Camera Obscura 17.1 (2002) 107-147
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In the Archives of Lesbian Feelings:
Documentary and Popular Culture
Every lesbian is worthy of inclusion in history. If you have the courage to touch another woman, then you are a very famous person.
—Joan Nestle, Not Just Passing Through
Perhaps to the surprise of those who think of both traditional and grassroots archives as an esoteric interest, Cheryl Dunye's 1996 film The Watermelon Woman elevates the institution to a new level of popular visibility by making fun of it. The archives also serve as a source of narrative drama in The Watermelon Woman, in which Cheryl (played by Dunye herself) becomes obsessed with uncovering the life of the mysterious Watermelon Woman, an African American actress who plays the stereotypical maid roles in old Hollywood films such as Plantation Memories. Through interviews and trips to libraries and obscure archives, Cheryl slowly pieces together the story of Fae Richards, whose offscreen life includes a romance with her white director, Martha Page (styled after Dorothy Arzner), a career as a singer in black clubs, and, in her later years, a long-term lesbian relationship. Combining documentary [End Page 107] with fiction, The Watermelon Woman weaves a visual archive of old photographs, film clips, and newsreels into its drama, simulating the look of these genres so well that it is hard to believe that Fae Richards is Dunye's creation and not an actual historical figure. 1 The most accessible part of the Fae Richards archive are the materials that connect her to mainstream popular culture—Hollywood films and a relationship with a prominent white woman—and Cheryl at once cherishes these artifacts and searches for other evidence that would bring Fae Richards to life as something more than a stereotype or a marginal figure. As part of her quest, Cheryl makes the trip from Philadelphia to New York to visit the Center for Lesbian Information and Technology (CLIT). Novelist Sarah Schulman makes a memorable cameo appearance as the archivist who sternly informs Cheryl and her friend that the huge boxes of relevant materials are not filed or indexed because CLIT is a "volunteer-run" collective. When Cheryl discovers some of her first photographs of Richards in the boxes, she is told that they cannot be reproduced without the consensus-based approval of the collective, which meets only every other month. Not content to wait, she illegally documents the images with her video camera.
Those in the know would recognize CLIT as a parody of the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA); and while some might not find the joke funny, its humor can also be considered a form of respect and affection, demonstrating the important place of the archive in the lesbian popular imaginary. The actual LHA inspires the same devotion that draws Cheryl to Fae Richards. Founded in 1974, the archives were first housed in the cramped quarters of Joan Nestle and Deborah Edel's Upper West Side apartment, and stories of visits to their apartment's pantry, filled with documents in every nook and cranny, are legendary in accounts of LHA's origins, especially now that the archives have relocated to a more public space. 2 Conceived more as a community center than a research institution, one of LHA's original missions was to provide safe space for lesbian-owned documents that might otherwise be left to neglect or destroyed by indifferent or homophobic families. Since 1993, LHA has been housed in a Brooklyn brownstone purchased not through large grants or public funding but [End Page 108] through many small donations from lesbians around the country. Desiree Yael Vester, a longtime LHA volunteer, notes that the archive serves as a ritual space within which cultural memory and history are preserved. 3 The new site continues to combine private, domestic spaces with public, institutional ones, especially because it occupies a building that was once a home: the downstairs living room serves as a comfortable reading room, the xerox machine sits alongside other appliances in the kitchen, the entryway is an exhibit space...