The digital archive project addresses the challenges posed by the transnational and multilingual formation of the African diaspora in Europe (and elsewhere) on the one hand and by the marginalizing of Black knowledge production in European societies, including institutions like museums and universities, on the other. The archive will both facilitate the digitization of physical documents and allow for a mapping of sites of knowledge production and archiving across Europe.
Digitization has revolutionized archival research by making resources in local archives globally accessible, allowing for new levels of engagement that are both broader, granting access to those who cannot physically visit the archives, and deeper, since digital copies are far less fragile than the originals. Digitization can also revolutionize what gets archived and by whom.
This project is primarily concerned with these latter aspects. Black European history reaches back centuries, but the archival collection and representation of this history is often reflective of historical violence. This is obvious, for example, in ongoing struggles around the return of stolen African artifacts in European museums, and, more disturbingly, the return of human remains routinely collected and exhibited well into the 20th century across the continent. Berlin’s museums alone still hoard thousands of African skulls and other remains. Some Black Europeans, such as Angelo Soliman who died in Vienna in 1796, were mummified and exhibited after their death. In other words, the relationship between archives, museums, and universities on the one hand and Black Europeans on the other, is more than fraught. While Black Europeans and Africans were turned into scientific specimen, their own cultural and intellectual production was not deemed worthwhile of collecting.
Nonetheless, there are countless sources of Black life to be found across the continent. Some in official archives, such as Berlin’s controversial Humboldt Forum, housing an enormous collection of “non-European” art that often was acquired through colonial theft. Some in community, labor history, or migration archives. Here, practices of indexing often pose problems in finding traces of Black lives as seemingly neutral processes of categorizing and labeling archive materials of course reflect dominant perceptions and blind spots. Part of the pedagogical mission of the project is to sensitize students to these politics of archiving and to equip them with practical strategies in approaching archives.
Finally, there are a few archives, such as Berlin’s Each One Teach One (EOTO), explicitly devoted to Black histories. These spaces are often volunteer driven and lack sufficient resources, the digital archive project will support groups like these with know-how and through digitization of materials. A significant amount of material, however, remains in private collections in individual homes. These materials are especially precarious since their owners do not have the means or expertise to preserve them properly and are often forced to discard these irreplaceable materials. One urgent goal of this project is to start digitizing these materials before they are lost forever.
The digital archive will serve as an online repository for these materials while they will remain in their original locations – part of the mission of the project is to raise awareness of the existence and importance of these documents and to support attempts at storing them locally in adequate spaces. The digital archive will also serve as a map of Black Europe, contextualizing materials in their location, supplementing them with interviews, oral histories and other materials. The digital archive will also list existing archives and initiatives (thus facilitating collaborations between local, regional, or national actors). Importantly, it will also serve as a meta map, linking existing digital maps, such as Black Central Europeor the Digital Atlas of Postcolonial Europe.
The digital archive will make the complexity of the African diaspora accessible, allowing visitors to zoom out to see the multiple intersecting nodes and to zoom in to explore specific locations or materials. Importantly, the archive will be interactive, eventually allowing for the direct upload of material from different locations. Students on both sides of the Atlantic will be involved in the creation of the archive from the beginning.
Seven graduate fellows from Yale University came to Berlin to get the archiving process rolling. The three weeks were filled with workshops in cooperation with the InBEST organizers, Superrr Lab co-founder Elisa Lindinger, professor Karina Griffith, guest lecturers, and students from Berlin’s University of the Arts and Technical University. The students learned how to categorize and digitize material, what to consider in the process in terms of community care as well as data protection, and more.
Journal Fellow Isaac, 2023
The fellows started to digitize materials: from unpublished theses on Black history, to the feminist magazine Afrekete, to pictures. While the work required a lot of patience, it was very rewarding!
“Today I was tasked with documenting the archiving process. I thought a lot about archiving the archiver. I noticed through this process that lighting affected the depth of shadows, and unintentionally, I had archived my shadow into some of the scans. As the cool breeze comes in from the window, it also sways my braids so that as I am taking the scans, I notice the ends of my braids in the bottom of the scan. There is a way in which we may unintentionally archive ourselves in the project. I also noticed in Peggy's copy of a book there was curly hair stuck in between the pages. Perhaps Peggy's or someone else's, and I had digitized that, too. This made me think of the ways in which beyond the magazine we could be archiving other things/parts/peoples related or unrelated to the project. What are the afterlives of these shadows?" - Journal Fellow Faith, 2023
“When discussing Afrekete with someone who was part of the project from the start, I am also moved by the complex affects that come with discussing this history – the tremendous free labor it took, the memories of the difficulty faced that led to the end of the publication, relationships lost.” - Journal Fellow Elisa, 2023
Beyond digitizing (and the reflection on politics of archiving), the fellows and students interviewed embodied archives themselves. They talked to Black activists, community leaders, and archivists in Berlin to understand the materials, contexts, and politics better. They visited EOTO e.V. (Each One Teach One) and the RAA, where they digitized materials and learned from and engaged with the local community.
We have written and published these manuals as documentation of our archiving process. We hope they may serve as a starting point or guide for your own archiving projects.
Intersectional Black European Studies
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