Finding the Memory Carriers

“We carry these memories inside of we.”

If you watch Julie Dash’s masterful 1991 film “Daughters of the Dust” (and you should), you’ll find yourself constantly confronted with questions about memory, tradition, and preservation.

The film centers around a community of Gullah people living in the Georgia Sea Islands at the turn of the 20th century as a younger generation prepares to move from their home of many generations to look for work and a new life on the American mainland. Their elders worry about their traditions disappearing; about their way of life being forgotten. As members of the Peazant family prepare to leave the island for good, their matriarch Nana Peazant is shown with a tin box which was passed down to her and contains several small objects, “scraps of memories,” that help her remember how her people, formerly enslaved Africans, came to be on that island.

nana peazant
Nana Peazant, played by Cora Lee Day, surrounded by her family in Daughters of the Dust.

Each object in the box is an aid for the community’s collective memory that she safeguards. Without these aids, the memories could be distorted or lost.

The film makes it clear that these objects aid remembering, but they are only part of the Peazants’ collective memory-keeping. Memories are also preserved through their language, their food, their dancing, and in their bodies. Each of these components helps preserve the memories that are given meaning and significance by Nana and the other family members.

A few scenes later, Nana urges her great-grandson Eli to carry the family’s history and memories with him when he moves to the mainland. As several girls dance on the sandy beach, their movements reminiscent of traditional African dance, she says:

“Eli, we carry these memories inside of we. Do you believe that those hundreds and thousands of Africans dropped here on this other shore would forget everything they once knew? We don’t know where these recollections come from. Sometimes we dream ’em. But we carry these memories inside of we…Eli, I’m trying to learn you how to touch your own spirit. I’m trying to give you something to take along with you. Count on those old Africans, Eli. They come to you when you least suspect ’em. They hug you up quick and soft as the warm, sweet wind. Let ’em touch you with the hand of time.”

Though a photographer is present throughout the film, taking pictures and documenting the Gullah people and their island way of life, the film concludes with one of Nana’s descendants (who was born after her parents left the island and never met Nana) confirming that the semi-tangible memories best preserved her family history. She is the narrator of the film and she has pieced their story together through a kaleidoscopic mix of traditions passed down, memories, dreams, and physical items. The story is safe with her, not in the photographs.

 

I am an archivist at the Pennsylvania State Archives and I work in records appraisal and acquisition. My job is to collect Pennsylvania’s “permanently valuable records” and help make them available for current and future researchers to tell the stories of the state and the people who have lived here and have been impacted by the state’s people and government.

Part of my job to record and amplify the voices and experiences of historically marginalized people in Pennsylvania, particularly those who have been impacted directly by the actions of our state government. I think a lot about what gaps we have in our record collections and how there are several groups of people that I wish were better represented the historical record including the Black community, people with disabilities, and indigenous people from the tribes that have lived within what is now Pennsylvania’s borders. Archives (the State Archives is one of many just in Pennsylvania) have pieces of these histories and stories, but what about the missing parts? What can we do when the existing archival record isn’t enough?

After I finished watching “Daughters of the Dust” recently, I continued reading about the concepts of memory and preservation that director/writer Julie Dash captured so well in the film. Before long I had my own disparate collection of people, essays, and thoughts on the subject floating around in my head. Here is what has stuck with me the most:

-I immediately thought of Henry David Thoreau and his refection on a farmer’s field he rafted along the Concord River in 1849: “You shall see rude and sturdy, experienced and wise men, keeping their castles, or teaming up their summer’s wood, or chopping alone in the woods, men fuller of talk and rare adventure in the sun and wind and rain, than a chestnut is of meat; who were out not only in 1775 and 1812, but have been out every day of their lives; greater men than Homer, or Chaucer, or Shakespeare, only they never got time to say so; they never took to the way of writing. Look at their fields, and imagine what they might write, if ever they should put pen to paper. Or what have they not written on the face of the earth already, clearing, and burning, and scratching, and harrowing, and plowing, and subsoiling, in and in, and out and out, and over and over, again and again, erasing what they had already written for want of parchment.” (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, page 10)

