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.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Black Roots

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African American Reclaimed Their Past (New York: Crown Publishers, 2009).

Historian Gates offers us this book based on his television series African American Lives, and if you watched any of these episodes you got the book. Each chapter on one of the prominent African Americans, such Oprah Winfrey or Chris Tucker, follows the same pattern. Gates tell us why the individual is extraordinary or interesting, what they know about their own family’s past (usually muddled or based on soon to be unsubstantiated claims), tracks us through the available records and the gaps, describes the reactions of the individuals, and then reports on the results (sometimes inconclusive) of the DNA tests. There is a kind of gee whiz sameness about each of the portraits, and although one can understand this since it is intended for a popular audience, it does get old.

There are interesting tidbits about archives and their importance. Right from the start, Gates acknowledges that his interest in history stems from when his grandfather in 1960 showed him scrapbooks full of clippings about local Black history in Cumberland, Maryland. Among these, he had “collected hundreds of obituaries; those scrapbooks were like an archive, decade by decade, of Cumberland’s colored dead” (p. 3). Gates also clearly describes the challenges of doing research in African American history: “Slavery – the lives and times of the human beings who were slaves – remains the great abyss in African American genealogical history. In spite of an avalanche of scholarship since the late 19060s, the lives of individual slaves – almost four million by 1860 – remain something of a historical void” (p. 6). Gates, in a number of places in the book, describes how only documentary fragments survive, sometimes intentionally, and how DNA testing and projects like the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (the compilation of records of shipping firms from 1517 to 1866) have helped to fill in some of the documentary gaps.

What does come through loud and clear is the remarkable personal satisfaction that the discovery of certain records can provide. In his chapter on Quincy Jones and his family, Gates writes, “I firmly believe that knowing about your ancestors is a grounding experience. It can bring tremendous peace, especially to African Americans, as we have had so much of our past systemically stolen from us. But, of course, the process can also open old wounds” (p. 49). In his chapter on Peter J. Gomes, Gates recounts the discovery of a 1782 deed of emancipation: “Finding a document such as this is a deeply emotional experience. My face flushed as I read it. And it is as rare as rare can be” (p. 121). I doubt we can expect this book to have anywhere near the impact Alex Haley’s Roots, book and television mini-series, had on genealogy and the demand for archival sources three decades ago, but it is a safe bet that the efforts by Gates will generate renewed attention to African American archives and their use.