Transcript of Walidah's Liberated Archives Keynote

Society of American Archivists (SAA) 2017 Annual Conference

The Liberated Archive Morning Keynote

The Liberated Archive: A Forum for Envisioning and Implementing a Community-Based Approach to Archives

by Walidah Imarisha (website | twitter)

(Transcription by @_irinarogova)

Good morning! How are y'all doing? Last day. I know you've been here, I know this has been long, I was like "Wow, y'all are troopers, you put in that work." But I feel like I was telling someone I'm here to be your cheerleader, cause I'm coming and I’m like "This is gonna be amazing y'all!" I'm so excited for today, I'm excited for the conversations that are gonna be happening today, I'm excited for the frames that folks are bringing and the questions that people are gonna be asking today around the idea of archives, which is really talking about knowledge and how we are engaging and holding that knowledge, and using that knowledge. So, as an educator, as a writer, I love archives, I love archivists. Y'all are the best people. You have one question, and it's like "Well let's explore everything about that, this is gonna be amazing, yes!" [Audience laughter.] I'm very excited that the space has been created and I'm excited to the organizers for envisioning and holding this space as well.


[01:10] And so I think "liberated" and "archive" are great words, two amazing words that I love. And I think that it's important to think about what each of those words mean individually as well as collectively.  I'm sure that y'all will have really amazing conversations about that in different workshops that you're doing. I think that it's important, you know this, when we talked about archives, so often folks who are not archivists or librarians or who folks who engage with archives (or maybe even folks who do engage with archives) think about it as something that is completely separate from real life. It's a storehouse, a cold musty vault somewhere buried deep in a university where there will be librarians or other folks in charge shushing you if you sneeze or move your chair too loudly. [Audience laughter.] It's often how folks think about that. I think it's important recognize that that idea didn't come out of nowhere, that is actually a construction of power. It's a construction about who holds history, who holds knowledge, who controls it, and who has access to it. I think it's important to recognize that the ways that archives have functioned have been as ways to reinforce existing power structures. And so, thinking about liberated archives, first you have to understand the role that archives are playing, the role that knowledge has played, in continuing to uphold oppressive and unequal systems, historically. Before we can think about what does it mean to liberate it, we actually have to understand how it's working.


[02:55] So I think it's important to acknowledge that, and to acknowledge that knowledge has often been chained and bound and colonized. I know that there are workshops that talk about the decolonization process of archives, I think it's important to talk about the decolonization process of knowledge in general as part of that. So I think it's important to note that archives in it of themselves and knowledge in and of themselves are not liberatory. It's how we use it, it's the process through which they're conceived and dreamed of. It is how they are created, who is engaging with them, who is holding them, and the ultimate purpose that they serve and are used for. That is where this sort of liberatory framework comes into play.


[03:42] I think that there are principles and values to be talked about that have to be internalized when you talk about that. So it's not just enough to say "Yes, everyone's open, everyone's welcome, you don't have to file a form in triplicate six months in advance and be sponsored by 37 people and have a criminal background check to come in here and access these archives behind glass." Right? I mean that's a great start, to say no to any of that, but it's not enough to just say "Sure, come on in!" That's not what liberated archives look like.


[04:15] I think that it's important also to recognize all successful social justice movements have a diversity of tactics. I think that a lot of times folks spend time saying "Well this is the right way to do things! What is the one right way? And if you're saying something that's different than me, we must be in conflict, we must argue or disagree, or tweet at each other until one of us demolishes the other one and declares victory, right?” [Audience laughter] And again, all social movements for social change have a diversity of tactics. So they say "yes, and" rather than "no, but." And so I think that that's important in all the aspects of thinking about what is freedom, what does liberation look like in the everyday. This is not about saying no to institutional archives, no to university archives. It's saying "yes, and." So how do we engage with the archives that already exist in these institutions that were created to maintain power structures? University systems, the system of education, was created to maintain white supremacist patriarchal capitalism. That's just boom, there it is, good morning. [Audience laughter, clapping.]