-Dash, among other influences, cited the writings of W.E.B. DuBois in her explorations of Gullah culture and memory keeping. I suspect this passage from his 1903 work “The Souls of Black Folk” helped draw her to examine the Gullah in particular: “Away back in the [eighteen] thirties the melody of these slave songs stirred the nation, but the songs were soon half forgotten. Some, like ‘Near the lake where drooped the willow,’ passed into current airs and their source was forgotten; others were caricatured on the ‘minstrel’ stage and their memory died away. Then in war-time came the singular Port Royal experiment after the capture of Hilton Head, and perhaps for the first time the North met the Southern slave face to face and heart to heart with no third witness. The Sea Islands of the Carolinas, where they met, were filled with a black folk of primitive type, touched and moulded less by the world about them than any others outside the Black Belt. Their appearance was uncouth, their language funny, but their hearts were human and their singing stirred men with a mighty power…The songs are indeed the siftings of centuries; the music is far more ancient than the words, and in it we can trace here and there signs of development.” (The Souls of Black Folk, 250-254)

-In 1928 Zora Neale Hurston wrote: “But in the main, I feel like a brown bag of miscellany propped against a wall. Against a wall in company with other bags, white, red and yellow. Pour out the contents, and there is discovered a jumble of small things priceless and worthless. A first-water diamond, an empty spool, bits of broken glass, lengths of string, a key to a door long since crumbled away, a rusty knife-blade, old shoes saved for a road that never was and never will be, a nail bent under the weight of things too heavy for any nail, a dried flower or two still a little fragrant. In your hand is the brown bag. On the ground before you is the jumble it held–so much like the jumble in the bags, could they be emptied, that all might be dumped in a single heap and the bags refilled without altering the content of any greatly. A bit of colored glass more or less would not matter. Perhaps that is how the Great Stuffer of Bags filled them in the first place–who knows?” (How it Feels to Be Colored Me)

-In a New Yorker article written by Sophia Nahli Allison earlier this year, she reflects on archives and stories that have been “erased or misplaced” and quotes Tiffany Ruby Patterson: “Historians imprison themselves through their reliance on documents they deem factual,” Patterson said. “My own training in African history taught me that it is possible to reconstruct the consciousness of a people who left scant written records but had a rich oral tradition.” (Revisiting the Legend of the Flying Africans). I also read a compelling comment on this quote on Twitter from @CollardStudies: “This quote resonated with me too. I also think about how we privilege archives that are housed at institutions over the rich troves of multiple knowledge forms inside people’s homes and others that emerge during informal personal gatherings.”

-Reflecting on Dash’s film, Carina del Valle Schorske wrote a thoughtful article for the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2017. After discussing Nana Peazant’s conversation with Eli, del Valle Schorske wrote “The key is the capacity to move into sensation when memory is not available, and into memory when sensation is not.” del Valle Schorske also included two related thoughts from James Baldwin in her article:

“History was someone you touched, you know, on Sunday mornings or in the barbershop. It’s all around you. It’s in the music, it’s in the way you talk, it’s in the way you cry, it’s in the way you make love. Because you are denied your official history you are forced to excavate your real history even though you can never say that’s what you are doing. That is what you are doing.” (1973 interview with The Black Scholar) [paywall]

“All of my father’s Biblical texts and songs, which I had decided were meaningless, were arranged before me at his death like empty bottles, waiting to hold the meaning which life would give them for me.” (Notes of a Native Son)

So, sort of like Baldwin, I have a jumble of texts that I am trying to make into meaning to for me and my work in the archives. What do I take from these and put in my own bottle?

As I see it, there are two challenges here confronting archivists:

1. We know the archival record is incomplete and flawed. What do we do about the lean record of the past (especially for historically under documented groups)? How can we make sure researchers can get the most out of what we do have?

