Sunday, 29 July 2012

Week 8: Black in Chicago

This week at The HistoryMakers was full of tours and presentations. On Monday, we joined the NEH teachers for a black history tour of Chicago’s Southside. Our guide was Tony Burroughs. Mr. Burroughs pointed out important landmarks and told the stories of why they were significant. The statue that marks the northern border of Bronzeville is a black man with a suitcase, it is composed of discarded shoe soles and the surrounding suitcases are authentically preserved.

Julieanna and Tony narrating the tour

Public art in Bronzeville made with old shoe soles and suitcases, commemorating the Great Migration

Quinn Chapel, an important church in the black community

Margaret Burroughs' house on Chicago's Southside

A map and icons of the black neighborhood in the median of an intersection in Bronzeville 

Mr. Burroughs showed us the field near U.S. Cellular Field where the Negro leagues used to play. An interesting fact is that people used to get dressed up in their Sunday best to go to baseball games. In terms of collective memory, Jackie Robinson and the integration of baseball could be seen as a positive or a negative thing. Was the integration about bringing racial unity to the sport or absorbing the money that blacks were spending at the ballpark? The recruitment of the best black ball players without the black coaches, black club owners or black umpires fractured the culture of black baseball. A few weeks ago, I was watching parts of Ken Burn’s documentary on baseball and many black baseball players, including Jackie Robinson, have felt a sense of disenfranchisement within the major leagues from being unrepresented in the leadership of the sport. 

We also visited the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College on Friday. We met with the archivists, Laura Lee Moses and Suzanne Flandreau, and learned more about their collection Compared to our other tours, the staff at the CBMR gave a pragmatic session on how they deal with demonstrating their relevance, protecting themselves from copyright issues and migrating their collection from one medium to another.

The executive director, Monica O’Connell took time to tell us about the institutional politics that are playing out at Columbia College today in terms of the existence of the CBMR. She explained how she spoke to a college administrator who essentially told her that archives are “irrelevant and dusty”. Sometimes, I feel like people really are in the Matrix, they don’t realize that their conditioning is conditioned. We need primary source documents to help us understand how the world came to be the way that it is. We need archivists that are trained to be inclusive recognize their own bias and how to minimize it. That is so rare; most professions train their recruits to promote a certain agenda or perspective. Monica concluded that working in cultural heritage institutions can easily be seen as a form of activism.

On Tuesday, we had the pleasure of listening to Ardra’s presentation to her host repository (Avery Research Center) in Charleston, South Carolina. Ardra’s new supervisor will be Georgette Mayo. Ms. Mayo seemed very nice and enthusiastic about Ardra’s arrival at Avery. On Wednesday, Alex entertained us with his presentation on the Maryland State Archives which is located in Annapolis, Maryland. His new supervisor, Chris Haley was the founder of the Legacy of Slavery Project that Alex will be working on for the remainder of the fellowship. I applaud Alex and Ardra for taking the first attempts at a high stakes presentation. I have learned a lot from their efforts which will make my subsequent presentation better than it would have been. The 2012-2013 fellows also introduced ourselves to members of the HistoryMakers board of directors, presented on our progress in the program. I was pleased that as diverse as we are in style and attitude, we put together a cohesive presentation in 20 minutes, and executed it without any problems. Dr. Salvatore lectured on the importance of donor relations and outreach within the archives. Dr. Reed helped us to elaborate on our knowledge of black Chicago gleaned from Mr. Burroughs black history tour. We also talked about what was happening with African Americans during World War II. In any free time, Skyla and I continued to work on the special collections for Valerie Simpson and Eartha Kitt.  

Amanda Carter and Cynthia Lovett at
Ghanaian Festival in Washington Park

People enjoying the Ghanaian food and music during a Chicago summer 

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Week 7: Silent Voices

This week at The HistoryMakers, Skyla and I worked on the special collections of Diahann Carroll, Dionne Warwick and Valerie Simpson. Processing on a team has been especially beneficial when I find myself staring at the same group of documents without a clue of where to put them, and she steps in and gives me an idea in a few seconds. We get each other out of the ruts.

Diahann Carroll
Dionne Warwick
Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson
 We also attended several lecture sessions this week. Dr. Salvatore talked with us about reference services and different models of information seeking behaviors. Dr. Reed lectured about the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Depression. We had a treat when Dr. Goldsby stopped by with an additional archival lecture. She talked to us about her “Mapping the Stacks” project and the ethical concerns involved with modern archives. In preparation for my move to California, I have secured housing in Koreatown, an ethnic enclave community in western Los Angeles. The apartment is affordable, close to public transit and available for my September 2nd arrival. 

