Engagement with the Archive

Ellie Kincaid ‘20 and Cole Thornton ‘21

Lecture Correspondents

At a symposium hosting some of the leading scholars on slavery and violence in the archive, all the panelists agreed on one thing: the archives are important. The conference touched on issues ranging from minstrelsy to monuments, engaging the audience of faculty, students, alumni, and townspeople. On Friday, February 22 and Saturday, February 23, the Africana Studies Department brought nine scholars to campus: Hilary N. Green, Edda L. Fields-Black, Matthew D. Morrison, Edlie L. Wong, Neil Roberts, John W. Franklin, and Mari N. Crabtree. Each scholar gave a twenty minute lecture on their recent work, such as Dr. Green’s excavation of the University of Alabama’s archives or Dr. Fields-Black’s libretto honoring the slaves of the South Carolina rice fields. Outstanding student presentations by Maurice Norman ‘20, Saidah Rahman ‘20, Victor-Alan Weeks ‘20, Jennifer Thompson ‘20, and Jade Polly ‘19 were a highlight of the symposium, showcasing their tremendous work and talent.

With the wide range of speakers and topics, I sometimes felt lost even as I was inspired. Looking for a clean, easy premise in which to ground the experience, I found relief in returning to the assertion that the archives are important. Carol Quillen seems to agree, based on her email in the middle of February about “confronting our past and accountability in the present,” and more meaningfully, the President’s Office’s $25,000 pledge to the Commission on Race and Slavery.

But that’s where engagement with the archives gets more complicated: with the introduction of money, structure, and action. Most people agree that we need to engage with the archives, but the ways of doing so are endlessly complex and ethically charged. In the middle of a fad of digging into written records of the past, both at Davidson and nationally, I am so grateful to have attended the symposium on Slavery, Violence, and the Archive. The scholars’ contributions to our campus and to broader projects of dismantling white supremacy are invaluable and innumerable, but I found that my main takeaway was a set of questions. 

At the most practical level, who has access to the archive? And what do we do with information once we’ve collected it? Archives on slavery are scattered on both sides of the Atlantic and into Asia and even if you can get to them, they might not be in a language you can read. In order to gain access to these official archival spaces, you need a certain amount of academic credibility and that means money. Once you’ve got any important information, how do you disseminate it? Who do you want to see it? What stakeholders are there? One of the speakers, Dr. Roberts, a museologist who helped found the National Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, said  the museum is meant to be accessible to everyone, regardless of prior knowledge, age, or race. How could you replicate that accessibility without the vast resources available to a Smithsonian? 

Once you consider an audience, you have to question how they, or we, are consuming the information. Several scholars talked about how difficult it is to repeatedly relive trauma through witnessing it in the archive. For white audience members and researchers, what do we gain from viewing black suffering, both in the “past,” and as perpetuated into the present? One scholar makes it a point to keep reading about a slave until the records show that person is no longer enslaved, whether they gained free legal status or they died. That kind of responsibility in witnessing is not something I’ve heard of before, but it made me think about the power of the archives to recreate as well as dismantle structures of white supremacy. 

In that vein, how might the college take advantage of the symposium or other potentially disruptive scholarship in order to manage its own reputation? The first speaker on Friday afternoon was the Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty, Wendy Raymond. Her speech felt awkward and out of place at first, given that all the other speakers were engaging with Africana scholarship and she was reading the Davidson statement of purpose. Although her speech didn’t relate to the subject matter of the conference in the same way that Dr. Devyn Spence Benson’s introduction on silencing the past did, she still managed to make a powerful point. By quoting the Davidson mission statement, Dean Raymond made it sound like fighting white supremacy is in line with Davidson’s mission and history. Although I want to acknowledge and thank the administration for their support, I also have to question the ways in which it disavows its history of violence even at a conference designed to do the opposite. 

Davidson students as well as the administration must also support these incredible opportunities for academic and intellectual reckoning. Despite a solid turnout, there were still empty seats at a symposium of such calibre that it should have been bursting at the seams. As we move forward, I want to thank those students and professors who consistently engage with the complexity of race at Davidson. However, the institution as a whole, including its current students and alumni, must commit fully to the work that’s already being done, which means showing up and sitting with questions. To paraphrase Dean Byron McCrae’s introduction, when we marshall the resources and the will and prioritize this work, we move closer to the future we deserve.

Ellie Kincaid ‘20 and Cole Thornton ‘21 are Global Literary Theory and Art History majors from Chapel Hill, NC and Nashville, TN. They can be reached for comment at elkincaid@davidson.edu and cothornton@davidson.edu. 

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