Preserving Counter-Narratives and The Racial Imaginary Institute

By EmmaKarin

The Racial Imaginary Institute speaking at the Schomburg Center

The Racial Imaginary Institute speaking at the Schomburg Center

The lights dim in the Langston Hughes Auditorium within the Schomburg Center located on Malcolm X Boulevard. A short video entitled, “What is the Schomburg Center?” begins to roll and the voice of Shola Lynch, curator of the center’s Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division, booms, “it is the place where we come to see who we are. Not just some body’s reflection of who we are.” This is the true theme of center as well as of the evening. We are here to celebrate the launch of The Racial Imaginary Institute (TRII) website, a new type of art archive founded by poet and MacArthur fellow Claudia Rankine. Rankine and Dr. LeRonn P. Brooks are moderating a discussion between two artists featured in the archive, Alexandra Bell and Hank Willis Thomas. The website is one of the first steps for the institute, which will collaborate with organizations, collectives and spaces to confront the concept of race through, the activation of interdisciplinary work and a democratized exploration” (The Racial Imaginary Institute).

The first web issue focuses on “constructions, deconstructions, and visualizations of/around whiteness, white identity, white rage/fragility/violence, and white dominant structures” (The Racial Imaginary Institute). Whiteness as the first theme was ­­­­­deliberate, investigating white dominance and “America’s commitment to whiteness” says Rankine, is the first step in dismantling racism and the concept of race. The website will collect submissions throughout the year and is capable of hosting all types of media. This will allow for a variety of voices to be heard across artistic disciplines to show different manifestations of lived experience within the dominant structures of whiteness.

'Tulsa Man' by Alexandra Bell

‘Tulsa Man’ by Alexandra Bell

“I don’t think I will ever live in a post-racial society,” says Alexandra Bell. A graduate of Columbia’s Journalism school Bell professes that it mostly, “made [her] a very snobby reader.” She critiques the latent racism within journalism through creating counter-narratives by editing articles from The New York Times, enlarging them tenfold and wheat pasting them in public spaces throughout New York City, predominantly Brooklyn. Her most well-known work is “A Teenager with Promise” a commentary of the inept coverage by the paper over Michael Brown’s murder. Her pieces are diptychs with one panel featuring a redacted and edited copy of the original article noting the language choices that sustain the dominant white narrative; the second panel is her visual representation of the more accurate counter-narrative.

'Absolut Power' by Hank Willis Thomas

‘Absolut Power’ by Hank Willis Thomas

“Race is the most successful advertising campaign of all time,” Hank Willis Thomas tells the audience. Thomas is a conceptual artist whose body of work intersects on ideas of identity, commodity, and pop culture. He believes that “black identity” is fabricated, co-opted and capitalized upon by whiteness. Most known for his series B®anded consisting of manipulated photographs to explore themes of the black body as a commodity from the time of slavery to the present day. One of his most striking pieces is Absolut Power, a play on the Absolut vodka ad campaigns, filling the iconic bottle’s silhouette with the diagram of the Brooke’s slave ship.

“Through archives, the past is controlled[,]” Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook remind us, “[c]ertain stories are privileged and others marginalized” (1). The institution of the archive “represents enormous power over memory and identity, over the fundamental ways in which society seeks evidence of what its core values are and have been, where it has come from, and where it is going” (Schwartz and Cook 1). These are the exact issues the institute sets out to tackle. Racism is a social construct, it is built upon privilege and power that is either overt or subconcious. When a police officer shoots a black man his defense most often that he was afraid. But afraid of what? White dominance has controlled the narrative surrounding black bodies since we kidnapped them from their homes and enslaved them here on our soil. We have allowed this narrative to continue unchecked actively and passively in all corners of society. In archives specifically, it can be seen in the collection process. It is not uncommon to search records under the “Black History” heading only to find files filled with solely caricature advertising, gruesome accounts of lynching, or similar narratives that place people of color as the victimized other. These narrow collections focus on “Black History” from a controlled white perspective.

As a writer and scholar of African history and diaspora, Arturo Schomburg, for whom the center is dedicated, came up against many who were quick to say that people of color had no history. He went on to amass the largest collection of artifacts and records of black history to preserve the history and culture which society deemed illegitimate. He strove to preserve the range of black experiences, from excellence to exploitation, rather than focusing on the suffering and stereotypes. That to him was not African history it was the history of white dominance and oppression. Because of his legacy ­­­­we have the records that are the literal actual narrative of black experience and not just what white archivist and society have deemed the acceptable history.

