On the Threshing Floor; Or, Just Another Day at the Archive
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 This summer, I found myself in an archive. I went to the American Antiquarian Society to participate in its 2012 Summer Seminar in the History of the Book, “Early African American Cultures of Print,” led by Jordan Stein and Lara Langer Cohen. I sat and broke bread with a group of scholars that came together to speak of history and the stories it tells or refuses to tell. We later went in search of stories—to be remembered, recovered, pieced together and then told by us. By way of our discussions on the meaning of print, ownership (bodies and copyright) and the book, I learned manners of thinking that questioned the very meaning of authorship and examined the varied ways of authenticity, racial or otherwise. Our collective discussions tested the rigid boundaries of African American identity and print culture(s) and offered instead a radically inclusive view of the intersection of printmaking, storytelling, and race.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 One afternoon, I had a conversion experience. What follows remembers me on the threshing floor (or maybe, the AAS seminar room). While standing on this floor, I took up a conversation with the object (or the archival holy spirit of 18th century poet and former slave, Phillis Wheatley) that helped make me anew.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Phillis, I have a confession. I don’t like archives. They creep me out. I’m scared of the stories living in the bound tomes that await the curious because there’s something terrifying about the very fact of what’s past. If it’s past, it was at some point real. If it’s still here, is it the past or simply passing on—to us? I fear that history really does live (just watch reruns of The Ghost Whisperer). And, the stories speak despite the varied ways in which we seek to silence them—whether in the space of our memories or in boxes at our institutions. Stories find storytellers even as we bury them in the lies. Despite my fears, something happened as I looked over the extant stuff of your life (handwritten poems to the Earl of Dartmouth and the students at Cambridge, the first edition of your poems, an almanac with your likeness reprinted).
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 I touched the past. My fingers touched the materiality of what’s right here, passed on to me by a team of archivists in climate-controlled rooms. “This is real,” I heard myself say, “Phillis, you are real.”
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The old pages didn’t give me the creeps. Instead, each asked me into something beyond the spooky ephemeral quality of the past. “It’s supposed to be passed, dead, not here, right?” I held the paper (albeit through a plastic sheath) that you touched and saw the penmanship that you must have practiced. I sat with the drafted poems that did not make it into the first edition sitting to next me. I wanted more not less stuff. I didn’t want to stare at a digitized version. I wanted to sit right there. I didn’t want to run away from the story in front of me.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Yes, I had a conversion experience. I can hear the song now, “Was once a hater of the archive but now I’m found in it.” Admittedly, I wasn’t struck to the ground like my buddy, the itinerant minister and chaplain to the African Lodge No. 459, John Marrant and countless other Christian converts, but I did come upon a “saving change.” I said yes to it and the archive. I embarked upon a week of treasure-troving through a past that I was once taught did not exist.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 I can see the concerned faces of those who’ve said, “18th century African American literature, huh? Who could you possibly work on, … Zora Neale Hurston?” I laughed then as I do now. But my laughs are for me. I giggle at the fears that kept me away from the material quality of the past I study. And look forward to another time when I can frolic among the stories waiting for us to see and to hear them. So with eyes that can see and ears that can I hear, I journey on. Thank you.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 [Panel image credit: Frontispiece engraving of poet Phillis Wheatley from her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress.]
Assistant Professor of English – Towson University