BLACK RADICALISM AND THE POLITICS OF WRITING: Lessons From the Archive
An Interview with Brent Hayes Edwards
Brent Hayes Edwards is a Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where he is also affiliated with the Center for Jazz Studies and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. His publications include the books The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (2003) and, most recently, Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination (2017) and the translation of Michel Leiris’s Phantom Africa (2017). His current book projects include a history of the “loft jazz” scene in downtown Manhattan in the 1970s and “Black Radicalism and the Archive,” based on the Du Bois Lectures that Edwards presented at Harvard in 2015.
Sebastian Mazza: We thought we’d begin by asking you about the classes you’ve been teaching over the past decade or so about issues related to archives, including the seminars “Black Radicalism and the Archive” and “The Archival Imagination.” We’re hoping this might be a way to open up a more general conversation about the black radical historiography and the politics of the archive. Can you tell us about the genesis of this part of your teaching?
Brent Hayes Edwards: A good deal of my teaching and scholarship touches on issues related to archival research in one way or another. Those two classes are graduate seminars. They’re different in orientation. “The Archival Imagination” is a class about the relations between the practice of fiction and historical archives. The title is meant to suggest the ways that some historical fiction takes something like an archival approach to the past — that is, imagines the novel itself as functioning as a sort of assemblage or compendium of historical evidence. Sometimes it’s about the archive as a setting, with characters doing historical or forensic research; think of Byatt’s Possession or Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost. But it’s also that the archive comes to serve as a formal model. That is, books like Sebald’s The Emigrants or David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident or Hemon’s The Lazarus Project seem to be structured “like” archives, as collections of fragments and traces, even to the point of including photographs, maps, and diagrams.
This isn’t a new thing, of course. You could even argue that this is one of the fundamental issues in the novel, something you can find pretty much everywhere, from Cervantes’s Don Quixote to Potocki’s Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse or Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, all the way up to, say, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings. But you can make the case that the stakes are different in the modern era when, as Foucault teaches us, the archive serves such a crucial role in the mechanisms of social power, from the legal system to the slave trade to colonial administration. In that context, to imagine a novel as a kind of archive can be a way to imagine an alternative to the monopolization of the historical record — an “outside” to the state, an “otherwise” to empire.
“Black Radicalism and the Archive” is more of a hands-on seminar about archival practice: the technical aspects of collecting, classifying, and preserving. It’s not meant to be a training class, but we do talk a lot about what processing archivists actually do: how they organize materials into a “collection” in the first place; how they compose a finding aid. When researchers work in libraries and archives, we often take finding aids for granted — it’s just a tool; it’s the listing that tells you where to find materials stored in a given collection — but a finding aid is a textual subgenre in its own right, with its own protocols, even its own poetics.
The first time I taught the class was 2009, and since then I’ve offered it every other year. About a decade ago, Michael Ryan, the former director of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library on the 6th Floor of Butler, was instrumental in bringing a number of collections related to black intellectual and political history to Columbia, and that commitment has continued and expanded under the current director, Sean Quimby, and his staff of curators. I came to Columbia in 2007, and not long after that I heard that the libraries were in negotiation to acquire two major collections: the papers of the poet and activist Amiri Baraka and of the Trinidadian intellectual C. L. R. James. I realized that RBML had a critical mass of collections connected to the black radical tradition: not only James and Baraka, but also the Caribbean socialist and black nationalist Hubert Harrison, and the queer scrapbook-maker and Harlem Renaissance salon host Alexander Gumby, among others. Despite the differences among these figures, it’s a rather glaringly male group; but in the end that seemed like it could be interesting to think about masculinity and archival practice, especially when there were other collections at Columbia, like the papers of Hettie Jones and Constance Webb, that could provide a sort of counterweight in considering the lives of some of these men. I asked if I could put together a class in RBML that would give students a chance to dig into the collections themselves — to get their hands dirty, as it were.
