The Blackivists on documenting movements | Feature | Chicago Reader

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The Blackivists on documenting movements

A group of Black archivists is helping communities create their own narratives, filling in what history books have left out.

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Martin Luther King Jr. at the Chicago Freedom Movement Rally in Soldier Field; Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bernard LaFayette at street rally; Black Power movement at the Chicago Freedom Movement Rally at Soldier Field; Aerial view of a large crowd at a rally. - FROM THE CHICAGO URBAN LEAGUE PHOTOS COLLECTION, THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS AT CHICAGO SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES
  • From the Chicago Urban League Photos collection, the University of Illinois at Chicago Special Collections and Archives
  • Martin Luther King Jr. at the Chicago Freedom Movement Rally in Soldier Field; Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bernard LaFayette at street rally; Black Power movement at the Chicago Freedom Movement Rally at Soldier Field; Aerial view of a large crowd at a rally.

When major movements rock the course of American history, Black voices and perspectives are often left out—out of textbooks, out of major museums, and out of public record.

Enter the Blackivists. Started in 2018, this group of six Black archivists in Chicago works to train and consult with community groups on how to properly preserve archives, prioritizing projects that fill in the gaps in history.

"Aside from our respective institutions, it's important for us as Black information professionals, archivists, and librarians, and records managers, to be able to provide and share this expertise, these skills, with our communities and with our people," says Skyla S. Hearn, a former chief archivist and director at the DuSable Museum of African American History. "So we all work together at various sites and events to educate the public about archives and also how to do the work as citizen archivists."

The job of these memory workers is even more essential today as the police killing of George Floyd has reignited widespread protests across the country and discussions on the historic narratives. Black communities are again, in the current movement, working to ensure they have the power to document what is happening. The importance of this is further amplified by what Blackivist Stacie Williams says seems to be "most of white America's collective gasp moment" that racism and oppression still exists.

"I think just even knowing and seeing that in that moment is understanding that our history has not always been documented, according to the dominant structures that did that type of documentation in this country," says Williams, who is director of the Center for Digital Scholarship at the University of Chicago Library. "So, the importance I think of all of us being in our respective spaces and trying to elevate the histories, the stories, the narratives, the material culture, all of it, of Black people in this country is so important."

Last fall, some Blackivist group members worked on a project with the Smithsonian to speak with Chicagoans on the west side about what happened in days after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968. Those stories, says Blackivist Raquel Flores-Clemons, explain how the National Guard treated Black residents at the time, but aren't found in any textbook.

"It traces directly to what is happening, why things are the way they are, why people are responding the way they're responding, and why certain communities are impacted by police brutality and over-policing more than other communities," says Flores-Clemons, who is the university archivist and director of archives, records management, and special collections at Chicago State University. "A lot of that is still very much in the minds and hearts of our individual community members."

Documenting the relationship between Black communities and law enforcement can show the connection between generations and the incremental progress made—or the lack thereof.

"When I think about the whole idea of community control of policing, that isn't something new," says Tracy Drake, an archivist at Reed College. "But if you know your history, you can trace that term back to what the Black Panthers were fighting for in the 60s. They used that exact same phrasing, but most people don't know that and can't make that connection. So that's why it's important to document it in all those phases. So you can see, 'Wait, we've been fighting for community control of police for over 40 years.'"

Much of that history had not yet been recorded. Last year, the Blackivists consulted with members of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. An important part of the process was capturing the organization's oral history.

"Largely, the records that we have are government documents and secondary book sources, but a lot of that story wasn't told by the Panthers themselves," Drake says. "So this was an opportunity to document that history [with them]. And that narrative creates a counternarrative to the larger history that we know about them and it allows us to disable any misconceptions and preconceived notions that are false that people have about them."

Working directly with community members is a key focus of the Blackivists. The group has worked with Honey Pot Performance since 2018 on their Chicago Black Social Culture Map—an online public humanities project documenting Black social culture from the Great Migration through the early 21st century. This project focuses on the emergence of house culture in the 1980s so the group consults with those who attend the Honey Pot events to give do-it-yourself archiving help. That is a part of a larger commitment to help Chicago.

"There are a lot of materials out there that need preservation, that need care, and we don't pretend to be able to do all of that work ourselves," Hearn says. "So we really have to uplift, encourage, and also provide people with the tools to be able to do that work. So you know, through this particular project, we were able to do that."

And those tools can be essential in documenting history. Blackivist Erin Glasco, an independent archivist, researcher, and organizer, says, "archivists in this moment—especially in this revolutionary moment that we're in—are really uniquely posed and have a lot of unique skills that lend themselves very well to what's happening in the streets."

Recently, citizen-recorded video has helped dispel police accounts of misconduct: a 75-year-old man pushed to the ground in Buffalo, New York; two students violently arrested in Atlanta, Georgia; beanbag ammunition shot at protesters in Austin, Texas. Stressing that social media isn't an archive, the Blackivists say archivists can help people properly archive what they capture. The group published a guide this month that provides tips for organizers, protesters, and anyone who wants to document a movement.

"The video evidence doesn't lie," says Glasco, who served as the research team lead for the #NoCopAcademy campaign—a Black and Brown youth-led grassroots effort to stop the construction of a $95 million police academy in Chicago. "I know when people were taking these videos, they weren't thinking they were going to be seen, that they were documenting human rights offenses, but that's exactly what they were doing. So I think that's something very powerful that I would like to see more archivists very carefully and intentionally and mindfully get into."

Even as the industry becomes more diverse, white archivists, curators, and museum technicians still make up a majority of positions nationwide—almost 90 percent. But there have always been Black archivists, the group notes, although the work of those trailblazers often went unseen.

"There has been this growth in terms of Black archivists being in the field, but for a period of about 30 to 40 years, there was just maybe about five or seven, and they all knew each other, and they were spread out across the country," explains Steven D. Booth, an archivist with the U.S. National Archives where he manages the audiovisual collection for the Obama Presidential Library. "They weren't in a position to do the work that we're currently able to do now. And so, we do this work for our communities, for our families, but also in honor of them."   v

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