Slavery, memory, property

Like many people interested in African-American studies and the history of the slave trade, I was thrilled to get the announcement from Readex that a huge bundle of materials from 1820-1922 had been digitized and would be made available shortly. It’s worth reading their words here, because this is an amazing set of materials, really. But it’s also worth thinking more deeply about this moment in terms of property, memory, and the meaning of an archive. First, though, the collection.

From the announcement:

This fully searchable digital edition will offer access to approximately 3,500 works on nearly every aspect of slavery and abolition. Printed over the course of more than 100 years, these diverse materials include books, pamphlets, graphic materials, and ephemera, all filmed in full-resolution color.

This is amazing. It brings so much of how we research and write to our desktops. So much is suddenly available at the researcher’s convenience and open to any and all sorts of browsing. Research is a curious process, isn’t it? It’s partly targeted searching and analysis, but also partly – and in certain phases, largely – about curiosity, browsing, and stumbling upon something purely by accident that lights up the intellect. Me? I can’t wait to click through this archive, even though it will be a painful browse. The history of slavery is a foundational part of what it means to be an American, so the haunting character of what is in the archive of images cannot be – and certainly should not be – held at a distance. It is just painful to remember in images and it should be that way, always. This is something I emphasize to my Intro to Black Studies students: let’s never get too comfortable with talking about the past. It needs to disturb and disorient us. Even when rendered as electronic bits, this is intimate work in the memory and history that has made (and in many ways still makes) us who we are.

slave service document

And that’s just it. Though collected and electronically published by them, this collection isn’t actually a Readex collection. It’s part of the African-American archive – and, indeed, a defining part of the American archive in general. (How we configure that archive-identity is complex and deeply moral and political – a different post). By “archive,” here, I mean a collection of memories and representations that make a people a people. A scholar’s archive tells the story of his or her development across time, presenting an identity in motion, full of contradictions, disruptions, continuities, symmetries, and everything in between. The same goes for a collective group. An archive documents the complex unfolding of identity, showing the complexity and diversity inherent in identity-formation and the emergence of collective, shared experiences. That is, an archive isn’t a faceless collection, but rather a collection of faces in every sense of the face: something that has a look, manifests character, makes relationships, looks back at us, and so helps constitute the intersubjective life of communities across history.

An archive of slavery is particularly important here, for slavery and abolition are never merely a scholarly concern or something located in a long distant past. Not at all. Slavery and abolition – the latter being, in some ways, a variation or aspect of the former – are the defining and founding wounds of our country. As a founding wound, the meaning persists and transforms itself across time, never quite going away, confirming that famous bit from Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun, that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The founding wound, the archive of slavery and its aftermath, is the story of how African-Americans came to be, a history and memory of suffering, struggle, liberation, more struggle, and so on. It is also the story of how white Americans came to understand themselves as free, not by embodying the ideal, but instead by standing as the opposite of the slave, knowing, as James Baldwin put it in “Princes and Powers,” where the bottom (blackness) is, where one could get a footing by standing on another, and therefore how race and ideology fused to make a very particular, very frightening conception of freedom. This is exactly what prompted Nathan Huggins in Black Odyssey to define U.S. history as a history of tyranny, not a history of slowly unfolding freedom.

All of this is to say, there is so much in this Readex collection that concerns nearly every aspect of American memory, history, and cultural life.

But it is behind a paywall. A very expensive paywall. I have no doubt that Readex has only the best intentions and hopes. Still, we have to take the ethics and politics of the paywall seriously.

Few of us can access the collection.

What are we to make of this fact? I will say, I’m a serious advocate of open access. I co-edit an open access journal and have written a bit on the imperative to make scholarly contributions accessible to all classes of people, from regular folks to activists to contingent faculty to ivory tower shiny people. But my complaint isn’t simply that (although it is at least a little bit) and cannot be reduced to an ideological appeal to openness as a scholarly virtue. It’s more than that because the stakes are bigger. Metaphysical stakes, really, because it gets at the ultimate reality of who and what we have been as a nation, the formative historical reality of a people and peoples. Memory is just that big and important.


