Select Page

In the course Curating Hidden Collections and the Black Archive our class was tasked with conducting research about “The Baltimore Collection” in order to supply information for its digital archive. This Collection consists of fifty-three photographs that predominantly feature black sitters. Interacting with these objects required us to grapple with the definition of an archive, specifically the Black Archive, and the ways in which institutionalized recordkeeping has intersected with racism and recovery efforts. In her article “Archives and Histories of Racial Capitalism,” the historian Jennifer Morgan lays out the issues facing scholars who undertake this work. She explains that archival research on underrepresented populations does not generate meaning in the same way that it does for those groups that are well represented in this type of knowledge.[1] Rather, this work “is almost always understood to be a political imperative—a recognition that our scholarship is about more than simply the commitment to writing history but it is also fueled by a sense that through correcting archival erasures we are poised to make a much more important intervention, one in which endemic wrongs are righted.”[2] Therefore, the archive is a space of both the national narrative and the counternarrative.

However, the possibility of this counternarrative must be tempered by the realization that “to depend upon archival corroboration to rewrite the history of black life can route you back to the very negations at which you started.”[3] In other words, the use of the archive in the telling of African American history can work to reinforce the authority of that institution that covered over these stories in the first place. Additionally, reliance on these types of records assumes that the archive is equipped to represent the fullness of black life, an idea that is in conflict with the history of institutionalized racism.

Morgan pushes her analysis of the archive to argue that the ultimate goal is to extend the conception of the archive itself, rather than to employ its power in the aim of recovery.[4] She demonstrates how to do this type of work by unpacking the legislative document from 1662 entitled Act XII. This law, also known as partus, ruled that “all children borne in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.”[5] Morgan uses this document to consider the material reality of black women at this time. She writes, “For the women whose bodies became the definitional sites of racial slavery, these legislative acts were not at all abstract. They reverberated on the material and affective conditions of enslavement and indeed caused African women to read the social landscape, becoming slaves who theorized slavery.”[6] Setting aside the limited records of the material life of seventeenth-century enslaved people, Morgan reinscribes an existing, national document with an understanding of history that places black women at the center. No longer abstract, the document now points to the lived experiences of marginalized people.

Cheryl Finley took up a similar response to the archive, in this case specifically relating to photography, in her essay, “No More Auction Block For Me!” In her time working for Swann Galleries as a photograph appraiser, Finley came across a nineteenth-century photographic album of unidentified black sitters. Due to deficient details about those depicted, the album was given a cursory description that included the criterion “blacks.”[7] This conscripted racial category, alongside the placement of the album in a public auction sale, prompted Finley to reflect on “a nineteenth-century handbill that I had seen announcing a raffle in which an enslaved man and woman were to be sold.”[8] She began to speculate whether this event would be the first time the sitters would be offered for sale at an auction. Like Jennifer Morgan’s response to Act XII, Finley complicated the archive, an identifying entry within an auction house database in this instance, by asking what the description meant for the material reality of those depicted in the photographic album. The author eventually purchased the album herself because she felt “the same urgency of those freed slaves who rescued their own kin from the auction block.”[9] Now the next time she writes about her album it will likely be a work of historical fiction in order to create stories for the sitters whose narratives have yet to be uncovered.

The fundamental question asked by Finley, and to a certain extent Morgan, is: “What does it mean when the names of the people pictured in the photographs or their histories are not recorded?”[10] This question had to be taken up by our class due to the fact that the majority of the people in “The Baltimore Collection” are unidentified. While a certain amount of pessimism can be taken by this characteristic, Morgan and Finley have shown that lack of information can lead to opportunity. One purpose of the archive is to categorize, to make information discoverable and knowable. Archives do not make themselves, but rather are the result of the work of catalogers and therefore are never objective. This impetus has led to institutionalized ways of approaching racial difference because the process of categorization belies nuance and, historically speaking, empathy. Photography is also implicated in this process. As Coco Fusco points out, “Photography has not only been deployed in the pursuit of scientific truths about race; it has played an absolutely fundamental role in the construction of racialized viewing.”[11] In cataloging a collection of photographs, one must grapple with both the authority of the archive and that of the photograph, both of which are implicated in the history of racism.

In “The Baltimore Collection,” the lack of knowledge about most of the sitters has distanced the entries supplied by our class from this authoritative stance. The records are filled with questions and parenthetical comments; we have provided, in the form of this website, thick explanation of our processes. These additions to the traditional archive make the point that while this work has been done, it is only a starting place and can never be complete. The dearth of information about “The Baltimore Collection,” and our acknowledgement of that gap, has worked to destabilize the process of cataloging in that oftentimes the accounts ask more questions than they provide answers. Subjectivity can be returned to the sitters because while most of their stories are not yet uncovered, we have respected that intimacy and have declared that even though they are unidentified, their lives and their likenesses matter. And the act of caring about an individual that can perhaps never be adequately identified is a political gesture. In a time where white lives are valued more highly than those of people of color, we must at every opportunity assert the message of equality.


[1] Jennifer Morgan, “Archives and Histories of Racial Capitalism: An Afterword,” Social Text 33, no. 125 (2015): 154.
[2] Ibid., 154
[3] Ibid.,156.
[4] Ibid.,157.
[5] Reprinted in Morgan, “Archives and Histories,” 158.
[6] Ibid.,159.
[7] Cheryl Finley, “No More Auction Block for Me!,” in Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity, ed. Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012), 334.
[8] Finley, “No More,” 334.
[9] Ibid., 346.
[10] Ibid., 331.
[11] Coco Fusco, “Racial Time, Racial Marks, Racial Metaphors,” introduction to Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, ed. Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003), 19.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email