- Shadow Archives: The Lifecycles of African American Literature by Jean-Christophe Cloutier
Since the mid-1990s, interest in archival research has grown dramatically in the field of African American literary scholarship. On the one hand, there are those who, in [End Page 250] the absence of archives about the "many thousands gone," attempt to fill the gap with imagined scenarios, as in Saidiya Hartmann's Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the African Slave Route. On the other hand are those who commit themselves to rummaging through old cardboard boxes and dusty stacks of forgotten papers. Shadow Archives is both a product of that development and a sign of the growing attention to how archives come into being, as well as theoretical perspectives on archives in African American studies. Jean-Christophe Cloutier's book is distinctive in framing itself partly within the ambit of archive studies as such—treating the sort of things professional archivists and records administrators study, such as cataloging systems, what to include in finding aids, how to document provenance and modes of acquisition, and so on.
Archive studies, which blossomed immediately after World War II, provides Cloutier with the term "lifecycles." This concept denotes the life span of records, from the time they are created through the phases of their storage and later use, and ultimately their consignment to the flames or to long-term maintenance, citation in scholarship, and recycling in literature itself.
Cloutier emphasizes a "kinship" of black writers in their creation and use of archives and in an archival sensibility embodied in much black fiction. Concerned about "annihilation," they "deliberately developed an archival sensibility" and cultivated it with a view to "group survival." African American authors from the time of the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement "began preserving and fashioning their own files in anticipation of an eventual acquisition." According to Cloutier, their motives in this differed from those of white writers, who were concerned about individual legacy or financial reward, although Cloutier also acknowledges that black authors often did so between the wars specifically because Carl Van Vechten, the controversial white promoter of the Negro Renaissance (as it was then known), was urging them to contribute to the archive he was amassing—the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, which he eventually donated to Yale University and which remains one of the largest collections dedicated to black writers in the world.
Not all collectors and archivists interested in building the "shadow archives" of Cloutier's title were black. In addition to Van Vechten, one thinks of the independent scholar and collector Thomas Wirth, Bruce Nugent's friend and literary executor whose recovery project brought Nugent posthumous attention and led to the publication of his novel Gentleman Jigger. Wirth also directed the Countee Cullen Online Correspondence Project, which has been on hiatus since his death. Ernestine Rose, the librarian at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library during the early growth of "black" Harlem, began building a black studies collection there and helped make possible the acquisition of Arturo Schomburg's impressive collection.
Not all black writers shared the archival bent. Jessie Fauset, for example—someone deeply committed to collective black history and advancement—had tossed out all her manuscripts by the time Van Vechten's friend Dorothy Peterson approached her. Nella Larsen—at one time a librarian at the 135th Street Branch and the first black female graduate of a library school—never contributed hers despite promising to, and [End Page 251] after she died whatever papers and books she retained were tossed out by her de facto executor, a retired black nursing colleague.
Nonetheless, Cloutier justifiably argues that "over the past hundred years an inter-generational consideration—a kinship across time reaching back to a common ancestry in Africa and hurled forward into a speculative future—distinguishes the archival practices of African American authors from purely mainstream desires for individual legacy or the lure of wealth and posthumous fame" (p. 10). What drives the book in this respect is an...