The basic premise of the class is simple. We do read classic works by these intellectuals — James’s Beyond a Boundary, Baraka’s The Dead Lecturer — and sometimes we use the collections the way literary scholars and intellectual historians normally do: we look at a first draft of a poem to get a sense of Baraka’s revision process, or we look at James’s letters or Harrison’s diary to contextualize some part of their careers. But I try to get the students to think about it from another perspective: to consider Harrison, Gumby, James, and Baraka as themselves deeply involved in archiving. All these intellectuals collected materials that were related not only to their own writing, but also to the institutions, publications, and events they were involved in. To put it simply, the question is: what would it mean to consider the impulse to preserve a documentary trace of the past as itself political: to consider archival practice not as passive accumulation — much less antiquarianism, a fetishistic investment in the past — but instead as a practice integral to black radicalism?
SM: So it’s about learning to see a person’s collecting practice as political?
BHE: Yes, in part. But it ends up being more complicated than that sounds. Hubert Harrison, for example, was a labor organizer in the 1910s and 1920s. He was one of the most famous street speakers in New York in that era: a soapbox orator who attracted huge crowds in Union Square and on 125th Street in Harlem. In other words, very much what we’d now call a “public intellectual.” But looking at his papers in RBML, you see that at the same time he was keeping these meticulous scrapbooks on all sorts of topics, with quirky titles — “The Color Line”; “Weltpolitik”; “The White Man at Home: Moral and Political”; “Mea Historica”; “Eminent Men and Remarkable Deeds” — spending hours alone at home cutting and pasting and annotating articles from all kinds of periodicals.
But it’s not quite right to say that the street speaking was his “public” side, and the scrapbooking some sort of “private” practice. In his diary, he sometimes notes that he borrowed a scrapbook from a friend or colleague, or that he went to New Jersey to look at someone’s scrapbook on a given subject. In other words, in that era, scrapbooks weren’t necessarily personal documents or family heirlooms. They were shared: they were also public, just on a different level. The Alexander Gumby collection in RBML includes more than 160 scrapbooks he made about various topics in African diasporic history. When he had his salon on Fifth Avenue and 130th Street in the 1920s, they were on display, and you could go there and peruse his collection. Scrapbooks were an alternate mode of circulation to the newspaper or the library, even as scrapbooks also served as ways to filter and re-organize other sorts of print, like a cut-out article or illustration.
SM: You mentioned that you’ve taught multiple iterations of the “Black Radicalism” seminar over the years. How has it changed over time? How has your thinking and practice evolved?
BHE: The first time I taught it was just after the Baraka and James collections had arrived, which meant that they hadn’t been processed. The materials were still mostly in the boxes they had arrived in. Normally libraries don’t let you look at collections at that stage. But the RBML staff graciously allowed us to consult some of the materials. I realized that it although it was a challenge in some ways — stuff was all mixed together, it was hard to know where to start — it was also illuminating, because it gave us “direct access,” as it were, to Baraka’s own way of collecting. Why did he decide to keep 24 copies of that particular photo of Maya Angelou? Why was that Malcolm X research material on top of the letters from Nina Simone? We were able to ask these sorts of questions, which are exactly the facets of the collection that disappear from view once the processing archivist organizes it according to logical categories like date, genre, and subject matter. I had each student choose a box out of the nearly 300 boxes in the collection and create a preliminary inventory of whatever they found. Baraka had hired assistants over the years who had helped him keep listings of the contents, but they didn’t always match what was actually in the boxes.
For that first version of the class in 2009, we were also fortunate to have visitors come to the class: Robert A. Hill, the executor of the James estate; Jeff Perry, the Harrison biographer; and Amiri Baraka himself. The day with Baraka was eye-opening: he made it clear just how conscious he was of the need to document black political history — how aware he was that collecting was itself a radical act.
Teaching the class on multiple occasions, I’ve found that there are ways to build on previous versions. Sometimes we look at an inventory prepared by students from a prior year. A couple of students have even come back to visit a later version of the seminar. In fact, one student from the 2009 class was selected for the RBML internship program where they train graduate students in archival processing — and he ended up being the person who processed the Baraka papers!
Because it was so interesting to look at Baraka and James right when they arrived, I’ve also tried to find other collections that are “minimally processed,” as librarians put it. So I’ve changed the syllabus and added some other things, most recently with the papers of the dancer Arthur Mitchell.