The Racial Imaginary Institute seeks to expound upon the ideas of Shomburg by collecting and creating a “deep memory archive” (Brooks) of artistic manifestations of lived experience. It will serve to capture not just our history past, but also our history current. This is a pointed effort to start the conversation now rather than wait for our future historians to interpret the evidence. This is a new way of collecting and disseminating information through active community participation that will circumvent the power still held in the institution of the archive.

The Racial Imaginary Institute

The Racial Imaginary Institute

Works Referenced:“About the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.” Nypl.org, New York Public Library , www.nypl.org/about/locations/schomburg.

Charlton, Lauretta. “Claudia Rankine’s Home for the Racial Imaginary.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 19 June 2017, www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/claudia-rankines-home-for-the-racial-imaginary.

Félix, Doreen St. “The.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 31 July 2017, www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-radical-edits-of-alexandra-bell.

“HANK WILLIS THOMAS, BRANDED.” Jack Shainman Gallery, Jack Shainman Gallery, www.jackshainman.com/exhibitions/past/2006/thomas/. Artist page.

Rankine, Claudia, Dr. LeRonn P. Brooks, Alexandra Bell, and Hank Willis Thomas. “Artist and the Archive: Deconstructing Racial Imagination at the Schomburg” New York Public Library Schomburg Center. 515 Malcolm X Boulevard, New York. 26 Sept. 2017. Artist Panel Discussion. https://livestream.com/schomburgcenter/events/7642692/videos/163402668

Schwartz, Joan M, and Terry Cook. “Archives, Records and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science : International Journal on Recorded Information. (2002). Print.

“The Racial Imaginary Institute.” The Racial Imaginary Institute, The Racial Imaginary Institute, theracialimaginary.org/.

 

“Archives, Advocacy, and Change” at the New York Academy of Medicine

By Carissa

“The archival profession is inherently an activist profession.” -Rich Wandel

Last night, the New York Academy of Medicine hosted a panel called “Archives, Advocacy, and Change” as part of their Changemakers series. The panelists were Jenna Freedman, founder of the Barnard Zine Library; Steven Fullwood, founder of In the Life Archive; Timothy Johnson, director of NYU’s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives and co-director of Tamiment’s Cold War Center; and Rich Wandel (quoted above), founder of  The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center National History Archive.  Continue reading

Librarianship for Social Justice

By Carissa

Personal note: in this blog post, I am trying to think my way through an issue on which I know I need to educate myself more. I am white, with a legacy that includes Southern slaveholders on my father’s side and German Nazis on my mother’s. It is my intention not to center Black Lives Matter around white people or the predominantly white professional fields discussed here, nor to suggest that White Saviors can step in to fix things, nor to pass the buck of responsibility to black activists, but instead to develop some kind of context for using this library degree in a transformative way. I don’t know if I’ve done this well, but I hope it’s better than not addressing the question at all. Continue reading

Protected: Reviving Libraries: Civic Engagement and Protests

By carmenmichedraui

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Class, Access and Activism in Chicago Public School Libraries

By SrrhHamerman

Protest against Chicago school closings, via In These Times

Protest against Chicago school closings, via In These Times

 

In spring 2013, the Chicago Public School system attracted national attention for the unprecedented closing of 54 schools and layoffs of more than 2,100 employees. The closings confirmed the fears that motivated the Chicago Teachers Union’s historic fall 2012 strike, in which tens of thousands of teachers walked out of the job for nearly two weeks. Over a year later, Chicago’s public school students are facing another challenge: the continuing decline of library resources and professional library staff in the schools. While the dismantling of professionally staffed school libraries pose serious labor concerns for Chicago’s certified teacher-librarians, it also exacerbates information inequality in a school district that primarily serves minority and low-income students.

Over the past two school years, the number of librarians in Chicago’s public schools has been cut nearly in half, from 454 in the 2012-13 school year budget to just 254 this year. Only 38 percent of the schools welcoming students from the recently-closed schools have a professional librarian, compared with only 55 percent of schools in the district overall. The decrease is not a result of a diminished hiring pool, and it is only an indirect result of the mass layoffs of 2013. Rather, “student-based” rebudgeting has forced principals to make difficult decisions either to dismiss librarians or reassign them to fill vacant classroom teaching positions. Of the schools that have standalone libraries, many are now staffed either by part-time clerks or parent volunteers.

This reorganization of library labor within the schools points to the pernicious effects of austerity management and neoliberal policy on public education. As Nauratil writes in The Alienated Librarian, “The bottom-line measure of success in the private sector is profit. When this model is superimposed on a traditionally nonprofit organization, that organization’s own goals, structure, and character are jeopardized,” (Nauratil 75). How can school librarians fulfill their professional commitment to information democracy and equal access when their jobs are jeopardized by a city administration more committed to the interests of private corporations than the human rights of its most underserved (student) populations?[1]

Statistics published by Chicago Teachers’ Union on librarian employment in public vs. private schools demonstrate the ways in which access to library education is undeniably a class issue. CPS schools, which serve 87% low-income students, lack librarians in nearly 50 percent of schools. 100% of Chicago’s elite private schools have professional librarians. As CTU’s report states:

A school library is integral to every child’s education and shouldn’t be available only to students in wealthy schools… school librarians support information needs and integrate literacy development across the curriculum and across grade development.

