The Politics of the Archive

Grayson Toole

In creating an exhibit on slavery and abolition, we were mindful of our responsibilities as disseminators of information and as interpreters of these works. Since structures of power have shaped the visibility and availability of historical voices, we have worked to combat the inequality of expression throughout our process. Although the historical voices preserved are often of those in power due to popular dissemination, education, monetary means, etc., we endeavored to create an exhibit  inclusive of many narratives and perspectives while remaining reflective of the time. We were conscious of the language of privilege and prejudices often reflected in the voices preserved (Smallwood 125). By providing labels on the voices and actions of people of color, and the white savior complex, we challenged the assumptions of white benevolence and lack of racism within the abolitionist movement.

Another aspect of being respectful and responsible is to use language to uphold the individuality and inherent human dignity of people. We chose to use terms like “enslaved person,” “captive,” or “enslaver” to separate the individual from their state of oppression  (Archives 9). We stressed the enslaved person’s name, if available, over their social categorizations, restrictions, or enslaver (Archives 4 & 9). For instance, by introducing Phillis Wheatley by her own name and her skill as a writer before her enslaver or being African American, we honor her as a person. Overall, we wanted to emphasize the humanity of individuals before their identities, and not to glorify oppressors or the role of white people in abolition.  

These same privileges and power-dynamics are in place today. By remembering the pain of the past present within slavery and racism, we never forget how dehumanization, oppression, and xenophobia are irrevocably damaging and lead to atrocities. By establishing the part people of color had in their own emancipation, we recognize through abolition that all the progress gained over the decades for people of color is not due to white benevolence. By acknowledging the struggle within our documents, we recognize the transgenerational trauma and inter-generational opportunity disadvantages still present today.