2. Going forward, how do we learn from the lessons and losses of the past and make sure that our current preservation/collecting is going to empower the researchers of the future? How can we ensure that all the voices and perspectives will endure?

Dealing With What is Lost

There’s nothing we can do about the records that haven’t survived to the present day or were never created in the first place.

One time I was out on a records collecting trip at a Pennsylvania mental hospital and was told quite casually by a medical records officer that a collection of patient admission and discharge files, the best source of information of that institution’s residents, were unceremoniously destroyed a few years earlier. Thousands of men who spent years, sometimes decades, even entire lives in this institution- all gone. All that’s left are two admission books with scant lists of names and admission dates.

Look at their fields, and imagine what they might write, if ever they should put pen to paper.

Another Pennsylvania facility for children with intellectual disabilities closed in the 1980s and the State Archives likewise did not get to the records soon enough. After a few years many records like the annual reports and board of trustees meeting minutes were all missing, not to mention the case files for many individuals. Believe me, its been very hard trying to explain to disappointed historians and genealogists why we don’t have those records.

If these challenges exist for records of the 20th century, how much more challenging can it be for people and stories from earlier years? When no survivors are left to interview and there aren’t any supplementary newspaper accounts or related records?

Some gaps in the record can be filled in by intensive searching. Documents may have been removed from their “official” place of record, but that doesn’t mean the information isn’t squirreled away somewhere else. I’ve had luck in the government records realm here on occasion- some reports and correspondence we assumed were long gone ended up being saved and forgotten in a rural county field office or a neglected storeroom.

Oral histories, obscure publications, and personal/family records can also make up for missing pieces of the official record. Some archives and library special collections do a good job here, but there are many that don’t. When we can’t find anything, archivists shouldn’t be afraid to communicate with the community we’re documenting and ask them for help. The first example that springs to my mind is the work of the “Digital Harrisburg” project. Their search for documentation on the lives of Black residents of the city’s 8th ward hit a dead end in the archives so what did they do? They began hunting down descendants and neighbors to see if they could find more information or records they’ve held on to. Why shouldn’t an archivist in the State Archives do the same?

The songs are indeed the siftings of centuries; the music is far more ancient than the words

And when its clear there just aren’t any traditional records left, we should be pushing researchers to consider other sources of information: the place where the event happened or the family lived; the songs that were sung at the time; artifacts; memories and stories passed down.

Looking between the lines has helped many historians uncover stories that were thought lost when the records disappeared. Scott Reynold Nelson’s work on John Henry wouldn’t have been possible if he didn’t take a deep listen to the songs and tall tales of Virginia’s Black railroad workers or travel to the actual tunnels where Henry allegedly toiled to find the real story. Like Nana Peazant’s tin can objects, many “non-records” are memory aids that link us to stories much greater than themselves.

I’m also thinking about Alex Haley’s “Roots,” a book that wove archival research in with creative license, imagination, and educated assumptions. While many have used this as reason to discredit the book (and I’m sure there are some archivists in that crowd), I think this is still a good example of what a researcher can do when they exhaust the remaining historical record and need to look elsewhere to get the rest of the story. Would we say Nana Peazant’s memories aren’t as worthy as documents to remember her family’s story? Never.

Preventing Future Loss

Archivists need to get out of the box that says we only deal with original records. Its stifling. Yes, we’re trained to deal with the complexities of the written word and unpublished sources of information, but that clearly isn’t enough. The people who live in the historical record had many things that documented their lives and experiences, and records were only one part of that. We ignore artifacts, oral histories, published records, locations, etc. at our peril. (Note: many archives do collect these sorts of nontraditional records, but its far from universal)

We should be collecting important records and bringing them back to the archives, but we also need to make sure that the other materials are preserved and made accessible when we encounter them. I’ve had many occasions when I’m collecting records from a government office and there are powerful artifacts that I’m not allowed to accept or do anything with. Our mission and collection policy silos us and has no room for flexibility. On rare occasions I’ve been able to notify a museum or library and they’ve taken the materials. Protecting all historical materials regardless of its form should be standard procedure all the time.

