Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Power, Records, and Love Cemetery

China Galland, Love Cemetery: Unburying the Secret History of Slaves (New York: HarperOne, 2008).

This is the story of the efforts to reclaim Love Cemetery, “a small, rural, African American burial ground in East Texas” (p. 1). It is a compelling, if not a happy, story, since the end result is the lockdown of the cemetery as various groups battled after its control for the purpose of obtaining valuable oil rights. As archivists, genealogists, and other researchers know, the information on headstones and other markers may be the only record of an individual’s life. Galland spins the story of her work with a group of African-Americans to clean up this cemetery, dating back to the early 19th century, and offers as well an account of race relations and racism in contemporary America.

Galland provides a glimpse into how places like cemeteries can function as memory markers. In discussing the planning for the reconsecrating of the cemetery, she writes, “This is what I had been reaching for without knowing it: a ceremony, a public acknowledgment that we were walking on holy ground – ground made holy by the struggles of the people whose bodies had been given to this land. For many, regardless of background, a burial ground was a luminal space, a place between worlds in which we take time apart not only to honor but to communicate with our ancestors, to feed the family spirits, to receive guidance, to pour out our heart to the ground that receives all. Staying connected to one’s ancestors is a way of feeding one’s own soul and balancing the world” (pp. 125-126). In some ways, this description can be stretched to encompass archives, since they too are like cemeteries where the records and stories are buried waiting to be rediscovered and retold.

There are also references to the use of records in the research about the cemetery and the ownership of the land on which it resides. Galland describes visiting the county courthouse in Marshall, Texas, filled with people examining the large volumes of land records searching for mineral rights. It leads Galland to reflect on what the examination of such records means, and the challenges about what such records might cough up or not: “There was an inherent problem in trying to coax the story of the black experience from these records. Here the story would be told by the silences, the omissions, the gaps in the records, what was missing. The records did not say whether a title was obtained ethically. They didn’t indicate whether a transaction was proper or if it was an egregious theft. The records, I realized, were the victor’s story. They were elaborate lists of who ended up with the title, not whether they had gained the title legally or ethically. That information was not recorded” (p. 168). Galland learns that her efforts, as a white person, to gather and record more information about the cemetery look just like more of the same. Her observations mirror what others have been saying about the challenges of using archives and the relationship of these records to power structures (past and present). Later, Galland includes this self-reflection about her work with the African-American community and its cemetery: “Was my documentary instinct my craft, or was it my way of avoiding being present? Was it my way of defending myself? I knew what it was like to have people deny my experience. Was I documenting events, or was I buttressing my experience of them in order to control the narrative? . . . Looking for records in the Harrison County Courthouse had shown me how white people made the rules, kept the records, and wrote the history. There was power in being someone who knew how to use that system. I could see that. Now I was beginning to see the lens of whiteness that I was wearing, beginning to feel the glasses on my own nose, becoming aware of this distortion” (pp. 185-186). This is a reminder of the power associated with records, a power that archivists need to appreciate and understand not just in studying the nature of archives but in working with their researchers.