The first phase of “Chronicling Resistance” held its last major event on May 7 at Bartram’s Garden and Sankofa Farm, with 27 people in attendance. The event began in the Barn with a pop-up exhibit featuring enlarged copies of resistance-related historical materials from local libraries and archives. Attendees had the opportunity to engage with these materials before hearing the program.
The formal portion of the event began with a welcome and introduction to “Chronicling Resistance” from project director Mariam Williams. Williams discussed several of the documents in the exhibit, noting that they show the risks people took, conflicts within movements, and connections to the space where we were, as several were directly connected to Southwest Philadelphia.
Williams described some of the work of the project, including the questions that have been asked throughout the project, some of the listening sessions we have held, and a preliminary look at findings. These included the importance of feeling placed and rooted through history, how programming and art can help people to establish meaningful connections with the past, and how lack of knowledge about what is available is a barrier in connecting many people to archives. Williams closed with a vision for future “Chronicling Resistance” work, which includes striking “enabling” from the formal title and replacing it with “affirming.”
The evening then transitioned to a conversation among Williams, Shani Akilah, one of the founders of the Black and Brown Worker’s Cooperative (BBWC), and Sade Black, a youth worker at Sankofa Farm, about the theme of Sankofa. “Sankofa” is a word in the Twi language which signifies that there is nothing wrong with going back to pick up something you have forgotten. The term connects with the work of “Chronicling Resistance” because it helps to remind us that remembering is something we must practice, and that remembering is especially difficult for people whose histories have been erased. Remembering gives context and provides roots; it is an act of resistance to say “we were here, we are here” and to preserve what is actively being erased.
The conversation opened with discussions about the work each is doing. Black described her work learning about African culture, cooking African food and foods from the African diaspora, teaching new students to farm and cook, and the deep connections of food to history. Sankofa Farm provides opportunities to learn things she doesn’t learn in school, such as how African women preserved crops to save their culture and heritage when they were enslaved in the Americas. Akilah began with their family history; as a descendent of Jamaican Maroons and Haitians, they carry their history of freedom and rebellion with them, and this has informed what they believe is possible. BBWC works for an expansion of democracy and an acknowledgement that black and brown workers do much of the front-line work in social justice movements but still suffer under white supremacy.
For both Sade and Shani, their activism and work is a way to reach back and remember. Black noted that farming was not part of the community she grew up in, but that a connection to the land is part of her culture, although one that is not widely recognized in among African American youth in Philadelphia. Getting an education, and in turn educating others, is itself an act of resistance. Akilah emphasized the importance of moving beyond incremental change in becoming the dreams of our ancestors; they are inspired by slave rebellions, Harriet Tubman, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and other people who have been criminalized for what they know. Remembering the truth is the deepest work we can do, because society functions on falsehood and false projects, and we must get at the truth.
Both Akilah and Black spoke about the importance of lifting up the work of black women, who are often erased from the work that they do; this is part of a commitment to collective liberation. Akilah noted the contributions of Ella Baker to the Civil Rights movement, although she is not familiar to many; Black noted the inspiration she derives from Harriet Tubman, who went back many times to save her own people.
In discussing how people should learn about stories in the future, and how their work should be remembered, Akilah noted that one should always ask “is this the moment I should be speaking?” before doing so, and recognize when to allow other voices to be heard; things are missed when people tell stories for others rather than allowing them to speak. Black emphasized the importance of not waiting for other people or school to tell you about history, but to seek it out and to use your voice, not allowing yourself to be silenced. Akilah also noted the importance of oral tradition.
After the conclusion of this conversation, attendees took a tour of Sankofa Farm with Chris Bolden-Newsome, one of its co-directors. Bolden-Newsome described the goals of the farm, including reconnecting African-Americans to the land, as the culture has all but abandoned the value Africans traditionally place on spending time in nature, and farming is often seen as connected to slavery, when black people were forced to labor on the land in bondage. Sankofa Farm is rooted in the community of Southwest Philadelphia, and is sacred ground where all the plants that are grown have historical and cultural meaning, in addition to providing nutrition. Bolden-Newsome prefers to talk about resilience rather than resistance, because he sees this as a better description of how people can live their lives.
Following the farm tour, attendees were invited to an outdoor picnic dinner catered by Atiya Ola’s Spirit First Foods, an African-American family-owned restaurant that deeply connects spiritual and nutritional nourishment.
Editor’s Note: Housed at Lehigh University, the Nancy Shukaitis papers provide insight into the roles of women and indigenous peoples in the Philadelphia area conservation and environmental movements. A housewife catalyzed by federal threats to raze her home, Shukaitis found herself linked to Native Americans’ long history of displacement. How are some of the least-expected populations moved to resistance and to building coalitions? What are the issues that link people of different backgrounds?
Nancy Shukaitis: The Unexpected Activist
By Rachael Bucci and Berto Sicard, Lehigh University
In the 1960s, the United States federal government planned the construction of the Tocks Island Dam. The construction plan aimed to build a 37-mile barrier beyond the shores of the Delaware River to be utilized for drinking water, hydroelectricity, and flood protection. Congress and the four governors of the states belonging to the Delaware River Basin Commission — Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York — made up part of the large support network for the dam proposal. Despite the dam’s numerous projected benefits, it posed serious issues for many people. To construct the dam, the government planned to use eminent domain to acquire the property of approximately 1,200 people living in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Nancy Shukaitis was among the people who lost her land, but she refused to fade into the background while the government displaced people from their homes. Instead, she dedicated her time and efforts to fighting the Tocks Island Dam project as well as opposing industrial and commercial development initiatives of the natural land.
Shukaitis did not evoke the typical image of resistance in the 1960s. When the government developed the Tocks proposal, Shukaitis was a housewife. Her empathy and investment in the community sparked an activist’s spirit, despite it not being a traditional role for married white women with young families at that time. She began organizing by informing the public of the controversial nature of the project and promoting water conservation. She raised awareness through various platforms: corresponding with local, state, and federal political officials, holding public meetings to spread the word, and writing to newspapers. As she became more invested, Shukaitis worked in several environmental protection groups such as the Delaware Valley Conservation Association, Save the Delaware Coalition, and Lenni Lenape League to further raise awareness surrounding the Tocks Island Dam and water conservation.
Environmental impacts of the dam were nebulous at best. Several locations along the Delaware River were considered for construction, yet serious problems arose at each point. Because of unideal geological formations for hydroelectricity, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers planned to destroy large scenic mountains in the Delaware Water Gap. Sediment accumulation threatened larger floods at the site of the dam. There was no guarantee water purity would be maintained, despite a prime incentive of building the dam being the exportation of water to Philadelphia and New York. Moreover, a large portion of the land to be flooded was home to priceless Native American artifacts.
