Writing Through Historical Trauma: Finding Lifelines

“And, there is risk in the archival encounter. Confronting sources that show only terror and violence are a danger to the researcher who sees her own ancestors in these accounts. To sit with these sources requires the capacity to hold and inhabit deep wells of pain and horror. One must persist for years in this “mortuary” of records to bring otherwise invisible lives to historical representation in a way that challenges the reproduction of invisibility and commodification. This process of historicization demands strategies to manage the emotional response one has to such brutality in order to persist with these subjects-to be willing to take up and sit with this aspect of human degradation and to find meaning. […] To spend time in this temporal and geographical space is to risk emotional strength. It obliterates the possibility of objectivity. It is an exercise in endurance.”
– Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive

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A few weeks ago, a friend suggested that I keep a bowl of salt in my writing area to absorb the harmful energies that come with keeping myself immersed in historical trauma. She is an artist and re-connects regularly with her roots by traveling to West Africa.

As a descendant of enslaved people, I wish I had known about certain resources before I began my dissertation research on memorials to lynching violence.

My academic sources included many historical accounts of lynchings. I’ve read about so much killing. Sometimes I communicated with the authors. I recall meeting three white male historians who couldn’t understand why anyone would feel overwhelmed by this topic.
I’ve often sat alone in my office or in library special collection rooms examining lots of vile images.

Typically, these interactions have not involved care.

In academia there’s a tendency to pretend all history should be engaged the same way. Yet the violence of historical trauma is ongoing. We are living it today. When I started this journey, I had no idea how intensely I would feel the pain and horror. It is generally a lonely study because most people are not aware of the complexity of the topic and many do not want to feel it. They don’t want to know.

I hadn’t encountered perspectives from Black scholars about their personal responses to researching the afterlives of slavery or their strategies for managing the dismal nature of the research while simultaneously living with the reality of ongoing state-sanctioned anti-black violence.

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At the close of 2015, I found a lifeline. I read Courtney Baker’s then newly published Humane Insight: Looking at Images of African American Suffering and Death. Through this book, I met someone who knows what it means to put herself, her Black self, in this work. Earlier this year, I came across several more books by Black women scholars that negotiate slavery’s afterlives through a praxis of care. I’ve learned that this orientation is a tradition of Black feminism.
These books resuscitate me. They make it possible for me to continue, to attempt to make sense of something that is beyond sense.
They make it possible for me to envision my writing also as a form of care for myself and others.

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A strong beginning for one’s soul and mind:

Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, 2007

Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America, 1997

Christina Sharpe, In the Wake On Blackness and Being, 2016

Courtney Baker, Humane Insight: Looking at Images of African American Suffering and Death, 2015

Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive, 2016

Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging, 2001

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September 18, 2018 at 10:15 am Leave a comment

What Many “Diversity in Museums” Articles Ignore: Structural Racism

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On the porch with my copy of the “State of Black Museums,” August 2018 issue of The Public Historian, the journal of the National Council of Public History

The current trend in journalism and certain museum circles to put forward the idea that the dearth of racial diversity in curatorial roles in U.S. “museums” stems from a lack of qualified candidates ignores the fact that culturally-specific museums have long histories of training, hiring, and exhibiting art and culture of Black people and other people of color. The constant erasure of their work is purposeful. It obscures the entrenchment of structural racism in so-called “mainstream” museums.

To create equitable centers, it’s essential to know the histories of museums across sectors and to study how racism and anti-racism measures have operated in this country. The August 2018 issue of The Public Historian, the journal of the National Council of Public History, is another important resource for grasping a deeper understanding of the state of the museum field. Knowledge is power. Huge thanks to the organizers of the Association of African American Museums conference, #AAAM2018, for this gift to conference attendees.

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Student dancers and musicians greet AAM2018 conference attendees as we arrive at Hampton University Museum to honor its 150 years of cultural leadership. August 10, 2018, Hampton, Virginia.

As we recognized the 40th anniversary of the Association of African American Museums organization at this year’s conference, we also celebrated the 150th anniversity of Hampton University Museum. Black museums have been around for a long time! Their origins relate to this nation’s disenfranchisement of people of African descent. These centers should be models for leaders of traditionally white museums who include increasing diversity of staff and visitors as institutional goals. A reframing that acknowledges structural racism might lead to tackling systemic issues.

The August 2018 issue “State of Black Museums” is available online for free for a limited time.
I’ll add it to my Social Justice & Museums Resource List.  We need a record of the record.

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August 13, 2018 at 2:55 pm Leave a comment

Working through Oppression: Language as a Tool

 

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Vintage postcard features formerly enslaved woman standing at the New Orleans site where enslavers sold her. (Collection of author.)

Slaves. Fugitives. Runaways. Slave mistress.
Masters. Slave owners. Slave holders. Slave traders. Overseers. Plantations …

 

Our books, learning, teaching and imagination are steeped in limited frameworks. These terms reinforce the culture of dehumanization. Yet they often remain central and unchallenged forces in our lexicon.

Recently I followed a scholarly discussion via Twitter that highlights the trouble of this convention. Several historians reflected on their processes for finding words that better contextualize the truth of slavery. They also mentioned resistance they’ve encountered from editors who find their alternate expressions cumbersome.