April Greiman's "Big Bowl of RIce" mural in Koreatown, Los Angeles

Special Collections processing has been a challenge for the fellows throughout this week. We have been trying to make decisions, asking questions and talking amongst ourselves to no end on a wide variety of scenarios. Thank you letters and in-kind donations have been a constant source of worry. Add a category or elaborate on a folder title is also up for debate. How do we organize the folders so that they will be easy for the outsourced scanning company to understand? How are “An evening with…” program files different or similar to the programs that Brad and Julie have been working on? What is the purpose of this project? Who will be consulting these files in the future? Does provenance or original order matter at all? I have found myself torn between my reasonable idea of what could be done and a strict adherence to the pre-established order. One thing that always drew me to archives as a profession was a sense of autonomy. If we understand archival principles, the mission of the repository, and the relative importance of the collection at hand, it is virtually impossible to design an indecipherable organizational schema. The email exchanges and the mini-meetings about the process do not seem as important of an exercise as just making some decisions and seeing if the end results are palatable. I highly doubt that this team of fellows would leave anyone disappointed.   

Surprises in a box
 Dr. Goldsby’s lecture was especially engaging for me because of what she asked us to read before her lecture. Saidiya Hartman’s “Venus in Two Acts” was an amazingly well written article. It felt more like poetic prose than a piece of academic writing. While I do not believe that it is in the realm of an archivist or historian to recreate stories when certain historical perspectives are missing from the collection, I can identify with the longing to put something in the empty space. When I went to the Holocaust Museum in Skokie, Illinois, and walked into a dark, old, wooden train car that was used to transport European Jews to concentration camps, I imagined how I would feel or what I would have done in that situation. The same thing went through my mind when I looked at the steep staircase, designated for the slaves to take the laundry up to the second floor of the Drayton Plantation house, just outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Both of these exhibit spaces utilize our senses and longing for a narrative to pull us back into history and care about what happened to people that we have never met. As archivists we can never forget the voices that have been silenced throughout history and strive to find records of their existence, but when all else fails, we have to acknowledge those empty spaces.    

Staircase for slaves at Drayton Hall, South Carolina

An example of a Holocaust train car
Fellow Fellows treated me to a root beer float for
my birthday,
cheers to turning 27!

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Week 6: He says, She says, what do you say?

This week at The HistoryMakers, I worked on the finding aid for Bernice Baynes Brown. Mrs. Brown was raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, attended Carnegie Mellon University to study art education. I bet that she would not have guessed that 30 years later she would be an executive in the San Francisco Foundation, distributing millions of dollars to fund programs for deserving minority populations. This week’s archives lecture from Dr. Salvatore was about Collective Memory. Dr. Reed’s history lecture was about Jim Crow, migration and early 20th century black militancy. The week concluded with two days of oral history training with Mr. Leon Dash. Mr. Dash’s lectures were interesting and interactive. Going into the interviews with a methodology is a critical way to establish some credibility in the field of oral history. 

I’ve learned from working with Julieanna on my finding aids that The HistoryMakers is not an oral history archive of “black folks talking”. If it was, what would separate these stories from the stories we hear on any bus, train or grocery store line in America? The fact that every HistoryMaker in the database has made an important contribution to society is one weeding factor that we have. Another is the fact that the interviewer goes into the session with an eye for historical context and guides the interviewee toward those topics. Even with all of this vetting and preparation, interviewees can wander into religious or ambiguous diatribes about the way of the world, but the archivists deal with this in the back end processing. We flesh out these interviews, identifying the historical relevance, and describing them with subject headings and summaries that allow researchers to quickly see what the interview is about. At first it was difficult for me to ignore the funny anecdotes or famous people that the interviewee had met, but I put myself in the researcher’s position and began to see the reasoning. If I tagged the interview with a Michael Jackson label because the HistoryMaker was a shoe salesman and sold Mr. Jackson some shoes in 1973, no one who was studying Michael Jackson would benefit from that connection. From this stand point archivists have a lot of work and a lot of responsibility. It is hard to come up with a perfect system but beginning with the end in mind is an important step for reaching the ideal.

In regards to establishing a collective memory, I was pleased with the opportunity to tackle this discussion in archives lecture this week. The phenomenon of the way that we chose to remember people in history seemed so prevalent in popular culture. For example, in the film Barbershop, Cedric the Entertainer’s character causes controversy by diminishing Rosa Parks’ role in the Civil Rights Movement. Another funny example is Don Cheadle’s character, Petey Greene, a radio personality in the film, Talk to Me”, is taken off the air when he announces that Berry Gordy was a pimp. Berry Gordy and Rosa Parks are complex individuals that society decided to put in the “winners” column. Will Angela Davis and Sean “Diddy” Combs be treated with the same reverence as time moves on. What does one have to do to stay palatable in the eyes of the masses? What about Michael Vick, Chris Brown, R. Kelly or Michael Jackson? Will they be remembered for their positive contributions of their indiscretions?

  I would be interested to see which factors are at play with the ultimate fate of these famous figures. This discussion also demonstrated the incredible power that archivist have, specifically in the areas of public outreach and appraisal. Pulling from Thursday’s discussion, there is a difference between depicting Tupac and Biggie as two victims of a destructive regional rap dispute, and depicting them as two insightful poets who were assassinated entirely too early in their budding careers. Movies, television, magazines and other media outlets will try to paint the picture for us, but it is important that a popular explanation does not equal an accurate explanation. I look forward to preserving the evidence that will make people re-consider what they think that they know.