Johns Hopkins University Press
Alexsandra Mitchell:

Paul Gilroy's 1993 The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness provided a context for understanding Black culture beyond the frame of the nation-state that proved to be groundbreaking for a generation of scholars working on African diasporic culture that included Kim Butler, Michael Gomez, and the late Juan Flores. Brent, I'd like to start by asking you to speak about your first book, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism, which might be described as part of this diasporic "turn." Yet The Practice of Diaspora is just as much a book that opened up a way of thinking about Black culture through the archive. How do those two concerns go together? Could we even say that we need to think them together—that theorizing diaspora in fact requires an archival perspective?

Brent Hayes Edwards:

It's not going too far to say that Gilroy's book opened up space in the academy for an entire generation of us. It was still resonating years later when I finished graduate school at the end of that decade: When I started teaching at Rutgers, I was a faculty fellow in the "Black Atlantic" seminar founded by my colleagues Deborah Gray White and Mia Bay at the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis, which was a multiyear interdisciplinary seminar that supported the work of internal and external faculty fellows and graduate students. It's astonishing to look back and see how many of the people who shared work in that seminar have published key scholarship in the ongoing scholarly conversation around African diasporic culture, history, and politics.

Of course, part of the way one responds to formative work is to extend it, push back at it, critique it. So, The Black Atlantic was enabling for many of us precisely because of its limits, its blind spots. As capacious as the framework seemed, the case studies in the book seemed strikingly narrow and Anglophone. Some of us wondered why, in the end, the book paid so little attention to the African continent itself. Even as we wielded the rubric of the "Black Atlantic" to make claims on space and resources in the academy, some of us wondered whether that oceanic frame might not be too narrow, too singular, to capture the complex dynamics of Black cultural flows beyond the nation-state.

If Gilroy's book might be said to emphasize a persistent strain of worldliness in African American culture and thought (Edward Blyden, W. E. B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, the Fisk Jubilee Singers), I was interested in thinking diaspora comparatively, as something produced or practiced in the ways Black intellectuals from different places collaborated and corresponded with each other. I realized that the only way to do it was to assemble a kind of archive: a compendium of sources that had to be brought together, that weren't readily at hand. If diaspora was a practice, I realized, it was something that was happening largely in places that were "lower" and more ephemeral than books. It was happening in what Walter Benjamin calls the "spindles and joints" of print culture: in newspaper articles, in editorials, in anthologies, in pamphlets, in letters ("One-Way Street" 444). To see it, I had to reconstruct the archive of the ways these kinds of publications were in contact with each other, through commentary, reprinting, translation—the ways these sorts of [End Page 19] minor nodes of print culture were crucial in making blackness understood as something that went beyond nation and language.

I was particularly interested in connections among African American intellectuals and artists of the early twentieth century and their Francophone peers and counterparts from the French Caribbean and French West Africa. I suppose I thought about it as building an archive because the main place I had to go to track these connections was the French national archives. Ironically, the best place to find early Francophone literature isn't the Bibliothèque Nationale. It wasn't considered important enough to collect. Instead, you have to go to the Archives Nationales, and specifically to the colonial archives. After World War I, the French were worried about the potential radicalization of African, Caribbean, and Asian students, soldiers, and workers who stayed in the metropole. The spies collected everything. No newspaper was too marginal or meteoric. So if you want to see L'Etudiant Noir, the eight-page student journal where Aimé Césaire first used the term Négritude, you don't go to the library; you go to the surveillance files in the colonial archive.

Right away it made me conscious of what you might call the paradoxes of the archive. What does it mean to use the records of surveillance, the imperial records of control, to trace the emergence of anticolonialism and, eventually, Black internationalism? I was very aware of using the national archives "against the grain," in what now I'd be inclined to call a counterarchival endeavor. Reading against the archives this way, I also had the sense that I was extracting material that (even if the French colonial authorities couldn't recognize it as such) had its own logic, its own patterns of circulation, and even its own archival sensibility—its own assumptions about what counted, about what deserved to be recorded, about what linkages were significant.


Melanie, I want to ask you to speak about your own project, which covers some of the same time period Brent was working on, but now more from the perspective of archive-building in Black institutions in the United States. Can you speak a little about the early work that institutions played in creating a kind of Black archival politics and how you came to the project?

Melanie Chambliss:

My research explores the politics of history according to the people compiling and consulting Black archives during the first half of the twentieth century. In my work, I examine how these sites spoke back to the silencing and marginalizing of Black voices within mainstream history, but instead of "going against" the archival grain, my research actually moves more closely alongside it.