Sam Lim-Kimberg: We were looking at your essay, “Taste of the Archive” [Callaloo 35.4 (Fall 2012): 944-972], and noticing that in the way you introduce Claude McKay’s archive in that essay, it seems that part of the excitement stems from the relationship between McKay’s “transitory and impecunious life,” or his life as a self-described “vagabond poet,” on the one hand, and his practice of collecting, on the other. And we couldn’t help thinking about that issue in McKay’s life in dialogue with a line in David Scott’s essay, “On The Archaeologies of Black Memory” [Small Axe 26 (June 2008): v-xvi], where he frames the significance of the Marcus Garvey archives in terms of what he calls “an activity of thinking and imagination that opened out vast possibilities not just of memory but of counter-memory: the moral idiom and semiotic registers of remembering against the grain of the history of New World black deracination, subjection, and exclusion.” In both, though in markedly different ways, there seems to be a way in which one must think about the archive as produced or preserved under conditions hostile to what one might conventionally think of as the stability, constancy, or lastingness of the historical record. And so we were wondering how this changes the way one thinks about the archive, reads the archive, etc.
BHE: From one perspective, “The Taste of the Archive” is all about the relationship between personal archives, individual collecting practices — in the way I was just talking about with Harrison and Baraka — and what we so often assume “the archive” to be: a product of a central authority, whether the state or a church or a corporation, where the ongoing processes of administration produce a layering of historical “records” that consolidate that authority.
Part of what David is writing about in that article is that when you think of archival practice in this expanded sense, including things that happen outside of the purview of the state, it becomes apparent that you’re dealing with something that can only be called counter-archival. Archival work is political because there’s never just one archive. And as the historian of photography Shawn Michelle Smith has put it, archives “contest” each other. So Hubert Harrison, in his scrapbooks, isn’t just clipping newspaper articles haphazardly. He juxtaposes things from very different places — a piece from the New York Times next to an editorial from Marcus Garvey’s Negro World — and reorganizes them under new headings, like “The White Man at Home” or “Oddities and Freaks.” The Times would never run a recurring feature called “The White Man at Home,” but Harrison’s scrapbook makes us “see” that category as implicit in the paper’s coverage. So his scrapbooks are a kind of counter-archival practice: they run against the grain of a mainstream newspaper like the Times, showing us what it takes for granted and what it leaves out. There’s a critical sensibility embedded in his scrapbooks, in other words, that allows for a different “moral idiom,” as David says — a different way of remembering.
With McKay, it’s a little more straightforward. Given how uprooted he was in the 1920s and early 1930s, his “vagabond” years, when he lived not only in Harlem but also in London, Moscow, Berlin, Paris, Marseille, Barcelona, and Tangier, it’s just remarkable to me how much stuff he did manage to keep. It’s nowhere near as oppositional as what’s going on with Harrison. But I am trying to say that in the things he did keep, even something as seemingly minor as the single photograph I’m focusing on, there is a way to read for that counter-archival charge.
SM: Since we’ve already brought Scott and Smith into the conversation: how do you consider your own work on archives in relation to broader developments in the fields of literary studies, black radical history, or African diasporic studies?
BHE: That focus on the counter-archive has emerged in scholarship across a few different fields over the past few decades. It’s there in Subaltern Studies when Ranajit Guha says that you can use the colonial records of counter-insurgency — in other words, the empire putting out fires, trying to crush rebellions among the “natives” — to gain a sense of insurgent or subaltern consciousness. You read those colonial records against the grain. It becomes a major issue in colonial historiography in general in the work of scholars like Antoinette Burton, Thomas Richards, Nicholas Dirks, and Ann Laura Stoler, just to name a few. And it’s taken up in a slightly different register in African diasporic studies, especially in the historiography of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and of black radicalism: Cedric Robinson, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Stephanie Smallwood, Marisa Fuentes, Simon Gikandi, David Kazanjian. So I’d say that what I’ve been doing is very much in dialogue with these larger trends.
