A Manifesto/ Meditation on State of Black Archives in America and throughout the Diaspora by Harmony Holiday
The ashes a black mother scattered into the lap of a seemingly indifferent police chief, her daughter’s remains in ash and shackle, the ashes of her daughter who had been killed in jail either by neglect or force, whose death was falsely recorded as another suicide in the holds, those are our archives. Both the video recording that captures the black ashes scattering into a white man’s lap, and the mother’s ritual, her piercing curse-on-him glance into his smug visage as she unleashes those tiny chimes he cannot jitter or equivocate off no matter how many laws he passes to defend his sickness, or lies he inks on dead trees, or phony official records they keep to contradict true stories. We keep a record of both the ritual and its transfiguration into object or commodity or reproduction on our tongues’ slow limbo between these broken lands. We understand that we are caught between two opposing tribes formed from the ark or archive, up— one in with the energy of a spirit-driven self-perpetuating fractal, the other a rusty arrow that hopes to block out the sun and infects everything on its path, draws blood to sustain itself.
A clash of methods is festering, one wherein western sercretaryism (like syncretism but without the magic) and preemptive snitch culture (mis-telling the histories of the black, brown and innocent who have been muted by state power before the truth comes out), attempts to undermine the ancient technology of oratory, storytelling, collective memory, epigenetics, the ankh, knowing what we know. Because brown bodies must learn to care less about being right in the eyes of a penal code built on their criminalization, than about feeling right while carving out a life under this system, even if that means waging open spiritual attack on upholders of said system in their place of worship and terror, the courtroom, as that fearless mother did, we are willing to weaponize our archives and disappear them depending on what our spirits demand, what soothes our souls and that of the collective.
In this way, the throbbing void where Lee Perry’s Black Ark Studios once flourished as a haven for dub music and invention in Kingston, Jamaica, before he burned it to the ground to lift the curse of sycophants and phantoms, that void is our archives. The space he cleared and malicious intent he banished with that deliberate fire, became the improvised catalog of the music and lifestyle invented there, now a resounding radio silence. As those who saw the space as a trend, flop house, or museum-to-be, sigh in grief at its incineration, Lee Perry himself gasps at them in ritual annoyance and does his victory spin, reminding everyone that his creative energy is no one’s prop.
The Dogon Tribe in Mali, West Africa, a group of souls who descend from a distant stellar force in the universe called Sirius B, who know this to be true and can explain their origins in the cosmos with an accuracy that alarms and disarms Western Scientists because it is too advanced for the West’s neurotic linear logic, The Dogons’ lucid and unwavering knowing that blackness is a sacred technology, is our archives, the blueprint for the ark our memories of the future builds. We understand that to be ancient or from before is to be the future, and that we haven’t caught up with ourselves here, and can understand colonialism in terms of our own generosity of spirit and awareness that we carry urgent messages in our DNA and long to distribute them and help this planet remember its true role in the order and chaos of things.
In the Library of Congress, the only existing copy of the second volume of jazz bassist Charles Mingus’ autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, rests in quiet staccato with a gun-shaped space cut out of it, for this is where he hid his piece. The gun cubby and all of the missing notes tell as much of his story as an uninterrupted manuscript would. That empty space where an automatic weapon might have been is our archives, the loot on our ark that we abandon if it starts to weigh us down, because it was acting as a musical instrument anyways, improvising with the surrounding space to create an object only the black spirit can decode.
The thousands of pages of notes the FBI takes on the mundane activities of black writers and cultural workers, from describing the clothing we wear to the slightest shift of tone in our voice during public speeches or private conversations, to who we hugged hello, to who we walked inside with and closed the door until the next morning, that state surveillance is our archives, the data they try to crunch and manipulate to compensate for a magnetism native to blackness that they will never understand, and cannot conquer.
The ongoing project of piecing together my own father’s illusive history as a singer, recording artist, sharecropper, ninja, black cowboy, who was never properly taught to read or write, teaches me again and again to examine what was kept hidden or remote as meticulously as I do the obvious landmarks and trapdoors of a past. We are forced to do so much in code that sometimes that what we have left in us to perform and share openly is armor that grants us deeper access to our private selves, satiates the spectator’s curiosity, nudges the hounds off our backs. The recordings I find of my dad at home sketching ideas as he let the tape roll are often more beautiful and powerful than his fanciest studio recordings for this reason.
The ashes in the lap, the vast empty space, the pages hugging the gun, the Dogon’s unsung prophecy, the informant falling in love with the blackness he was sent to dispel, the father humming at sunrise and forgetting to ever press rewind, these are our archives, records of how we disappear to become ourselves, and emerge from that refuge with our spells intact and an understanding of how blackness in the west demands disguises and our job is to steal our masks back from their museum consciousness. But then what?
On the one hand, like animals who eat their young at the slightest scent of a human hand, we must destroy false and adulterated records of black life, must do so ruthlessly, but in the other hand, the hand they aren’t holding coercively or stuffing with bibles and Kierkegaard, we want our whole story, all of the the ugly beauty, all of the library walls, all of the anthologies and any other monolithic prestige that will get us wings in universities, textbooks that don’t lie, bulldozers to knock down those wings and rebuild them as domes or Lee Perries, memories that we can trust and transform when necessary, and selves that we recognize with or without the armor of code and performance and brand, We want to know who we are when we’re not busy outrunning the plantation guards. So we must go to work in two crucial directions.
