A conversation between keondra bills freemyn and Rianna Walcott
Edited by Maia Walcott
Illustrated by Maia Walcott
In this conversation between keondra bills freemyn and Rianna Walcott they discuss the importance of recognising bias within both archival institutions and the archiving processes themselves. In this short interview we learn how keondra stumbled into archiving by collecting dear memories and holding them safe, which later evolved into a deeper love for recording other’s stories and ‘living archives’. They discuss problems with ideas of the ‘canon’, the need for structural change, and how we understand memory.Read more: The Violence of a Thousand Paper Cuts: Recognising Bias in the Archives
Rianna: Hi keondra! I will try to not take up too much of your time today. Thank you so much for meeting with me. This interview is for the UK-based project that I run about decolonizing university curricula. So as I think I mentioned when I saw you in the lab, it struck me that a lot of what you were talking about aligned with our aims, in terms of who decides what makes it into an archive and why. So can I start us off by asking for you to give me a tiny little bio?
K: I guess for the purposes of this, I’m a person that’s done four different careers, which I feel like all kind of influenced my work. I’m keondra bills freemyn and I am the founder of Black Writers Project. It is a web-based platform that focuses on archival discovery of Black women writer’s archives, as well as gender expansive writer’s archives. I’m originally from Los Angeles, California. My background is in a little bit of everything, but most recently, with a focus on digital archives and the democratisation of knowledge, and Black cultural production.
R: Brilliant, thank you very much. Can I ask you just as a follow up, how did you get into that work? And particularly the current path that you’re on now?
K: It’s a great question. It’s gonna be a long answer. Well, I will say that I grew up poor in South Central Los Angeles, and because of that, we moved around a lot. And so from a very early age, I felt a strong connection to my things. Holding on to my things, preserving and protecting my things. And as I got older having these kinds of artefacts, the things that really were joyful in my life. So from about the age of twelve, I became a collector. At the time, I didn’t think about it as much of anything until maybe twenty years later, when I started to realise, ‘oh, I have an archive’. It’s not just cute little mementos that I like to save, there were all of these things that I’d saved that not only marked points and big moments in my life, but in other people’s lives. So that’s kind of the origin story.
I did a number of different things, I worked in magazines, and after that international affairs for over a decade – I was a diplomat, which is very different. Anyway, I like to think that the common thread between everything I’ve done is this act of storytelling. So to me, the archive is the ultimate resource for storytelling. When I decided that international affairs wasn’t for me anymore, I took a sabbatical, which I hope every person has a chance to do in their lives. I took a self funded sabbatical for about six months. And in that time, I realised that I’m a collector and my interest in collecting things and history is very deep. I have been a long time visitor to archives at the Schomburg and even though I didn’t necessarily do a lot of archival research, I understood the point of the archive – where they exist and what they were for, even if I was not using them myself.
So yeah, it was during that quiet time that I realised this was the path that I felt like I was already on and just didn’t realise it. I should also mention that I’m a poet and creative writer, and working with the archives was a way to engage across all of the different facets of my life, which felt very exciting. The archive brings a lot of different conversations together. And that’s kind of the way my brain functions! Since I was young, I never understood the idea of learning one thing in a silo. The archives is one of those places that constantly encourages information seeking behaviours – communication behaviour. It’s history, it’s oral tradition, it’s culture, it’s personal stories! All of these things kind of converge in the archives and I have never experienced anything else that brings so many different facets together, and so many different disciplines.
R: I just want to pick up on that thread where you mentioned the interdisciplinarity of the archive. I was wondering if you could relate that back to this idea of the canon? How does that contradict and butt against this idea of the canon, as we speak about it in a university context?
K: Yeah. I think about the canon a lot, particularly as a person focused on Black women writers! Because even on the best day, most people are only counting one or two Black women writers in the canon. And I think that’s ridiculous. But I also kind of push up against the idea of a canon at all. Because one thing that I have come to realise is that meaning is made at the individual level. Whether or not there are people controlling narratives, at the end of the day, meaning and purpose – what these historical moments and what this literature represents – is very much happening on an individual level. If I’m reading a book and I’m hearing an idea for the first time, I’m reshaping and reflecting on things and creating a new meaning for whatever has been presented to me. And as I said, the powers that be and the structures that exist can reinforce some negative narratives. But I’m saying that there’s a lot of power in what happens at the individual level. So to me, the idea that some group decides what is worthy to be studied or worthy to be saved is absolutely ridiculous. It’s often when you talk to folks about the moments in their lives where something shifted, it is very rarely those canonical things. You are creating your own meaning and canon by just living your own life. If you ask somebody their favourite book, you’re gonna get many different answers right? Tell me about a book that changed your life – very different answers. And also when you met that literature, where you were in your life, all impacts it. So it might mean something to you today but twenty years from now, you might just be like ‘Oh, it’s a good book.’
