Of what import -social justice, accountability and archival work


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Of what import -social justice, accountability and archival work

  1. 1. Sleyko 1 Of What Import: Social Justice, Accountability and Archival Work Katie Sleyko Archives December 17, 2010
  2. 2. Sleyko 2 INTRODUCTION Social justice is broadly defined as the efforts made towards a goal of equal, fairtreatment of all people, especially those in disadvantaged or historically oppressed groups. Inrelation to archival practice, this goal seems to be far removed. When one talks of social justice,one may think of involving oneself in soup kitchens or in volunteer programs, or in methods ofpublic protest. These direct methods of action contrast strongly with an archivist’s perceived roleof the passive collector of documents. Yet within the archives, an archivist can preserve thehistory and memory of oppressed peoples, giving them both an established background and aspace to disrupt neat historical narratives which explain away their absence. Stocking thearchives with materials from disadvantaged groups and allowing open access to those materialscan thus be its own form of activism: preserving the heritage and contributions of these groupsfor the historical record and as a highly-valued form of social memory. The interest in the archives as a space to collect the contributions of the underprivilegedis a new one in the history of archives, starting especially with the introduction of postmoderntheory into the profession. This theory provides a new take on the profession which makes thearchivist not simply an organized collector, but an active, political, participant in the creation ofhistory. These theories unfortunately coincide with some of the most heinous of human rightsand civil liberties abuses, which attempted to strip out of the archival record all memory of theiractions. Looking particularly at South Africa, these cover-ups of political scandals have eraseddocumentation, with the goal of eventually erasing memory, of their wrongdoing. Theseincidents provide examples of failures of the archive towards the public trust. In the case ofSouth Africa it also provides an example of a way to try to build back the lost information andpublic goodwill towards the archives and towards the healing of a traumatic history. There is
  3. 3. Sleyko 3much to be done for the handling of politically-embarrassing and minoritarian information andmaterials that archives can still work to, though, and the scholarship on this is very much in itsearly stages. EXPECATIONS My working hypothesis was that, given the prevalence of postmodern theory regardingthe use of archives as a historical tool rather than a passive collection, there would be a plethoraof information on the examples of such. Instead I found many studies on how archives havefailed in the mission to preserve much of minoritarian history, and how oral history projects andpopular archival projects are coming into place to replace much of the information lost. Therewere also many examples of archival failures in spectacular ways, such as in the case of SouthAfrica after apartheid, where most of the social structure was in upheaval for some time. Manyof the more subtle failures of archives, especially in Western countries like America, have gonelargely unremarked on, at least in the materials that I have access to, which are largely Americanand centered around archives. LITERATURE Much of the postmodern literature sets the stage for the use of the archives as a source ofsocial justice. Postmodernism, in general, rejects the notion of an objective truth, and sees truthand meaning in a more subjective light. Greene credits postmodernism with a more coherent andless rigid way of seeing archives and archival services; an archivist would collect those itemsthat would contain the most meaning, given the contexts and goals of the archive.1 This alsofrees archivists to collect items that have meaning for society as a whole, and not just thoserecords, described by Jenkinson, as belonging to an organization and recording their transactions.This is repeated in Cook and Schwartz, who emphasize the archive as place of power and of1 (Greene 2002)
  4. 4. Sleyko 4finding one’s roots, yet most archivists do not think about the power they wield. There is alsoresistance to the idea that archives are socially constructed and dependent on people to interpretthem.2 Given this, the archive can be an active participant in the highly-charged arena of socialjustice and dedication to the minoritarian populations without endangering their status as anarchive. One of the earliest calls to action is from Howard Zinn, a renowned historian, whocriticizes the archival profession for its complacency in his paper Secrecy, Archives, and PublicInterests. He claims that archivists, along with teachers, his fellow historians, and journalists,believe that their profession is apolitical and that their decisions do not affect the society as awhole. The American notion of exceptionalism also is particularly insidious when it comes tobelieving that society can have ingrained biases and that one is feeding into them without trying,something echoed twenty years later in Derrida, who is cited in much of the literature on socialjustice in archives. These biases aim archivists towards collecting “official” documents andignoring the documents of the poor, the racial minorities, and other groups who have been deniedsocial power. He concludes with saying that archives, as they stand at that moment, are littlemore than tools to perpetuate systems of power. The archive itself must not be primarilyconcerned with what is already historical, but in holding onto documents that will be of historicaluse in the future. 3 Zinn’s work may seem on first glance to be a screed from someone outside of the fieldcoming at the profession without understanding it. Half of this is true; he is particularlyconcerned about archives becoming a “profession” and thus being entrenched in social biases,without accounting and adjusting for those biases in the collections of the actual archive. He2 (Schwartz and Cook 2002)3 (Zinn 1977)