My complaint, or perhaps better put as a deep concern, is that the memory of slavery is rendered a commodity in and made property by the Readex project. I can’t think of it otherwise. It is bought and sold in this instance, though it is of course not the only case that should trouble us. One of way too many examples, for example…it brings to mind a colleague who, a handful of years back, was publishing a book that used a number of old African-American songs. Prison work songs, African-American folk music, early jazz classics. Wary as all publishers are, she had to secure rights to quote every one of the songs. And by “secure rights,” I mean pay someone (never a family member, always a lawyer who purchased rights along the way) who owned often only small percentages of a given song. These weren’t just any songs. They were songs that, in ways literature, philosophy, and history can’t, document the pain of the past, how that pain was processed into community-making cultural forms, and how suffering, for all of its terror and abjection, was, in key, transcendent moments, transfigured into something beautiful, livable, and capable of sustaining a people. There is a word for this: heritage. And to heritage, there is another word that follows: birthright. Something that is earned, not because you’ve worked for it or proven yourself worthy, but because someone in your (and your broader community’s) past has survived and put all the aspects of survival (sadness, pleasure, pride, resistance, rage, love, generosity) into word and sound. When you combine heritage and birthright, tradition is intimate work of memory preservation, reactivation, celebration, appreciation, and, whether through music or scholarship or other creative work, important transformation.

The archive is tradition, which means the memory-work of the archive is inextricably linked to heritage and birthright. The politics of the archive and access to it are therefore urgent, intimate, and, if you ask me, deeply troubled when cast as a matter of private property.

When you think of the archive in this existential register – and how else can we think about the archive of slavery? – it is hard to process the meaning of the archive as commodity. It seems like a cruel joke. But it’s not, because that’s just so American. Everything is a commodity here, perhaps because the origins of the place lie in the commodification of what should be the uncommodifiable: the human person. This is not quite a full-circle moment; I don’t want to be unnecessarily hyperbolic. “Rendering property” is never transferrable and analogies or parallels about enslavement and archive-as-property are loose, but they also aren’t far-fetched when we consider the intimacy between archive, memory, and tradition. At the same time, this moment did remind me of a very different path taken: the open availability of folk music recordings at the Library of Congress. Those recordings are not everything about history, I know, but music is also not nothing. Folk music (here in the broadest sense as music made by community artists – by folks for folks) is human drama and complexity. It is memory, the depth dimension(s) of history. That’s not a commodity. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

Readex is making something really amazing available. And they are making it a commodity. To ask it plainly: what does it mean to make the archive of African-American history and memory into a commodity, and to put it behind a paywall? That has to be a real question. It has no simple answer, but most tentative and partial answers, I suspect, go to really troubling places.

ghost 1

The digitization of slavery’s memory raises even more questions, which places familiar theorizing of haunting, ghostliness, and traumatic memory into contact with the theory and practice of the digital humanities. If we think about trauma and the past as producing hauntings, ghosts, and other figures and experiences of being summoned to memory-witness terrible things, then we have to ask how the digitization and commodification of the archive of American slavery is to be haunted, if and how (or even why) the ghosts will present themselves to us in digital property. My first thought on this is simply that there might be a doubling of haunting here, as the ghostly character of slavery’s past and memory is borne by the images themselves and by the ghostly and even ghastly question of making property out of the memory of having been made into property. I can’t say that I have a full idea of this just yet, but I do know that there is something troubled about the repetition of property-making – which just might be another kind of theft – in the making of an archive that already was the memory, heritage, and birthright of a community.

Do digitized images carry ghosts? Is haunting doubled and complicated by the conversion of memory into property?

The images might be digitized, the memories might be transferred through bits of electricity when downloaded from Readex, but, you know what, the ghosts have their ways.