After the archive is built the institution is then tasked with funding the cultivation of objects, hiring a staff that can properly take care of these items, and other archive exclusive costs. For example, some archive exclusive costs include museum-grade storage units, security precisions like cameras and motion sensors, and devices to track humidity and light sensitivity.10 The integration of research materials and those who curate them is another labor-intensive task that every archive must complete to be operational.
The burden of financing the physical labor needed to create/maintain archives can inhibit them from serving the community at their fullest capacity. Since most archives are part of non-profit institutions, there are little to no funds allocated to their upkeep and preservation. Institutions ranging in size and popularity all depend on government assistance or donations for their operating budget.11 The lack of attention given to the archive isn't intentional but is simply a byproduct of a lack of resources. Some archives have even begun charging fees for accessing their archival material, and although these fees were instilled to mitigate the operating cost of running an archive, the paywall prevents visitors from taking full advantage of what the institution has to offer.
As a group, we believe that this labor, financial and physical, should be shared with both the public and archival institutions. By allowing the public to have access to the upkeep of the museum archives can you help cut labor costs with volunteers and produce a more sound archive with more hands.12 In addition, we have been exploring the use of para-archives and how it can democratize the current archival structure. Although the tax labor needed to maintain an archive is high we believe that it is a worthy cause because archives hold the existence of humanity and when taken care of they provide generations of insight.
Para-archives and Affective Labor
The archive insofar as their practices are based in colonial logics of exclusion, possession, and whiteness, are hostile physical and ideological structures. While the archive as we know it— institutions and projects that codify “knowledge” and “history” through the collection of objects—does not exist in service of marginalized people, there are other approaches to memory keeping such as vernacular memorials, and experimental digital archives which exist in service of those invisibilized by the violence of the colonial archive. Archival researcher Jacek Smolicki explains, “[...] the prefix para- is used primarily to indicate the parallel nature of personal collecting and archiving in relation to [traditional archiving]...different[ing] them from other, institutional archiving practices undertaken by...memory institutions, state archives and museums concerned typically with the formalization, accumulation, preservation, and administration of historical documents.”13 I interpret the work of these alternative archival forms as generative and affective labor because their creative and accessible forms reject academic and institutional structures as their defining feature, and instead explore accessible digital space, sonic, visual, material, and other continually emerging para-archival forms; these forms evoke deep emotional or affective responses in their audiences, which “can serve to drive us toward movement, thought, and ever-changing forms of relation.”14
Zakiya Collier, a Black memory worker and digital archivist explains that “there is value to collections being in an institution and there is value to Black collections being elsewhere. I see Black collections having more expansive descriptions and format types, more web archives, [and] more digital humanities projects. I see expansiveness and intention and care.”15 Black Archives, the Black Joy Archive, the Black Lesbian Archive, and the Black Film Archive are examples of para-archives whose foundational commitment to recover and steward Black histories directly challenges the white colonial archive. Whether self-directed, accredited, or a communal practice, (para)archiving can offer corrective lenses to “history” and public memory distorted by colonial logic and restrictive archival forms.
Legacies of Documents
It is the responsibility of today’s archivists to prioritize the preservation of legacies over the preservation of documents. They must be intentional about storytelling and community outreach, otherwise, the power these objects hold is stifled as they are left in limbo, physically protected but unable to fulfill their role as educational tools. Fortunately, we live in a time where digitized documents can be shared easily. However, that is only a first step towards reaching the full potential of a digital archive. I think it is essential to ensure archives actually serve the communities whose stories are held in them, not only the academics who study them. Placing documents cases in library spaces, collaborating with schools to reach children and educate them on their heritage is essential.
Archives, like funerals, should be a celebration of life. Many archival spaces function like mausoleums, preserving the objects, sometimes at the cost of telling the stories they hold. At its best, an archive reminds us of the humanity of our ancestors. It is from these reminders that we mine the inspiration and strength necessary for our own journeys. Even those who are not religious can see the value in holding on to a lover’s old clothes or tools of their parents' trade. These things are not made precious because of their function, but rather how they connect us to people and our past and help us situate ourselves in the present. Similarly, the value of an archive is found in the active engagement with these physical remnants of our collective history in order to envision a better future.
"Love is a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect, and trust." —bell hooks, communion: The Female Search for Love (New York: William Morrow Paperbacks, 2016)
Memory keeping and cultural preservation through practices of vernacular memorials, experimental digital and material para-archives, community-specific and educational archives is necessary and uplifting for those whose histories and presence in the colonial archive are marked by violence and exclusion. In identifying with people typically left out of historical narratives, we choose to learn more about and curate materiality that centers our experience from our perspectives. The violence of the archive’s conception cannot be fully separated from its current reality, but by critiquing the dehumanizing narratives of traditional archives, we begin to remedy its injustices. Where the archive fails us, we seek other avenues of preserving and affirming our important histories.
We memory-keep through innovative ways such as folk music, visual art, oral histories, performance, and aesthetic practices. Black archivists, scholars, and anyone who engages with the archive are interested in preserving their often disregarded histories through strategic archival and para-archival practices that assert their presence and personhood as an act of love. When we venerate dismissed memory keeping and cultural traditions, we honor the knowledge our ancestors fought to preserve for us. This allows us the opportunity to go beyond the protection of our heritage and envision new spaces unburdened by a legacy of violence and built on an ethic of love.
 Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Early American Studies). (University of Pennsylvania Press (June 28, 2016).
 Yxta Maya Murray, “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried: Carrie Mae Weems’s Challenge to the Harvard Archive,” Carrie Mae Weems, ed. Sarah Elizabeth Lewis with Christine Garnier (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2021), 115–139.
 Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12, no. 2 (2008): 2.
 Hartman, 12.
 Murray, 118.
 “National Archives and Records Administration,” USAGov, accessed January 13, 2022, usa.gov/federal-agencies/national-archives-and-records-administration.
 Corina Knoll, “What Happens to the Heartbreaking Tributes Left at the 9/11 Memorial,” New York Times, September 9, 2019, nytimes.com/2019/09/09/nyregion/9-11-memorial-museum.html.
 Lauren A. Farber, “Issues in the Collection and Conservation of American Vernacular Memorial Art,” The Book and Paper Group Annual, no. 24 (2005) 5.
 “Museum Costs Vary, but Figures Run into Millions,” Los Angeles Times, January 22, 1988, latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1988-01-22-ca-25258-story.html.
 “U.S. Department of the Interior,” U.S. Department of the Interior, www.doi.gov/.
 “Cost Model: Museums and Galleries,” Building, September 21, 2012, building.co.uk/cost-model-museums-and-galleries/5042919.article.
 Tim Kirsininkas, “How Much Does It Cost to Run a Museum? You Can Help Support Local History,” St. Charles History Museum, November 25, 2020, stcmuseum.org/news/2020/11/25/how-much-does-it-cost-to-run-a-museum-you-can-help-support-local-history.
 “Para-Archives.” n.d., para-archives.net/about.html.
 Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, eds., The Affect Theory Reader, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).
 Megan Williams and Zakiya Collier, “Archiving with Care: A Conversation with Zakiya Collier” October, 30, 2020, medium.com/metropolitan-archivist/archiving-with-care-a-conversation-with-zakiya-collier-fedd81a0d0d6.