The dam’s threat to destroy Native American artifacts motivated Native Americans to build coalitions with Shukaitis. The Lenape, also called the Delaware People, were indigenous to the proposed area. They protested the construction of the dam for over three decades to preserve their land and artifacts. Born in Smithfield, PA, in an area called “Shawnee on the Delaware,” and as a member of the Lenni Lenape League, Shukaitis’s local identity gave her another angle from which to combat the proposed construction. She joined the efforts of the Lenape Indians to protect the land and objects belonging to their ancestral roots.
Many asked Shukaitis why she had not stepped aside and let her husband take over the project. That option had never crossed her mind. Shukaitis and her activist colleagues gave testimony to the U.S. Congress in 1965 and succeeded in preventing development of 70,000 acres. On September 1, 1965, Congress established the land as the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area to manage lands surrounding the proposed Tocks Island Dam. Nonetheless, for several decades, various interest groups continued efforts to claim the land. As the first woman elected commissioner of Monroe County in 1967, Shukaitis was able to stop the construction of a luxury hotel soon after the land was protected. In 1978, Congress established the Middle Delaware National Scenic River, which blocked the construction of future dams.
Congress formally de-authorized the Tocks Island proposal in 1992, but threats to the land continued. In 2011, PPL Corporation proposed a $1.2 billion power line project through the park. Long retired from politics, Shukaitis helped citizens sue to protect the land and succeeded in preventing the project.
Nancy Shukaitis’s acts of resistance protected a scenic landmark from destruction, and her efforts can be appreciated more today than ever before. In the middle of the twentieth century, the impact of dams was not completely understood. Today, time and research have enabled society to understand that dams can irreversibly alter ecosystems and wipe out local species. Thus, while Shukaitis protected land that formerly belonged to her, she also helped maintain the harmony and ecosystem of the area in general for decades to come. Her persistence in activism on behalf of her community has inspired several generations, and she is still honored by local environmental and political foundations.
Seven people, all women of color, joined us for another screening of Sisters in Freedom on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. The post-film discussion went quickly to resistance after one viewer remarked that women are still out knocking on doors and getting petitions signed.
A few of the women had canvassed for political campaigns and all said they were informed voters. They lamented the apathy they perceive among most people today. From their perspective, Philadelphia’s racial inequality persists in education, income, wealth, and housing, but they don’t see anyone in younger generations resisting these challenges. They cited the threat to raze Bartram Village, a housing project in Southwest Philadelphia, as an example. According to the viewers, residents of the projects and of Southwest Philadelphia have accepted that Bartram Village’s demolition is inevitable and that poor people will be displaced from their homes.
The amoebic discussion centered around the erosion of community structures that in the past kept people informed and able to form a more united activist front. Housing integration led to white flight and middle-class black flight. People used to learn about political issues at churches, but church attendance has declined. Parents on the block knew one another because their children played together, and mothers watched each other’s children; now children go to daycare and don’t play with their neighbors. Incarceration has taken away too many fathers. High property taxes, imminent domain, and gentrification have pushed longtime residents out of their homes in South, Southwest, and Kensington. The women noted that their neighborhood library is the closest thing they have to a community gathering space and is where they’re most likely to learn about social issues.
The women noted that the female abolitionists had rallied across racial lines for a common cause. They thought similar alliances would be formed today, if women could find a common cause. They felt this was unlikely, however, as everyone seems to have a different issue that’s important to them. Some care about the environment, some education, some wage equality. Viewers saw how some of these causes could be linked. They believed, for example, that if the minimum wage were raised so high that public assistance was eliminated, more people would demand accountability for how their taxes are spent, particularly in education.
The following recap was composed from notes taken by Michael Caroll during a breakout session discussion following “Who Tells Your Story? An LGBTQ Community ArchivES Forum” at William Way LGBT Center, Wednesday, March 13, 2019. The forum opened with panelists Elise Chenier (Director, Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony), Steven Fullwood (independent archivist and founder, In the Life Archive, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture), and Che Gossett (archivist, Barnard Center for Research on Women) discussing their work on collecting and preserving the histories of lesbians, queer African Americans LGBTQ, and transgender persons. After the forum, attendees discussed the representation and role of resistance in the archives.
Attendees defined resistance much the same way audience members at other listening sessions have: as both everyday practice and as archival material. For individuals in communities where oppression presents challenges on multiple levels or makes life particularly difficult, joy, turning to the mundane, or refusing to be invisible can be forms of resistance.
Resistance can be found in materials or information that haven’t been filtered through the mainstream. Though archivists are trained in verification methods that can privilege men and heteronormativity, they must be sensitive to the original context of materials collected by the LGBTQ community. The archivist can practice resistance by carving out space for materials removed from mainstream methodology. Archivists also can support community resistance by being more directly integrated into these efforts. They can, for example, actively document ongoing resistance or facilitate intergenerational conversations. In general, participants viewed archives much like they do libraries: as informational outlets with valuable documents. Archives are institutions to glean knowledge from, but not necessarily add knowledge to.
While participants expressed a desire for their stories to be preserved in traditional institutions, they also acknowledge a need for archivists to find ways to help people collect and preserve their histories/experiences in a safe way that does not incriminate them. People who identify as LGBTQ sometimes need to remain “closeted.” Archives can achieve this balance and ultimately enrich their collections with more diverse stories by building trust and relationships with the communities they serve. When community members feel free to participate, then they are more willing to engage.
I ended part I of this two-part blog series with the question, ““[I]n 25 to 100 years, what will hold more weight to people looking back at this moment—viral, instantaneous postings, the next-day regrets of experienced journalists, or Nathan Phillips, an indigenous man, in his own words?” I wondered this because as I saw the confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial unfolding last month and thinking about how the acts of resistance and counter-resistance would be preserved and remembered, I was also thinking about Digital Paxton.
Launched in 2017, Digital Paxton is an online collection of nearly 20 institutions’ materials related to the massacre of the Conestoga Native American tribe in Lancaster, Pa., in December 1763. A mob of white settlers who came to be known as the “Paxton Boys” descended upon the Conestoga and murdered 20 unarmed Susquehannock Indians.
Though Digital Paxton boasts nearly 3,000 documents, “materials that give voice to Conestoga, Lenape, or Moravian Indians … are almost always mediated through colonial sources,” said Will Fenton, Director of Scholarly Innovation at Library Company of Philadelphia (LCP) and founder of Digital Paxton. For example, the Quakers often quote Lenape leaders verbatim in their minutes from conferences with the tribe.
We live in a time when historians understand representation matters to people of color, social studies teachers know the point-of-view of the winner isn’t an accurate overview of history, and when the most marginalized groups in U.S. history are exerting more control over the telling of their own stories. But how do Native peoples relay that history if the kind of primary sources archivists have put a premium on weren’t written by Native Americans?