R: Definitely, I think that all the time. Do you ever get that sense where you read a book and you’re like, this would have meant a lot to me when I was fifteen? When I was fifteen this would have changed my whole life. But I’m twenty-eight, so now it just feels faintly childish. So, in the lab you mentioned the way that things are selected for an archive. I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind repeating some of that?
K: Absolutely. Emphasising again that my background is mostly in thinking about archives that are related to individuals. Which is different from other kinds of archives like government archives and such. So when thinking about the personal archive, which then becomes the institutional archive in some cases, it is interesting because there’s multiple layers through which the value of artefacts and records are interpreted. Unfortunately in many libraries and archives right now, the people who are making decisions about acquiring materials, do not, in most cases, reflect the diversity and range of experiences of the greater population. So even on our best days, we all have biases, and that can show up in how we decide what to keep and how to preserve it – like what resources are we going to put into making sure that it stays in a good state? These biases can show up in whether we accept it or even keep it in institutions at all.
And so, right now the archival field is really reckoning with this idea of neutrality. Some people still believe it’s possible. Most people, who are deeply engaged with their own work and understanding of the archive, can see very clearly that there’s no such thing as objectivity in the archive. A lot of the work that’s happening now, particularly in digital spaces, is about taking back a lot of this control of the archive, in terms of what’s saved and the narratives created around the artefacts and records that do exist. I think it’s going to be a long time before we can completely overcome some of these challenges around who gets to tell the story and who has the power. But in the interim, as we are fighting for these changes at the structural level, the digital gives us the opportunity to have a greater range of voices be heard around archives. And also a greater range of materials to be preserved for the future. Through things like internetarchive.org, web recorders – open source tools that people can use to snapshot their digital lives in some way.
R: Okay, taking it back to basics, would you mind saying a little bit about those different types of archives and where yours sits in that?
K: So I’m primarily interested in digital archives and personal archives, and sometimes there’s an overlap there. I’m really interested in the individual, particularly what Black people decide to save about their own lives and what we feel is important to keep about our own lives and stories first and foremost. So I say it all the time, personal archives end up being the institutional archives. So we need to engage all the way through and actually a lot of the work I do is helping younger folks, especially creatives, understand that the archive begins now, in this moment. It’s not something you do when you’re sixty, it’s something that you figure out now and you continue to work on as a process. That’s primarily my scholarly focus and my independent digital humanities practice. It’s all pretty much founded on the personal archive, even if it ends up in an institutional archive.
So I’m housed at the University of Maryland, which is interesting in that it’s a state school. So some of what we save or collect and keep, has more to do with requirements from the state of Maryland. In terms of public records – records that need to be made publicly available at some point –there’s a large portion of it that are the president’s papers and things that the university has to keep. As well as things that there’s a records retention schedule for. I work in the university archives, with specific ‘collecting areas’ and ‘tutorial areas’. And that is a broad range from books, and the student newspapers, or student life, on top of the administrative papers. So a lot of that is pretty different from what *I* pick. For my Writers Project – that’s like somewhere in between. Right now the phase that we’re in, is mostly focused on archival discovery, which is working with archives that already exist and bringing the information together so that people can find it more easily. It’s mostly focused there, but the next iteration will include direct collecting of oral histories. So in that sense, it will be its own repository – it will be its own collecting agent. Also, as I mentioned earlier, I do consultations with creatives around their own archives, and also help them negotiate acquisitions with bigger institutions if that’s the route they choose.
R: I want to ask about the future of Black archives, in particular the idea that the personal archive becomes the institutional archive. Do you feel that there is any tension between the grassroots work that you do versus the institutional collating of these kinds of stories?
K: Yes, there’s definitely tension! I want to make it clear that I don’t do any of that work at UMD. I don’t want to throw any colleagues under the bus because I really don’t do it and I don’t know their process of acquisition. But yes, there’s a huge tension between what is happening on the personal level of collecting and what’s happening at institutional level. So let’s start with the individual level. Institutions, especially large and old institutions for which Black folks have been traditionally excluded. There’s already a power dynamic that exists. When someone thinks about Harvard University, Yale or even the University of Maryland, right? There’s an automatic assumption that they’re large and therefore they know what they’re doing – ‘there may be some parts of this that I need to trust them on, in terms of how they might handle their own archive.’ Because of this, I hear a lot of people at the individual level saying, ‘Oh, they’re not gonna want that.’ They’re looking at their records and they’re saying ‘No, this isn’t a thing that this university and their archive will want,’ because it’s already carrying the weight of whatever the history is of that institution. It doesn’t disappear just because we’re in a one on one relationship centred around protecting or serving the archive.