One: we are building black archives of the unreal, which is to say, reinstating our fantasies through how we collect displaced data from the past and impose it upon the now like a threat, more of a promise, that our futures will reflect these fantasies, will be them realized, with or without us. This practice is dangerous because we end up with art objects comprised of lost histories and often sell them back to the institutions and audiences responsible for their obscurity in order to fund the work, further alienating ourselves and subjects because we haven’t yet attained the real estate, the land, on which we can play out and protect our fantasies. We outsource these archives of our unreal glory to stages because again, for us, the urgency is to create and destroy in a pattern as close to nature as possible, to feel like our natural selves again, not to adhere to procedure. And so we disappear glamorously, leaving small traces, lipstick on massah’s collar, footprints in the concrete, but ultimately these tender unrealities we offer are mangled by art consumers and no longer ours, they’re co-opted so well youtube and google are holding market research groups on the ‘black authenticity demographic,’ and we move on before the urge to riot or Do the Right Thing sets in.
Two: Where is our sh*t? All of it? Who is keeping track? How many black heroes, villains, and plain citizens, have estate sales that end in all of their information being bought by a university library never to be openly shared again. Why is there no centralized record of these sales and other sale-like transactions? Why is it easier to find records of FBI surveillance of black citizens of ‘interest’ full of snide judgement and slander, than it is to find our stories in our words backed by the evidence that is our lived experience. If we are going to play the game of trying to earn credibility and capital through the sale of our most personal and transcendental information, in hopes that maybe it will be used to defend and honor us, when instead it is often later mobilized for character assassination, if this the path we believe will lead to some moveable feast, then we should demand to know where these open secrets are being kept, because for every well-maintained archive, there is one we are forced to burn to the ground for kindling, or just plain dirt.
This is a call to all scholars, writers, musicians, citizens, with an emphasis on members of the African diaspora, to join in the building of a centralized database that will tell the story of where and when and to whom and for what expressed purpose, our stories or archives are sold. We will also hold an annual conference on archival practices within the diaspora. The central question driving this endeavor is this: does the way we treat our archives mirror how we treat ourselves, and if so, what is it telling us as a diaspora do we feel like heroes or abandoned children looking for anyone to take us in? Are we too quick to forfeit autonomy for the comfort of institutions? How would the landscape be appear if we demanded land on which to house our freedom archives, archives ranging from sheer ideas and forms of movement and speech, to papers and tapes and films, to vastness and black meditative silence? By demanding more of our archival material we are demanding better for our bodies, growing unwilling to turn them over to these same institutions exchanging our labor on their terms for our entire cultural inheritance and sometimes a living-wage that distracts us from we trade? Autonomy is built from the archive up, universities are nothing without their libraries and even this republic is built on unapologetically cataloged surveillance and graves of any and all threats to its tyranny of values. It’s possible that the first and most crucial step in wresting black bodies from the illusions of freedom that propel this system, is reclaiming our archives and building schools and think tanks and communities and alliances based on our records as we keep them. The journey will teach us how the state really feels about freedom. And maybe we’ll be granted some token surprises like peace, and space to do the work that our spirits need and no new friends in the FBI.
When photographer Carrie Mae Weems reimagined a photo of a runaway slave whose back had been whipped so brutally the scars were permanently raised-roads on his path to liberation, Harvard, alleged ‘owner’ of the original photo, threatened to sue her. In response, she dared them to, suggesting it would be a good conversation to have on the record—who owns our memories and do they use them to sell us our nightmares, renamed American dreams? Harvard’s radio silence on the matter came next, nobody wants that kind of publicity. And Ezra Pound, beloved poet and Nazi sympathizer whose estate is careful to keep the parts of his archive that divulge his views separate from to rest and so high up the ivory tower you’re lightheaded just to get there, so that scholars can’t unearth too much of his too soon and we can keep comparing him to the Blues, like thieves from ourselves, fanatics. I guess what I’m saying is maybe these institutions buy our archives and pay for our labor in order to shut us up, to pacify us and try to domesticate our histories or induce selective forgetting, to yet again gain the last word, and maybe just the thought of that as a possibility will be enough to set us looting, peacefully of course, just coming to collect and understand and announce what’s ours and find some place to keep it, like Carrie did, where everyone from Harvard to home can bear witness.
Also see The State of Black Collectivity in the Year of the Sheep – a vital and urgent message of black collectivity and a Call for an Archive of AfroSonics.
Listen to Astro/Afrosonics Archive: Charles Mingus Jazz School: Holiday’s audio collage from her Astro/Afrosonics Archive, a collection of Jazz Poetics and audio culture. For the Pan African Space Station (PASS) she imagined a jazz school with Charles Mingus in charge.
And: Astro/Afrosonics Archive: Amiri Baraka work(s)
Both recorded at the Pan African Space Station (PASS) at Performa New York, 2015. For more visit http://panafricanspacestation.org.za