  5. 5. Sleyko 5implicates his own field, history, as being complacent as well. He links the two especiallybecause both archives and history share a place as professions of “disseminations ofknowledge.”4 Zinn is actually treating archives how many wish to be seen in the wake ofpostmodernism: as locations where history is recorded. He creates the archive as a place of grandimportance as well as a place of current negligence, the former perhaps explaining why so manyarchivists took his words to heart. Giving the archives their due as places of history-making startsthe conversation on the politics of the archives while giving the archivists power. Another snarky article on the need for accountability on the part of the archivist comesfrom Hurley. He believes there should be professional standards that archivists live by,established by an outside authority, instead of having a profession of “god-archivists” whoseword is the final one when it comes to saving or removing archival items. The profession needsto be accountable for itself, with established procedures in place should there be archivalmismanagement or sanitation.5 This would go a ways to making the decisions of the archivistmore public and transparent, which would allow more public interaction with the archive andmore checks in place against situations such as the South African purge or the Australian Heinercase, where an archivist destroyed records needed for a public court case6. A sociological paper by Cassin, “The Politics of Memory on Treatments of Hate”, looksat the variety of responses to traumatic history that have been taken in several places. One ofthese, the TRC project, is covered later in this paper, but the looks at how the governments ofancient Athens and modern-day Western countries handle their politically-embarrassingincidents make this article very worthwhile. Our modern idea that truth is the same as healingwas unheard of in Athens, and after a civil war the Athenian government swore each citizen into4 (Zinn 1977)5 (Hurley 2006)6 (Hurley 2006)
  6. 6. Sleyko 6silence about the war, making them take an oath that forbade them from “recalling the evils ofthe past against anyone”, since bringing up the war was an attack on anyone it was brought up to,and would necessarily interfere with the healing process of the state. In modern France, archivesabout the government and featuring government papers are unavailable to the public for 30-120years after their creation, making sure that no one finds documents while they are still relevant,or “hot”. While this theoretically makes life much easier for the archivist and the government, itensures that the government’s version of events is the one that lasts, since after 30 years theremay be no one available to contest them. 7 Some further insight into the archival needs of those minoritarian/disadvantaged voicescomes in Bastian’s “Reading Colonial Records through an Archival Lens.” She focuses mostlyon the field of Subaltern Studies and their use of colonial narratives, the only ones saved andarchived, to disprove some of the colonial culture’s ideas of itself. The items saved by archivestended to be those written in the colonizer’s language, and since many former colonies did nothave writing traditions nor were educated in literacy, this helped to create a series of archivesthat record history only through the eyes of the European colonizers. Creations of memory-texts;emphasis on non-Western forms of archives and memory, such as murals or oral traditions,performances and architecture: these are becoming more recognized as traditions that can put thecreation of history into the hands of the formerly colonized. These traditions are important,especially in cultures like those of some Native Americans, where only certain individuals areallowed to know certain rituals. Imposing a global standard of an archives or a material canbecome another form of colonization, where cultures must be up to the Western standard to besaid to have any “real” history at all.87 (Cassin 2001)8 (Bastian 2006)
  7. 7. Sleyko 7 This paper summarizes some of the hidden portions of social justice through archives,namely, respect and inclusion of the minority voices speaking for themselves. In the case ofSouth Africa, there have been multiple criticisms of the TRC project, especially as a top-downform of justice imposed by the government on certain communities, not formed by members ofthose communities themselves. This could conceivably be one of the heritages of apartheid: thateven when trying to solve problems of systemic discrimination and harassment, the governmentof South Africa treats its Black citizens as interchangeable and without input. USE OF ARCHIVES AS SOCIAL JUSTICE TOOL South Africa was under apartheid for thirty years. This system divided people into racialcategories and stripped non-White people of South Africa of their citizenship. In this time, manyof the South African government agencies created and destroyed records on imprisonment ofanti-apartheid political workers, silencing of anti-apartheid sentiment, assassinations and boardmeetings detailing such, and other records every day. As the political machinery moved towardsapartheid being repealed, however, a massive multi-agency governmental santitization wasenforced. This was undertaken not with secret missives and word of mouth, but via law changesand court decisions.9 Most of the documents created in the years of apartheid were destroyed bythe time Nelson Mandela came into office. Though the Truth and Reconciliation Commission(TRC), an archive dedicated to recording people’s experiences with apartheid, was created in1995 to fill such gaps in the national memory, the purging of records is so extensive that theTRC doesn’t even know how little of a percentage of records they hold. 10 The TRC is an elegant approach to solving the problem of the archives not representingthe people—it goes out and asks people their stories. Though concentrating mostly on the human9 (Harris 2000)10 (Harris 2002)10 (Harris 2002)