[05:34] But that doesn't mean that there aren't spaces and ways to reclaim that, that aren't spaces and ways to use that, and there aren't spaces and ways to subvert that. I love the word "subversion" when dealing with existing institutions, and I think that--it makes me kind of feel like a spy, first of all. [Audience laughter.] It also acknowledges these institutions were not created for us, we're not pretending they were created for us, we're not gonna pretend that we can just switch them over with some superficial changes, but instead we can find ways to burrow in and to get what we need out of these institutions, even though those institutions may be fighting us all the way. But I think it's also important, the "yes, and," to say how do we dream community-based archives as well? How do we say, how do we deal with what already exists, but how do we also say "What do we want? What would be the vision for what a truly liberated archive created by the people who are directly impacted, held by the people that are directly impacted, and used for the liberation and freedom of people who are directly impacted (and therefore for all of us), what would that look like?"


[6:47] I'm hopeful and I'm sure that you'll be having a lot of those conversations today in your different workshops. I'm excited for y'all to have those spaces, and I think it's important when you disperse after time here to create spaces as well, to say "What is the world that we want? What is the knowledge base that we want? What is the archive that we want?" Have those conversations. I do a lot of work around science fiction, science fiction and organizing--which I'll talk more about later, sometimes people are like "What fiction and organizing? Did I mishear that? It's 9AM. Has the coffee not kicked in?" [Audience laughter.] You did not mishear it.


[7:32] So often in social justice movements, we've been told to be realistic. What is a reasonable win? What low reform can we eke out of this system? And instead, I think it's important to recognize that all real, true, substantive social change was considered to be an impossibility before it happened. People were told it was science fiction, it was a fantasy, it would never happen. Eight-hour work day? Never gonna happen. Women getting the right to vote? Never gonna happen. The end of legal slavery in this country? Never gonna happen. Right? Folks said, "Well we're not just gonna take your piecemeal reforms that you're offering, we're gonna dream that science fiction and make it reality." And they did.


[08:18] But first you have to have that space to say "What do we want?" Beyond the boundaries of what we're told is possible or what is real. And so I hope that you create the those sort of visionary spaces to have those conversations with each other within your institutions and within your communities, so that you can be developing that vision that you're moving towards. It may exist beyond two-year grant cycles, or the funding cycle for universities. It may be a vision that's 20, 50, 100 years, but having those kind of visions give us something to move towards together, to dream together, and to dream into being together.


[08:59] I've used archives and seen archives engaged in a lot of different ways, and have had amazing opportunities to see folks using archives in really liberated ways. I'm gonna just share some of those examples, talk a little about those principles and values that I think are important around liberated archives. I'm gonna focus on three areas of my work. One is focusing around Oregon black history-- welcome to Oregon if you're not from here, it's about to get real. [Audience laughter.] Another area is the history of movements of resistance, movements for social justice, especially around challenging the prison industrial complex. And the last piece is about science fiction and organizing. So I'll just talk a little bit about some of the experiences I've had around those.


[09:53] Around Oregon black history, how many folks here are not from Oregon? Boo, alright. [Audience laughter.] Felt like we were doing the wave there for a minute. [Audience laughter.] Encapsulated...I'm trying to do the abbreviated version, and not the two hours version where I'm like "And then y'all in 1965..." [Audience laughter.] Portland, especially, sort of exports this idea of Portlandia, this amazing liberal playground where it's the 1990s and you know...[Audience laughter] can just have unicorns and birds on things. And that ideology, this idea that Portland is the most progressive city in America, and Portland certainly likes to say that about itself as well. And then folks will say, "Well..there aren't a lot of people of color here, it's really white,'s really progressive." I don't think those two things can coexist in the same space and time, right? If you are progressive, then at the core is justice. And if people of color cannot live here because of economics, because of laws, because of practices, because of feeling completely unwelcome, then you are not progressive.