I came to the project as a graduate student while researching in the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale University. I was looking through the papers of Dorothy Peterson, a New York City public school teacher who, during the 1940s, helped writer and arts patron Carl Van Vechten acquire donations for the Johnson Collection. In their letters, I noticed how intentional both Peterson and Van Vechten were when describing the items they wanted and the impact they hoped the material might have. After reading their letters, I decided to trace backwards this impulse to collect and institutionalize Black ephemera. I thought it might be possible to redefine the development of African American history away from the well-known work of historians like Carter G. Woodson and Charles Wesley. By traveling along the archival grain, we can see the founding and use of Black archives as a collective act of cultural resistance with participants as far ranging as scholars, writers, students, artists, parents, teachers, activists, and other community members—all researching in Black archives.

To your question about the role of institutions, while material about the Black experience and especially the antislavery movement did exist in other places like Oberlin College and the Library of Congress, these sites never focused on Black [End Page 20] ephemera. And they never cultivated the same community spirit that I was just describing. Black archives fostered this excitement around the study of Black history because their very existence challenged racist ideas about Black people, and these archives' accessibility meant that more individuals could do the same. One of the earliest special Negro collections at a historically Black institution was the Peabody Collection that came to Hampton University in 1905. It started as a loan and later a gift from a white philanthropist, but you also see other historically Black colleges and universities preserving records about their own histories, which could also be considered an early form of Black collecting. This more self-reflective style changes during the early twentieth century with things like the founding of the Moorland Foundation Library at Howard University in 1914. Kelly Miller, who was the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the time, wanted a research library that would demonstrate the breadth and depth of African American history and culture and encourage the production of African Americanist scholarship. Of course, Dorothy Porter, the Moorland-Spingarn Library curator, was essential to its success because she was the one who organized, classified, and made this collection accessible for researchers.

With public libraries, access, again, was a primary concern and so was the need to represent their patrons' heritage. In the early 1920s, the American Library Association (ALA) sponsored a roundtable for librarians who were working in predominantly Black communities. Some of these librarians said that they already had a special Negro collection of sorts, which further enabled the public's exposure to Black history. In that sense, Black libraries were always somewhat synonymous with Black archives because these branches collected Black ephemera even when they didn't have a special title or budget to reflect that work.

This pattern connects to the early history of the Schomburg Center because Ernestine Rose was one of the organizers of that ALA roundtable. Rose was hired in 1920 to oversee the 135th Street library's transition from a branch that catered mainly to European immigrants to one focused on the growing Black population in Harlem. Rose felt there was a need to have not only a collection but also a staff that mirrored the branch's surrounding community. Some of the people who were hired—people like Catherine Latimer, Regina Anderson, and Virginia Florence—became early female pioneers within Black librarianship. So one could say that a fourth role that these institutions played was in offering professional opportunities for Black women who then became tastemakers—if you will. They helped to shape public interest in Black history and culture through their collections and other Black history-related activities.


Both of you work not only on African diasporic history in the broadest sense but also on the historiography of Black radicalism in particular, looking at the careers of intellectuals including Du Bois, John Edward Bruce, Claude McKay, C. L. R. James, and others who were activists and political thinkers as much as they were historians. How does the work of these sorts of figures make us think about the Black archive as inherently a political space?


Well, to add to what Melanie was just saying, there's another side to that early story of the making of Black archives. In the beginning, a lot of that work is happening outside of mainstream institutions. The most obvious example is Arturo Schomburg himself. He builds his collection on his own, and only in 1926 is it acquired by the New York Public Library. It's important to remember that Schomburg was part of a vibrant network of Black bibliophiles, what Ralph Crowder calls the "street scholars" of Harlem.1 Many of them were autodidacts—intellectuals without portfolio, you might say—and their dedication to documenting African diasporic history was all the more remarkable because many were working without the support and resources of libraries or universities. Men like John [End Page 21] Edward Bruce, Hubert H. Harrison, Charles Seifert, Willis Huggins, Richard B. Moore, Alexander Gumby. As Robert Hill and others have pointed out, a number of them weren't just collectors but also radical political activists, what today we'd call public intellectuals of various sorts. Harrison, for one, was a prominent organizer in the Socialist Party in the 1910s and a legendary soapbox orator as well as an influential Black nationalist who served as editor of Marcus Garvey's Negro World.

Of course, in the first decades of the century, there were also a number of Black intellectuals who had higher degrees and had prominent positions in universities or civil rights organizations, including Alain Locke, Kelly Miller, W. E. B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, and Sterling Brown. My point is that Black archiving—as an impulse, as a political imperative—often starts as an "extramural" phenomenon. It has some of that counterarchival impetus I was talking about earlier. There's an urgency to it, a drive to collect precisely what state and academic institutions didn't think was worth collecting. Then, Black archives emerge out of complex collaborations between those independent Black bibliophiles and the intellectuals based in more traditional institutions. What's interesting and complicated to me about Melanie's work is that, while many if not all of these early Black bibliophiles were men, the generation of librarians who began to bring this material into institutions, into city libraries and university archives, were predominantly Black women. And they were pioneering in the ways in which they figured out how to respect the unconventional elements of these collections, their counterarchival origins—the particular ways they force us to think about everything from classification to scholarship and access. So Black radicalism, as a project with archival implications, gets incorporated into the institution: it slips into the official "public" library, with all the tension and conflict and ambivalence that implies.