I lifted the title of my essay on McKay, “The Taste of the Archive,” from a book by Arlette Farge, an eighteenth-century French historian who collaborated with Foucault. Her little book Le Goût de l’archive — which has since come out in English translation under the title The Allure of the Archives — is an attempt to write about the affective experience of doing research. It’s about what it feels like to be in an archive — to be drawn to, to be under the allure of, that illusion of proximity to the past. You open a scrapbook that Alexander Gumby glued together in the 1930s, or you unfold C. L. R. James’s taped-together, handwritten manuscript of Notes on Dialectic, and you feel that somehow you’re right there with them. I’m writing about the “taste” of McKay’s archive now, to me: what it feels like to wade through the stuff he saved. But I’m also trying to think about what it meant for him. One of the photos I write about has visible puncture marks, probably from being tacked to a wall. I’m trying to think about what it meant to him to hold on to these things — the reasons they became things he needed to live with, to look at.
SM: To talk about the individual versus the community or group might fall prey to a sort of public-private binary, but it’s striking how much these stories have to do with the idiosyncrasies of particular people: McKay, Harrison, Gumby. Does it make sense to think about the archiving practices of a given individual as a counterpoint to an institutional sort of thinking?
BHE: Well, it goes without saying that in institutional archives, individuals are there too. We just don’t always think about it that way. Ann Laura Stoler has a book called Along the Archival Grain about the Dutch East Indies in the nineteenth century. It’s called Along the Archival Grain because she tries to read for what she calls the “common sense” of colonialism, not against the grain but with it: the way the empire saw the world. She uses a phrase from Foucault: any archive has a “grid of intelligibility” built into it, a set of assumptions about what matters and what doesn’t. But it’s also a book all about individual colonial administrators and clerks making individual decisions about what to record and how to record it. So “common sense” isn’t fixed and set, she says. It’s made through the accumulation of individual decisions about what counts, and the sometimes awkward dialogue among individual actors. And those decisions and dialogues are racked with what she calls “epistemic anxieties”: tensions, uncertainties, missed signals. The other insight here is that just as archives are always incomplete — structured by their silences, what they leave out, as much as by what they save — archives are also always heterogeneous, internally divided. There are counter-forces inside any given archive, too.
This isn’t just about the imperial state. It’s there in McKay’s archive, too, the ways that part of what you’re seeing there is him “collecting” his relationships with some of the people around him. But if you look at the journals and correspondence of some of the people he crossed paths with in Morocco (Charles Henri Ford, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Anita Reynolds, Paul Bowles), you realize that they all had not just different perspectives on their interactions but also a different “common sense” about what was worth documenting. There’s a book called Special Delivery that collects C. L. R. James’s letters in the 1940s to his wife Constance Webb. They’re amazing: insightful and politically engaged and passionate. But it’s a one-way collection because, while she carefully kept all the letters he sent her, James didn’t keep her letters to him. That idea of a “grid of intelligibility” sounds dry, but there’s all kinds of human messiness up in there: anxiety, desire, confusion, misunderstanding, projection, and — not least — ego.
SLK: In some of your work, there’s a sort of speculative aspect to writing about the archive, which seems to be linked with the counter-archival impulses you’ve been talking about. Some of the recent writing about archives calls for a practice of what’s been called “critical fabulation,” which is sometimes framed as a redressive practice. As a writer, how do you think of the archive not only as historical deposit, but also as a sort of impetus for literary innovation?
BHE: I’ve written a number of things now, like the McKay piece, in an experimental form that I call “orchestrated fragments.” It involves a serial assemblage of short prose sections, each no longer than a few paragraphs. There’s no narrative through-line — and there are sometimes abrupt shifts in focus or style from one section to another — but, hopefully, as you go through it you notice things that recur, a loose pattern or harmonic structure that develops. It helps me to think of it as “orchestrated” because the prevailing metaphor is musical: I’m trying to weave the sections together suggestively, something like the way a composer interweaves the contrapuntal “voices” of a fugue.
In “The Taste of the Archive” and in my other pieces in this form, like my essay about the brief collaboration between the jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie and the Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti [“Crossroads Republic,” Transition 97 (2007): 94-118], some of the fragments are fiction. It’s meant as a provocation. It’s meant to make the reader ask what is the role of speculation in this work that is also obviously deeply invested in historical research. Because at the same time, I’m clearly making claims about something historical, something that really happened — something that’s empirically verifiable.