[11:29] The idea of Oregon itself, and the northwest actually as a whole, it was founded as a racist white utopia. The entire northwest, which was called the Oregon Territory, it was not just Oregon--Oregon, Washington, Idaho, parts of Wyoming and Montana--were the Oregon Territory. And so basically the call went out to white folks, "Come here and build the sort of white utopia, the white society you have dreamed of, away from the problems of the day." Which meant the presence of people of color. We know, we're good at reading code words. White folks flocked and answered that call. Because of this, many laws and practices were put into place, one of which was that Oregon was the only state in the Union admitted with a racial exclusionary clause in its Constitution, it was a black exclusion clause. So in Oregon's constitution, it said that black folks were not allowed to live here, to hold property, or to make contracts. So black people were, the very  existence of being black in Oregon was criminalized.


[12:42] This was first passed before Oregon even became a state in 1844, where blackness was banned. It also included the lash law, that said that black folks would be publicly whipped up to 39 lashes every 6 months until they left Oregon. Then the other piece that's really important about this, is that this was in Oregon's constitution until 2001. So the language, even though the law was repealed earlier, the language was in the Constitution until 2001. Even though the black community came to Oregon through the legislature, through ballot boxes, again and again and again saying "Please remove this from your Constitution, please tell us this is not the kind of place you want to live." And over and over again Oregon reinforced, "Actually this is exactly the kind of place we want to live." And it was a fight to get it removed in the 21st century, it did not pass easily.


[13:35] So I think that this is incredibly important, and this is not information that is accessible in public spheres in Oregon, in Portland. It is not part of the mandated curriculum for public schools in Oregon. This is information, and I've traveled around for years presenting about this information, and I ask how many people have gone to public school in Oregon, how many people learned any of this? And I can count on two hands how many people say that they had learned anything about this in public school in Oregon. This is why this information and this idea of knowledge and who controls it is so important. Understanding this history is the only way that we can understand Oregon today, and Portland today.

That was just a little quick Portland 101, wtf. [Audience laughter.]


[14:37] I think that the piece that's really important, and that I think is a very important principle and value when we're talking about liberated archives is to make sure that we're always seeing oppressed people as active change-makers and not as passive victims. All of the advances in racial justice that have happened in this world have happened because of the courage, determination, and vision of people of color. Of the people who are most directly affected. People of color are active change-makers and leaders, they don't need saviors, they need allies. I think that that history is not something that is captured properly, and so you get things being put out--even documentaries--around some of this black history that says the changes that happened like the repeal of the the taking out of the language from the Oregon constitution was led by white legislators. They were like "Woo, we did it for you black people! You're welcome!" Right? [Audience laughter.] And it completely erases the fact that, again, black folks for decades had been organizing under the most adverse and dangerous conditions for racial justice, including removing this from the language--the language from the constitution. Liberated archives have to center not only the voices and the experience but the leadership and vision of those people who are directly affected. It's not enough to just say "Let's document the oppression that's happened." Let's be honest about it, let's view it through this empowerment lens so we can see the self-determination of oppressed people, and in this case of black folks who made Oregon a better place for everyone.


[16:22] I'm going to assume for my own mental health that everyone in this room feels that Oregon is a better place with that language out of the Constitution. [Audience clapping.] Sadly, I was like "These are assumptions you can make!" and this past year has shown me that there are no assumptions that can be made.


[16:47] Again, that is the leadership of black folks and people of color that have made that community better for all of us. Taking that leadership and making sure that we're highlighting that leadership at every level of creating liberatory archives or projects that are engaging around that.


[17:10] I wanna just make sure I'm staying focused cause I have a tendency to go of...and I wanted to be like "And another thing!" Don't "and another thing," Walidah, just stay focused.

I know that there's a workshop later with Cris Paschild, who works at the Special Collections at PSU. I have used those every class that I've taught. I love taking students to archives, it's that day and the day when I bring in speakers who are actually doing work in the community are the days students are like "Life is awesome, this class is amazing!" So I try to do them like in the middle, you know around that lag, where it's like "Oh, I can't make it," and then at the end, so you know...when they fill out evaluations. [Audience laughter.] Kidding, totally kidding.

