Introduction: On the Archaeologies of Black Memory
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On the Archaeologies of Black Memory

A thousand ages in thy sight are like an evening gone . . .


Many years ago I had the privilege of working at the Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, doing some very preliminary work on the documents being assembled to form the basis of the Caribbean volumes of the papers.1 I was then a graduate student just back from nearly two years of historical and ethnographic research in Sri Lanka—in the middle, so to say, of another life, a long détour through an island postcolonial state imaginatively constituted (unlike the Caribbean) through a surfeit of memory.2 (Indeed, this contrast between the seeming excess [End Page v] of memory in Sri Lanka and its seeming dearth in the Caribbean has been a long-germinating seed for me.) Robert Hill, the founder and editor-in-chief of the Garvey project, was (I hope he won’t mind my saying so after all these years) a most exacting taskmaster; but there was something fecund and enriching going on in the ordinary, daily round of activity in those offices at Kinsey Hall where the project was housed, something rarely-if-ever explicitly theorized, but something I later came to think about in terms of the idea of an archaeology of black memory (I first elaborated this idea in the preface to my interview with Hill).3 I gradually came to realize that embedded in the seemingly quotidian construction of this archive of the mass movement founded and led by Marcus Garvey—its events and institutions and rituals and personalities and correspondence—there was an activity of thinking and imagination that opened out vast possibilities not just of memory but of counter-memory: the moral idiom and semiotic registers of remembering against the grain of the history of New World black deracination, subjection, and exclusion. And consequently this activity suggested to me a relation between the idea of an archive, the modalities of memory, the problem of a tradition, and practices of criticism.4

One way of approaching criticism is to think of it as a dimension of a community’s mode of remembering, an exercise, literally and metaphorically, of re-membering, of putting back together aspects of our common life so as to make visible what has been obscured, what has been excluded, what has been forgotten. I do not mean to suggest by this, however, that criticism’s relation to memory is an antiquarian one. Hardly, memory is always memory-in-the-present: the exercise of recovery of the past is always at once an exercise in its re-description, an exercise in arguing with the past, negotiating it, a persistent exercise in the questioning and repositioning of the assumptions that are taken to constitute that common life. Memory seems to me the distinctive temporal idiom of tradition. And if criticism is a mode of re-membering, then naturally it will depend upon the assembly and re-assembly of the sources that make memory possible, that keep alive the events and figures, the sensibilities and mentalities, the knowledges and rationalities, that have been part of shaping and reshaping the traditions of who we are. And this practice of recovery in turn will depend upon the construction of an archive, and the distinctive labor, therefore, of an archaeologist.

An archive, to be sure, is a domain of positivity, of pure materiality. Without the impulse to collect, to order and classify—without the endless compilation and meticulous registration [End Page vi] of fragments and details (clippings, images, jottings), their assignment to complex lists and inventories, their organization and amalgamation into files and folders, their consignment to cabinets and hard drives—without this impulse to collect, there would be no archive. Collecting therefore is the indispensable, elementary labor of the archaeologist.5 But the archive has also to be thought of as having another dimension, a more abstract and, so to speak, meta-dimension, that is crucial to its identity and function. In the well-known chapter of The Archaeology of Knowledge entitled “The Historical A Priori and the Archive,” Michel Foucault...