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/.

 

Overcoming Difficult Heritage Through Mutual Acknowledgement

By Kcalnan

Many nations fail to acknowledge difficult heritage, often intentionally, out of fear of damaging their national identity. In the article “Is ‘Difficult Heritage’ Still ‘Difficult,’” Sharon Macdonald defines difficult heritage as “times of evil wrong-doing that did no evident credit to a positive national identity” (2015, 6). The Holocaust, the Native American genocide, slavery, and the Nanking Massacre are examples of difficult heritage that nations most likely wish could be obscured from their history. Acknowledging previous atrocities might remind the world of a nation’s dark past, in turn damaging their national identity. Despite a nation’s concern for acknowledging its difficult heritage, Macdonald suggests that “self-disclosure and self-reprimanding have…come to be widely regarded as a positive development by those inside as well as outside the societies that are perpetrating them” (19). Honesty is as important among nations as it is between friends. Macdonald’s examples of positive development include the opening of Germany’s educational exhibits surrounding National Socialism and the payment of reparations by France to Holocaust survivors as a result of the national rail company’s participation in the Holocaust (12-17). Occasionally, victimized groups pressured nations into addressing their difficult heritage, such as victim organizations in post-WWII Germany. When victim nations desire an apology, it pressures guilty nations to acknowledge their difficult heritage. But, what if a victimized nation does not seek an apology?

Macdonald’s article does not discuss instances where victimized nations do not seek an apology. A clear example is the atrocities committed by the United States during World War II: bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1945, the United States government justified bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a way to end the war in the Pacific and prevent further American casualties. Unfortunately, the bombing instantaneously cost Japan approximately 120,000 military and civilian lives, and tens of thousands later lost their lives which has been attributed to exposure to radiation from the bombs (2017). Although the bombings occurred 72 years ago, one can assume that the citizens of Japan await an apology from the United States. With this in mind, according to the Los Angeles Times, a Russian news agency conducted an opinion poll in 2015 and found that 60% of the Japanese public would welcome an apology (Adelstein 2016). Despite the results of the Russian poll in Japan, the United States has not apologized. Why not? Research indicates that the United States’ apology track record after committing atrocities is lacking at best. However, there is another reason that the United States refrains from apologizing to Japan. An apology might create difficulties rather than solve issues for Japan’s government. Macdonald argues that, “apologizing for past wrongs also requires a bringing of those wrongs into view” (16). If the United States was to apologize for its wrongdoings during World War II, logic would indicate that society would then look to Japan’s government officials to apologize for the atrocities committed by Japan throughout its history. According to Adelstein, Japanese officials are concerned that an apology from the United Stated would “only serve to energize anti-nuclear activists” in Japan (2016). Concerned about the issues that could arise from receiving an apology, Japanese officials prefer to move forward rather than dwell on their painful past.

Is it feasible for one nation to absolve itself of an atrocity if the victimized nation prefers no apology? It can be possible through cooperative understanding and mutual hope for a better future. Macdonald calls for “public acknowledgement” of difficult heritage, which does not necessarily require an apology (6). Nations such as the United States and Japan can acknowledge their difficult heritages without formally apologizing for committing the atrocities. In May of 2016 United States President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima. Likewise, in December of 2016 Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Pearl Harbor. During their visits, both leaders offered condolences for lives lost, however neither leader apologized for their nations’ atrocities (Sisk 2016). Although no formal apologies were exchanged, both leaders publicly acknowledged their nation’s difficult heritage. Mutual understanding of the cost of war, particularly the loss of human life, has enabled the United States and Japan to move forward and become powerful allies. Since both Japan and the United States understand the devastation that nuclear weapons can cause, their alliance provides hope for a better future where other nations are deterred from utilizing nuclear weaponry.

Acknowledging difficult heritage offers opportunities in multiple realms of education. It opens the academic door for more in-depth discussions regarding war crimes, the aftermath of atrocities, reconciliation among nations, and the opportunity to learn valuable lessons from difficult heritage. Library and information professions continue to refine their educational platforms which provide insight and understanding regarding a nation’s difficult heritage. Museums and archives presently showcase the atrocities and expose the human necessity to educate current and future generations in regards to the importance of preventing similar atrocities from ever occurring again. The significance of acknowledging difficult heritage is that it inspires mankind to progress towards compassion, forgiveness, and pursuing closure.

 

Works Cited

Adelstein, Jake. 2016. Los Angeles Times. “Japan doesn’t want the U.S. to apologize for bombing Hiroshima. Here’s why.” Los Angeles Times. Last Modified April 29, 2016. Accessed September 24, 2017. http://www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-na-japan-hiroshima-apology-20160429-story.html.

