05-18-2024  7:20 pm   •   PDX and SEA Weather
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 18 April 2024

Memory Work for Black Lives Plenary 2024 was a two-day hybrid event that brought archivists, activists and the public together to emphasize the power of “Black archival memory.” Organizers pointed out that within institutions with a history of White supremacy, centering non-White voices and experiences is too rarely a consideration. It becomes all the more important, then, for individuals to recognize the narratives that exist in old shoe boxes and filing systems.

Attendees had the opportunity to work with Devin Busby, outreach archivist for the city of Portland's Archives and Records Management Division and other archivists and oral history experts to learn about the best ways to handle, label and preserve their materials, with instruction on scanning archival items and guidance on recording oral histories.

tracy drake introTracy Drake (Photo/Reed College)Spelman College archivist Holly Smith spoke about her work with the Atlanta Black Archives Alliance, and Portland activist Ishaq Shamsud-Din shared his firsthand experiences working with Don't Shoot Portland to preserve his own family's story, with an emphasis on the work of his father, artist Iaka Shamsud-Din, and his extensive artwork collection. On the second day, Reed College's director of special collections, Tracy Drake, outlined her work as cofounder of the Blacktivist Collective and spoke powerfully about her methods of giving voice to personal Black histories.

The Skanner spoke with plenary organizer and Don’t Shoot Portland founder Teressa Raiford about the importance of archiving and what she hopes to see with future plenary events.

The Skanner: How did this year’s event differ from previous Memory Work events?

Teressa Raiford: This is the first time that we’ve had one where the community was actually invited in person. They’re all hybrid – we have people in-person and online – so there’s people from across the country, from different universities, different libraries, that were on. We had community members actually be able to participate firsthand and be the center of the programming: There were grandmas there, there were teachers there and there were children there with their parents, there were people who had lost their loved ones there – it was a very diverse community that showed up to receive this information.

It was very beautiful to me because they would see someone do a presentation, and then that person would be right there in real life and these presentations were like family conversations. They were like, ‘Here, I’m going to give you a blueprint of what to do when you go to Grandma’s house next week. Here’s what we did, this is the website we created, and this is how we found our research, these are the partners that we utilized to get funding for this.’ It was a very casual and very informal relationship that resulted with the audience.

People found that these boxes of documents became more valuable to them, because of the the context they received from these people on how archives have been digitized or saved or preserved, so everybody left feeling like they had a treasure that they need to go out and catalog, rather than ‘Oh I have some pictures I need to save.’ It became, ‘No, I have a treasure.

'I have a story, I have experiences that I need to share with my family.

'There are things I need to document, there is order that I need to make.’ And it was beautiful, because that was what we wanted to happen. 

The Skanner: How did Don’t Shoot Portland come to work with University of Oregon Libraries on this project?

Teressa Raiford: They found out about our work because of our exhibits that we did in partnership with Holding Contemporary, we ended up getting a residency with the (University of Oregon’s) Center for Art Research and when we did the art exhibit, we contacted the special collections library for information on certain items that we wanted to include in our exhibit, and when they found out what we do, they were very excited about us being able to come out and look at their special collection and check out the archives that are out there in their library in Eugene.

Because of the subject matter – the oppression of free speech, racism, discrimination, policy and mandates, systems that obviously uphold White supremacy – in our research, we’re looking at how those intersect into politics and health and education, so obviously there's a lot that we found in archives, especially state libraries and things of that sort. 

The Skanner: What drives the yearly plenary?

Teressa Raiford: We do it because it’s important to create art exhibits that include information that creates an opportunity for the current generation to kind of look at things in a critical review, understanding why these demands are still being made, why these positions have been consistent for generations. I can listen to James Baldwin speak and it sounds like he was talking about (current times)...so having that kind of joint interest, and then seeing the benefit of people having access to the archives in the libraries, we partnered on the plenary to kind of bring out different people that we admire and work with, so that they could be front and center, because to me, the big crisis was that Black people don’t have access to the archives, and they’re not working for the archives or the libraries or anthropology or history in the levels that I would like to see, especially if we’re talking about who builds the narrative and catalogs the information.

It’s like, what if there’s a generation of fascists, like with J. Edgar Hoover deleting things? We’re going to need far more eyes for these important documents for generations to come, and so we started doing these plenaries as a way to kind of welcome people not only to the skills but also the jobs and the art and the culture…with a focus on preservation and telling our own stories.

You need something to back you up. Imagine if every generation that realized we were being oppressed had to start from scratch, because we didn’t have the books that told the stories and we didn’t (share) the experiences ….That’s already happening. Right now in 2024 we’re dealing with the banning and censoring of information…when I was a teenager, we were like, oh that’ll never happen! Now we’re literally watching those things happen. 

Interested? Memory Work for Black Lives Plenary organizers invite you to watch the space at memorywork.uoregon.edu/programming/plenary-2024 for videos and other recordings of the invaluable presentations from this year, which they will be adding in the coming month.

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