So that’s where it’s so insidious because it’s already in the person’s mind. I have found when they’re thinking about what to either sell or give as a gift to an institutional archive, there is already an unfair power dynamic present. So it impacts what’s even saved or transferred. Then, when it comes to the actual archives at that institution, the tension is rather large because an archive is really only as good as the ease it is to find the things within the archive. It means nothing if you have an archive with two hundred boxes and you have no idea what’s even sitting in them. If I can’t access it and I don’t know what’s there, it may as well not exist in some cases, from a public user perspective. So there’s a huge tension there around like ‘okay, once the collection comes to an institution, how long will it sit in the garage before someone is able to sort it?’ And again, the biases that exist at the individual and structural level will determine the value and priority that we give to each collection.
We have to prioritise, we don’t have the staff or the funding. Considering cuts to libraries and archives, at the end of the day we have to prioritise our time and the capacity of our staff. And unfortunately, the patterns that we see in normal society don’t disappear just because a collection tends to end up in an institution. So that means often Black collections are overlooked. I’m not talking about Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King or the major collections, you know. But the everyday, smaller scale stories — a lot of these stories are just disappearing into the archive. So that’s the first layer, they’re not even being processed and people don’t even know they exist. Or they know they exist, but you can’t see it until it’s processed, which could be three or ten years from now, depending on how long the backlog is at that institution. So let’s say you get it processed – you’re one of those collections that’s a priority. It gets processed but there’s still the tension there of ‘have the records been interpreted in a way that makes sense to the users from that community and cultural background?’ Three weeks ago, I was looking at what’s been digitised of the Gwendolyn Brooks collection at the University of Illinois, and I see this picture of Gwendolyn Brooks getting an award from Haki Madhubuti, a big time writer in Black thought, and it’s captioned ‘Gwendolyn Brooks and unidentified man.’
Haki Madhubuti started one of the first Black presses in the United States, right? He’s published everybody! And you can’t expect every library and archivist to necessarily know every history of every person’s collection that they have. But you would certainly hope that in a collection like Gwendolyn Brooks, there’d be due diligence to speak to people to try to identify certain folks. It’s things like that that persist. I’ve seen a random Black woman be called Maya Angelou in a digital record. It’s completely disheartening because at every point there’s this tension but how it shows up can be very different. When you look across the whole lifecycle of an archive, these tiny kind of ‘paper cuts’ become violence and there’s just no way to get away from that.
R: Brilliant, wonderful examples of that — well not wonderful obviously! So my last question is — what do you hope is the future for Black archives?
K: What I hope for the future of Black archives is that we continue to do what we’re doing, which is to make it expansive and dynamic. And to push back against the idea of the archive as static, which is a very white, Western notion in many ways. And, we Black folks continue to take care of ourselves right? I’m really not waiting for anybody to come save us. So my hope is that we continue to use technology and continue to take control of our own narratives. To incorporate the many ways that we understand memory and how we represent memory in our culture that is far beyond anything that can be recorded. And I think that something will end up being praxis. Over time, we will use many different tools and take a different kind of archival approach to get closer and closer to that feeling of the lived experience.
keondra bills freemyn is an archivist, writer, Wikipedian, and former diplomat originally from South Central, Los Angeles. She is the author of the poetry collection Things You Left Behind and the forthcoming collection, for lovers. She is founder of the digital archival initiative, The Black Women Writers Project, highlighting the contributions of Black women and gender expansive writers to the literary canon, and publisher at 67th Street Storytellers. Her research interests include digital archiving and memory work, personal archiving, post-custodial models, open data, and Black cultural production. keondra is an alumna of Fordham University (BS), Columbia University (MPA), and University of Maryland College Park (MLIS). She holds a Graduate Certificate in Museum Studies from Harvard University and is a Society of American Archivists Digital Archives Specialist. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Black Librarian in America: Reflections, Resistance, and Reawakening, Rhetoric Society of America 2022: The Charge for Change, and Oxford Handbook of African American Women’s Writing, among others. She resides in Maryland with her wife and child.
Listening to Images by Tina M. Campt
Digital Memory and the Archive by Wolfgang Ernst