The essay you’re alluding to is my colleague Saidiya Hartman’s “Venus in Two Acts,” which is framed as a sort of follow-up or postlude to her book Lose Your Mother [“Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 26 (2008): 1-14]. She revisits one of the chapters of her book that recounts a terrifying episode, the violation and murder of two girls on a slave ship, because in confronting the thinness of the archive — the incident is only mentioned glancingly in one legal transcript — she found herself unable to go beyond a certain point, unable to let speculation or imagination fill in the gaps of the historical record. It comes to emblematize the whole ethical problem of dealing with the archive of the Middle Passage: how do you keep from simply repeating the annihilation of these individual lives in retelling these stories? Can you do it in a way that doesn’t just rehearse the “common sense” of the slave trade, in which girls like these were assumed to be disposable? The problem is, if you go too far, if you imagine too much, you risk romanticizing their lives, which only seems to underline the fact that they can’t be recovered or redeemed. So she ends up calling for a strategy of “critical fabulation,” which means a way of writing that would both tell an “impossible story” and, she says, in the process “amplify the impossibility of its telling.”
It’s a mistake, though, to think it’s a matter of empirical documentation on one side and “imagination” on the other. Right from the start of the essay, she points out that the archive is already a realm of imagination. “Venus” isn’t the girl’s real name: the only name we have for her is the slave ship captain’s euphemism, which already projects her into the realm of sexual fantasy and violability. So in writing with the archive, you’re already dealing with fabulation — a mixture of “fact” and “fancy,” as W. E. B. Du Bois puts it in his novel Dark Princess. The ethical issue is how you do so. Critical fabulation means writing against the grain of the archive by shifting the relationship between fact and fancy: you emphasize the gaps, the silences, the “un-tellability” of the story, even as you tell it.
There’s a lot more to say about this, and there’s a long tradition of black literature that you could argue operates at this interface: not just Du Bois, but also McKay, Ousmane Sembène, Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones, Ishmael Reed, Erna Brodber, Daniel Maximin, Junot Diaz, Marlon James. Of course, the stakes aren’t always the same. Saidiya’s extrapolating from an extreme case, the archive of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and it seems to me that the ethical issues there shouldn’t be taken as paradigmatic for writing about archives in general. But there are ethical stakes even in taking up critical fabulation with McKay. The question isn’t where I do make recourse to fiction, but where I don’t. If you think about it, you’ll notice that there are things I could have speculated about — first of all, how McKay got the photo in the first place — but decline to. When there’s fiction in “The Taste of the Archive,” it arises as speculation about specific events given in the historical archive (something McKay mentions in his autobiography or Ford records in his diary). The places where I write fiction are the places where there’s a kind of archival anchor, like the pitons a mountain climber drives into the rock face to secure the rope. It’s already there, a spike left in the rock, and I use it to intuit a different angle for the same ascent.
SM: Speaking of archival material as something like pitons — material around which speculation can happen — we were interested in asking you about the way your sentences often stand in relationship to quotations, summarizing or rehearsing quotations but also standing among them, like elements of a collage to some degree. There also seems to be a way in which the collage or collage-like proximity extends to the level of the relationship between paragraphs and essay sections nested inside each other or next to each other, somehow metonymically linked. It feels like here a quotation doesn’t only provide evidence but also gives a “feeling” of things, not unlike what you said earlier about the illusion you get in the archive, seeing the handwriting on a historical document. Sometimes the way you use quotations seems designed to enact something that the filmmaker Arthur Jafa has called “affective proximity” in relation to his own work, resulting from the impulse to put things together, to put things next to each other and let them speak to each other. Do you feel like you’re trying to create this sort of effect with the way you handle quotations in your writing?
BHE: That’s hard to talk about without getting even more into the details of particular essays. But in general, yes, sometimes a quotation or an allusion serves less to provide evidence than to set a mood.
