(Written by Andrew Sandock)
A lone curriculum resource book entitled Black and White in North America. A thin chapter on Africville in Issues in Cultural Diversity. Another curriculum resource book… nevermind, that’s the same one as before. After several hours scouring deep into the OHEC catalogues and shelves for archival materials to feature for Black History Month, I come up disappointed. But am I surprised? Absolutely not.
Archives, and by extension our perspectives and overarching narratives of history, are constructed. How historical records are arranged, described, and kept is the result of the actionable choices of the archivist. Collections development and appraisal, the decision of what is saved (what is worth saving) is just that — a decision, whether conscious or unconscious. Decades of these decisions accrue and compound, leaving us with the patchwork of records we have today, ones which are often either overtly racist or else absent of any narrative situated outside settler colonial whiteness.
Archivists and archival researchers are no strangers to the stomach-churning language found in archives. Indeed, we can find ample evidence of racism and oppression in the Ontario education system nested in the shelves of the OHEC archives at OISE. Photos of future teachers merrily sporting blackface stretch across the pages of a 1964 teacher’s college yearbook. A 1915 Ministry of Education policy document announces the futility of educating students with disabilities. Essays neatly spelled out in cursive by a 6th grader in the year 1900 cheer on the colonizer wars in the Philippines and South Africa. As I carefully work with the rare materials tucked away in OISE’s serene little archive, passing through aisles of storybooks and children’s drawings, I am often jolted back into the reality of the racist and colonial structures that public education in this country was designed to serve.
Yet this only accounts for what is present in these archives. What about the records that are not here? What of the gaps and silences in our archives where the histories of marginalized peoples should be? When one goes looking for Black history in the OHEC, these gaps brazenly stare back at them.
I wander towards the history textbooks and pick up a volume entitled The Story of Canada printed in 1950, and turn through its 434 pages looking for a single mention of Black Canadians. Not one footnote touching on Black communities or histories. No discussion of the social movements and civil rights battles which were ongoing at the time of publication. Not a single mention of the enslavement of African people on the continent, even in the section about the American Civil War. I pick up a 1963 text entitled Notre Héritage Européen and put it right back down.
If you know where to look, you can find the edges and contours of these missing histories. If you compare the 1962 and 1965 renditions of Ontario’s Separate Schools Act, you’ll find all the language and legislation pertaining to racially segregated schools that is present in the former version missing from the latter. You won’t find any accountability or reasoning for these changes within the documents, or any mentions of the work of Leonard Braithwaite and countless Black activists who spurred the dismantling of racially segregated education in Ontario in 1964. We know this history exists, we see its outlines. Here, the archives’ silence becomes deafening. Archivist Dorothy Berry identifies this archival silence in her work, noting that it is not by any means a coincidence. Archival description which assumes neutral tonalities and minimal description serve to obscure Black histories that could otherwise be located in the gaps. In Berry’s view, descriptive focuses on “ofness,” for example description which hones in on creatorship and ownership, often supplants description of “aboutness,” or descriptions which induct the narratives, contexts, and material conditions which gave rise to the records in the first place. Creatorship is too often attributed to the author who put pen to paper, and not to the subject from whom knowledge is extracted, or whose work resulted in the existence of the record.
How, then, can university repositories commit to liberatory practices in their archival work? Archivist and anthropologist Jarrett Drake asks us to engage in “a constant self-reflection… of the ways in which the oppressor manifests itself within each of us” (278), to enact greater accountability in how we do our work. Institutional historical archives are often spaces where Black history, when at all visible, is constituted by instances of subjugation and oppression, and where Black achievement is relegated to the gaps. Whether it is through liberatory descriptive practices, reevaluated collections development policies, and how archivists facilitate and center the types of research happening at their institutions, the archivist must take on the task of dismantling the white supremacy scaffolding their repositories and to continually push this principle moving forward. For Drake, this is perhaps much more important than any shaky claim of ownership or “keeping” of Black historical records which already have a home (271).
Custodianship of Black history records is indeed central to the question of archival silence. As Professor Annette Henry notes, Black communities, organizations, and individuals have abundant motivation to resist entrusting their fonds and collections to institutional Canadian archives (94). For this reason, community archives have largely taken on the labor of creating repositories in which to keep historical materials. Henry therefore argues that it is the role of formal archives, including university archives, to “expand our ways of being in and working with communities” (94), to offer their spaces and resources to community archivists and to prioritize the connection of Black faculty, researchers, and students in our institutions to the community archives in which Black history lives and breathes. And, as Michelle Caswell observes, liberatory memory work is urgent. It demands immediate attention, and begs us to perpetually reimagine how and why archival institutions exist, as well as who they serve. Archives hold the incredible potential to spark liberatory research and to participate in the dissolution of white-supremacist structures. In order to do that, institutional archives must first account for the historical gaps found within, and work towards filling those gaps and ending archival silences in their future work.