A Stranger in the Archives

Eric Gardner, Saginaw State Valley University

I long ago became that person who maxes out photocopying at physical archives. I want a piece of paper on anything even remotely of interest that I can annotate or sometimes just stare at. A portion of our living room floor is usually covered: printouts of newspaper clippings, letters, census forms, city directories, maps, all sorts of documents—many covered in post-its and all in nice, neat piles until I disrupt them as I try to make sense of what I’ve found and then make new piles.

I long ago realized what I was doing: taking the pieces I’d found, organizing them, and then reorganizing them—as often to highlight gaps and next steps as to articulate facts or arguments. Especially in learning about nineteenth-century African American women, I was never satisfied with any archive, and so I was trying to piece together my own, one more welcoming, maybe less estranged.

I’ve been gathering traces tied to my current book project, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Civil War and Reconstruction, for more than a decade, and I started making piles of paper in earnest perhaps six years ago—moving things around and asking what I had found, what I hadn’t. I spent months hammering out a twenty-page single-spaced itinerary of every lecture and speech I could find reported. And then I visited more archives, wrote to more folks, redoubled my online searching, printed out more stuff, made more piles.

I guess I was as well prepared as I could be to hole up in the midst of a pandemic, dive into my piles of paper, have epiphanies, and draft a wonderful book. But, of course, none of it happened that way. I’ve worked hard and hope the book will indeed be wonderful when finished, but, regardless, I know it will be deeply shaped by my growing concern about my piles, my archive on the floor.

It started as a purely visual thing. I have a standing desk, and I look out over the living room. This makes it easier to clumsily dance among the papers and go type when I think I have something to say. That standing desk was, like so many, a pandemic classroom. Especially in 2020, my students—some of whom I’d met and some, complete strangers to me—were, like so many others, boxes on my screen. My daughters, then finishing high school, were—as I was—also boxes on screens.

And damned if all of those little boxes didn’t start to look a lot like my carefully-fashioned piles of paper—and vice versa.

Now, I’d like to offer a neat narrative where this analogy works perfectly and moves richly to a resolution that fixes all of the problems that have made me make my own archives. A resolution that magically transcends the separation so central to the pandemic, one that makes the world safe for both scholars and archivists and ensures connection between all of us and the voices from the past both recorded and not.

Nope. How far apart we are has just made me think more about how far apart we really are.

I spent a lot of 2020 studying how I could make my online classes more inclusive and supportive—kicked off in part by worrying about my daughters’ intrusive, restrictive high school Zooms. (Their district not only demanded that cameras had to be on, but dictated where they could and could not Zoom from—e.g., no beds.) I thought and read a lot about how those cameras messed with the carefully-curated selves lots of folks put together before they enter physical classrooms: the student who wears hijab in front of her parents but not at college, the queer student who presents differently in our classroom than at home, the student who carefully masks socio-economic status in front of their peers. And I thought a lot about the student who is already hesitant to talk about diverse issues in a classroom space (albeit one I try to make as safe as possible) now having to speak out loud in a dorm room, a commons room, a living room.

It isn’t just that those boxes changed the public and private—a messy binary, I know. It’s that they promise easy connection and instead often encourage assumptions, stereotypes, soundbites, easy conclusions. I started telling my students that, as much as I love to see their faces, they could choose to keep their cameras off as long as we could hear their voices—or, if they could not speak, as long as they could type in the chat. Perfect resolution, not.

And I kept asking if my piles of documents on Frances Harper were the result of me looking through narrow windows, making all sorts of assumptions about what I saw in order to create some neat little narrative: archives as collections of thin little manipulated boxes.

Here’s the rub. I can’t stop doing at least some of that. I mean . . . on some level, that’s what scholars do: we gather, we sift, we organize, we analyze, we share. We’re built on knowing. Biographers seem especially intent on sleuthing and discovering motivations, on “knowing” their subjects. But Harper curated her public self to make things happen—and, yes, I’m thinking very much here about Lois Brown’s comments on Black women strategically presenting private details to spark public action, “death-defying testimony.” [1] But structural racism and misogyny in and beyond our archives sometimes wreaked havoc on what we have left of Harper’s public self, and what I see in these piles is not nearly enough and maybe not right.

For a long time, I’ve considered my home-archiving to be at least a little liberatory—working with a wondrous community of scholars to fix some of the mess of a multiply-biased system of remembering and forgetting, to try to ensure that figures like Harper have some of those neat little archival boxes. I’m still so committed to a reparative literary history, one that is more just—maybe “chaotically just,” to use John Ernest’s phrase—in its methods, assessments, and goals. [2] And when it comes to a figure like Harper, who we so desperately need in our classrooms and our conversations and who has been pulled from our purview by a host of institutional evils, I still feel a flat-out calling to learn and share as much as I can. But I’m still making boxes.

So I’ve been thinking about how to write a biography that admits to not knowing a lot and focuses on actions rather than intentions and motivations. Building from and riffing off of Lloyd Pratt’s sense of “stranger humanism,” I’m wondering about a kind of “stranger biography” that foregrounds difference and not-knowing and resists refashioning difference into the recognizable or the similar, or not-knowing into the fixable. [3] I’m trying to come to those piles of paper with more openness, a better sense of my own positionality, more humility. Better boxes, at least, but maybe, hopefully, more than that, an archive that admits that we are all strangers and still, perhaps, can be community.

In Pratt’s words, I need to remember that “we can stand in solidarity with those who are unlike us (which is to say each and every human being) and understand that they are ‘for themselves’ rather than ‘for us.’” [4] Maybe folks in the archives—physical or not—can practice something akin to what Derrick Spires describes as “neighborliness.” [5] I’m not always sure what this should look like, and it seems even harder to do in this horrific time with the piles of paper on my floor or boxes on my computer screen from my place of comparative privilege (as a white male tenured professor, fully-vaccinated and carefully-masked).

I’m not ready to believe the promise that staying distant now will allow us all to be close again, much as I might want to. I know I need to listen a lot more, to question a lot more, to always remember that Harper and all of us were and are so much more than these collections of little boxes. In the midst of a pandemic that has kept so many of us from libraries and other sites of remembrance, and seen us so desperately struggle to create connections in all sorts of physical and virtual spaces, I’m recognizing how deeply I need to learn to be a stranger in the archives.

[1] Lois Brown, “Death-Defying Testimony: Women’s Private Lives and the Politics of Public Documents,” Legacy 27.1 (2010): 130-139.

[2] John Ernest, Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

[3] Lloyd Pratt. The Strangers Book: The Human of African American Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

[4] Pratt, Strangers, 2.

[5] Derrick R. Spires, The Practice of Citizenship: Black Politics and Print Culture in the Early United States. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019. See esp. Chapter 1.

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