Redrawing History: Indigenous Perspectives on Colonial America attempts to step into that gap. Managed by LCP and funded by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, Redrawing History is a collaboration among scholars, artists, and tribal leaders that reinterprets the story of the Paxton massacre from the perspective of Native peoples and spreads the knowledge of it to a wider audience.
The project’s main method of sharing will be a graphic novel written by Lee Francis and illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre, both of whom are Native American artists who have worked together previously on historicized fiction projects, such as Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers, a graphic novel that received the American Indian Library Association’s (AILA) 2018 American Indian Youth Literature Award for Best Middle Grade Book. Lee’s publishing company, Native Realities, published Mighty Code Talkers. He is also the founder of Indigenous Comic Con and owner of Red Planet Books and Comics.
The process of creating a graphic novel that’s also historicized fiction can be summed up this way: research, write, draw, revise, print. But the research step is complex, important, and detailed.
“I’m working with tribes that aren’t my own tribe,” said Weshoyot (pronounced Weh-shoy-o). Weshoyot is a member of the Tongva tribe, a nation whose land base was the greater Los Angeles area. She lives in California. Lee is Pueblo of Laguna and lives near Albuquerque, NM. Weshoyot feels some additional pressure to accurately represent the story of another nation, though she and Lee see parallels with many Native tribes’ respective histories.
Lee pointed to the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado in 1864, when the U.S. Army killed 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians along Sand Creek. The Tongva, Weshoyot’s tribe, is not federally recognized, but was also the victim of genocide—initially by Spanish colonists (the land was part of Mexico until the Mexican-American War) and then by white settlers pushing into the West. The Tongva’s population dropped exponentially from an estimated 5,000-10,000 people in the late 1400s to 700 at the turn of the twentieth century.
“I think this [history of genocide] gives me a level playing field for handling [another tribe’s history] respectfully but also doing it with a backbone, giving a a voice that hasn’t been presented before,” said Weshoyot.
Genocide, however, is not the end of the indigenous American story. Weshoyot and Lee want to show a story of survival.
“Despite the massacres that tried to eliminate us, we still exist,” said Lee.
After Will Fenton reached out to Weshoyot and Lee, he connected them withmembers of the Native community in Lancaster and the Circle Legacy Center, a Native American nonprofit organization there. Redrawing History’s advisory board also includes prominent scholars (Daniel Richter at Penn), curatorial experts (e.g. Vilma Ortiz-Sanchez at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian), and indigenous ambassadors (Curtis Zunigha, co-director of the Lenape Center and member of the Delaware Tribe in Oklahoma).
With the input of the local indigenous community, historians of the Paxton massacre, and people whose ancestors survived it, Lee and Weshoyot “have worked backwards from the sense that Native people still exist. These were people who had agency, who stood up, who were heroes in their own right,” said Lee.
The murdered Conestoga men and women were also human. “The extent of their representation has been their names in history books, but I really want to flesh that out a little more,” said Weshoyot.
To reconstruct the humanity of the characters she’s drawing, Weshoyot reads and studies material culture “to find out what stresses people were under in colonialism. There’s a lot of psychological work, too, forensic work to flesh out who these people could have been. Their personalities, stresses in their lives with a culture coming in and pushing them out of their homeland, colonists coming in and building surrounding their hunting grounds.”
She’s also deep into research of Lancaster’s natural and physical environments so she can represent them correctly. “The trees are sky high—so different from what we have here,” she said, referring to the area of California where she resides. “I research how buildings are made architecturally, because I need to draw those in a 3-D environment. I have to tie in types of doors they would have used. There’s also the Native housing.”
In addition to setting, Weshoyot is considering costumes, props, clothing colors, prints on the fabric, and more. “It’s as detailed as making a film,” she said. “You may see one tenth of the research I’m putting into this right now.”
The details help solidify the fact that Native people had established a way of life prior to colonizers arriving—-a way that continues to be challenged today in situations like the fight over the Dakota Pipeline, when Native land is within the path of economic development.
In the jailhouse where the massacre occurred, Weshoyot sees a striking metaphor for colonization and continued environmental threats. “In Native cultures, rocks and land are just as important as people are,” but “a foreign entity came in and drilled out the [existing] stone to make it a jailhouse,” an act that represents how society is broken apart and put back together for something else, Weshoyot said. Today, the building is, somewhat ironically, a theater. Weshoyot pointed out that something dramatic continues to happen there, but the history of the building and the previous importance of the stone is disconnected from the rest of the land and from the people.
For Weshoyot, the construction of the jailhouse has helped her emphasize Native folks’ humanity.
“I try to imagine myself in the space. If you slow down time and put yourself in the perspective of anyone in this situation—it was in the wintertime. It was cold, it was snowing. They were already traumatized and were huddled together into the basement of a jail made of stone,” she said.
“Ithink the brilliance of what we can do with [a graphic novel] is to reconstruct how people would have reacted in those circumstances. … They died standing up. They faced their attackers eye to eye. That’s one of the things we can show with a little bit of historical amalgamation,” said Lee.
With regard to portraying a historical event in a fictive space, the Redrawing History team is inspired by Saidiya Hartman’s work on critical fabulation “as a means to creatively imagine what might have happened, ‘to imagine what cannot be verified … to reckon with the precarious lives which are visible only in the moment of their disappearance.’” For Lee, this means maintaining “a good, noble balance, a beautiful conflict to make sure we are telling the stories in a way that do honor [to those who were massacred] but project something positive into the world.” He and Weshoyot are also grateful to Will, LCP, and Pew for seeking out trends in Native pop and visual culture and for being open to finding new ways to represent Native voices.
While the vast majority of materials in Digital Paxton are written from the perspective of whites who were either allies or Paxton sympathizers, Lee has preserved the Lenape language in the script whenever possible and also has quoted lines directly from some of the political cartoons in the collection. He noted that Native people likely saw themselves represented in mass media and spoke out about how they were portrayed. In the media, Lee said, Native people were used as props.
“We wanted to place Native people at the center, to show their agency and that they were still people. A group of people were used as political cartoons, props, propaganda. We want to focus on the experience, and that has resounding current-day parallels,” said Lee. He compared the way Native people were depicted in the 1870s with how refugees from Syria or asylum-seekers from Central America are being portrayed today. They’ve become political tools, “but what about the people who are actually there, the people who have the agency because they choose to walk, even though they are herded into a place and facing their extermination?” he said.
Lee sees agency and heroism in many of the same ways we’ve heard listening session participants express it—“not chiefs or plains riders,” but in people the media didn’t cover at Standing Rock, like “our grandmothers, people who were cleaning latrines, cooking every day.”