Slips into or weaves in and out of institutions? The 1910s and '20s were definitely a moment of transition toward more formal institutionalization, but the generation of bibliophiles that you were describing also descended from literary and historical societies like the Colored Reading Society, the Phoenix Society, and the Banneker Literary Institute, which all saw the purchasing of books and teaching of literacy as forms of activism, as Elizabeth McHenry and others have written.2 Some of the earliest Black collecting was a collective effort before it entered this more private phase and then expanded back outwards into corporate collecting by public and private libraries. Whether we want to call that earlier generation's work radical or not depends on how you reconcile their work with their uplift ideologies,, but I think it's important to think of Black archival politics as always having this collaborative aspect because it complicates any purely exclusionary or authoritarian image of the archive.


You both touched upon the work of Schomburg. I want to bring him back a little in the conversation. Can one or both of you speak about Schomburg's work with his peers and the work he did in the Negro Library Association here in New York and Negro Book Collectors Exchange both nationally and internationally?


I agree with what Brent had said earlier. It's useful to think of Schomburg and the other intellectuals from his generation as being members of a cohort of interrelated organizations like the Negro Libraries Association, the Negro Book Collectors Exchange, the American Negro Academy, and the Negro Society for Historical Research. The specifics of what happened in some of these organizations has been lost, but we do know just how consistent their motivations were between generations, which, as Brent said, were part political, part educational, and part cultural in their desire to instill racial pride. That consistency travels all the way into the creation and use of these later institutionalized collections. [End Page 22]


What shifts in our understanding of the archive when we approach it from the perspective of Black aesthetics and individual artistic practice? Brent, you've also written about the archives of individual writers. I'm thinking in particular of your essay about the period the novelist Claude McKay spent in Morocco.3


The first thing to say is that it's related to what we've started to sketch out, in terms of suggesting that African diasporic archives have emerged in a complex relationship to institutions. Artists are very much part of that process, along with bibliophiles, activists and "street scholars," academics, and librarians. In the 1930s, after he returned to New York from Morocco, Claude McKay participated in events with Schomburg and Willis Huggins, and his main source of income during the Depression was his work for the WPA Federal Writers Project, where he and other writers (including Ralph Ellison, Dorothy West, Roi Ottley, and Richard Bruce Nugent) were putting together a documentary history of "Negroes of New York." McKay even worked as a research assistant to Charles Seifert, another of the independent historians and book collectors I mentioned earlier.

McKay's participation in the Federal Writers Project proved to be indispensable for his own work. He drew on research on "Negroes of New York" in writing both his 1940 Harlem: Negro Metropolis and his last novel, the 1941 Amiable with Big Teeth. A few years ago, Jean-Christophe Cloutier discovered the typescript of Amiable in the archives of publisher Samuel Roth at Columbia's Rare Book and Manuscript Library. JC and I collaborated on a scholarly edition of the book that's about to be published.4 In his own writing about Amiable, JC makes the case that McKay shapes the novel with an archival sensibility. On the surface, it's a political satire, set in Harlem in 1936 in the months after Mussolini had invaded Ethiopia. African Americans were incensed at the Italian invasion; they considered it an attack on one of less than a handful of independent Black sovereign states at the time. The plot concerns the efforts of a shadowy Communist agitator to infiltrate the Black effort to raise money to support the Ethiopian cause. But JC points out that Amiable with Big Teeth is very much about the politics of the archive, too, with important plot threads having to do with the verification of identities and documents.5 Interestingly, the character who ends up being the closest thing to the hero of the novel is a Black bibliophile and amateur historian, a self-styled "Professor" who seems to be intended as a fictionalized version of figures like Huggins and Seifert.

McKay had been in Morocco for part of the previous decade; he lived in Tangier from 1930 to 1934. My essay is written in an experimental form I call "orchestrated fragments." It's a serial assemblage of short prose sections, each no longer than a few paragraphs. There's no narrative through-line—and there are sometimes shifts in focus or style from one section to another—but hopefully, as you go through it you notice things that recur, a loose pattern or harmonic structure that develops. The fragmentation of the essay is meant to echo the fragmentation of the archive itself: the feeling or "taste" of reading through isolated documents without a clear sense of how they all might fit together. But it's also very much about McKay's archival sensibility, about what the things he saved meant to him. One of the photos in McKay's papers at the Beinecke Library at Yale that I write about has visible puncture marks, probably from being tacked to a wall. I'm trying to think about the reasons artifacts like this became things he needed to live with, to look at.