History.com. 2009. Accessed September 24, 2017. http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/bombing-of-hiroshima-and-nagasaki.

Macdonald, Sharon. 2015. “Is ‘difficult heritage’ still difficult?” Museum International 67: 6-22.

Sisk, Richard. 2016. “Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Military.com. Last Modified December 28, 2016. Accessed September 24, 2017. http://www.military.com/daily-news/2016/12/28/remorse-no-apology-japanese-leader-pearl-harbor.html.

 

“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

Bending the Future of Preservation Review

By kraines

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, the New York Public Library hosted a discussion between 5 notable scholars working in the field of preservation. The event was called Bending the Future of Preservation and was held on October 19 at 5:30 PM at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Panelists included Michael Sorkin, Robert Hammond, Thompson Mayes, Liz Sevcenko, and Richard Rabinowitz. The event was moderated by Max Page and Marla Miller.

Discussion lead with a look into the next 50 years of preservation, particularly in architecture. Questions posed to the group were intended to make the panelists/audience consider equity and representation in preservation. The first hour featured the voices of Hammon, Mayes, and Sorkin. Each panelist presented recent projects around NYC, their involvement, and the positives and negatives of city development. Hammond, as part of the High Line project, highlighted two main issues with the development of the park.The High Line is a linear park built on a disused New York railroad. The first issue addressed by Hammond is a distinct lack of city funding, 98% of the parks budget is supported by Friends of the High Line through private donations [1].

The second issue relates to access and use of the park. Hammond discussed two low-income housing units located beside the High Line. Residents in both buildings were surveyed before and after construction, and the discovery was made that most had never been to the High Line. Survey responders indicated that the space did not feel like it was built for them and felt uncomfortable walking the park. A visit reveals to the keen observer that the majority of park traversers primarily include tourists and residents from other, more affluent, living complexes. Hammond believes that creating public spaces and the preservation of NYC structures should benefit all residents of the city. New residents, parks, and business can greatly influence the residents of a neighborhood. As an area is redeveloped, the cost of rent often rises and forces people who cannot afford new costs from their homes. Mayes criticized decisions to preserve based on only historical and architectural values. He believes that the residents memory and identity adds to the value of a place. This is supported by all the panelist as they discuss the history of place in preservation.

The second hour echoed the thoughts of the first as Richard Rabinowitz and Liz Sevcenko addressed the preservation of historical sites. Rabinowitz, in particular, addressed the importance of telling all histories rather than those of the important or wealthy influencers. He called for marking historical sites that affected larger populations, such as bread lines from the Great Depression or putting the rules to old street games on plaques in neighborhoods. He referred to this action as social archaeology, an idea that the history of all parts of a population should be equally represented.

The discussion effectively shed light on many problems and solutions seen in preservation in city planning. New development often leads to the gentrification of an area. Residents are forced from their homes, either by rising costs or legally removed by landlords, and many local business owners are pushed out for new, more expensive stores and restaurants. The act of preservation should support social and public history, whether it’s a building or images from history. The information professional can support these actions in the retention, preservation, and archiving of historical items. Archiving and librarianship can begin including more representation in their catalogs, materials, and hiring processes [2, 3]. Academic discussions, such as Bending the Future of Preservation, can lead the conversation about diversity and equity in preservation. However, very little action has been seen in the world of informational professionals to commit to these ideas [4]. We must abandon the sense of neutrality in the public sphere that only perpetuates existing problems [5]. I believe each of the panelists echoed these concepts in their discussion and presented viable solutions to known problems in the preservation of history.

Citations

  1. The High Line | Friends of the High Line. (2016). Retrieved October 25, 2016, from

http://www.thehighline.org/

  1. Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction.

The Library Quarterly, 83(2), 94-111. Retrieved October 25, 2016, from https://lms.pratt.edu/pluginfile.php/623243/mod_resource/content/1/drabinski-queering%20the%20catalog.pdf

  1. J. V. (2016, January 13). The Quest for Diversity in Library Staffing: From … Retrieved

October 25, 2016, from http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2016/quest-for-diversity/

  1. Rosenzweig, R. (1991). “Politics and anti-politics in librarianship” in ibid., 5–8. Retrieved

October 25, 2016, from http://www.progressivelibrariansguild.org/PL_Jnl/pdf/PL3_summer1991.pdf

  1. Jensen, R. (2006). “The myth of the neutral professional” in Questioning Library Neutrality,
  1. A. Lewis. Library Juice, 89–96. Retrieved October 24, 2016, from http://jonah.eastern.edu/emme/2006fall/jensen.pdf.

Protected: Lessons from the Lesbian Herstory Archives

By bgavlin

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