[18:00] One of the collections that Portland State University has is the Charlotte Rutherford collection. Charlotte Rutherford was an amazing black leader. Her family has been organizing in the black community in Oregon and Portland for 100 years. She worked as a community member and a leader to preserve history. Some of the documents--she worked with founding the NAACP, her family did, doing a lot of the work that was happening around civil rights in Portland. A lot of the papers are like saran wrapped and pressed with an iron, that bootleg...she's like "I'm doing this!" And I'm sure some of the archivists are like "No, you're ruining the documents!" But I think that that idea is about the vision of Charlotte Rutherford and the vision of these black community leaders who said, at a time when the institutions that were archiving Oregon history wanted nothing to do with Oregon black history, didn't think it was important, didn't want those papers, didn't want those archives, didn't even return calls. They said this is important history, it's gonna be necessary for the future, we're going to make sure it's saved and preserved. I think that raising up that leadership, again, of folks who are marginalized, and especially people who sit at the intersections of identities and oppression. Charlotte Rutherford as a black woman was holding this space, and so the vision that we see is wider and broader because of that. It's incredibly important to make sure that those folks who are sitting at the intersections are at the table in the leadership thinking about what do we save, what do we not save.


[19:52] To talk a little just about the history of social movements, I think that there are just a couple projects that I've used that I wanted to highlight that are based in communities. So there's the idea again of subverting existing archives but there are organizations like the Freedom Archives in San Francisco which is an amazing resource that is archiving information about social movements, specifically around the 1960s-80s, really trying to archive the movement around black and brown liberation, around women's rights, around queer rights, around sovereignty, around anti-war. And they have a physical space as well as a digital space. And they're producing new documentaries based on that to try to put this information out. They actually just finished a the documentary around the Chicano Power movement. And this is really important because there is the significant lack of information around that, especially around the government repression. And so because they are a community based organization they heard from folks "this is what is needed, this is where there's a lack" as we're sharing this information, people are like "We've never heard this before, tell me more." And so they were able to respond to that and put it together in a way that is accessible to folks.


[21:15] And that's the other piece, about making sure it's accessible to people. It's not just about saying, "Come, come into archives!" Even if it's open and it's free and you can just walk in, "You don't even need ID! Just come in, just put the gloves on, but you know it's cool you don't need ID!" [Audience laughter.] That's not enough because these institutions for centuries have been telling oppressed peoples "You do not belong here." You can't change that just by sending out an e-mail and saying "Hey it's open!" and then sitting there and saying "Why aren't people of color coming?" It's important to say: how do we make that this information is accessible, how do we take this knowledge that people actually want-- not what we assume they want-- out into the community where folks can use it and engage with it.


[22:04] The Oregon Black Pioneers, actually to go back to Oregon a little bit, they have a great traveling mobile exhibit where there's hands on archival material, they take it to schools, to elementary schools as well. And I think that that piece is really important too, and in terms of accessibility, making sure that we are thinking about the widest audience possible. Of saying this is not just about taking this to an academic conference, this is about saying how do we make sure everyone can engage with this and wants to engage with this. Cause it's one thing like "Oh yeah, I understand. I don't really care, but I understand." Right? But it's another thing for folks to say "This is compelling, this is interesting, I want to know more."


[22:47] The Freedom Archives I think is a great model of folks who are doing that work outside of these historic societal institutions, and instead rooting deeply in the community.