The essay really started with a single photo I came across in the McKay papers, an odd shot of a man coming out of one of the old sidewalk urinals or vespasiennes that used to be common in Paris. It intrigued me, but I didn't know what the photo was or why McKay had held onto it: whether he took it himself, or knew the photographer or the man coming out of the urinal. It took me more than a decade, but I was eventually able to piece together most of the story. [End Page 23]

At first glance, this is something much more minor than the collections of people like Schomburg or Gumby, which aspired to document African diasporic history in the broadest sense and to catalyze collective memory. But even in this small, personal way, McKay could also be said to be "collecting" the social networks he was a part of—specifically queer networks of affiliation among a shifting cohort of transnational artists. Those networks are notoriously elusive. So even with McKay, there's something of that counterarchival impulse, gathering traces of something not being recorded anywhere else. It's important to add that it's not just a matter of perfunctory accumulation. That counterarchival impulse carries its own aesthetics, too. So my essay tries to bring out that aesthetic register in McKay's archive, and to use it as a model for the form of my own writing.


Isn't art capable of making us see archives in ways that project us toward the future, rather than locking us in the past? I'm thinking about the artist Derrick Adams, who works mainly in collage, and who recently did a residency at the Studio Museum of Harlem that allowed him to come to the Schomburg to use our Patrick Kelly archive. Kelly was a fashion designer in the 1980s who used these big buttons and fantastic, loud, out colors. There are lots of examples in contemporary visual art and installation art: Wangechi Mutu, Kara Walker, Theaster Gates, Lorna Simpson. Is that also the case in Black literature and music?


There are any number of examples in African diasporic literature. Just thinking back over the past half century, one thinks immediately (just to list some disparate examples) of books like Gayl Jones's Corregidora, Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo, Toni Morrison's Beloved, Erna Brodber's Louisiana, Patrick Chamoiseau's Texaco, Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Marlene NourbeSe Philip's Zong!, and Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings, among many others. As for music, in terms of contemporary stuff, I think of artists like Matana Roberts, with her extraordinary series of meditations on ancestry called Coin Coin. And there's Jason Moran, the pianist, who over the past few years has been doing installations about the environments of legendary jazz nightclubs (the Three Deuces, the Savoy, Slugs' Saloon), going to the point of reconstructing the bandstands and performing concerts in them. Moran has done a stream of shows that could be described as archivally motivated, like his project based on Thelonious Monk's 1959 Town Hall concert in which Moran partly reconstructed the arrangements but also played through, against, and across the rehearsal recordings of Monk's band, taking the music in a different direction through a meditation on the historical artifacts of that event.

I'd also want to mention what you might call the performative qualities of some of the examples we were talking about earlier. When you talk about archival aesthetics, it's important to recognize that they're not just happening in one medium. You could even say that one of the main ways you unearth the aesthetic potential in the archive is to transpose it into another medium. Even with the political figures, I'd say that that transposition is apparent. One of the things my students always comment on with Harrison's scrapbooks is their visual aesthetic. You can see right away that he's not only thinking about things but also cutting and pasting them in a way that's as much about visual juxtaposition and arrangement as their content. It leaps out at you: He needs to think about politics through visual art. Laying things out, moving them around, underlining them, allows him to see things, to make connections in a way that might not be possible if it were "just" a matter of data and ideology.

It's almost as if the scrapbook functions as a sort of training ground or rehearsal studio for Harrison. Obviously, cutting and pasting newspaper clippings and flyers is nothing if not a sort of collage-work. So, he slides into another medium, making these intensely visual compositions, as though it's a way to teach [End Page 24] himself to sense connections and arguments that wouldn't be evident otherwise. And then he goes out and gives a fiery soapbox speech on 125th Street—which, if you think about it, is nothing if not a sort of dance. So, he's constantly moving across media as he engages with his archival practice. And it's my sense that that moving, that necessary shifting of gears, that continual shifting of domains, has everything to do with the brilliance of the political critique that emerges—or in other words with the form and impact of Black radicalism as an intervention.


I agree that archival aesthetics are about forging connections across mediums and domains, and you can see parallels between that fluidity and the interdisciplinary conversations that have emerged using the archive as a center point. I would add that archival aesthetics also seem to be inherently generative—like trying to produce something new or create a new understanding of the past. It could be in the telling of untold or untellable stories or the revising of more familiar ones. I'm thinking of someone like Arna Bontemps, who decided to write his first historical novel, Black Thunder, after reading through the slave narrative collection at Fisk University. He wanted to explore Gabriel Prosser's pursuit of freedom as a reflection of what he himself was feeling while stuck in Alabama during the height of the Scottsboro trial. Bontemps's encounter with the archive produced that inkling of an idea in him, which he hoped would produce a conversation around the universal desire for freedom. I wonder if we could say that part of the political imperative within Black archival aesthetics is not only producing something new but also involving the audience in your challenging the status quo. Basically, how do you want people to think differently about history after they engage with your work?