When I was collecting records from Danville State Hospital’s Superintendent’s Office last year, I had to leave an enormous library of published works on psychiatry and asylum operations behind. Wouldn’t it be useful for a researcher to know what books the superintendent kept on hand? And the artifacts left behind- clothing, utensils, musical instruments, artwork made by residents, toys. The list goes on. If you’re an archivist and you’re passing up things because they’re “not records,” fight for their preservation with another organization that can care for them. If things must be physically separated, at least we can keep them together intellectually through finding aids, resource guides, and other good documentation that’s available to researchers and isn’t just a passing note in an internal control file.

History was someone you touched, you know, on Sunday mornings or in the barbershop. It’s all around you.

Archivists will not save and preserve all history. Even today when we like to think we’ve improved on the past ways, there are a lot of stories that we’re letting slip out of our grasp. But working with museums, libraries, and all the other memory carriers out there, we can get a lot closer.

And on that note, as archivists we should also be prepared to let community groups and other non-traditional archives do their own collecting. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t support them. Archives are in the business of preservation, not collecting. We can do our job even if that means we’re just helping someone else care for records.

We should put caveats and exceptions in our collecting policies to help us to collect “non archival” records if they relate to historically underdocumented groups or subjects. We need to be able to let appraisal be our guide, and not be limited by policies that might hinder that.

Records that are usually considered “transitory” and “ephemeral” records are routinely supposed to be destroyed by many an organizational records retention schedule and fall outside of collection policies. They pose challenges to processing staff and can take up precious space on our shelves. But if that’s where hidden or quieter voices are recorded then that’s needs to be collected.

We privilege archives that are housed at institutions over the rich troves of multiple knowledge forms inside people’s homes.

Archivists should also not be afraid to aggressively pursue embarrassing or “skeleton in the closet” records wherever they may be. This is especially true if you work in government or at any organization of power. Sometimes these records are saved by accident, other times are kept internal and hidden. But its on us to make sure they eventually become accessible in the historic record because we can’t rely on the records creators. Collecting these records can garner fierce resistance from lawyers and the like, but we can’t compromise. If we only collected the records that records creators wanted to be in the archives, the historical record would be so horribly skewed.

How to Conclude from Here?

I sit here trying to wrap up this essay, and have concluded that what I’ve written is like Zora Neale Hurston’s brown bag. It is my “jumble of small things priceless and worthless.” But I will leave it as it reads.

Eloquent or not, it is important to admit that as archivists we’re not doing enough. And we must do better.

I’m discouraged by articles from archivists who are critical of “social justice” and “activist archivists” in our institutions. This line of thinking is why we’re missing so many important perspectives; in my own institution I hear a lot of “this isn’t explicitly listed in our collection policy or retention schedule so we shouldn’t accession it.” In our quest to keep archives “neutral,” it seems to me like we’re neglecting a lot of perspectives and voices whether that’s the intent or not. Archivists should be trying their hardest to document all voices within the scope of their collecting policies (in my case that’s Pennsylvania, particularly where the state government is involved). If it doesn’t fit within your own repository you are still responsible for helping it find a good home.

I’m especially tired of articles like “To Everything There is a Season” by Frank Boles and “A Critique of Social Justice as an Archival Imperative: What Is It We’re Doing That’s All that Important?” by Mark Greene.

Its clear that when archives follow the status quo, important voices get left out of the historical record. Just look at where we are now. Keeping archives “neutral” seems to serve this end, giving us a convenient reason why we shouldn’t be going to extra mile to preserve and share those other voices, no matter what the source of information is.

Archivists are memory carriers. But we’re not the only ones.

Archives are not the key to preserving our history. We’re just one part.

Lets make sure our contributions to the tin can that is our collective memory and history is the best it can be.

nana peazant bw

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