[23:01] As I said, a lot of the work is around the prison industrial complex and challenging it. I think that there are amazing ways that folks are revisioning archives as living, breathing human beings as well, and I think that that's important as well. To recognize we are individually and collectively archives. To say, how do we capture that knowledge? How do we put it forward in an accessible way? And so just one example is the Storytelling and Organizing Project, STOP is the acronym. They are collecting people's stories about how they dealt with harm or violence in their communities, in their families, outside of the criminal legal system. They do not wanna call the police, they didn't wanna send folks to prison, but they wanted to address harm that was happening. They wanted to stop harm, or harm had come up, and they were like what do we do about this. And there's just recordings and written transcripts of folks talking about this. I think that's incredibly important because also those folks are being shown as experts, so they're not just relaying "This is what happened," they're relaying this is what happened, they're saying this is what we were thinking about it, and then they're analyzing it and saying here are the lessons we learned, here are the questions we still have about that, here are some things that we learned since then and we implemented and now we've gotten different outcomes. So again, not only are folks active change-makers, they're also experts and should be respected as such. I think that that project is a really amazing one. It also really centers queer and trans people of color. Again, when we look at the intersections of oppression and we see the ways that folks have been resisting and building outside of the system.


[23:53] There's an amazing project around alternatives to police by the Audre Lorde Project, which is queer and trans people of color, called Safe OUTside the System (SOS). I think that framework is so powerful, safe outside the system. That for oppressed and marginalized people at the intersections, they've known that there is no safety in this system. They know that calling the police actually often ends up with them being beaten or arrested or assaulted. And so folks have been for decades, or for centuries, creating systems outside of these oppressive structures to keep one another safe.

Looking at that is incredibly important because it's when we look at those intersections and the vision that folks have at those intersections that we see what true and total liberation can look like for all of us.


[25:44] That piece about that folks have been doing this for decades or 100 years or more, that's kind of where I want to bring us to and that's where the science fiction comes into play. I told you, wait for it, it's coming. But now I'll take a dramatic pause. [Audience laughter.]


[26:06] So, as I said, I've done a lot of work around science fiction and organizing, I co-edited an anthology called Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. It is...[Audience cheers]...oh, you guys...[Audience clapping, Walidah laughing.] It is science fiction and fantastical stories written by organizers and activists. And so many of the people had never written fiction, let alone science fiction, but we knew that they were great writers and we knew that they were holding these visionary spaces within the work that they were doing every single day. Because my co-editor, Adrienne Maree Brown, and I strongly believe that all organizing is science fiction. Right? Any time we imagine a world without war, a world without borders, without prisons, right...that is science fiction, that world does not exist. But we can't build what we can't imagine. So we need visionary spaces, fantastical spaces, that again allow us to throw out everything we're told is real and start with the question "What is the world that we want?" And then we can...then all we have to do is make it, you know? [Audience laughter.] Like that, no biggie.


[27:20] I think that a lot of times when we talk about science fiction, folks are thinking only about the future. And that's really rooted in this western colonial white supremacist ideology of history as this linear progression towards greatness, right? That the past is savagery and we're constantly getting better. Which is a justification for colonialism. "Y'all, before we came along, didn't know what you were doing you little brown people, so you're welcome. So we can feel good about exploiting you, and massacring you, and extracting your resources, and devastating everything you love. Because we're moving history forward." And I think it's really important that I...I won't go on a time travel rant, I swear to god I will not go on a time travel rant. [Audience laughter.] But I think it's really important to recognize that linear time is a method of social control. That we're told this is all we have, the past is gone, there's nothing it can do for you. The future is unknowable, you can't do anything about that. All you have is the present. So as happy as you can, get as much as you can, watch as many movies, numb yourself, just get through it, cause that's all you have. And instead, many societies, know, brown cultures have recognized that time is not linear, it's circular, it's spherical, it exists in multiple places at once, that we live in the past, the present, and the future altogether.


[28:53] And this is quantum physics now, now. We're all like "Welcome to the game quantum physicists, we been here! But thanks for now acknowledging and validating what we've known forever." But you know, I think that's important. I think that that has a very strong impact on this idea of liberated archives, because we need that past to move forward into the future. We need these visions of liberation that existed before, we need to be able to study them, we need to be able to explore them, we need to be able to say "What is the wisdom and knowledge that exists in the past that will help us build the future." These are a lot of principles of afrofuturism or black futurism, the ancient future. We're not saying that the past is savagery and the future is perfection where we live in chrome and glass floating sky cities. But instead saying our ancestors existed in the past, the present, and the future at once, so recognizing how they saw the world, how they envisioned the future, and lived the future, is something that can help us to create the future that we want.