How do you bring performance into the discussion? I know, Brent, you've also written about the archives of a number of jazz musicians including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Mary Lou Williams.6 But aren't the politics of the archive different when you're dealing with improvisation—with something happening in the moment, in front of an audience?


There are ways to think about performance itself as a kind of archival practice. For the dancer or the saxophonist, a repeated gesture—whether it's a particular angle and velocity of rond de jambe, or a particular embouchure or fingering—comes to be not just a habit, embedded in muscle memory, but also something that takes on connotations, emotional resonance, even connections to specific experience.7 But I also think about it in a more conventional way. A lot of my work on jazz is an attempt to make sense of what archiving means to performers. If the music is all about the ephemeral, then why are so many musicians such obsessive collectors?

The great trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith published a little pamphlet in the early 1970s where he writes that "every black creative artist" should "document for himself, by whatever means available, all that he has to say." You find that commitment all over the tradition. Louis Armstrong traveled with a typewriter when he was on tour, and would peck out long, effusive letters. In his house in Queens, he kept a personal archive of hundreds of reel-to-reel recordings, numbered and cataloged. Mary Lou Williams kept these little daily expense notebooks where she noted down every cent she spent, one page per day, over the course of four decades. The drummer Warren Smith has more than a thousand tapes in the extra bedroom in his apartment: recordings he's made over the years of concerts, rehearsals, jam sessions. To me it points to a question at the core of the tradition: the idea that the music is the historical record, that Black music captures better than anything else the complexity of the African diasporic experience. There's a link between the ephemerality of performance (what you make up in the [End Page 25] moment) and the exigency of the archive (what you hold on to, or what lingers, or what leaves traces).

In the essay about Claude McKay you asked me about before, there's an isolated fragment about a photo in Duke Ellington's papers at the Smithsonian. After the tragic death of his collaborator Billy Strayhorn, Ellington kept a photo of his close friend with him while he was on the road, slipped into the pages of his copy of The Catholic Hymnal. It's a striking photo: Strayhorn is sitting shirtless in what looks like a hotel-room bed, reading a large-format magazine as he looks at the camera. Annie Kuebler, the archivist who processed the Ellington collection, told me that when she found the photo, she had to think about how to handle it. Normally, one would separate it—that is, organize the photo with the other images Ellington had, and put the hymnal with the printed books. But she wondered, she told me, whether it might not make a difference to a researcher one day to know that he kept this photo in the hymnal, of all places—and maybe even that he used it to mark the page of a specific hymn.

We need to respect the fact that in keeping the snapshot the way he did, Ellington was doing a sort of archival work, preserving something and classifying it in relation to other things. In other words, Ellington was already archiving on his own, long before his papers ended up at the Smithsonian. Once it got there, Kuebler, as the processing archivist, knew that she had to take Ellington's own archival thinking into account in arranging his papers in order for researchers using the collection to be able to sense all the questions implicit in his practice; for instance, how his keeping the photo could be taken to suggest the very complicated sort of intimacy between the two men. And how it might also suggest something about the relation between performance and the archive. In my essay, I call it the intimacy of the antechamber, the kind of deep understanding shared backstage between men who were so used to being together in the spotlight.


Melanie, what Brent was saying earlier about classification—that Duke Ellington wasn't just saving that photo of Strayhorn, but was also metaphorically "cataloging" it in a certain way by keeping it in a particular place, as a page holder in a hymnal—makes me think of what you said earlier about Dorothy Porter and organizing the Moorland Library. Can you talk about how she approached the problem of classification with regard to African diasporic material, specifically in terms of the Dewey Decimal System and the ingenious ways she was able to adapt it during her tenure at Howard?


