Somehow I Found You: On Black Archival Practices
by Maandeeq Mohamed
There are benefits to being without nostalgia.
— Claudia Rankine1
While researching black collections at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, I came across a curious object. Among the vertical files was a box containing a speech by Rinaldo Walcott, crumpled into a paper ball. Walcott, I was told, had crumpled the speech he had once prepared for a talk. After the archives approached him with interest in adding the speech to their collections, Walcott agreed on the condition that the speech remain in its original, crumpled condition. A single crumpled piece of paper preserved in a box is a refusal of legibility. When you take into account that black life has been so violently understood by centuries of essentialism, I would like to take our archival silences, gaps and ethnographic refusals (a crumpled speech of sorts) as a possible point of departure for thinking through blackness in the archive.
But there is also a melancholy in not knowing your own history. And the archive, or the possibility of recovering some knowable historical subject, seems seductive when so much of black diasporic history is predicated on a collective “not knowing.” I am thinking of the career of a romanticized Africa in the imagination of the diaspora (negritude, panafricanism, and its various relatives), or the popularity of various online services that “trace” your DNA to a specific part of Africa, and other similar historical recovery projects that gesture towards some coherent origin story. Origin stories are comforting, but not all stories fit so neatly into the limits of what an archive can do (which is, preserve, catalogue and ultimately offer information about our pasts – usually state sanctioned). I want to look at black lives as the excess of the archive, the messiness of histories that cannot be so easily recorded and understood, simply because there is far too much at stake to ever assign anything like humanity to black life.
If the melancholy of not knowing is the “stuff” of black diasporic histories, are we to think through this historical loss solely in terms of negative affect? While the loss is a profoundly painful one with which to reckon, in addition to the violence of being absented and/or always-already spoken for, might we have other associations with loss? Could we look at the lack of any one cogent origin story as providing other modes through which we story black diasporic life? The writer Édouard Glissant, for example, looked at the site of the slave ship as also being “a womb abyss. It generates the clamor of your protests; it also produces all the coming unanimity.”2 In other words, if loss gave us our collective trauma, it also gave us the conditions for the birth of black diasporic life in the West – something radically unknowable, that excess of the archive that included infinite exchanges between enslaved people from West Africa, indentured workers from Asia and those who have always been indigenous to the land (Carib, Taino and many others), brought on by slave economies and settler colonialism – those “intimacies of four continents.”3
We know that the archive will never be sufficient – if we are accounted for, it is via the violence of fact: scientific racism, and catalogues listing enslaved people as property. Mostly, we are an “absented presence4 – Katherine McKittrick’s framework for thinking through the ways in which blackness had to be disappeared to construct the fiction that is so-called Canada. Perhaps not knowing can be useful, insofar as it allows for a recognition of the fact that what is/isn’t archived is but one of many fictions (a dominant one to be sure, but still fiction nonetheless) that constitute blackness in public life.
The fiction of whiteness, then, is a masochistic one, transforming humans into enslaved property, assigning black life to social death. That essentialism has been so violent. Returning to Glissant, “we demand a right to opacity,”2 and I am tired of being interpreted and assigned a final signified. Much more interesting, are the ways in which black people have reckoned with the collective melancholy of not knowing, the centuries of stories we have told ourselves about ourselves. Other (hi)stories like Saidiya Hartman’s Venus in Two Acts, wherein she thinks through the what-could-have-been of black girls rendered as objects in slave ledgers; Charmaine Nelson’s reading between the lines of runaway slave ads, reading for some of the earliest examples of black portraiture in the West; M. NourbeSe Philip’s total break with language when she makes poetry out of the legal text for the 1781 Zong massacre case; and OmiSoore Dryden’s exploration of what queer bonds might have looked like for black folks in captivity.
In early December, we met as a group at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (CLGA) to think through black archival practices. The site was a loaded one to be sure: the CLGA shoulders the difficult task of recording salient LGBTQ+ histories while at the same time catering to the state’s demands for a specific queer history centring the recent extension of citizenship rights to queer subjects, now invited to be a part of the settler colonial project. Where do black queer and trans histories fit into this narrative, especially when “LGBTQ+” as a political identity only represents a very recent category emerging from Western queer liberation contexts – a context that may or may not apply to any number of non-straight identities, as not all black diasporic communities look at sexuality as a publicly articulated, individualist identity. Needless to say, the archival objects our group took up were limited to ephemera from those who were publicly “out” and legible as queer subjects within the framework of emergent LGBTQ+ identities. Understandably, this misses a lot of black formations.
In “In the Wake,” Christina Sharpe asks, “what, if anything, survives this insistent Black exclusion, this ontological negation, and how do literature, performance, and visual culture observe and mediate this un/survival?”5 Thinking through the contradictions of the archive, at the CLGA we were especially interested in those “unscientific methods” (Dionne Brand) that allowed us to use artistic production to, at the very least, attempt to gesture towards a different (hi)story about all that has been lost (and birthed) for black diasporas. The archival objects with which we engaged included flyers from MPENZI: Black Women’s International Film and Video Festival’s programming throughout the 2000s on black women in film, documents related to Dionne Brand, Grace Channer, Makeda Silvera, Sister Vision Press and Faith Nolan, as well as zines, publications and posters from various black queer and trans collectives through the decades. During our time at the CLGA, Michele Pearson Clarke touched on her “Parade of Champions” series, and how she wanted to document black grief beyond the usual tropes of suffering and social death that make up a huge chunk of our archives. We were also joined by Ahlam Mohammed, who performed in Deanna Bowen’s work
On Trial: The Long Doorway at Mercer Union, as a black lawyer representing a white student charged with assaulting a black peer – a performance that reworked a long-shelved 1956 CBC play. Also present were Nadijah Robinson, who uses photography and collage to place black subjects in different, often fantastical historical lineages, as well as Kim Ninkuru, whose performance via online spaces is its own archive. We recognized that countless other activations could not possibly have made it into the archive – those practices that attend to blackness as archival excess.