When people finish reading the graphic novel, Lee said he wants them to understand three main points: 1) that the Paxton mob failed in its attempt to wipe out the Conestoga people; 2) that “there is a lived truth to the Native existence and identity in colonial America that is not based on war but on survival” and that “allows for agency of the people who were exterminated but have a voice in the present; and 3) “that we tell the story of a people you may not have heard about.”
For all the tragedy and sorrow in the American empire, America is a tapestry that is incredible in its depth, and that needs to be noticed and reconciled. … It’s truth and reconciliation that I can do in the way that I know how as an indigenous writer—through a comic book,” said Lee.
Thirteen people braved the cold to participate in “Remembering Resistance, Chronicling Community” at Girard College on the evening of January 31. The event was held in connection with the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Girard College. Attendees were able to tour the historic spaces of Girard’s main building and see artifacts from its history, including materials related to desegregation.
Afterwards, attendees enjoyed dinner and participated in story circles in small groups. Everyone had been invited to bring an object, image, or other material as a way of sharing a brief story of their own experience with resistance. Some attendees shared experiences about acts of resistance they had participated in, such as the protests to integrate Girard College or exposing the history of environmental racism and health threats in their neighborhood through research and blogging. Others in attendance talked about other people in their families who demonstrated resistance and how that inspires the work they do now. Attendees also responded to the resistance stories they heard.
Themes which emerged from the circles and conversations included:
Mothers as models of resistance
How civil rights era assassinations catalyzed individuals
How easy it is for stories to be lost
The desire for stories to be passed down
How resistance can be inspired by the acts of others.
By now, you’ve probably seen at least one video of a confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial Friday, Jan. 18, between white male high school students and an indigenous elder. As mea culpas continue from journalists and other media personalities who accused the boys of racism and bigotry before videos taken from other angles appeared online, I find myself examining whose version is being accepted as the truth and wondering whose perspective will be preserved as such.
I hadn’t checked Twitter in a few days when a friend alerted me via text that Covington Catholic, a school between my hometown (Louisville, Ky.) and my friend’s (Cincinnati, Oh.), was trending. The first video I saw explaining why it was trending showed in its foreground a Native elder and a white boy face to face, probably no more than a foot away from each other. The elder was drumming and singing. The boy, wearing a MAGA hat, looked the man in his eyes and smirked. Boys in the middle- and background, all of them white and several also wearing MAGA hats, laughed, gawked, cheered, and raised their cell phones. One boy clapped along with the drum. (The Black Hebrew Israelites do not appear in the video at all.)
The first words I heard about the incident from a direct participant were those of Nathan Phillips, the Omaha Nation man in the video playing the drum and singing. Intermittently wiping away tears he recalled hearing the teens chant, “Build that wall!” He said, “This is indigenous land. We’re not supposed to have walls here. We never did. For millennium, before anyone else came here, we never had walls. We never had a prison. We always took care of our elders, took care of our children. We always provided for them. We taught them right from wrong. I wish I could see that energy of the young men … put that energy into making this country really, really great.”
Thank you to @VinceSchilling of @IndianCountry and many others who identified the proud Native man who is being harassed. He is Mr. Nathan Phillips. I’m reposting this video from “ka_ya11” on IG. This man’s words pierce my heart. The grace. The wisdom. The hope. pic.twitter.com/BKOA40SVq5
My initial reaction was threefold: unsurprised at the behavior of the teens, moved by Phillips’ tears, and smugly satisfied that a Native American elder gave a first-person account and that his account was the one the media ran with. His voice was the voice of the incident, and his voice was heard all over Twitter. He owned the story.
Then came Monday.
There were new videos from new angles and different timeframes. Then came the relief that this young group of Trump supporters couldn’t possibly have been disrespectful (at best) and were, in fact, the victims of overzealous retweeters—relief masked as retractions and analysis that the scene was more complicated than originally understood. Then came the Today show interviewing Nick Sandmann, the smirking teen, Wednesday morning. Thursday morning, nearly one week after the confrontation, Today returned to Phillips.
But I want to stay on Saturday for a minute, because in the historical record, in the pamphlets, newspapers, broadsides, and political cartoons preserved from the Colonial, Revolutionary, and post-Revolutionary eras, it is extremely rare for an indigenous person’s perspective to be the first or main story the broader public hears, and rarer still for that voice not to be filtered through whites—whether they were combatants or allies.
Nathan Phillips got the chance on Friday and Saturday to tell what happened, but he wasn’t reduced to a narrator of the viral footage. He was an elder, an activist, and someone who felt led to use prayer and a blessing song to navigate the racial tension he observed between groups of black and white males at the Lincoln Memorial. His humanity remained intact. A full picture of Native folks’ humanity, too, is rare to find when looking for Native voices in the historical record.
In a digital age, however, a conversation, story, or family history that ordinarily may have been passed down orally might appear on Twitter or Instagram as video. (Quick sleuthing suggests the video I saw in director Ava DuVernay’s feed was reposted from Instagram user ka_ya11, a user who identifies as a member of the Dakota nation. Notably, social media platforms often are the way people of color amplify one another’s work and perspectives.) These digital platforms are their own archive, and traditional news platforms turn to them to find and substantiate news and opinions.
Monday through Wednesday of this past week, news outlets returned to privileging voices, experiences, and accounts that were white, male, and—given that the students involved attend a private school—wealthy. Did the media simply give a more balanced view by giving Sandmann a chance to share his side of the story? In a world where colonialism, genocide of Native peoples, and their imprisonment in religious schools never happened, yes. In the world we live in, the world where it did, the media simply rushed to absolve young white men (and their chaperones) of collective responsibility and individual malice. From an archival perspective, they repeated mistakes of collectors of the past, even when they didn’t have to. That is how ingrained within America’s DNA white supremacy is.
Editor’s Note: The recent bestselling novel by Jessmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing, investigates the generational trauma of a racist prison system and this year is the Free Library of Philadelphia’s “One Book, One Philadelphia.” Philadelphians are encouraged to read it together, accompanied by workshops and public programs connected to the novel’s themes. The prison system has been dehumanizing incarcerated persons throughout modern history, but prison reform has been a location of resistance for as long as prisons have existed. In this post, we want to highlight a record of resistance held in the Free Library of Philadelphia Rare Books Department.
Oscar Wilde as Inmate and Subversive
By Caitlin Goodman
In 1895, the writer Oscar Wilde was at the height of his fame. But the debut of his newest play, The Importance of Being Earnest, only narrowly avoided a tabloid scene: the Marquess of Queensbury was planning to throw a “bouquet” of rotting vegetables at Wilde. His vendetta was instigated by the romantic relationship between Wilde and the Marquess’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas. Gay sexual relationships were illegal in England at the time, and Wilde sued the Marquess for libel after being called a sodomite. But Wilde did have sexual relationships with men, and many were willing to testify to it. Wilde dropped his libel suit, but was immediately charged with sodomy and gross indecency. The first trial ended with a hung jury, but a second trial found him guilty. Wilde spent two years in prison, mostly at Reading Gaol.