  8. 8. Sleyko 8rights abuses of the apartheid years, it allows people to publicly share their memories andexperiences of life under apartheid, in what the TRC hopes will spur healing on a nationalscale.11 Oral histories were recorded in many areas of South Africa, though some places wherethe worst abuses went on were not visited by the TRC.12 These histories were then added to theTRC archive, where people would have access to their stories and those of their neighbors. This project is in direct opposition to many of the records sanitation and other social-amnesia programs enforced by embarrassed governments all over the world. Even within the US,the amount of documents kept secret to avoid being questioned by the public has increased inrecent years with the installation of the second Bush administration and their routine denial ofFreedom of Information requests.13 This effort is taking place within the same lifetime as theinjustices took place—something that would not happen in the US, where records aredeclassified every 10-15 years or so. 14 These records are thus remarkably free for beingsponsored by a government, especially compared to Western ones. Though the TRC is a national effort to heal old wounds, there exist problems with theproject. Harris concedes that there were some sanitation efforts done to remove the name offormer President de Klerk from some of the abuses. There are also problems of access andtransparency, something that the TRC prides itself on; researchers have been refused access tothe TRC and many of the TRC’s decision-making practices are kept secret.15 Cheryl McEwanpoints out many other problems with the TRC’s approach, as well. The focus on gross humanrights abuses ignores persistent social problems that did not go away with the last president, suchas the grinding poverty and extremely high rates of rape in South Africa. The public forum11 (Harris 2002)12 (McEwan 2003)13 (Jimerson 2007)14 (Cassin 2001)15 (Harris 2002)
  9. 9. Sleyko 9provided for giving one’s oral history is a nice thought for transparency, but could be anunsurpassable boundary for a victim of sexual crime. The reports of women collected by theTRC also tend to place women in supporting roles, dealing with supporting or missing a brother,son, husband, or male friend. She also faults the TRC with creating a narrative, of badgovernment vs. good anti-apartheid protestors and regular people, when in the lived experienceof apartheid has a much more complex—the South African state funded both sides of a regionalcivil war during the 1990s, for instance.16 This fits with some of the worries stated by Cassin,that missions like the TRC can become ritualized and prescriptive, not descriptive and as part ofa natural process. 17 Though the case of South Africa’s TRC is one of the most popular to write about, thereare many other cases in which archives have helped heal or prove wounds. In class, there wasdiscussion of the Klan membership card acquisitions by Central Michigan State,18 which spurredcontroversy and upset some of the family members of deceased Klan members, but which doesplace the uglier side of history in people’s hometown. In facing the fact of known familymembers participating in hate organizations, some of the distance between the Klan as abogeyman and the Klan as a historical fact may be bridged, and people may be more ready toface racism and injustice if they recognize that it exists in a particularly violent form in theirhometowns. Even given the link to social justice, this paper concludes with reminding the reader,though it may have been written to remind the author, that multiculturalism can be a good thing.This seriously undermines its apparent commitment to social justice. Even in America there have been cover-ups and mismanagement of documents with theintention of fooling the public. Iran-Contra and Watergate both blew up as a result of someone16 (McEwan 2003)17 (Cassin 2001)18 (Boles 1994)
  10. 10. Sleyko 10finding copies of records made detailing each. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment was discoveredas a result of an archival search.19 Though many of these scandals have involved people clearlycoded as “bad”—the Klan, the apartheid-supporting South African government, peopledestroying court evidence—the practice of purging archives and trying to clean the archivalrecord is not reserved for cartoon villains. It happens in the West, and in our own backyards. CONCLUSION The archive can become an incredible tool for social justice. The collections and theprofessional ideal may have to shift, as well as get involved in the political arena. Archivists canhelp with the contributions to the archive by making their own processes more transparent andby respecting non-Western traditions. Even in efforts to create justice in the archive, there can beflaws in the process. Seeing the social justice tradition as bad-guy-versus-good-guy can erasemore complicated narratives, especially when “good guys” behave badly. We should also not fallinto the trap of believing that these archival problems only exist in the third world—to fightinjustice, we must also look at our own society.Works CitedBastian, Jeannette Allis. "Reading colonial records through an archival lens: the provenance of place,space, and creation." Archival Science 6 (2006): 267-284.19 (Jimerson 2007)
  11. 11. Sleyko 11Boles, Frank. ""Just a Bunch of Bigots": A case study in the aquisition of controversial material." ArchivalIssues 19, no. 1 (1994).Cassin, Barbara. "Politics of memory on treatments of hate." The Public 8, no. 3 (2001): 9-22.Greene, Mark A. "The power of meaning:the archival mission in the postmodern age." The AmericanArchivist 65 (2002): 42-55.Harris, Verne. ""They should have destroyed more": The Destruction of Public Records by the SouthAfrican State in the Final Years of Apartheid, 1990-1994." Transformation 42 (2000).Harris, Verne. "Contesting remembering and forgetting: the archive of South Africas Truth andReconciliation Commission." Innovation 24 (2002).Hurley, Chris. "Archivists and accountability." Archives and Manuscripts 34, no. 2 (2006).Jimerson, Randall C. "Archives for all: professional responsibility and social justice." The AmericanAchivist 70 (2007): 252-281.McEwan, Cheryl. "Building a postcolonial archive? Gender, Collective Memory and Citizenship in post-apartheid south africa." Journal of South African Studies 29, no. 3 (2003): 739-757.Schwartz, Joan M., and Terry Cook. "Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory."Archival Science 2, no. 1-2 (2002): 1-19.Zinn, Howard. "Secrecy, archives, and the public interest." Midwestern Archivist 2, no. 2 (1977): 14-27.