“Our ancestors are rooting for us.”
We Survived, Climbing PoeTree
Two of the most important things to human beings are justice and love. Neither can be fully defined, especially in the scope of this post. I look at love as the understanding that because we humans are interconnected, we act with empathy and compassion toward others, realizing that furthering their desires is important to the realization of our own. Justice comes in many flavors. My focus here is social justice, which can be defined as promoting fair and equitable relationships between individuals and their society, especially considering how privileges, opportunities, and wealth ought to be distributed among individuals. Love and justice bind us to each other with compassionate, fair, and just connections.
These bonds are not constrained by time. The seventh generation principle codified in the Great Law of Peace has been both commercialized and romanticized. Vine Deloria Jr. commented that we are actually the seventh generation, with the responsibility to bridge the worlds of our great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Rather than peering 200 years into the future, we bring forward the earliest memories of people we actually know and transfer them to descendants we will hopefully meet in the future.
Bridging the temporal spans between generations is what archives and archivists have always done. I have to believe that our ancestors left us their stories to tell us what they felt important – why they did things and what meaning their actions would take in our lives. We have to be able to move our ancestors’ lives and visions forward to our descendants and one important way is to create archives. Archives are needed because very little that is important is achieved in a human lifespan – often not even in a multigenerational lifespan. We archivists purposefully both choose whose voices and what things they said or did to include in archives. Some would argue that you can’t preserve all the stories. While that may be true in an absolute sense, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work with as many people doing archivesque work as we can find to try to preserve and transmit as many distinct voices as possible.
The creation of archives (or story, or memory, or community) is an act of love, a way of saying: Elders, you did this and it will matter to you, Offspring. Archivists commit to being the connective link, not just among those on the earth today, but among all people. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin stated in Toward the Future that, “Love is the only force which can make things one without destroying them. … Some day, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.” In Salvation: Black People and Love, bell hooks noted that, “Love is profoundly political. Our deepest revolution will come when we understand this truth.” Archivists are at the core of this revolution—finding stories, preserving them, sharing them. We don’t do this just for evidential or informational value. We do it to connect our species—past, present, and future—to each other in common humanity.
So what about justice, comrades?
We’ve all read the old saw “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” In Theodore Parker’s original abolitionist sermon, the first clause reads: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways.” On our own, we humans can see only a few decades, maybe a century if we’re lucky. If we rely only on our own eyes to see justice, we often can’t see any bend at all, in fact maybe even a bend away from justice. Archives document that long arc, across generations, and present it for all to see. Using archives is an act of justice; a way of saying that we see you, we see your mistakes, we understand how and why you erred, we know more now and we can repair them to make us whole.
This repair requires the inclusion of voices that have traditionally been ignored an equitable footing. The Protocols for Native American Archival Materials is a useful model for seeing archives as underpinning socially just actions. It requires people to approach each other with open hearts and mutual respect, to make decisions based on shared and equal power (as much as possible), and to find solutions that are acceptable to all parties. Archives are key sources in reparative work like truth commissions, treaty negotiations, reparations efforts, and a variety of other community healing efforts based in the representation of all affected voices through time.
Lae’l Hughes-Watkins concludes in Moving Toward a More Reparative Archives“that engaging in social justice through reparative archival work in the form of the diversification of archives, advocacy/promotion, and then utilization within an academic archive has set a process in motion that has shown early signs of creating feelings of inclusivity within the archival space.”
Archives are relational through time. They bind us, for good and for bad, to our human relatives both in the past and in the future. Our ancestors are rooting for us. They have clamored to have all of their stories heard. Fought for a deeper and more truthful narrative of us humans. Archivists uncover those stories, add them to the sum of human understanding, and move them forward through time. Why? So that our great-grandchildren will know that their ancestors are rooting for them, too.
Terry Baxter has been an archivist for 33 years, currently at Multnomah County and the Oregon Country Fair. He lives in northeast Portland with two Jewells.