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Critic’s Notebook: Rediscovering Black Life Through the Archives


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It’s been a grueling Black History Month. Unprompted colorism confessions from a famous Black actress seized the early days. Bad Twitter takes — on interracial dating and what it means to be Black, among other things — soon followed with distressing regularity. All of this occurred alongside federal hate crime trials, accelerated efforts to ban books, curtail voting rights and endanger the welfare of trans youth, and other untold acts that reaffirmed the persistent cruelty of American racism.

Some of this cacophony makes sincere reflection and celebration more difficult — but not necessarily impossible. An exhibition about Toni Morrison’s historical text The Black Book at the David Zwirner art gallery in New York (through February 26) presented a welcome reminder of the power, generosity and complexity of Black archival work. Those archives offer knowledge, direct inquiring minds and, perhaps most preciously, invite us to stretch our imaginations and reject the most myopic parts of the present.

Curated by the New Yorker writer Hilton Als, Toni Morrison’s Black Book is primarily a tribute to Morrison’s collaborative archival project, which she published in 1974 with the help of Middleton A. Harris and a group of obsessive collectors of Black ephemera. The small team worked tirelessly for 18 months: They gathered newspaper clippings, documents, photographs, film stills and posters, culled these treasures and assembled them into one stunning volume. Each page of The Black Book is a glimpse of Black life throughout American history. The whole effectively functions as a scrapbook, but without the nostalgia or sentimentalism. Slave auction notices, racist ads and photographs of lynching live alongside posters for jubilee acts, original sheet music for freedom chants, patents and intricate handmade quilts. The captions are spare, merely there for identification.

Morrison created The Black Book because she worried about her present, about the words used to describe the experiences of Black people in America. She famously rejected the phrase “Black is Beautiful,” calling it “an accurate but wholly irrelevant observation if there ever was one.” This expression, however well-intentioned, suggested an unfortunate concession: that white validation should be important to Black people. To combat the flatness of the phrase and revive the complexity of Black lives, Morrison turned to the archives. Rummaging through the past is a balm for the injuriously amnesiac present. One sees, in these pages, a case for nuance and a reminder of how understanding history strengthens visions of the future.

The legacy of this archival appreciation has been on full display these past few years, with the increased popularity of projects dedicated to reviving Black cultural artifacts. In 2021, curator Maya Cade launched Black Film Archive, a remarkable, evolving compilation of Black films made from 1915 to 1979. The website organizes films starring or created by Black people by decade and is a wonder to peruse. After re-watching the trailer of Hallelujah, a 1929 film about a Black man who fervently turns to religion following a tragedy, I moved to the shaky fieldwork footage shot by the writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston in 1928. The three-minute clip enlivened my sense of the work she is already known for, most famously her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. I then stumbled upon a page dedicated to Sidney Poitier, which includes a biography of the screen star, links to his films and interviews he gave throughout his life.

Elsewhere on the internet, there’s Black Archives, a multimedia platform that resurfaces images and footage of Black people, bringing otherwise inaccessible libraries to a broader audience. Most recently, I found myself returning to three images pulled from the Alabama Department of Archives and History, depicting a family passing time in Oak Mountain State Park in 1975. They show a young boy, wearing a candy-cane red shirt, fishing; the same kid with an older man, who looks to be instructing and assisting him with his rod; and then a photo of what appears to be the same family hanging out in the woods. Over at We the Diaspora, an Instagram account, Jiya Pinder does a similar kind of curatorial work.

Other websites and Instagram pages have narrower focuses, like Black Beauty Archives, which documents the history of Black cosmetics by collecting vintage ads, oral histories and other beauty memorabilia. Or Culture Art Society, founded by Awa Konaté, and SUNU Journal by Amy Sall, which spotlight images of and by people in African countries, preserving pan-African visuals and aesthetics and expanding impressions of Black people and their lives.

Not all projects are as formally rigorous. Some are simply extensions of larger institutions concerned with conservation, like The National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Instagram page or the Schomburg Center’s.

The proliferation of these archival projects is exciting, but also comes with an unavoidable responsibility in both distribution and consumption. One must fight the temptations of sentimentalization and the urges of a lazy gaze. Morrison herself anticipated this: “The point is not to soak in some warm bath of nostalgia about the good old days — there were none,” she wrote of The Black Book’s purpose, “but to recognize and rescue those qualities of resistance, excellence and integrity that were so much a part of our past and so useful to us and to the generations of blacks growing up.”

Indeed, these photographs, these films and these documents are not about reveling in a history that does not exist, nor are they about escaping current events. They are sobering, laborious projects that ask us for humility and ethical sensitivity when engaging with the past. These are faces of people and visions of lives that we can’t claim to intimately know. But we can be curious. And feeding that curiosity can prompt further research of our own, allowing us to acknowledge the work of entire communities and situate our small selves within a narrative that not only preceded us, but will succeed us too.

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