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News and updates from around the Ujima Ecosystem.

#VoicesEdition: The Quilt's Song

Bex Noell Thompson, a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, speaks with Petrina Jackson and Elyse Martin-Smith on Memory Work and In Their Own Voices: Black Women’s Lives from the Archives (an exhibition at the Radcliffe Institute, on view through March 8th, 2024).

The Four Sisters Quilt, ca. 1986–1990, from the Papers of Dorothy I. Height. Photo by Kevin Grady/Harvard Radcliffe Institute

Giscombe, Bartlett, Goode. Harris, Height, Briggs. George, Bradley, Henderson. In a quiet corner of the Poorvu Gallery in the Schlesinger Library, names stitched on red, yellow, and purple leaves hang in suspense around a fabric family tree. For a space concerned with amplifying narratives from the archive, The Four Sisters Family Quilt (woven by Dorothy Height) may seem disjoint from the printed matter (photographs, zines, newspapers) that saturates the gallery and meets conventional conceptualizations of archival material. Yet when we slip further into the focus of the exhibition—Black women’s lives—the quilt’s materiality, logic, and presence masterfully memorialize the multi-faceted, intersectional texture of Black womanhood. If Black women’s ancient love is a storied comforter that swaddles us against the frigid piercings of racist, sexist, and queerphobic violence, then In Their Own Voices is a new weft that extends the tapestry of this vast, polyphonic patchwork. Petrina Jackson and Elyse Martin-Smith, two of the multiple co-curators of this exhibition at Harvard Radcliffe Institute, offer us a peek at the underlying stitching.


Bex Noell Thompson (she/her): Thank you both for agreeing to do this interview with me. I would love for you to introduce yourselves and explain how your background informs the work that you did for In Their Own Voices

Petrina Jackson (she/her): Thanks for having me. I am the executive director of the Schlesinger Library, and I've been here for a little over two years. I'm an archivist by training, and I've been in the field for over 20 years. Before I became an administrator, I worked at the University of Virginia as the head of instruction and outreach, so my orientation has always been toward engaging the public in programmatic events. 

Elyse Martin-Smith (she/her): I'm a junior at Harvard College concentrating in African American Studies and Social Studies, with a focus in Black artivism. I'm a musician, and I like to write poetry, so the opportunity to engage my creative practice in conversation with people like Pauli Murray [queer and multiracial civil rights advocate] really spoke to me. As someone who identifies as queer and mixed, it was an incredible experience to interact with their materials and create this archival lineage. 

BNT: For those who are unfamiliar, what are archives?

PJ: Archives have a variety of meanings. But in their very basic form, archives are records—be they photographs, correspondences, digital documents or emails—that are created by people and used to explain personal or institutional development. Archives can be located within university or public libraries, as well as in corporate businesses. There are community archives as well. I think about one that I saw recently—the Black Beauty Archive. Their chief archivist, Camille Lawrence, is gathering materials that document our beauty from our own perspective. People also have personal archives in their houses, documenting themselves or their families, so archives exist in a lot of different spaces. 

BNT: Absolutely. One archival document that lingered with me after visiting In Their Own Voices was the Four Sisters Quilt. It is an extraordinary example of how Black historical documentation expands or complicates the definition and meaning of an archive. Can you both speak to the diverse practices, materialities and functions of documentation among Black people, particularly among Black women?

PJ: Records can be so many things, like a quilt. On that Dorothy Height quilt, there's a book attached that gives further evidence and stories related to the family. It tells who this quilt is dedicated to, and inside, there’s a photograph of four sisters–through the quilt, we learn that those sisters are actually Dorothy Height’s mom and aunts. You get more of the story within the layers of the fabric. 

But archives can also be clothing, art, objects… for instance, a previous institution I worked with (Syracuse University) had a plastics archive containing instruments that people used to comb or adorn their hair. That's archival material too. It doesn't have to come from a paper source. It is more expansive than that. Just think about the materials that folks are creating with now. I assume that because of your age range and your interaction with the electronic and the digital, you probably have far less paper materials. Files, hard drives—they have archival materials on them, too, and in some ways we have to decode them. I don't know if you guys have used floppy disks before, probably not—<laughs>

BNT: Yeah, no. <laughs>

PJ: Those are old now, and we're responsible for pulling that information off of them. Sometimes the files are corrupted, and you have to find ways to save those materials. Today's materials, as fast as technology goes, are actually more volatile and fragile compared to paper. Paper is much more stable, although it's an older technology–we have papers that are hundreds of years old.

EMS: I also want to shout out the Black Women Oral History Project—which is featured in the exhibition—and the ways that Black people have used oral tradition as a means of storytelling and record keeping. I've never seen that in a live exhibit before, even while I was doing oral history work at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Thematic wall: Black Women Oral History Project, In Their Own Voices: Black Women's Lives from the Archives, 2023. Photo by Kevin Grady/Harvard Radcliffe Institute

PJ: That is very true. Oral communication is at the root of how Black communities distribute knowledge from generation to generation.

BNT: I'm so glad that you brought that up, Elyse. The Black Women Oral History Project is special because we get to hear our elders speak. While the exhibit itself doesn't feature the full recordings held in the project, I can only imagine how rich it would be to sit with just one story. And to think that there’s 72 of them…

PJ: Yes, and they’re all available online

BNT: People should definitely check that out. Elyse, you essentially traveled through time by engaging these old newspaper clippings from Pauli Murray’s papers. I'd love to hear more about that experience and the function of redaction and annotation in your creative practice.