Beyond reading skills, librarians promote digital information literacy and facilitate more self-directed learning experiences. Without instructing students in how to evaluate, retrieve, and manipulate information sources, we risk reproducing class inequalities by leaving low-income students under-equipped to navigate and empower themselves within a digital information economy.

In response to criticisms about decreases in school librarians and library access CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett attributed hiring decisions to individual principals, who must decide how to allocate funds for their schools. In addition, Byrd-Bennett promised digitally enhanced libraries in every welcoming school and iPads for all students in grades 3-8. While incorporating new technologies into the classroom seems positive, their value is diminished without specialized library and media instruction. Boasting of new technologies without tackling the fraught pedagogical situation in the schools belies a situation in which school boards award expensive contracts to high-tech corporations rather than hire skilled laborers to address students’ media education needs. Following Peter McDonald’s thesis in “Corporate Inroads and Librarianship,” we must question whether technological advancement masks the intrusion of the “paradigm of corporate hegemony” into the library (McDonald 9). I doubt that iPads for every student substantially address the educational needs of inner city students facing issues such as racial inequality, economic disparity, high crime rates, and police brutality.

Advocacy and Resistance: Learning from La Casita

Community members fight to save La Casita, 2011 (photo by Brett Jelinek, via saveourcenter.com)

Community members fight to save La Casita, 2011 (photo by Brett Jelinek, via saveourcenter.com)

Chicago Teachers’ Union, library advocacy groups, parents, and community members continue to fight to provide students with the library resources that they deserve. Beyond the labor issues in school libraries, these groups have pointed out how the dismantling of the public school system perpetuates structures of class and racial oppression. While the battle may be an uphill one, it is crucial to continue to challenge CPS budget-centered, neoliberal approach to education.

Perhaps the most inspiring challenge to the lack of school libraries came from the parents of Whittier Elementary School in Chicago’s mostly Latino Pilsen neighborhood. As the school had no dedicated library, parents turned a field house on the premises, affectionately termed “La Casita,” into a library and community center. When police threatened to demolish La Casita in September 2011, dozens of Whittier parents – mostly mothers – staged a sit-in for forty-three days and nights, demanding that the building be renovated into a library. The district had other plans: they wanted to remove the school’s special education classroom to make room for a library inside the building. During the sit-in, La Casita continued to serve as a community center, offering a collection of 2,500 books, ESL classes, sewing classes and other resources. When the occupation ended, school officials agreed to re-allocate the demolition funds to renovate the building according to the community members’ plans. However, work was not begun, and on a Friday night in summer 2013, the city sent in a demolition crew to bulldoze the field house. Of the more than 200 protesters (including myself) who gathered that evening, 10 were arrested. CPS has converted the former library into an astro-turf field and basketball courts.

Though community members no longer exchange skills and knowledge at La Casita, the center provides a key alternative model for how libraries can empower underserved communities. Forged out of direct action rather than state standards, La Casita provided materials and participatory experiences that addressed a minority student community whose educational needs were being denied by the state. Moreover, the parents and students who gathered there learned to articulate their needs and desires and forge political identities in a process of class struggle. The movement echoes the radical pedagogy outlined in Paolo Friere’s seminal “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” Learning from La Casita, I would encourage teacher-librarians to partner with parents and activist groups, offering their skills as informational specialists to help communities challenge educational inequalities in their own voices, in their own terms. While school and public libraries are critical for empowering people with information, we can’t reach this ideal through one institution. Along with open access media, self-directed community centers can allow people to activate knowledge to transform their everyday lives.

[1] At the time of the budget cuts, mayor Rahm Emanuel also approved the expenditure of $195 million of public money on a new stadium for DePaul University, attracting wide criticism. The incident builds on a track record of supporting private-sector growth, particularly in the areas of tourism and entertainment.

Additional References:

McDonald, Peter. “Corporate Inroads and Librarianship: The Fight for the Soul of the Profession in the New Millennium.” Questioning Library Neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian. Ed. Alison M. Lewis. Duluth, MN: Library Juice, 2008. 9-24. Print.

Nauratil, Marcia J. The Alienated Librarian. New York: Greenwood, 1989.

 

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License
.

WordPress theme based on Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.