Moments and Movements: Sharing Histories Through Community Archives

Time is not as strictly linear as is made to believe. While an archive appears to be about the past, it is often equally about the present and the future. Through visiting an archive, people are able to create new meanings of historical objects through their interactions with them. A poster for a march, for example, holds the his/her/their/ourstory of those who made the poster, those who were at the march, and those who view, touch, and consider the poster years later at an archive. His/her/their/ourstory is made through community, made through the collection of past and present moments and objects, and it is important that spaces like the Sexual Minorities Archives (SMA) reflect and support that community.

One of the things I appreciate about the SMA is that it is a true community space and it feels that way when you’re inside it. The many stories and materials inside are by and for the community and made truly accessible, not only by being free and open to the public, but by nurturing a community centered and driven space. While it is more difficult to ensure space and funds for community archives, the ways in which archives like the SMA procure space and funds ensures the community has a voice and a hand in building the archival space.  

The Northeast Indiana Diversity Library (NIDL) and the Rainbow History Project in D.C. also exemplify community through their work. These organizations not only house archives but hold events, do book lending, and more. The Northeast Indiana Diversity Library holds local and regional LGBT archives, from photographs to newspaper clippings to shirts to posters. They describe the archive as “precious history that would otherwise be discarded or hidden from view if it were not carefully kept and preserved in this library.”[1]

This community regional archive ensures his/her/their/ourstory is kept by and for the community. The NIDL also has an extensive lending library and meeting groups for queer and trans adults and youth. These programs ensure that LGBTQI+ communities are not solely remembered as something of the past but celebrated and supported in the present and for the future.

The Rainbow History Project preserves the history[2] of D.C. area LGBTQ+ history. The project offers online archives, oral histories, and historical walking tours of D.C., either self-led or by appointment. Similar to the way history is made cyclical through an archive, walking in D.C. on a historical tour allows one to inhabit physical spaces that hold meaning, even as such spaces are constantly being changed.

Oral histories allow people to speak for themselves and tell their own stories, rather than leaving their lives up to interpretation by future historians or community members. This is important because although traditional archival materials do tell a story and connect the past to the future, oral histories allow for a fuller picture of someone’s life. There are still so many missing pieces of daily life and stories left out between documents and photographs. Oral histories allow some of those pieces to be patched together.

Collective Resistance is yet another grassroots community archive that exemplifies the relationship between past, present, and future through community. Collective Resistance is “a collective of Black Women & Black Feminists from the Bronx who are radicalizing belonging through curated events and accessible resources.”[3] During a webinar with Black Women Radicals, Penelope and Megan of Collective Resistance discussed how, over and over again, white academics go into communities like the Bronx and take: take pieces of people’s lives and stories to bolster an untrue narrative of the community.

Collective Resistance works to collect stories of their community today in the now and preserve them in a valuable, honest way that amplifies, contributes, and centers the lives of young Black people. This grassroots archiving ensures their community has a voice and place in the present and the future, fighting against gentrification and the knowledge extraction of larger institutional academia.

Last week, I watched Cheryl Dunye’s pivotal film, The Watermelon Woman. In the film, where a fictionalized version of Cheryl searches for the life and story of a Black actress from the 30’s, Fae Richardson or the Watermelon Woman, the maintenance of history and archives is constantly challenged and questioned. I got a good laugh out of the portrayal of the volunteer-driven women/lesbian archive, CLITS, with a disorganized main volunteer who scolded Cheryl for taking video of archives not yet made public.

Yet it brought up an important question of public versus private history. In these community-driven archives, who is given access and who is given privacy? How can one respect a desire for privacy in a world that works to hide histories outside of the norm? Can privacy for a person of the past hinder a present person’s knowledge of history and the present moment? How can one protect privacy from the state and other oppressive institutions while ensuring communities have access to its history?

I attended a webinar on June 19th hosted by Documenting the Now, Blackivists, Texas After Violence, Witness, and Project STAND on archiving the current uprisings across the country while still protecting the privacy of protesters. They discussed how the state takes hold of images and archives both through identifying and arresting someone photographed, and by twisting the narratives of those unable to archive and record their own.

The Blackivists, a coalition of Black archivists and memory workers, urge archivists and organizations to take a people-first approach rather than an institution-first approach to archiving revolutionary moments and histories. They worked with the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP) on an oral history project to take the narrative of the BPP away from the state and back into the hands of the members. They are also currently advising protesters and organizers on archiving this current moment. Tracy Drake of the Blackivists, stated “We don’t have to wait 40 years to change the state narrative. We can do the work now.”[4] This is another way in which the relationship between past, present, and future is sewn together within an archive and through archival work.

As many have bemused, 2020 feels like its own future history book: organizers are also looking to the past and the future as they are in the present. Organizers and protesters are learning from movement ancestors through reading their work and having their memory and archives available to us. Organizers and protesters are creating history through the act of gathering in the streets, rioting, tearing down statues, and countless everyday actions. The future is being built now.

