Archiving Colonialism: The Politics and Ethics of the Archive

How does the archive become a space of engagement? What are the ethical obligations of the archive? How do we draw attention to otherwise invisible voices? How does raw data become material for surveillance? Who owns the past? These were the questions that guided “Archiving Colonialism” a panel discussion hosted by Barnard College’s Center for Research on Women, as part of the larger conference “The Politics and Ethics of the Archive.” According to keynote speaker Elizabeth Castelli, the theme was inspired by audio of earlier feminist conferences, and how the process of digitization led to larger questions of use and ownership. As the discussion progressed, it became clear that reaching a final answer to any of these questions cannot and should not be the goal. Rather, archives should be spaces where continuous discussion is encouraged and continuous access fostered.

The archive has long been a site of contention. Once perceived as purely objective towards history, there has been a recent push to consider archives through a post-modernist lense—as fluid spaces of ongoing debate and discussion, rather than static sites of fixed history and narrative. As Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook state in Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory, “…by treating records and archives as contested sites of power, we can bring new sensibilities to understanding records and archives as dynamic technologies of rule which actually create the histories and social realities they ostensibly describe” (Schwartz, Cook, 7).

Despite differences in profession, this emphasis on the archive as a device with which to create history was shared by all three panel speakers. Moderated by acclaimed writer Saidiya Hartman, the three speakers included La Vaughn Belle, a multi-medium visual artist, Justin Leroy, a professor and historian, and Cameron Rowland, a visual artist. Notably, the panel featured no archivists, which I found to be compelling. How could the discussion be shaped by people who had a more dynamic relationship with the archive and don’t interact with it on a daily basis? What kind of direction could it go in?

The panel began with Justin, who discussed the relationship of the Black slave to the archive, and the collective cultural assumption that history moves in one direction. Similar to feminist scholarship, the slave’s relationship with the archive is historically one based on absence and the assumption that the voice of the slave carries no significance. He gave the example of a letter that philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel wrote stating that Africa “is no historical part of the world.” Moving forward from this flawed ideology, Justin explained, the popular notion has been that the recovery of history is necessary to achieve social justice. But, Justin questioned, what is the benefit of being “unfit” for history? What new narratives are uncovered from the vantage point of being outside history?

Approaching the question as a historian rather than an archivist, Justin described the narratives of free slaves as shaped by perpetual subjugation by history. In spite of the technical abolition of slavery, Blacks would continue to be beholden to the oppressive structures of capitalism that underpin American progress. Capitalism and American history run in parallel to one another, with racialized conceptions of monetary value remaining constant. If things exist beyond the simple binary of life and death, it contorts our idea of time as linear. But, as Justin concluded, if we allow other trajectories of history to permeate the cultural understanding, we might be able to “find the language for more aspirational freedom.”

Justin’s idea of taking a more aspirational approach to history, and an eye towards the future as well as the past strongly echoed the writing of Roy Rosenzweig’s Scarcity of Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era, which urged historians to “shift at least some of their attention from the past to the present and future and reclaim the professional vision that was more prevalent a century ago” (Rosenzweig, 739). It is a disservice to narrow the vision of history into one linear path.

The next speaker, Cameron, shared this idea of the archive and what it represents as being intrinsically limited in Black narratives. His main example was the concept of reparations and how its discourse opposes the historical constructions of time and monetary value. In his art, Cameron uses historical documents to oppose capitalism. He presented one of his most recent works, “Burden of Proof,” which uses maps of 8060 Maxie Road, a property repossessed by former slaves during Reconstruction. The property was purchased in 2018 by a non-profit in order to implement a restrictive covenant so that the land cannot be used again. The land is valued at $0 and cannot be used based on the stipulations of the covenant. How then, Cameron asked, can this force us to rethink the notion of reparations as value-based and relegated to property? The lack of historical documents relating to this property show us the value in a limited archive, Cameron argued. How can we look beyond history to rethink the role of capitalism in reparations?

Scarcity in the archive and the narrative freedom it allows for were the central interests of artist La Vaughn Belle, the next speaker. Primarily focused on the Danish colonization of the Virgin Islands, La Vaughn described the Virgin Islands’ archives as splintered, due to acquisition by the Danish government. Because of this archival scarcity, La Vaughn argued, the memory of the islands had to be reproduced in alternative ways, which she explores in her work. For example, Chaney are fragments of Crucian pottery that often wash up after storms. La Vaughn collected these fragments and used them to create “process paintings,” to fill in the gaps. The lack of completion in the archive allowed her to utilize her imagination, which presents a necessary challenge to colonialism. In order for the archive to be a tool of resistance and fluidity, some scarcity is essential, she argued.

During their discussion with one another, all speakers challenged the idea of the archive as a place of necessary abundance. Justin presented the idea of “reading practice,” a method he uses in teaching, which emphasizes not what is present or absent in research, but what you do with what you find. La Vaughn emphasized the overlap between history and visual arts, and the need to make metaphors in both fields. Cameron added that the idea of accumulation in history is a byproduct of capitalism that should be reconsidered.  The archive, all agreed, should be a space where one can create their own metaphors for the past and future.

In the end, I appreciated that no archivists were included. I felt that by allowing for more creative perspectives, those with a vague understanding of archives could be exposed to a broader view of their purpose. As I left the panel though, I quite honestly felt like I had my work cut out for me. What authority do I have to fill in the blanks of history? As an archivist, do I have the right to incorporate creativity into my work? But as I considered it more, I thought of how archives can never truly be complete. We can never truly possess every artifact of history; why even try? As the speakers showed, archives must have an element of creativity to challenge dominant narratives. Perhaps the point of archives shouldn’t be to merely present history as it was, but to provide an idea of a better future.

By Sarah Goldfarb, Info 601, Professor Chris Alen Sula

  1. Schwartz, Joan M. and Terry Cook. “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science 2 (2002): 1-19.
  2. Rosenzweig, Roy. “Scarcity of Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era.” Oxford University Press (2003): 735-762

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