Black Women, Visible and Heard
Founding the Black Feminist Archive at UMass
When students use primary materials and navigate archives, they go through a powerful process of discovery. They can see how notes become a published manuscript, or how correspondence and personal journals reveal a backstory of important moments, enhancing historical analyses and interpretations.
But in my own experience conducting research in archives, I often found that Black women were poorly represented—unless they had achieved a modicum of fame or were public figures. As influential archivist Rodney G.S. Carter notes, the gaps and “silences” in archives have “a significant impact on the ability of the marginal groups to form social memory and history.”
The establishment of the Irma McClaurin Black Feminist Archive, known as the Black Feminist Archive (BFA), was officially announced in 2016 when I was honored as a UMass Amherst Distinguished Alumna, but the idea began as an unexpected collaboration with the Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) in 2014. I reached out to the late Rob Cox, the SCUA’s then-director. That moment stands out in my memory, because, after describing my vision to preserve the academic, activist, and artistic contributions of Black women—I felt heard.
Both Cox and I agreed on this fact: “The profound contributions of scholarship and activism made by Black Feminists … are still seldom seen in archives, so that the full record of their achievements remains under-recognized and underappreciated.” As a champion of documenting and preserving Black cultural memory, I enact a form of social change activism through the BFA that seeks to break up and break out of what Rodney Carter calls “archival silences” and shine a light on the myth of archival neutrality. Carter writes, “It is now undeniable that archives are spaces of power.”
Our stories are a necessary (and sometimes secret) ingredient in a recipe of impactful social change in America.
Miss Archie’s research and cultural analysis are contained in unpublished papers, journals, notes on yellow legal pads, photographs, correspondence, etc., now packed away in boxes (which were almost destroyed in hurricanes in 2017). They contain the stuff of which archives are made—personal memorabilia of a particular life, but also materials about her past and the historical contexts in which she lived.
I can imagine at some point in the future, a researcher (perhaps a Black woman anthropologist) will be able to discover Miss Archie’s work and write about her precisely because her work is archived. The BFA serves as a corrective to the misrepresentations of Black women and aims to acknowledge, lift up, and preserve people like Miss Archie Henderson Jones.
A Treasure Trove for Scholars of Social Change
The internationally renowned Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) at UMass Amherst was created when rare book and manuscript collections were merged with university archives in the early 1990s. Now the archives top national lists for collections on social change, the digitization of archival materials, and the use of technology to democratize access to their holdings.
With its deep resources in mid-20th and early 21st centuries, the archives have become critical underpinnings for teaching and scholarship on social change, giving students and faculty unparalleled access to primary sources for their studies. UMass holds materials from many areas, including disability rights, antinuclear movements, and marijuana law reform. “We provide a more robust framework for the interpretation of the deep histories of social engagement in America, to lay the foundation for a deeper understanding of the experience of social change,” says Aaron Rubinstein ’01, head of SCUA.
For SCUA’s more than 1,400 collections overseen by 10 archivists, one of the major projects is digitizing items in order to increase access while preserving fragile materials. “Technology provides us with the ability to get our materials in front of way more people,” Rubinstein says. The W. E. B. Du Bois collection—which contains more than 100,000 items and is one of SCUA’s most frequently accessed holdings—has been entirely digitized, and work on a grant-funded project to digitize parts of 19 different collections showcasing the disability rights movement is nearly complete.
The SCUA’s focus on expanding access to the collections has in turn motivated others to give their papers to UMass, knowing that their work will be similarly shared. Filmmaker Ken Burns has borrowed material from the archives for the last five documentaries he’s produced—another sign that the university’s holdings provide essential contexts for historical exploration.
“The availability of those resources, especially the digitized content, allows people to explore the past and make sense of what is happening now,” says Simon J. Neame, dean of libraries. He sees the future of SCUA as “an active place of teaching and scholarship to animate our resources.”
Irma McClaurin is a three-time graduate of UMass Amherst, receiving an MFA in English in 1976, an MA in Anthropology in 1989, and a PhD in Anthropology in 1993. She has served as assistant dean in the College of Arts and Sciences and has held leadership positions at Shaw University, the Ford Foundation, Teach for America, and with the U.S. federal government. More about her writings, consulting, and other works can be seen at: irmamcclaurin.com.