[30:10] And so that I think that archives are so key to that, because it's not just about having the information, it's about having those tangible objects, those pieces that you can hold and touch and in many ways time travel through. I mean, I was teaching at Stanford this last year, and they have Black Panther leader Huey Newton's archives. And I was holding Huey Newton's diary. I'm like reading his diary where he's like drawing little stick figures next to his amazing political exploration of apartheid. And then he has some some pressed flowers on the next page. Pressed flowers, y'all! [Audience laughter.] It's just know, y'all know, the image of Huey Newton in the rattan chair with the gun and the spear--which is amazing--and then in his diary he has these beautiful little pressed flowers. I'm like this is why archives are important, because we're whole human beings. And if we only see these flat images, we can't build a future out of that. We can't build a future just out of a gun and a spear and a rattan chair, right? I'm not saying we don't need the gun and the spear and the rattan chair, but we need the pressed flowers too. And we need to be able to see ourselves as whole, and we need to be able to envision future where we can be whole. And so those archives and those histories are so important for that.


[31:36] And so I just wanted to share a little piece of one of the stories from Octavia's Brood, it's by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, who is an amazing black feminist, queer visionary, and academic and storyteller, and she's doing her own kind of black feminist storytelling archives project herself that you should definitely check out. This piece is called "Evidence," and it's really about time traveling through research, through archives, as academic practice. And so in this story, it's someone in the future researching this time, they got free in the future, so she's like "By the way, everything's awesome!" It all works, you guys, no spoilers, but it all works out. She's researching this time, but she's actually sending messages back to this time, and Alexis's question is through sort of archives, academic research, scholarship--can we actually reach back into the past and change it, and impact it? Not just learn from the past, but actually reach back in the past and impact it to insure the future that we want. Not in some kind of "Oh yes, in theory..." but in real ways. So I just wanted to read the introduction to it.


[33:00] "By reading past this point, you agree that you are accountable to the council. You affirm our collective agreement that in the time of accountability, the time past law and order, the story is the storehouse of justice. You remember that justice is no longer punishment. You affirm that the time of crime was an era of refused understanding and stunted evolution. We believe now in the experience of brilliance on the scale of the intergalactic tribe.


Today the evidence we need is legacy. May the public record show and celebrate that Alandrix consciously exists in an ancestral context. May this living textual copy of her digital compilation and all its future amendments be a resource for Alandrix, her mentors, her loved ones and partners, her descendents, and detractors to use in the ongoing process of supporting her just intentions.


We are grateful that you are read this. Thank you for remembering.

With love and what our ancestors called 'faith,' the intergenerational council of possible elders."


[34:03] I was like...I want that future so bad y'all. [Audience laughter.] But I think again, that vision of saying what are the principles and values? We don't have to figure out what it exactly looks like but instead saying how do we want to be, I think is a great and important question. How do we wanna be individually and collectively? And I think that if we solidify those principles, then we will always be moving in the right direction. And so I think that we, all of us, are a collective archive, and we have countless and endless quantum possibilities for liberation, but it does take that idea of incorporating those values and principles of self-determination, of autonomy, of empowerment, of decolonization, and of liberated vision. And I think that the past is one our countless starting points, so I'm thankful for y'all for holding that space, that ancient future. And I again just really hope that you continue these conversations, obviously today, but as you go forward. And to really talk about what is the world that we want to live in, and then how do we do the hard...because it is hard work, but it's also beautiful, glorious, and empowering work...of making that our everyday lived realities.


Thank y'all so much, I hope you have an amazing day. [Audience clapping.]



Further reading inspired by this talk:  (On Oregon’s racist history) (On how and why archives can be exlusionary) (On black exclusion laws in Oregon)