I think we can take for granted sometimes how an archivist or a librarian can also leave an imprint on a collection. They decide how to organize a set of papers or books when there isn't an original order that can be preserved. One of the challenges Porter faced when starting to organize the Moorland Library was figuring out how to represent the amount of material that was already in its holdings. Many of the books written by and about African Americans were limited to a certain set of numbers within the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system, which the Moorland Library was organized in at the time. The problem with this approach was that it isolated Black material physically and intellectually from other subjects. Porter decided to redesign the entire DDC system so that the books in the Moorland Library would be classified according to their field rather than their race. This decision was notable because the growth of special Negro collections within public libraries was tied to the Americanizing mission of similar collections in branches serving immigrant communities. The hope was that these collections would draw more patrons into the library where they would then learn from other resources at the branch, but Porter rejected that stark dichotomy between what was American and what was not. Instead, she wrote a new language and logic for understanding the overlap between books by and about Black peoples [End Page 26] and their relationship to other subjects within the Moorland Library. But it would take another few decades before similar adjustments were made to the DDC system overall.8


Now that we've returned to the academic setting, I know that both of you often work with archives in the classroom, at both the graduate and the undergraduate level. How does your research and writing about archives influence your teaching? And how do you bring the archives into the seminar room, or bring your seminar into the archives?


I haven't had the chance to teach an actual course about archives yet, but I have been really impressed with the thinking behind the THATClass digital humanities program in Washington, D.C., although it is intended for high school students.9 The two founders had wondered what a humanities lab (similar to a STEM lab) would actually look like, and their response was to create a class based around the archive as a site for discovery. In the courses that I have taught, I always try to remind my students that there is nothing inevitable about history, and primary sources usually help with analyzing the stakes of competing ideologies, movements, and decisions. With a "humanities lab," I imagine that the archive would push students to become even more uncomfortable with static histories once they're forced to make sense of a jumble of primary sources. As students "experiment" with the archive, they could experience the differences between history, historicity, and historical documentation. For African American studies as a field, archival experimentation could be a useful pedagogical framework because it allows students to challenge the authority of the archive without abandoning it as a site for critical inquiry.


In 2009, I started teaching a graduate seminar called "Black Radicalism and the Archive." I tried to design it as a hands-on class about archival practice: the technical aspects of collecting, classifying, and preserving. It's not meant to be a training class in library science, but we do talk about what processing archivists actually do, how they organize materials into a "collection" in the first place, how they write a finding aid. When researchers work in libraries and archives, we often take finding aids for granted—it's just a tool; it's the listing that tells you where to find the documents in a given collection—but a finding aid is a textual subgenre in its own right, with its own protocols, even its own poetics.

I started teaching at Columbia in 2007, and not long after that I heard that the libraries had acquired two important collections: the papers of the poet and activist Amiri Baraka and those of the Trinidadian activist and intellectual C. L. R. James. I realized that with these additions, the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia had a critical mass of collections related to the Black radical intellectual tradition. There were other collections already there, including those of a couple of the men I mentioned earlier, Hubert Harrison and Alexander Gumby. It occurred to me that it adds up to a glaringly male group of intellectuals, but I thought it might be worthwhile to think about masculinity and archival practice, and there were other collections coming in (of Hettie Jones, Constance Webb, Anna Grimshaw) that I thought could provide a counterweight in considering the lives of some of these men. I asked Michael Ryan, the former director of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, if I could put together a class that would meet in their dedicated seminar space, to give the students a chance to interact directly with the materials—to get their hands dirty, as it were.

The basic premise of the class is simple. We do spend a good deal of time reading classic works by these intellectuals—Harrison's When Africa Awakes, James's Beyond a Boundary and The Black Jacobins, Baraka's The Dead Lecturer and In Our Terribleness—and we sometimes use the collections the way literary scholars and [End Page 27] intellectual historians normally do: We look at Harrison's diary or James's letters or Baraka's drafts to contextualize the emergence of what they're doing in the books. But I try to get the students to think about it from another perspective, too—to consider Harrison, Gumby, James, and Baraka as themselves deeply involved in archiving. All these intellectuals collected materials that were related not only to their own writing but also to the institutions, publications, and events they were involved in. Baraka had accumulated almost three hundred boxes of material in the basement of his house in Newark, not just stuff related to his own writing but also records of the social networks and organizations he was part of, such as the Congress of Afrikan People, Spirit House, the Committee for Unified Newark, the 1972 Gary Convention of the National Black Political Assembly. To put it simply, the question is: What would it mean to consider the impulse to preserve a documentary trace of the past as itself political, to consider archival practice not as passive accumulation—much less antiquarianism, a fetishistic investment in the past—but instead as a practice integral to Black radicalism?

The literary scholar Jeremy Braddock has suggested that we should think about collections as "provisional institutions" (8). It's a good way to get at the political implications of what these intellectuals are doing. Both Harrison and Gumby were dedicated scrapbook makers. They amassed and arranged and annotated newspaper clippings and flyers and photos in scrapbooks dedicated to all sorts of topics. You might be tempted to think of that as a "private" affair—cutting and pasting at home. But in Harrison's diary, he mentions lending his scrapbooks to other collectors, or going to New Jersey to see a friend's scrapbook. When Gumby had his book studio on Fifth Avenue and 130th Street in the 1920s, his more than 160 scrapbooks were on display, and visitors could peruse them. So they were a public medium too, just in a different way from a book or a magazine. In other words, scrapbooks were an alternative mode of circulation to the newspaper or the library, even as scrapbooks served as ways to filter and comment on and reclassify other sorts of print, gathering clippings from very different sources, places, and dates under a single rubric.


