Found  /  Book Review

Black Archives, Not Archives of Blackness

On Laura Helton’s “Scattered and Fugitive Things.”

In her new book Scattered and Fugitive Things: How Black Collectors Created Archives and Remade History, Laura E. Helton lays out a clear vision of Black public bibliophilia in the first half of the 20th century. Through the careers of these six figures—Schomburg, Gumby, Lee, Porter, Harsh, and Reddick—she chronicles the relationships and community organizations that shaped the foundations of Black intellectual life in the 20th-century United States. At a time when the philosophical concept of “the archive” has become so potent for scholars, the discourse can sometimes sidestep what Michelle Caswell has termed “actually existing archives.” In this context, Scattered and Fugitive Things is a necessary restorative. The figures in this book, both notable and hidden, spent their entire lives working institutionally to build fortresses of Black history and possibility, materially reframing a historical record designed to ignore Black existence.

Scattered and Fugitive Things examines a range of repositories imagined by and for Black communities. These are Black archives, not simply archives of blackness. While this may seem a distinction without difference, it is key to understanding the motivations of these collectors and categorizers. Helton defines her quarry in opposition to these “archives of blackness”—documentary evidence of Black life that exists in droves at institutions that display little interest in Black patrons or staffing. These collections thrive on rarity for rarity’s sake, preserving material conditions by allowing access only to vetted researchers, and basing that vetting process on professional networks and institutional affiliations. The combination of the traditional devaluation of Black history with the contemporary commitment to diversity has raised the profile of Black collections, often to the point where only the most well-endowed universities and museums can begin to contemplate bidding. This cycle was foreseen by Schomburg, was stifling to Porter, and continues to affect the market today: funds are often available to bring in notable acquisitions, but at the cost of failing to serve particular audiences. Large-scale digital projects at libraries and archives are funded with an aim to increase access to marginalized histories, but once the funding is there, the projects are run as if content-agnostic: archives of blackness clearly have value but can be completely divorced from the lives of actual Black people.