by Destiny Riley
Destiny Riley is a Class of 2019 graduate from Maumelle, Arkansas, majoring in Rhetoric & Communication Studies and double minoring in Sociology and American Studies. Destiny first contributed to the Race & Racism at UR Project during an independent study course in the Spring of 2017, and then joined the team again via Digital Memory & the Archive, a course offered in Fall 2017. This post was written as part of a Spring 2019 independent study with the Race & Racism Project.
Since the spring semester of 2017, I have continued to gain experience working with archival material, thanks to the Race & Racism at the University of Richmond Project. Throughout my time working in the archives, the silencing and marginalization of Black people has become more and more apparent to me. Last year, my research group created an exhibit titled “Resistance and Compliance” for the Project’s website in which we explored the controversy around the University’s compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the efforts it made to progress in terms of integration. During my research, I found a Collegian article titled “Black and White.” In this article, the author discussed the University’s path to integration, claiming that many current students were in favor of integration. The reason was that they felt they deserved to get a chance to experience the “educated Negro,” rather than the negative depiction of Black people they saw in the media. While it may seem as if white students wished for inclusivity, their reasons for wanting Black students at the University were extremely selfish and blatantly problematic. There are countless articles and documents with this same racist, condescending tone–and much worse–throughout the archives. However, when we discuss documents such as this one, we feel the need to discuss it with a neutral tone, though the tone of these documents are far from neutral.
The neutrality of the archives continues to silence and marginalize the vast range of experiences of Black people. Specifically in my work with the University of Richmond’s archival materials, the neutrality in the way we discuss documents silences the racist experiences of Black people, from staff to students. The attempted neutrality of those working in the archives have continued to perpetuate a legacy of “institutionalized dehumanization” which has consisted of “silences, erasures, and distortions, and the lack of care, around the histories of the most marginalized people in our society” (Jules 2016). I admit that, through my time working in the archives, I have been guilty of perpetuating this neutrality. Everything I have ever known about archives suggests that they are meant to be kept neutral. I have always been encouraged to be truthful by my mentors who oversee the Project. However, because of my minimal archival experience prior to working with the Project, as well as my underlying fear of bringing a negative light to the Project, I have often maintained a neutral tone when discussing problematic and racist documents I have come in contact with. From what I have witnessed, most of my peers have done the same. We have realized that archives are typically thought of as spaces that should lend themselves to neutrality, especially when aiming for inclusion of marginalized people, and more specifically, Black people. This leads me to ponder on this question: Why should strive to be included in a space that was not meant for us?
This semester, I have been fortunate enough to be able to take a sociology class titled “The Life & Times of Malcolm X” with Dr. Atiya Husain. This class is what led me to the question I posed above. Throughout the semester, one of the main concepts we have been discussing is Malcolm X’s strong belief in Black nationalism. Black nationalism consists of the belief in the need for economic and social empowerment of Black people outside of the realm of white supremacy and “integration.” Those, such as Malcolm X, who advocated for Black nationalism felt these could only be achieved through the creation of a Black, independent society. When thinking about the archives, and the problematic, neutral nature of them, the concept of Black nationalism came to mind. Black Nationalists believed that if Black people wanted to live in a society where they had basic human rights, then Black people had to create it. How can this concept be applied to the archive? If oppressed and marginalized people, specifically Black people, want to live in a society where our experiences are present in the archives, why do we not create it ourselves? In our work with archives, the “pursuit of inclusion and recognition [have been] the horizon of our desires” (Omowale 2018). Why should the pinnacle of our goals be inclusion and recognition in a field of racism and white supremacy when we could create our own space to chronicle our own history? I fully acknowledge that this is an overwhelming idea, that it may not be completely possible in my lifetime, and that I am not even completely sure what this would look like. However, I do believe that we have to power to create this for ourselves.
Specifically at the University of Richmond, I am not sure if this would be able to be accomplished any time soon, mostly due to the race and privilege of the majority of the student body and faculty. At this point in time at the University, because of the lack of Black students and faculty, Black students and faculty would have to depend on the acceptance and resources from those in power to even be able to accomplish this task. Depending on an institution rooted in white supremacy for acceptance and resources would completely defeat the purpose. I am hopeful that there will be larger numbers of Black students that attend the University in the future. This type of project would have to start with Black students and faculty and extend into the Black Richmond community and beyond.
If we truly desire to have power over the telling of our own history and experiences, we must find a way to create our own archival world.