One of the objects of particular interest to the group was a zine by Zami – a loose collective of black gay and lesbian communities in Tkaronto, formed in 1984 and once profiled on the front cover of Xtra as “combining potluck suppers with peer counselling.”6 Leafing through the collection of zines produced by Zami throughout the 80s, I could touch and feel a history that felt something like coming home. Desire, nostalgia and related effects as produced by the archive become more noticeable when you occupy the curious position of both researcher and subject of the history you wish to examine. It’s a tenuous relationship – the excitement of recognizing yourself in decades-old artifacts from black queer and trans communities, while at the same time witnessing your own black communities documented via an all-too familiar state-sanctioned narrative arc (namely, activism around gaining rights and visibility under the state, as a legible LGBTQ+ subject).
Still, Zami offered its own instances of useful queer interruptions into the archive. The zine featured a “scene report” – a sort of community bulletin on news and events, often found in DIY zines of the period. Zami’s version of a “scene report” read like a poetic and fervent love letter to the roti shops of 1980s Tkaronto – something that would not seem all that relevant to any sort of official state narrative on black queer and trans histories:
“COUPLE DOORS DOWN IS TIGERS, THE PLACE FOR CHILLING OUT WITH TROPICAL SHAKES…MY FAVE…SOURSOP…COMMONLY HEARD HERE… “…A NO EVERYBODY MI GIVE SUCH GOOD SERVICE YOU KNO’.” THE BEST RICE AND PEAS AND STEW PEAS (MADE WITH PIGS-TAIL) IS AT THE REAL JERK. THEM OVER EXPOSED. BUT WHEN YOU GET TRAPPED IN THE AMBIANCE OF JUST “SO” LOUD DANCE HALL, REGGAE, ZINCED WALLS AND RUSTIC FURNITURE, YOU CAN UNDERSTAND WHY. THEM FAR ALL THE WAY TO HELL OUT AT GREENWOOD AND QUEEN. BUT WELL WORTH THE TRIP. RAPS, MR. JERK, SPENCES (MI HAVE FE HAUL MISELF OUTA BED EARLY ONE MORNING FE HAVE THEM “LIGHT” (AS IN LIVER) BREAKFAST. DO YOU KNOW OR REMEMBER THAT SPONGY MEAT THAT YOU CHEW AND CHEW THE JUICE OUT OF AND SWALLOW ONLY IF YOU LIKE TO BRING IT BACK UP). AND YOU CAN’T GO UP TO EGLINTON WEST- NOT THE CLEAN, STERILE, TREE LINED PARKETTES EAST OF THE SUBWAY- WITHOUT STOPPING IN FRONT OF MONICA’S “WANABEE” FILLED WINDOW…FOR A TREAT.”7
What can a rave review of the Caribbean restaurants and roti shops of ’80s Tkaronto tell us about non-straight and non-cis histories of black communities in Tkaronto? Not much, perhaps, but it can also gesture towards our desires, community haunts, even what kept our bellies satiated – the quotidian and everyday that an official archive would not have much use for.
Zami’s text on the Caribbean restaurants of ’80s Tkaronto also speaks to the ephemeral history of place-making for black queer and trans subjects. We can learn a lot from the ways black queer and trans folks experience desire publicly in sites as innocuous as roti shops, as well as other, sweatier forms of desire found in the various rented basements that housed monthly black queer parties until the rent got too high. How are we to document histories that lack the “rootedness” of buildings like the ROM or CLGA, or the “rootedness” of so many streets in Tkaronto named after slave owners (Jarvis and Peter streets, for instance)? Black queer and trans communities have much more precarious, always-already fleeting claims to public space. Keeping the ephemeral nature of queer space in mind, the Marvellous Grounds collective recently released their QTPOC interactive story map, which allows users to map their personal recollections and associations with specific public sites.8 The end result is a way of talking about history rooted in affect, as the stories on the map are organized more by specific feelings (such as “QTPOC joy” or “QTPOC grief”) than they are by geographic site. Most of the user-generated recollections of decades-old QTPOC parties, correspond to now-defunct spaces and newly built condos. So, in addition to mapping our public articulations of desire and joy, the map could also serve as a history of gentrification (displacement marks so much of our black histories and geographies). I wonder which of the now-defunct queer spaces mapped out by Marvellous Grounds correspond to the pages of Polaroids in the Zami zine that capture stylish scenes from black queer and trans parties of the 80s. What became of the people and spaces in those pictures? This is the sort of archival excess to which I keep returning: less tangible, not so easy to record.
As a conclusion, I’d like to touch on one more archival object – a flyer for a panel discussion titled “Lesbians, Gays and Race” and jointly hosted by Zami and Gay Asians of Toronto in 1985 (the event featured a screening of Orientations – Richard Fung’s film on queer Asian communities):
The discussion held by Zami and Gay Asians of Toronto in 1985 is not unlike ongoing conversations we are having today on the politics of desire and race. How are we to understand the archive and its contents as “past” when black folks are still living out the afterlife of slavery and settler colonialism? Roughly three decades after the panel, Richard Fung premiered Re:Orientations (the follow-up film to 1984’s Orientations) mere weeks before Black Lives Matter Toronto brought the 2016 Pride parade to a halt to protest police violence. Perhaps, black folks’ relationship to history could be described as what Christina Sharpe calls being “in the wake,” which is to say that as black people, “our individual lives are always swept up in the wake produced and determined, though not absolutely, by the afterlives of slavery.”5 Would it not be dangerous then, to memorialize the present as “past?”