I know that you've taught this seminar a number of times. How has it changed over the years?


When I first taught it in 2009, the Baraka and James collections had just gotten to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which meant that they hadn't been processed. The materials were still in the boxes they had arrived in. Normally libraries don't let you look at collections at that stage. But my colleagues on the staff were kind enough to let us look at some of the material. It made things much harder in some ways. It was a challenge to set up the syllabus, first of all, because it was difficult to assign parts of the collections for us to discuss in class when it wasn't clear what was in all the boxes. I had to do a lot of preparatory work, going through the material and trying to figure out what might be interesting.

But I came to realize that it was illuminating, too, because it gave us "direct access" to, say, Baraka's own way of collecting. Why did he organize his files this particular way? Why did he keep twenty-four copies of that photo of Maya Angelou? Why did he have his lawyer make a Freedom of Information Act request for Baraka's own FBI surveillance file? Why did he have personal letters from Nina Simone next to copies of her change-of-name affidavit? Some of these facets of the collection—the idiosyncrasies of the ways he kept stuff—are precisely what vanishes from view when the materials are organized by a processing archivist and separated according to logical categories such as date, genre, medium, and subject matter. But because we got in early, we were able to ask these kinds of questions about Baraka's thinking and habits as a collector. The lack of organization even forced us to approach the papers in ways that turned out to be very interesting. [End Page 28] I had each student choose a single box out of the hundreds in the collection and create a preliminary inventory of whatever he or she found. It took us into issues I wouldn't have been able to predict or curate, even if I had had time to go through all the boxes myself beforehand.

For that first version of the class in 2009, we were fortunate to have visitors speak to us about the collections we were looking at: Robert Hill, the executor of the James estate; Jeff-Perry, the Harrison biographer; and Amiri Baraka himself. The day with Baraka was especially memorable; he made it crystal clear just how conscious he was of the need to document Black political history—how aware he was that collecting was itself a radical act.

Since then, I've taught a version of the class just about every other year, and I've changed the syllabus and assignments every time. Sometimes we look at an inventory prepared by a student from a prior year. In fact, one student from the 2009 class was selected for an internship program at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library in which they train graduate students in archival processing—and he ended up being the person who processed the Baraka papers!

Because it was so fascinating to look at Baraka and James right after they arrived, I've also tried to find other collections to use that are "minimally processed," as librarians put it. So, I've brought in other case studies as things have been acquired at Columbia, most recently the papers of the dancer Arthur Mitchell.

Can I ask you a question, Melanie? I was saying before that I thought that writing The Practice of Diaspora required putting together a sort of archive, in the sense of assembling a set of sources that I didn't think had really been compiled before—things that were hard to read in conjunction. Do you think about your own research and writing that way? And do you consciously try to make your writing mirror the archival strategies of the things you're writing about? Would you say that your own work involves constructing an archive?


In terms of writing, I try to be very attentive to how I am narrating the absences I encounter in the archive or how I represent the moments when the trace of someone suddenly disappears. Because many of the women librarians whom I study left very few records about themselves, I try to register through my subjective voice where they flash up within the archive, to use Walter Benjamin's language ("Theses" 198). Whether it's a letter or a newspaper clipping, I want to acknowledge that I'm working in the archive as a medium that can never fully represent their lives. Even though I am drawing together these individual pieces of information, I wouldn't say that I am creating an archive within someone else's archive. That feels like I would be minimizing the work that I'm actually trying to reclaim—the significance of the many individuals who preserved this material in the first place.

Instead, I'd like to think of my research as less of an archive and more like a map that identifies the contributions and needs of these more historic sites. For example, the full arc of my manuscript ends with my comparing the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale to the George Gershwin Memorial Collection at Fisk. When the Gershwin was founded, it was meant to be a "corollary" to the Johnson Collection, in Carl Van Vechten's words, but the Gershwin never quite lived up to the Johnson Collection's stature in terms of material or prestige. This eclipsing was due in part to some of the financial challenges that face many of the historically Black institutions that had once been the main places collecting Black ephemera. So some of what I want my work to accomplish—I want to help raise awareness about the need for more projects like the Mapping the Stacks initiative that occurred at the University of Chicago during the early 2000s. These programs help to process, preserve, and make accessible some of the material still residing in Black archives. Sometimes we, as scholars, can focus on the items that can never be [End Page 29] recovered when writing about African diasporic history, but helping to process collections at under-resourced institutions can help to alleviate other types of silences due to inaccessibility. In that sense, there is also something radical about continuing to see a shared responsibility in the recovery and preservation of that material, and I would be happy if my work helped to shift some of these necessary conversations about silences and absences in that direction as well.10

Melanie Chambliss

Melanie Chambliss is an assistant professor of history at Columbia College Chicago. She has forthcoming and recently published essays in the Journal of African American History and in the edited collection The Unfinished Book (Oxford UP, 2020). Her in-progress manuscript, "Saving the Race: Black Archives, Black Liberation, and the Remaking of Modernity," explores the founding and impact of early twentieth-century Black archives.