On several occasions I’ve experienced opposition when I didn’t generalize oppression. The intransgience of some academics, museum professionals, and publishers can trip up, or even repel, those who are just entering these fields.  It is disheartening. However, it is not surprising. Ideologies of white supremacy and colonialism are foundational in these domains. Fortunately, some scholars, curators, educators, artists, students, designers, and others continue pushing at oppressive frameworks. We need to know who they are, how they work, and what they’ve created. We need to imagine what can we build together.

I’ve archived my favorite moments from the online discussion on Wakelet – The Afterlife of Slavery: Language & Ethics.”

 

 

 

July 19, 2018 at 10:11 pm Leave a comment

Your neutral is not our neutral

Archival Decolonist [-o-]

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” – Desmond Tutu

My blog post about the myth of neutrality in libraries, archives and museums. This post is from a First Nationsperspective

I had a discussion with someone once about if memory institutions, like museums, libraries and archives, should modify past classification and description of First Nations material that use antiquated and potentially offensive terminology, they said we could not because that would be whitewashing history and we need to remain objective and just present the facts. While part of me partially agrees, my retort was memory institutions have predominantly presented a colonial history as fact and have excluded the voices of marginalised people and by…

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February 23, 2018 at 7:10 pm Leave a comment

Taking Back Our Museums: #MuseumsAreNotNeutral Continues

img_20171108_210536_1581637098134.jpgThe Good News:
Thanks to hundreds of supporters we raised  $5669.79 for the Southern Poverty Law Center!

Today Mike Murawski and I relaunched our #MuseumsAreNotNeutral campaign to keep the dialogue going as we challenge the myth of museum neutrality. Letting everyone know that museums are shaped by and participate in sociopolitical arenas is the first of many steps to making our museums equity-centered institutions.

Now we are offering a few more colors and the proceeds will support Unidos Por Puerto Rico, United for Puerto Rico, an initiative providing assistance to those in Puerto Rico affected by the passage of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria.
If you can, please purchase a shirt and share your pics with our hashtag #MuseumsAreNotNeutral.
https://www.bonfire.com/museums-are-not-neutral/ 

Related posts:

Changing the Things I Cannot Accept: Museums Are Not Neutral, by La Tanya S. Autry, Artstuffmatters blog, October 15, 2017

Museums Are Not Neutral: Wear It Across Your Heart, by La Tanya S. Autry Artstuffmatters blog,  August 31, 2017

“Museums Are Not Neutral” by Mike Murawski, Art Museum Teaching blog, August 31, 2017

“The Idea of Museum Neutrality: Where Did It Come From,” by Gretchen Jennings, Museum Commons blog, June 26, 2017

What is Curatorial Activism,” by Maura Reilly, Art News, 11/7/2017

 

November 9, 2017 at 3:36 am Leave a comment

Changing the Things I Cannot Accept: Museums Are Not Neutral


“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” – Angela Davis

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Over the past 10 years I’ve worked in various positions at different art museums. For years, often I’ve been not only the only African-American person, but the only person of color, at institutional meetings. Yes, I meant that – years. Many times when I proposed programming centered on issues of racial inequality, white co-workers told me that the museum had to maintain a neutral stance or that my ideas sounded “political.” So they pushed aside my proposals. Each time I encountered that attitude, it was an attack on my body, my presence, my mind.

I have always known that museums are not neutral. They have never have been neutral. I would hope that our colleagues know that museums originate from colonialist endeavors. They are about power. As I have shared on social media networks, if anyone comes as me with that neutrality mess, I will take them down. I have had it with that narrow-minded perspective that ignores history and enables museums to operate as racist, sexist, and classist spaces.

A couple of months ago Mike Murawski and I started discussing this neutrality defense on Twitter. At some point he tweeted “museums are not neutral.” I answered, “that should be on t-shirt.” Not long after that exchange Mike wrote me and said let’s do just that. I’m so glad he did. Along with the hundreds of people who have supported our project, we’ve sparked critical discussion with our colleagues in museums, academic institutions, and broader publics. Also, we have raised over $5,000 for the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that has lead social justice initiatives for decades.

I’m proud to do this work with all of you who center justice.

[A few days ago, thanks to my friend Mike Murawski, I shared a version of this statement with colleagues attending the Museums as a Site of Social Action, #MassActionMIA, gathering in Minneapolis.]

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If you would like to join us in making a statement against the myth of museum neutrality, please consider purchasing one of our Museums Are Not Neutral t-shirts. Proceeds support the Southern Poverty Law Center. https://www.bonfire.com/museums-are-not-neutral/ 

 

 

 

 

October 15, 2017 at 4:54 pm 6 comments

Museums Are Not Neutral: Wear It Across Your Heart 

My friend Mike Murawski, Director of Education & Public Programs at the Portland Art Museum, and I have launched our “Museums Are Not Neutral” initiative. We would love to see more of our institutions engaging their communities in a deeper manner about social and political issues. Some museum professionals claim that museums must be neutral spaces. We oppose that attitude and decided to put our position on a t-shirt – Museums Are Not Neutral.

I hope you agree that museums should be active forces for social justice. Please consider purchasing one of the shirts before the campaign ends on September 20, 2017. The shirts, which are available in two colors and a range of sizes, sell for $19.99. Proceeds will go to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

August 31, 2017 at 11:19 pm 3 comments

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