Someday, someone will interact with an archive of the 2020 uprising. How will this moment be remembered? How can one archive the current moment so future generations will have access without putting current or past activists in danger of state repression?

At the end of The Watermelon Woman, Cheryl addresses the audience and June, one of Richardson’s lovers who had given Cheryl a box of photographs of Richardson and a letter that urged Cheryl to leave out the stories of Richardson and her white lover in the film she made. June’s letter read, in part, “please Cheryl, make our history before we are all dead and gone. But if you are really in the family, you better understand that our family will always only have each other.”[5] Cheryl responds by explaining this exact relationship to present and past through archives that I’m discussing here. “I know she meant the world to you, but she also meant the world to me, and those worlds are different. The moments she shared with you, the life she had with Martha on and off the screen, those were precious moments, and nobody can change that. But what she means to me, a 25-year-old Black woman means something else. It means hope, it means inspiration, it means possibility. It means history.”[6]

Through this exchange, Cheryl and June hold the nuance and contradiction within archives and historiography: oftentimes, the ways in which people interpret history in the present looks different from how it was understood in the past. This is in part from projecting the present onto the past, but it is also from having knowledge of other contexts and histories, either in the past or present. Cheryl and June’s relationships to Fae somewhat contradict one another’s but don’t necessarily negate the other. History is no one single moment or perspective—history is continual, fluid, and always present.

Created in 2017, The Black Lesbian Archives feels to me almost like a manifestation of what emerged from The Watermelon Woman. Founded by Krü Maekdo, The Black Lesbian Archives intend to fill the gap of digital and physical resources on the past and present lives of Black Lesbians. The Archives have planned a mobile herstory Grassroots Tour across the country, initially planned for this spring but postponed to 2021 due to COVID-19. At each stop, they plan to hold a series of events, teach archival preservation skills, make connections with local Black Lesbian communities, and continue to grow the archive as they move from place to place. Through this incredible tour, the Black Lesbian Archives simultaneously create the future and the past through movement. The actual movement of the archives across the country perfectly represents the fluidity and movement of history and memory.

On the webinar with Black Women Radicals, Ayling Zulema Dominguez, creator of Essential: Chronicles of Black and Brown Essential Workers During the COVID-19 Pandemic discussed how archiving is an organizing tool and a jumping off point for liberation. Zulema Dominguez expressed that what brought her to create the archive was an urgency, a need to resist revisionist history. This urgency is similar to the urgency that the NIDL and SMA have embedded within their archival collections. The urgency to reclaim narratives in the now, to avoid rewriting history 40 years later, as the Blackivists discussed.

Trinice McNally of University of the District of Columbia Center for Diversity Inclusion and Multicultural Affairs invited the audience to think about museums and historical knowledge production: who is doing the research? Who is doing the writing? She reminded us that “history has a story to tell and if it’s not preserved by the right people, young people will never learn the truth.”[7] History making, memory work and knowledge production are all political. Just as the past, present, and future are intertwined through an archive, the politics of the present and future are defined by how the politics and lives of the past are written and understood.

Community grassroots archives such as the ones mentioned here and countless more are essential separate spaces from larger institutions. The Blackivists encourage a people-first approach rather than an institution-first approach to archiving. There is a vast difference between archives which are part of a larger institution (such as a college or governmental organization), and archives made out of the necessity of holding on to and being in control of one’s own history. Ayling Zulema Dominguez felt this necessity when she began her archiving project. When JR Roberts told Ben Power that if he didn’t take over the New Alexandria Lesbian Library (the seed collection of what became the SMA) it would be thrown out on the curb, this necessity was made crystal clear.

Community centered and driven archives like the SMA struggle with funding and space and often have to move multiple times, like the SMA has had to. The Northeast Indiana Diversity Library has moved over six times now. It is currently closed because it was unable to find a new home after leaving the basement of the library at Purdue University Fort Wayne due to potential flooding conditions.

What does it mean to hold on to history if you cannot find a stable place to keep it? What does it mean to go on walking tours of gentrified areas of D.C. to find hidden histories in an ever-changing place? Or record the current stories of the Bronx community as people are being pushed out?

Oppression works in part through a deliberate erasure of the past. One way history is hidden is through limiting the growth of community archives such as these. The maintenance of archives such as the ones mentioned here in the present can ensure the past is known and a future is possible. It ensures politics of the present and future are emboldened real, true, people-first histories. In order to disrupt the idea that time is purely linear, and history is only one story, these spaces must stay alive.


[1] https://www.nidl.info/index.php/about-the-library

[2] For the rest of this piece, I will use “history” rather than his/her/their/ourstory for ease of writing and reading, but I acknowledge the complexity of the word “history” and the ways feminists over time have worked to rename or reclaim the word.

[3] https://www.instagram.com/collectiveresistance/

[4] Tracy Drake, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=03xciLNQTx0

[5] 1:12:39 – 1:12:51

[6]  1:13:42 – 1:14:26

[7] Trinice McNally, https://www.instagram.com/p/CB1axE1pDJj/

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