In Wilde’s time in prison he was denied books, and only permitted reading and writing materials after the direct intervention of a politician. (A resonance with the present day: the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections recently reversed a much-criticized ban on donating books to incarcerated people.) Once able to write, Wilde spent his time on a long letter to Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde gave the letter to his friend and former lover Robbie Ross with the instruction that Ross type up two copies and send the original on to Douglas. Ross (rightly!) feared that Douglas would destroy the manuscript, and instead sent only a typed copy, which Douglas did promptly burn. Wilde died a few years after his release from prison and Ross heavily redacted Wilde’s letter and published it posthumously as De Profundis, a meditation on the spiritual and emotional cruelties of prison.
Wilde today is perhaps best remembered as a wit and a martyr for gay rights but the last piece he published is instead a powerful critique of the prison system. After leaving prison, Wilde also left England, never to return. He spent the summer with Robbie Ross, where he wrote “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” In contrast to much of Wilde’s earlier work, the poem adapted the English folk tradition of ballad recitation. It was first published anonymously in early 1898 credited to “C.3.3.” – Wilde’s cell location in Reading Gaol. It was over a year until Wilde’s authorship was widely known, after the poem had already found widespread and immediate success.
In the 1950s, the DuPont Company, concerned about water supply issues in New Castle County, began looking for alternative solutions to supply water for its Newport and Edge Moor Plants. DuPont did a study concerning the feasibility of a reservoir on the White Clay Creek and began to encourage local governments to plan for it and build it. In 1956, DuPont purchased the Pennsylvania Railroad Company’s land, as well as other properties along the creek in order to prevent residential development from interfering with these plans. The White Clay Creek Dam, located at Wedgewood Road in Newark, would have flooded 1,160 acres and supplied 71 million gallons of water a day. In 1984, when DuPont realized the reservoir plans would never come to fruition, and at the suggestion of the National Park Services, the company donated land to the states of Delaware and Pennsylvania to establish a joint park: White Clay Creek Preserve.
Dorothy Miller (1931-2016) was a principal actor in thwarting DuPont’s plans. Miller was born in Windber, Pennsylvania in 1931 and received her BS in chemistry from Pennsylvania State University before going on to be an analytical chemist at DuPont. While employed at DuPont, she became vocal against the company’s acquisition of White Clay Creek land for the intent of building a dam. An avid birder, Miller used her love and knowledge of the area’s flora and fauna and consolidated the field notes of a number of Delawarean naturaliststo produce a report detailing the proposed dam’s effect on wildlife. Miller believed that the best way to protect water resourceswas by protecting the land around them. It was this belief that influenced her civic involvement in water resource management and other development projects.
Miller joined forces withDon Sharpe of the United Auto Workers and Dennis Neuzil of the Delaware Sierra Club, as well as 22 other organizations to fight to preserve White Clay Creek. Miller also served as a leader in new umbrella organizations, the Coalition for Natural Stream Valleys and the Citizens for White Clay Creek, and was an active member in several of the other groups.
In 1988, the heirs of S. Hallock du Pont announced plans to sell off 850 of the family’s 2,000 acre estate, which had been held in trust for future generations. Seeking to limit the loss of open space, Governor Michael Castle began the purchase of 321 acres of the land which would connect Walter Carpenter State Park and the White Clay Creek Preserve to the Middle Run Valley Natural Area, a New Castle County-run park. The purchase was completed in the early 1990s, and in 1995, Walter S. Carpenter, Jr. State Park, the Delaware portion of the White Clay Creek Preserve, and the du Pont estate lands were joined together and renamed White Clay Creek State Park.
In 2000, Congress designated the entirety of White Clay Creek watershed as a national Wild and Scenic River, making it the first complete watershed in the nation to receive that designation.
It’s January, and some of us made decluttering one of our new year’s resolutions. We’re making space in our closets, in our children’s toy boxes, in our kitchen cabinets, on our bookshelves, on our phone and computer hard drives, and in our Dropbox, Google Drive, or other cloud-based storage. We’re following tidy-up guidelines based on variations of the quote, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful,” attributed to William Morris, an English textile designer associated with the British Arts and Crafts movement. Most tips for decluttering have to do with getting rid of the old, unused, or worthless to make space for the new, useful, and desired. They’re about living in the now.
Tossing seemingly useless objects and documents out is practical for my daily life, but frightening when it comes to my work on an archives project. I imagine someone in need of physical, mental, or emotional space and who doesn’t know how their photos, ticket stubs, journals, or books a used bookstore didn’t give them enough money for could ever be useful to anyone, throwing them away. I want to yell, “Stop!” and snatch their hands from the drawstring of the trash bag. A bit overdramatic perhaps, but when historians, students, journalists, and other researchers put together narratives of lived experience from the previous generation or century, they find material in the everyday things that, if we kept them, might make us seem like hoarders, not archivists.
This is true even when it comes to records of resistance. We’ve been asking the public to define resistance and tell us who their Philadelphia resistance heroes are. So far, not one person has defined resistance as a public protest or participation in other mass action. So far, most of the people named as heroes are anonymous or are known in select communities. They are family members, community elders, artists, poets, self–names unlikely to make it into a K-12 or college textbook but imperative to our existence now, important for personal or community self-determination in the future, and a career highlight to historians who know how challenging it is to find voices of “everyday people” in the historical record.
So before you toss that embarrassing box of notes you passed to and received from your friends in fourth grade, rethink how useful, beautiful, and valuable your history is.
The session “Uncovering Women of Color in Time, Place, and History” was held December 12, 2018, at the Education Center of Uncle Bobbie’s Books and Café. 44 people attended a discussion with Rasheedah Phillips (Managing Attorney of the Landlord-Tenant Housing Unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, Black Quantum Futurism Collective), Yolanda Wisher (poet, singer, educator, curator), and Karina Puente (artist).
In a wide-ranging discussion, Phillips, Wisher, and Puente reflected on questions including the definition of resistance, how resistance is part of the work they do, the kinds of historical stories they include, and what it means to center women of color in their work.
All the panelists emphasized the inspiration which they find in history and historical narratives. Wisher and Phillips both emphasized how hidden some of these stories are — for instance, Ona Judge, about whom there is only one book, and Rev. Leon Sullivan, whose story is not known in much of Philadelphia. Puente spoke about the importance of anchoring her work in a Latin American folk art tradition of papel picado (cut paper), and the history of that work.
