This week, I had the privilege of speaking at a Lumbee history/genealogy symposium at my alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, a school founded by American Indians for American Indians in 1887. I decided to speak about silence and power in archives, because many people don’t realize that there is a process behind the creation of archival collections. Not every document created by mankind can be preserved, and neither should they be. So individual archivists must choose what is worthy of collection and preservation. So right away, we must acknowledge that archivists hold an enormous amount of power when it comes to placing value on history. When it comes to accessioning, or taking in new collections, there are a number of decisions that have to be made. Different archives and archivists have different methods of determining what they want to collect and what they determined as valuable. Each one of us is likely to come to the conclusion about the value of a collection based on our own personal biases and presuppositions.
Because of this, we must recognize that archives are not neutral, but rather they often obstruct, forget, and ignore certain communities and reinforce certain ways of thinking about the past and present. George Orwell, the dystopian novelist, repeatedly lamented the fragmented record of the past, leading to major gaps in our knowledge of historical events. In his novel, 1984, Orwell noted that “Who controls the past, controls the future; who controls the present, controls the past . . . past events, it is argued, have no objective existence, but survive only in written records and in human memories. The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon. And since the Party is in full control of all records, and in equally full control of the minds of its members, it follows that the past is whatever the Party chooses to make it.” In a sense, I think Orwell was on to something. In a 1943 essay Orwell wrote, “When I think of antiquity, the detail that frightens me is that those hundreds of millions of slaves on whose backs civilization rested generation after generation have left behind them no record whatever.” The silences of the archives, the absence of records, troubled Orwell, and they should cause us too to question. History is often distinguished between what happened and what was said to have happened. There is a distinction between the objectional and the interpreted. The lack of or abundance of sources influences the way in which we interpret the past.
Whenever we hit a stumbling block in our historical research, it is important to consider what is absent from the archives. It is possible that you cannot find the exact information you need because at some point in time, a person in a position of power determined that this information was insignificant. Have you ever run across conflicting information in records when researching? How about conflicting racial designations on census records? The absence of information recorded about women and children? The lack of information on Indian people in general? When confronting these challenging questions, we must remember that at some point in time, these silences are the product of decisions made by people. It is our job to navigate through and reconcile the missing information in the best way we can.
Photo Credit: UNCP History Department