EMS: Being able to sit with the physicality of materials is so sacred. I was really grateful for that. I used some of the newspaper clippings in my response to Pauli’s work, but I didn't want to cut or change their words; that's why I chose to edit the clippings instead. I was inspired by Reginald Dwayne Betts’ blackout poetry in Felon, one of my favorite books of poetry. In that book he describes the experience of being incarcerated, and part of Pauli Murray's story involves the material conditions of incarceration as well. That's the link that I had hoped to make very subtly.

But, if you take those newspaper clippings you'll see that they were selling false ideas of gender and race. There’s all this language about “being corrected” or the white pill [read: the birth control pill] being the “savior.” I wanted to counter that narrative and ask, “What is this really saying?” And then for my more poetic reaction that appears in the exhibit—I actually first envisioned that as a song, and I still have a melody in my head that goes with it. But I think there’s just something special about annotations. Mine were heavily inspired by the Counternarratives of Alexandra Bell, who was actually at Radcliffe last year. She similarly edited newspaper clippings from the New York Times to interrogate their content. 

And this practice is also shared in Pauli Murray’s own analysis and cyclical self-criticism. So I composed this poetic musical reaction and then followed it with that second layer of annotations, which is replicating that critical gaze that Black women know so well. My hope is that when someone sees it, they make their own annotations, connections, and edits on what I said. This is a living project. Maybe one day I'll actually make the music that's still floating in my head.

PJ: That was beautiful.

BNT: Elyse, you're reminding me of something Petrina said at the joint exhibitions tour last week: “we are not passive keepers of dead records.” These materials that we engage or find in an archive should be responded to, critiqued, and edited; that is part of the work of engaging these stories from the past. Petrina, when you were introducing the exhibit last week, you called it “memory work.”  How does the concept of memory activate you in the archival space? 

PJ: Hmm, on a lot of different levels.

Acquiring collections is all about relationship-building. We are moving away from an extractive model that claims, “We want to diversify, so we want to get these records.” No, we’re building a relationship with communities and honoring the knowledge that they bring to their records. Not only that, but we also honor the workers who put in a lot of invisible work to make material researcher-ready. And finally, we’re making sure to invite people to interact with the material. It's a cycle, a lineage. It's not static. We don't bring things in just to have them. They become a part of the now and the future.

When Elyse was talking about how she engaged with Pauli Murray's papers—those are the types of possibilities that are available when you treat them like living records. 

BNT: This speaks to another consideration of the archive's role—specifically Schlesinger Library or the Harvard Archives—in Greater Boston’s Black communities. I appreciate how this exhibit references national perspectives without forsaking the local. 

PJ: There’s an incredibly rich Black history here in Cambridge and Boston. Patrice Green is the curator for African American and African Diasporic Collections at Radcliffe, and since our philosophy is structured around a reparative archive, part of her work is re-establishing connections in the community. For instance, she’s collaborating with a professor [Karilyn Crockett, Assistant Professor of Urban History, Public Policy & Planning at MIT and author of People Before Highways] and an archival worker on an MIT Hackathon project [Hacking the Archive] where they are asking questions (about housing, education, etc.) that are relevant to the community, alongside the community, and looking for answers in the archives. 

BNT: In the Black Women Oral History Project, there’s a woman named Julia Smith who led a successful protest in the ‘50s against the construction of a thoroughfare that would have cut through Cambridge. I'm thinking about our contemporary land politics and how, for example, land in Atlanta is at risk of destruction for the development of a police facility. 

PJ: Yeah, Cop City.

BNT: Exactly. We have these pressing questions about how to confront these contemporary issues, and the archives seem to be a place where we can look for strategies. Obviously they won’t be one-to-one translations, but we can try to re-envision them for our current context.

PJ: Absolutely. We don't have to reinvent the wheel. Black people have been organizing and fighting on behalf of their own civil and human rights since very shortly after we got here. There are models to lean on and springboard from.

BNT: Elyse, I'm curious to hear how you experienced the spectrum of voices across the exhibit. There are interesting exchanges and interplays occurring among the women themselves.

EMS: Well, there are so many stories and people that have been erased. Archives can be a site of both harm and healing, and I think that by amplifying some of these lesser-heard voices we’re doing some of the healing work. But we have to acknowledge that there are so many more stories waiting to be uncovered. One of my favorite previously-untold stories is that of Lorraine O'Grady [a Boston-born artist/provocateur and critic]. I had never heard her name before. We have photographs of this performance where she reappropriated minstrel gloves, a whip, and a tassel to protest racism in the arts. There were so many intricate elements. I'm glad these stories are being represented through this exhibit. 

As a student involved in the project, I was not expecting my inclusion to be so grand, <laughs>, but I think that it puts a bit of responsibility on me to take a long look at where I come from. In Harvard College there's such a push toward employment in the private sector that we forget about history and belonging.

This exhibit encourages me to remember. I am aspirationally looking to the past to see who I could be.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.


For more on this exhibition, join Bex Noell Thompson and Niara Simone Hightower next week for a guided tour of “In Their Own Voices: Black Women’s Lives from the Archives” at the Lia & William Poorvu Gallery in Harvard Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library. The tour will be followed by a fireside chat with some of the curators over lunch, and this event will be co-sponsored by Black Girls in Art Spaces and Boston Ujima Project. More details coming soon!


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