My very first job as a young archivist was at the Alabama Department of Archives and History, where I learned to process and describe collections and also to grapple with the enormity, complexity and, quite often, the awfulness of American history. As a transplanted Yankee, it did not take me long to figure out the reason for the Confederate flag above the Capitol, or why the state holidays list included Martin Luther King, Jr./Robert E. Lee Day (still) and Confederate Memorial Day. I understood too well why the street on which I was fortunate to attend the dedication of the Civil Rights Memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center also hosted a Ku Klux Klan march several years later. This is not isolated to Alabama, or even to one region of the country. The symbols of oppression and our violent past are all around us, as indicated in this list compiled by The Guardian:
SAA traditionally has not commented on issues or events not related to archives or records, but have reserved our judgments for areas in which our archival experience means something. The recent events in Charlottesville point to the need for archivists to use our expertise to assist communities in researching and determining the meaning and value of the names, images, and monuments in their midst, and whether what those symbols represent is historical truth or something else.
The Council’s Diversity and Inclusion Working Group was created in 2014 to provide the Council with greater focus and direction in achieving the Society‘s strategic goals in D&I, explore meaningful new initiatives in this area, and coordinate the work of appropriate component groups to leverage their contributions into broader cultural competency for the Council, staff, and members. Now led by Courtney Chartier, its members include Steven Booth, Amy Cooper Cary, Meredith Evans, and Audra Eagle Yun. The group‘s highest priority in the coming months is to create a toolkit for archivists to use with local community members when they are faced with these hard issues. A number of individuals and SAA groups have already volunteered to assist the working group as needed, which is greatly appreciated. Courtney‘s team will submit a concept to the broader Council for discussion at its November meeting, a draft for review on the Council’s January conference call, and a final version for approval in May. If you have ideas or resources you think should be considered, please send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will pass them on to the working group.
I have been reflecting on some eloquent words by a friend, Mary Foskett, on Charlottesville, which I pass along with her permission:
“Throughout my week in Berlin, and even more since returning home, I have been thinking about what a difference it could make if we had more memorials and monuments, not fewer, to make us pause, take stock of our history, and commit to becoming our best selves as a people. Specifically historical markers noting the spaces and places and lives brutalized by our nation’s history of racism, bigotry, and white supremacy, and the courageous men and women who stood up against it, markers urging us on, together, to remember and to do better. Berlin has challenged me to contemplate more deeply the power of facing ourselves in the hope of becoming our best selves. Charlottesville reminds me that we haven’t a moment to lose. ”
As always, if you have questions or concerns, please share them with me at email@example.com My next post, in early September, will be an expanded version of my Incoming President remarks at SAA’s Business Meeting on Friday, July 28.