Phillips and Wisher discussed differing experiences of historical research. Phillips is a Temple graduate and while she had heard of the Blockson Collection while she was a student, she didn’t know it what it was or how to access it. (The Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection is an archive with more than 500,000 items pertaining to the global black experience.) Phillips’ perception at Temple was that the Blockson Collection was a resource that wasn’t really available to her. Wisher described her first visit to the Schomburg Center as a pilgrimage, and the importance for her of doing at least some research in a physical space.
Much of the work of all the panelists combines the past, present, and future. Puente views her work in a traditional folk art medium as a way of conjuring the past and connecting to others who do or did similar work. Her current project, “#SisterlyHistory,” which is co-producing with Wisher, is designed to help women of color engaged in arts, cultural organizing, or entrepreneurship remember why they are doing it. Wisher talked about using her family stories in her work, and how the future in her work is in many ways about the past, as well. Phillips exhorted attendees to stop thinking of time as linear and progressive but to explore quantum physics, which sees time as moving in many directions, an idea which resonates with precolonial African practices. She also challenged attendees to question what values spur the desire to document (in writing), preserve, and institutionalize history. Are these values Eurocentric and capitalist? History among many precolonial indigenous populations was oral and was passed down; could archives be passed down the same way?
Phillips discussed her work in Sharswood, a community in North Philly, which is undergoing rapid gentrification, and where the city demolished low-income housing using eminent domain. She had represented people as part of her work as attorney, but also felt compelled to do more. To bring an Afrofuturist lens to the work, she opened up a pop-up store front, and did oral-futurist interviews, sign making, and art. This was designed to push back against the narrative coming from the city and others about the neighborhood, and allow those living there to tell their story of their community.
All emphasized the centrality of women of color in their work, and that they do not see this as a choice.
Following the discussion, audience members filled out response cards. Then there was a question and comment session with attendees. Elements of the discussion included how to stay community focused, that the process of looking for a story is also a story, the importance of community control over both collections and where they are, and the contrast between the often metaphysical process of the creation of art and the order and process of archives. Wisher suggested art within the archives could be a bridge between the different processes, as art and artifacts connect with ancestry and add an element of the living within the institutional space.
The session “Archiving Our Own” was held November 28, 2018 at the Library Company of Philadelphia. 26 people attended presentations by Sofiya Ballin and Samip Mallick and then discussed their thoughts about resistance and archives.
The event was designed as a conversation among project director Mariam Williams, Ballin, and Mallick. The wide-ranging discussion covered a variety of topics including definitions of resistance, how the presenters’ projects affect people in Philadelphia, the relationship between resistance and archives, and the speakers’ connections to the historical record.
Both Ballin and Mallick emphasized the importance of seeing your stories and the stories of your community represented in the historical record and in the narratives told about history. In discussing why she started her project Black History Untold, Ballin talked about wanting to move beyond the “traditional” profiles of black heroes she was asked to produce as a journalist and to show examples of Black success. Mallickreflected on how he felt displaced and left out of United States history when he was learning it in school, and how transformative learning about South Asian American history was for him. The South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) was an attempt to rectify this, and to make sure other people did not have the same experience.
Both panelists emphasized that they see the work they are doing as corrective and restorative, and that saying “we are here, we have stories” can be a form of resistance. While both Mallick and Ballin carry deeply personal experiences of isolation and ostracization into their work, each also attested to the collective effect omission and sometimes physical separation from archival records has had South Asian and Black diasporic populations.
Mallick noted that SAADA tries to highlight stories of marginalized voices within the South Asian American community, such as those from the Caribbean or undocumented immigrants. Ballin emphasized the importance of allowing black people to tell their own stories, which can be seen as threatening, as a way to take back some of what was stripped away during the slave trade. While both speakers emphasized the importance of resistance, they also cautioned that everyone thinks they are resisting, even if they are in a position of power, and that it is important to examine the term and its uses critically.
In thinking about the relationship of archives and resistance, Mallick reflected that the act of remembering can itself be an act of resistance, or an inspiration for resistance. Ballin remarked that the current technological moment has allowed more people to tell their own stories, rather than just the victors, which is the narrative more traditionally found in records. However, the independent projects that allow this are difficult to sustain over a long period of time. (SAADA is in its tenth year while Black History Untold will enter its fourth anniversary in February 2019.)
Following this discussion, attendees reflected on the questions: What does resistance mean to you? How do you see yourself in Philadelphia’s resistance history? Who are your Philadelphia resistance heroes? and discussed them in groups. (Group members have been kept anonymous, and the discussions are not transcribed.) Some prominent themes to emerge from the groups were the inherent violence of omission, the ways that things like racist or colonial art on the walls of institutions may deter the public from using the archives, the importance of knowing your own history, and how the preservation of history from non-dominant groups can be difficult in a multiplicity of spaces.
Sofiya Ballinis an award-winning journalist, writer, curator, and storyteller forging new roads in digital journalism. Creator of the Black History Untold project, the Philly-based and New York-born writer has a magnetic personality and natural charisma that’s evident in her work and online presence, bringing new energy to the field.
Ballin aims to humanize all walks of life through mentorship and her work that included being Features Reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her written work has also been featured on Huffington Post, Okay Player and FADER. Her dedication to the craft has led her to honors that include being named the 2017 PABJ Journalist of the Year and a Caribbean American Thirty under 30 Emerging Leader by the Institute of Caribbean Studies. In 2018, she was given a citation by the city of Philadelphia recognizing her “journalism in music, advocacy and creativity, a most welcome and wonderful addition to the cultural landscape in Philadelphia and beyond.”
“All my life, I’ve learned that there were stories untold and that not every legend was etched into bronze, my goal is to tell their stories,” Ballin said.
Her allegiance to those untold stories has led to some of the most poignant work in her career so far. Ballin’s series #BlackHistoryUntold was birthed from this idea and led to her identity series that explores the importance of a comprehensive Black History education through an array of powerful essays. Winning the National Association of Black Journalist (NABJ) Award for Best Feature: Series in 2017, the project served as an opportunity to work on something bigger than herself and has included Jesse Williams, Marc Lamont Hill, Cory Booker, Black Thought and Jazmine Sullivan, among others.
Ballin is dedicated to the work of telling the stories of others, that might otherwise be overlooked, in the midst writing her own.
Samip Mallick is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA), the only organization that digitally documents, preserves, and shares stories of South Asian Americans. Working at the intersection of technology and storytelling, Mallick has a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in Library and Information Sciences from the University of Illinois. He was previously the Director of the Ranganathan Center for Digital Information at the University of Chicago Library.