It’s not quite the same as what I was saying about the “taste” of doing research in the archive, though. There, handling an artifact like scrapbook can give you a feeling that you’re in contact with the past. When Arthur Jafa talks about “affective proximity,” he means proximity among the things juxtaposed in the work itself: the disparate stuff brought together in a particular film, or in a particular essay-in-fragments, in my case. I think of it more in terms of musical composition, as I was saying, as a sort of contrapuntal approach to form. But yes, whether you call it polyphony or collage or — to adopt a term from Walter Benjamin — a kind of “constellation,” the point is that it results in something where the connections between things aren’t spelled out. It isn’t a logical sequence or a single narrative thread. The effect is harder to describe: it’s something “felt,” maybe more a matter of resonance — to stick with my musical metaphor — than direct linkage.
Samuel Delany, in his great book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, talks about the tradition in ancient Mediterranean seafaring of navigating by periplum, which is a compendium of detailed descriptions of the coastline. If a ship was thrown off course by a storm, the crew could figure out where they were when land came into view by comparing what they saw with the descriptions in the periplum. As a resource, it’s not really scientific. It’s not a mariner’s astrolabe; it doesn’t give you longitude and latitude. But it does give you a way to orient yourself. Some of the things I include — like the short fragment in “The Taste of the Archive” about the photo Duke Ellington kept of his close collaborator Billy Strayhorn — are meant to function like that. It has nothing to do with McKay or Morocco, but it does hopefully resonate with some of what’s going on in the other sections. It works at a distance, like a small but striking feature of the coastline, but in a way that’s meant to help the reader navigate by feel among the fragments.
SLK: I can’t help noticing that you tend to talk about these types of things through their marked trans-media aspect — as a relationship between writing and music, for instance. How did you come to think about it that way?
BHE: I’m not particularly interested in trying to sum up the various parts of my work with a master trope or some sort of overarching conceptual focus. I do different kinds of things and that’s OK — it doesn’t all have to go together. But one of the animating concerns I’ve noticed both in my work on black radical historiography and archival practice and in my work on music and literature is an interest in the ways that artists and intellectuals “think across media.” Why did Jackson Pollock like to paint while listening to bebop? Why was Cecil Taylor so fascinated with Santiago Calatrava’s bridges and with Carmen Amaya’s dancing?
In posing these sorts of questions, I’d say I’m working very much in the wake of thinkers like the poet and critic Nathaniel Mackey. For him, it’s a matter of innovation: artists push against the limitations of their medium by looking to and extrapolating from the formal properties in other media. They strive to make the saxophone “speak,” or to give choreography the “solidity” of architecture, or to make a poem “dance” on the page. In the preface to their anthology Moment’s Notice, Mackey and Art Lange quote from liner notes in which Mack Thomas writes about the reed player Eric Dolphy confronting “the barrier that begins with what the horn will not do.”
The book about the interrelations between jazz and literature I published last year, Epistrophies — which emerged in no small part out of another class I’ve been teaching for years at Columbia, my lecture course “Jazz and the Literary Imagination” — is an attempt to make the case that this kind of thinking across media has been crucial in the development of black art in the twentieth century. In both directions: with poets from Langston Hughes finding models for literary form in music, and with musicians from Louis Armstrong to Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor equally drawn to literature.
But this also shows up in my work on the history of black radicalism. When the Senegalese Marxist labor organizer Lamine Senghor writes an allegorical short novel critiquing French colonialism, why does he decide to include illustrations? When we look at Hubert Harrison’s scrapbooks, one of the things my students always comment on is their visual aesthetic. You see right away that he’s not just collecting clippings, but cutting and pasting them in a way that’s as much about visual juxtaposition and arrangement as their content. It leaps out at you: he needs to think about politics through visual art. Laying things out, moving them around, underlining them, allows him to see things, to make connections, in a way that might not be possible if it were “just” a matter of data and ideology.
It’s almost like the scrapbook is a training ground for Harrison. You can see him teaching himself to think critically through the labor of clipping. Of course, cutting and pasting to make a scrapbook is nothing if not a sort of collage-work. So he dips into another medium, making these intensely visual compositions, as though it’s a way to teach himself to sense connections and arguments that wouldn’t be apparent otherwise. And then he goes out and gives a fiery soapbox speech on 125th Street — which, of course, is nothing if not a sort of dance. So he’s constantly moving across media. And my sense is that that moving, that necessary shifting of gears, that continual shifting of domains, has everything to do with the brilliance of the political critique that emerges — or in other words, with the form and impact of black radicalism as an intervention.