Activist Archiving as Empathy Work

by Nathan Burns

Nathan Burns is a junior from Newtown, Pennsylvania double-majoring in French and Leadership Studies and minoring in English. This summer of 2019 marks Nathan’s first time working with the Race & Racism Project. On campus, Nathan is also a writing consultant and a member of the dining services student advisory committee.

For me, the hardest part of my initial research process has been finding the courage to acknowledge my identity in my work. Over the past few weeks of team discussions and metadata creation, I have realized that it is nearly impossible to do archival research and not notice how my identity as a white-passing male and member of the LGBTQ+ community influences my emotional response to any source I encounter. Before my experience with the Race & Racism at UR Project, I was taught to conceal my identity during the research process in an attempt to remain unbiased and neutral toward knowledge. On a positive note, this detachment allowed me to focus on “objective” truth and facts when recounting history. However, in a team meeting a few weeks ago led by Sojourna Cunningham, we discussed the negative consequences that arise from this insistence on historical neutrality. We determined that one of these negative consequences was the erasure of empathy and emotional connection to history. Another was the erasure of marginalized perspectives deemed unnecessary, even threatening, to the upkeep of “neutral” historical narratives that prioritize monocultural whiteness. I reflected after this team discussion that for most of my academic career, I have been trained to hide my own perspective. I have willingly obliged in hiding my identity in order to remain supposedly unbiased toward my dealing with knowledge, yet in doing so, I perpetuate a lie, a lie that I could ever be truly unemotional in my reactions to and presentations of knowledge. While working with the Race and Racism Project, I intend to not simply deal with knowledge, but to feel it. To feel upset, heartbroken, angry, and joyful. It is important to feel connected to the stories and people I read about because this project and this research, as I am beginning to understand, is empathy work in that it requires emotional connection, to feel from the perspective of my own identity.

Alongside these team discussions and the beginning of the research process, I have begun creating metadata for various articles from The Collegian, the University of Richmond’s student newspaper. I have allowed myself to unashamedly react to these articles in a manner that acknowledges my own perspective. The most fascinating pieces to read have been personal, opinionated, debatable and impassioned about all sorts of topics, ranging from instances of blatant homophobia to Black experiences of isolation on campus. Not acknowledging the passion and emotion in these articles would do a disservice to those who wish to learn about campus history.

At the moment, I am still in the process of committing myself to a single research topic. My initial research and work with metadata creation has led me to a variety of potential topics, some of which I mentioned in my first blog post. One topic that I find particularly promising is the history of food and dining at the University of Richmond in terms of dining hall segregation, dining hall staff, and reactions to the incorporation of different international food options on campus. This idea, although not the first to come to my mind during research, interests me because how access to food and food services is mediated by the University is a lens through which to view campus culture and social life.

I may not know exactly what I want to pursue as my final research project just yet. However, as public historian and Richmond community member Free Egunfemi reassured me during our meeting at 6PIC on June 3, I know that I want my work to disrupt historical narratives as much as it disrupts my own struggle for personal expression in my research. Furthermore, Free Egunfemi’s definition of self-determination helps to articulate my struggle to acknowledge my identity. I certainly will not have a clear path cut out for me in doing archival research, and I may not ever arrive at an end goal. But I know that the work I will do, whatever form it might take, will strive toward an active reworking of previous narratives utilizing radical empathy.