The Kinzua Dam on the Allegheny River in Western Pennsylvania was formally dedicated in September, 1966. Intended for flood control and power generation, the dam and the reservoir it created led to the displacement of 160 Seneca families from their ancestral lands and the condemnation of 10,000 acres of land on the Allegheny Reservation. The United States recognized these lands as part of the Seneca Nation through the signing of the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, or the Pickering Treaty. The Kinzua Dam was a direct violation of this treaty.
Advocates of Native rights, environmentalists, and social activists banded together to oppose the Kinzua Dam, or to promote alternative strategies and locations such as the Conewango-Cattaraugus project. Quaker & Special Collections at Haverford College has extensive documentation of this activism and protest in the papers of Theodore Hetzel, a Quaker involved with the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Indian Committee. Philadelphia Quakers had a long relationship with the Seneca dating to the 18th century, and were present at the signing of the Pickering Treaty. During the fight against the Kinzua Dam, Philadelphia Quakers lobbied representatives in Washington, worked with Native leaders, and helped to publicize the issues surrounding the dam.
Although many of the materials in Hetzel’s papers come from and represent the voices of the Quaker community, there are also materials which document Seneca voices. These include letters from Seneca leaders, newsletters published by the Seneca Nation, and news stories which include Native voices. Other materials include photographs, letters from politicians, news reports and letters to the editor, and documentation of actions carried out by Quakers. While the efforts to stop the Kinzua Dam were ultimately unsuccessful, they provide important documentation of a struggle which is not obvious to those familiar only with the dam itself, and not its history.
Members of our thinking partners and steering committee met in-person and via Zoom at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia for the second in a series of conversations. Conversation focused on valuing the contributions of those involved in Chronicling Resistance and similar projects, and how communities can learn about historical material.
It is important that this project not disempower people, and that it not perpetuate issues it is trying, in some small way, to resolve. We must value people’s time and contributions, as communities often feel that they are asked to donate their intellectual and cultural labor behind the scenes of a project and left behind after a project is completed; we must think about what is left for them after the project is done. Compensation and agency are important parts of this conversation. People’s work must be acknowledged (and compensated), but agency is a deeper and more difficult concern. We will think about ways to keep in touch with those who attend listening sessions, letting them know what is happening with the project.
It is also important to be upfront and transparent in order to manage expectations. To that end, being clear with partners about how much funding is available, what the timeline is, and what the goals of the project are is critical.
In discussing our goal of having people and communities make more meaningful use of archives, the question of how people can learn about what is held in collections was raised. Traditional description does not focus on things like neighborhoods, ethnicities, or resistance movements, and other ways people might define themselves. The steering committee will take up this question.
Resistance always means being against something, and it is important to acknowledge these systems of oppression even while celebrating resistance. Both these things should be marked. We must also keep in mind that stories of resistance can be sites of trauma, and think about how we can keep people safe during our sessions.
In thinking about next steps, we discussed defining resistance, the importance of attainable goals, and meeting people where they are.
Editor’s Note: How will women vote? The question has been on the minds of politicians and pundits since before the ratification of the nineteenth amendment. Women’s potential votes carried power on major questions such as citizenship, the rights of enslaved (and later, formerly-enslaved) blacks, and temperance. The country could change in women’s hands.
But women — including white women, the focus of much polling and hand-wringing this midterm season — have never been a monolith. If women today who believed Dr. Christine Blasey Ford allegations of attempted sexual assault against now Justice Brett Kavanaugh had lived in the 1800s, they would have found ample support for their resistance to the status quo. So would women who now want to protect men against false allegations or who offer other challenges to what many people see as progress.
In the latter group–at least, sort of–was Sarah Josepha Hale, who used her editorial position at the magazine, Godey’s Lady Book, to speak against suffrage and to take other controversial stances. The Athenaeum of Philadelphia houses a file of Hale’s correspondence, along with one of the country’s most complete collections of Godey’s Lady’s Book.Below, Peter Conn, Executive Director of the Athenaeum, offers more about Hale and her print media as a tool of resistance.
Sarah Josepha Hale
By Peter Conn
Little known today, Sarah Josepha Hale (1788–1879) could claim several significant accomplishments in her long and eventful life. She played a major role in the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument and the preservation of George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon. She lobbied successfully for the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday (Abraham Lincoln issued the requisite proclamation).
Her second volume of poetry, Poems for Our Children(1830) included one of the most familiar bits of verse in the English language, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” originally called “Mary’s Lamb.” (In 1877 Thomas Edison recited the opening lines of “Mary’s Lamb” as the first speech to be recorded on his newly invented phonograph.)Hale was also the author of several novels, to a couple of which I will return.
However, it was Hale’s forty-year tenure as the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, beginning in 1837, that placed her among the most influential women of her time. The magazine’s circulation reached 160,000 by 1860, making it the most widely circulated women’s journal of the nineteenth century. Along with poetry and short stories, and advice on child rearing and home furnishing, the magazine’s attractions included beautifully colored illustrations of current female fashions.
The essays that she wrote for the magazine, along with the work that she commissioned and published, reveal a complex and indeed divided set of political and cultural commitments.
On the one hand, through her own professional accomplishment – a widowed mother of five children supervising every detail of a major magazine – Hale exemplified a high level of independent financial and managerial skill. And in her essays and speeches, she argued strenuously in favor of expanding educational opportunities for girls and women. She also wrote in favor of conferring property rights on married women, the subject of vigorous and sometimes rancorous debate through much of the nineteenth century.
On the other hand, Hale argued with equal energy against female suffrage and embraced a quite traditional role for women: as homemakers and as fit mothers of future American patriots. In her view, “to induce women to think they have a just right to participate in the public duties of government [would be] injurious to their best interests and derogatory to their character.”
A similar division marked Hale’s attitude toward slavery. Her first novel, Northwood; A Tale of New England (1827), contained among its subjects one of the earliest representations of slavery in American fiction. However, while she called slavery “a stain on our national character,” she opposed abolition, instead supporting the relocation of the nation’s slaves to Liberia. She endorsed the work of the Ladies Liberia School Association, which raised money to found schools and underwrite teachers in that country. And her novel, Liberia, takes as its theme “the advantages Liberia offers to the African, who among us has no home, no position, and no future.”
In short, in the landscape of nineteenth century resistance, on the great issues of women’s rights and slavery, Hale is to be found in divergent and often contrary locations: opposing both slavery and abolition, supporting both women’s education and a traditional commitment to women’s domestic roles.
On October 15, 2018, Tarana Burke posted the following message to Twitter:
A year ago today I thought my world was falling apart. I woke up to find out that the hashtag #metoo had gone viral and I didn’t see any of the work I laid out over the previous decade attached to it. I thought for sure I would be erased from a thing I worked so hard to build. + https://t.co/VmfwTxhcIo
It was the beginning of a thread about the Me Too Movement’s origin story, how Tarana Burke had come up with “Me Too” more than 20 years before actress Alyssa Milano tweeted the phrase as a hashtag and invited other women to share their stories about sexual harassment and assault, how the question, “had white hollywood [sic] tried to tried to steal this from a Black woman?!?” emerged, and black female journalists advocated for Burke’s recognition.
