January 23, 2014 John Drabinski

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.

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Comments (7)

  1. Justin

    So you’re giving away copies of Levinas and the Postcolonial?

    (comment restored. -jd)

  2. Justin

    I’m disappointed to see that you turned down my post and that apparently you aren’t interested in allowing any opposing viewpoints on your blog. My point in asking you if you are giving your book away is, of course, that there are reasons some things can’t be made available for free.

    • John Drabinski

      Your original post was so oblique, and you did not have a familiar email. So, I let it pass.

      Please do feel free to elaborate. I have a good bit to say about access and scholarship. Some links are in the post.

      Bear in mind, though, that my post was about more than open access. I tried to push deeper here and ask ethical and political questions about memory, profit, and property.

  3. This is a very important issue that you pose. In 2003 there was a private conference called by Pete Seeger (he asked me to help organize it) on Folk Music and the Public Domain. The posing question was whether copyright laws (the instrument of commodification) rendered folk music dead–so that the “folk process” of cultures building on their past, redoing songs of struggle to fit the times and evoke the continuity of peoples’ history, was now illegal. With his recent death, this is a good time to revisit this question broadly. Your blog speaks to this issue for specifics.
    I remember when Henry Hampton’s “Eyes on the Prize” series could no longer be used by teachers because all the material–which SHOULD have been in the public domain, the history of the civil rights movement–was “owned” by somebody making profit. That history too has been commodified. BUT, without public funding to pay the costs of making all this material available to the public, we are left to profiteers to do it. How do we address that conundrum?

  4. John Drabinski

    That is exactly the despairing part of the question, for me. The lack of public funding is in many ways testimony to the lack of respect for a history of struggle, turning, perhaps, on that very American myth that everything is new, always.

    The easy answer is that there should be public funding. Without that, we’re stuck with profiteers. As a critic, I wrestle with statement, understatement, and overstatement…it is making property out of the memory of being property. On the one hand, it needs to be said. On the other hand, I don’t want to overstate the property to property transfer across history; it is different in really important ways. On the other other hand, it does seem to be history repeating itself as a common form or element, even as the referent shifts from bodies to the memory of bodies.

    How to correct this? How to make public investment in history and memory happen, and, when happening, ethical and politically tuned in? Alas. I’m at a loss when it comes to answering those questions. Perhaps hackers and e-pirates are our best hope.

  5. Great post, thank you for sharing – you bring up many important facets of this project to consider. The “memory of slavery,” like any topic about which we have written record and archive, benefits from having trained experts to create and manage that archive. Those experts need to be paid for their work. I agree with you that maybe the payment should come from a different source, but it does need to come from somewhere. I suppose this also begs the question of how do we determine if people are “making a profit” off of archives such as this, or if they’re just getting paid a fair amount to make them accessible. I like your comment / question concerning how to make public investment in history & memory happen and happen ethically and politically tuned in – hopefully these conversations are a beginning.

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