Brent Hayes Edwards

Brent Hayes Edwards is the Peng Family Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His books include The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Harvard UP, 2003), Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination (Harvard UP, 2017), and (in collaboration with Jean-Christophe Cloutier) the scholarly edition of Claude McKay's 1941 novel Amiable with Big Teeth (Penguin, 2017). Edwards is currently completing a book titled "Black Radicalism and the Archive," based on the 2015 Du Bois Lectures he presented at Harvard University.

Alexsandra Mitchell

Alexsandra Mitchell is the manager of education and public programs at the California African American Museum. Prior to joining the staff at CAAM, she served as a reference librarian and an archivist at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a visiting assistant professor at the Pratt Institute School of Information, and worked with institutions such as National Geographic Television, the Library of Congress, the West African Research Center in Dakar, Senegal, the New-York Historical Society, and the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, New York. She has appeared on the Travel Channel's "Mysteries at the Museum" and has been heard on NPR. She is coauthor of Research Techniques and Strategies for the Study of Black Writings (Rowman & Littlefield, forthcoming) and a contributor to Pushing the Margins: Women of Color and Intersectionality in Library and Information Science.


This conversation is an edited transcript of the inaugural event in the "Live from the Archive" series organized by Alexsandra Mitchell at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York. The event occurred on January 17, 2017. We are grateful to Hiie Saumaa for transcribing the recording.

1. See Ralph Crowder, "The Historical Context and Political Significance of Harlem's Street Scholar Community," Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 34.1 (2010): 34–71.

2. See, for example, Rosie L. Albritton, "The Founding and Prevalence of African-American Social Libraries and Historical Societies, 1828–1918, Gatekeepers of Early Black History, Collections, and Literature," in Untold Stories: Civil Rights, Libraries, and Black Librarianship, John Mark Tucker, ed. (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science, 1998), 23–46; Elizabeth McHenry, Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies (Durham: Duke UP, 2002); and Dorothy Porter, "The Organized Educational Activities of Negro Literary Societies, 1828–1846," Journal of Negro Education 5.4 (1936): 555–76.

3. See Brent Hayes Edwards, "The Taste of the Archive," Callaloo 35.4 (2012): 944–72.

4. A paperback edition of the novel with an expanded introduction was published in February 2018.

5. See Jean-Christophe Cloutier, "Amiable with Big Teeth: The Case of Claude McKay's Last Novel," Modernism/modernity 20.3 (2013): 557–76.

6. Regarding the archives of Armstrong, Ellington, and Williams, among other musicians, see Brent Hayes Edwards, Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2017).

7. See, for example, The Sentient Archive: Bodies, Performance, and Memory, Bill Bissell and Linda Caruso Haviland, eds. (Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2018).

8. For more information on Dorothy Porter and the Moorland Foundation Library, see Melanie Chambliss, "A Library in Progress," in The Unfinished Book, Alexandra Gillespie and Deidre Lynch, eds. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2020), 260–71; Laura E. Helton, "On Decimals, Catalogs, and Racial Imaginaries of Reading," PMLA 134.1 (2019): 99–120; Janet L. Sims-Wood, Dorothy Porter Wesley at Howard University: Building a Legacy of Black History (Charleston: History, 2014).

9. For more information, see The Humanities and Technology Class,; and Seth Denbo, "Consider the Source: The High School Historians of THATClass," Perspectives on History, 1 Dec. 2017, Web.

10. See, for example, The Question of Recovery: Slavery, Freedom, and the Archive, Laura E. Helton, et al., eds., spec. issue of Social Text 33.4 (2015).

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. "One-Way Street." 1928. Selected Writings, Vol. 1: 1913–1926. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996. 444–88.
—-. "Theses on the Philosophy of History." Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: First Mariner, 2019.
Braddock, Jeremy. Collecting as Modernist Practice. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2012.
Edwards, Brent Hayes. The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003.
Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.
McKay, Claude. Amiable with Big Teeth. Ed. Jean-Christophe Cloutier and Brent Hayes Edwards. New York: Penguin Classics, 2017.
Smith, [Wadada] Leo. Notes (8 Pieces). New Haven: Leo Smith, 1971.

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.