Her answer to the question of theft may be surprising: “The short answer, No. But I was definitely in danger of being erased.” I think what was (and is) in more danger of being erased than Tarana Burke and her founding credentials is the Me Too Movement–not the movement that emerged in 2017 after The New Yorker’s investigative journalism unveiled allegations against Harvey Weinstein, but the movement Burke started.
Burke’s thread suggests her purpose in starting Me Too was to support Black and Brown girls and women who were survivors of sexual assault as they disclosed what happened to them and “to uplift the power of community for survivors.” I see this as different from what #MeToo, the hashtag, was in 2017 and is one year later.
When I see the hashtag #MeToo, I see the news headlines about the latest power man in entertainment or journalism exposed as a serial harasser, rapist, or misogynist, and the headline that follows within the next hour about his contract suddenly being terminated or his resignation received, effective immediately. In some ways, it’s an exciting phenomenon to watch. The prevalence of misogyny is being exposed, and the power structures created to allow and encourage men to abuse women with impunity are falling.
On the other hand, Are the perpetrators who also happen to be working class being exposed? Are they losing their jobs? If so, what’s happening to the women and girls in their families who their paychecks used to support? Also, given that the vast majority of the (formerly?) powerful perpetrators have been white men and their accusers have been the white women working for them, are women of color, particularly working class women of color, benefiting from #MeToo? Are the systemic racism and misogyny they live with daily changing? Are their survivor stories known and heard? Do they have the support Burke has also been so concerned they have?
As PACSCL conducted its previous project, In Her Own Right, they found that their 38 member institutions didn’t hold many stories about women were not white, not wealthy, or not for some other reason already held in high esteem by their contemporaries. This means there are holes in the historical record.
When historians look back at the Me Too Movement 100 years from now, what will they find has been preserved? The newspapers will have archived their exposés on Hollywood’s predators and the female actors they victimized. They will have archived their interviews with Tarana Burke. The Library of Congress will have archived every tweet including #MeToo and even the ones including #MeTooMvMt, which Burke included in the last post of her thread. What will they find about the girl who first motivated Burke to say, “Me too”? What will they find of working-class women and the networks they form within their places of employment when no union exists or their union fails them? And when historians ask about the meaning of Me Too, about its short- and long-term victories, setbacks, and transformations, will it look like celebrities who were mostly white and female made Hollywood a better place for their peers, or like Burke and brown and black girls and women found ways to support one another when other systems failed them?
Note: To make information on our website easier to find, we’ve moved meeting summaries to our blog and deleted the “Discover” page. You’ll find all Thinking Partner meeting summaries under the “Project Updates,” “Meeting Summaries,” and “What We’ve Learned” categories.
A number of thinking partners and steering committee members gathered at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia for the first in our series of conversations. The conversation focused on the two major goals of this project: documenting current resistance, and inviting people to see themselves in resistance narratives that are kept in archives/libraries/special collections.
Several themes became apparent as part of the conversation. One was that we need to rethink common knowledge about what stories are known, as some stories may seem “hidden” but will be told by people if they are asked what history is important to them.
We also discussed the importance of personal and individual stories, and of people stepping up when systems are failing. Many people doing radical things may not identify themselves as resistors, so how can they be reached?
There was also debate among those in attendance about what the best way to preserve stories can be. It is important to determine where people consider their stories safe, and to be sure that such places, and places where people trust their stories to be told, have resources. But there is also potentially value in “canonizing” stories by talking about them in traditionally-elite institutions, as long as this is done in a way that centers the experience of the groups in question. It is always important to insist upon the inclusion of people who may not be obvious in records.
On a practical level, it was suggested that having a short, written form that people can fill out to give feedback is helpful in collecting information. In order for this to work well, it is necessary to have a specific question or hook, even if action items are still pending.
Implemented Action(s) Following Meeting: The steering committee developed three central open-response questions related to the project goals and created a Google form and 5×7 response card to receive public replies.
In September, several members of the Chronicling Resistance steering committee attended the Annual Meeting of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. There we heard a keynote address from Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and author of The Participatory Museum and The Art of Relevance.
Based on her second book, Simon’s keynote address (much like this TEDx Talk) gave leaders of various organizations and institutions a crash course in “how to invite people outside of their traditional circles, into that thing that matters to [them].” In other words, she answered the following question: how do you make a place, issue, cause, art form, business, etc. relevant to people who currently, for whatever reason, don’t care about it, don’t know it exists, or don’t think it’s of any importance to them?
Who are archives important to? With whom do narratives of resistance resonate? The answers aren’t necessarily two different constituencies, but one group may, to paraphrase Simon, look at the front door to an archival institution and see a systemic lockout while the other may look at the same door and feel like they are about to enter their own home.
I’m closer to the latter group. For most of my life, I’ve had the ability to nerd out and go down rabbit holes of documents and files just because it’s interesting. On the other hand, I also know what it’s like to enter a place built in the 1800s and have an archivist who’s certain I don’t know protocols about food, beverages, pens, and bags watch me closely as I do my work. Such an archivist’s behavior (and such necessary rules) aren’t ones everyone can tolerate. But it doesn’t mean the stories inside the archives wouldn’t be important to them if they knew they were there. It may just mean, as Simon suggests, the effort it takes to get into those archives and draw meaning from them isn’t worth it to everyone. And it may mean we have to build a door that they think will be worth going through, a door that opens to something meaningful for them.
What does that door look like? What does the invisible “Welcome” mat outside look like? That’s the question I’m wrestling with. With a group of consultants we’re calling Thinking Partners, the Chronicling Resistance staff and steering committee is attempting to construct those doors and welcome mats for communities whose voices of resistance may not have been heard clearly enough by the people who have used the archives to write their stories, and for communities who are still trying to tell their stories in their own ways.
Simon encourages “community-first programming, using a community’s assets and resources to build a project together.” Listening to the community’s wisdom and then adapting existing doors and spaces rather than prescribing what they should look like–because honestly, we don’t know what they should look like. We, the historians, archivists, and academics who are degreed and skilled in what we do are not the experts in this project.
For the next several months, Chronicling Resistance staff, steering committee members, and consultants will be attempting to construct new doors and welcome mats for communities whose voices of resistance may not have been heard clearly enough by the people who have used the archives to write their stories, and for communities who are still trying to tell their stories in their own ways. I’m excited to look to people whose histories, stories, and contributions often have been undervalued and call them experts.