Arts & Culture / Politics / The Reading Room / Vol. 1 No. 3-4

Gathering the Ghosts

“Every utopia – let’s just stick with the literary ones – faces the same problem: What do you do with the people who don’t fit in?”

-Margaret Atwood

The Winter 2018 issue of Radcliffe Magazine featured a picture of me on its cover. Over the last few years, I’ve deposited more than a century’s worth of photographs of my family into the Schlesinger Library, which is the women’s history depository at Harvard University. I have photos of three of my great-grandparents, all born in slavery. I have missives from my uncle that describe life on the front during World War II. I have Boston Public School homework done by my aunts and uncles in the 1930’s. I have my mother’s diploma from Emerson College. I have newspaper clippings about an aunt who received her master’s degree at the age of 19. And I have love letters from what was an unmentioned interracial marriage in the 1920’s. It is rare for any American family, nevermind an African American family, to have retained such a trove. I am lucky indeed.

Here’s the cover of that issue of the magazine, in which I was depicted cradling a photo of my late mother:

Yet, quite unexpectedly, this innocuous image brought me literally face to face with many of the ethical dilemmas at the center of a project archiving memories. It was surely very meaningful that my family’s collection was so honored. But having my heavily made-up face dispersed to Radcliffe’s far-flung readership brought with it a peculiarly personal sense of disembodiment. It was “me” but it was not “I”. And the picture I was holding is my late mother, but my mother was younger than I.

Thus, this representation evoked for me the emotional layers at stake in the constitution of an archive, for there is a kind of quantitative magic in the ordering of things—in the imaginative assembly of images, in this gathering of ephemera that simultaneously quicken the dead and freeze-frame all life.

So there I was, on the cover, with pride of place all over campus. But it was haunting to see this picture, of my mother in particular, out in the world, but also out of context. My hands around the frame of her face both presented her and protected her. It felt intimate and public—as though the photo were alive. There was a confusing promiscuity, in seeing this me-object put to other ends: one dark and stormy evening, for example, I saw a homeless man in Harvard Square, who was patching his cardboard tent with this cover. My glossily airbrushed face was subsumed into the paper’s body, weight, texture, and durability. The substantiality of its high-grade bond put my life in context: the utility of my face as curtain, my persona a decorative detail. At one level, therefore, this project became quite literally about the afterlife of papers.

This project has also forced me to think about some foundational difficulties involved in knowledge production and its preservation. Much of this archive was rescued from a dumpster into which it had been thrown by a team of earnest property managers hired to stage my parents’ house—which had been in the family for over a hundred years—for sale. I fished it all out and put it in my apartment. This is my apartment after that fact:

Sorting through these boxes has called upon all my lawyerly talents of interpretative judgment and judicious discretion. At some much-too-obvious level, I suppose these materials could tell yet another a tale of what W.E.B. Du Bois called the Talented Tenth. But their content also includes things that don’t reference bourgeois accomplishment or assimilationist complacency alone. It includes stuff that was tossed into that attic for a reason.

So there are a number of dumpsters at work here. First, the literal, physical dumpster placed outside my parents’ house and into which the anti-hoarding squad was tossing stuff from two floors up. Then there’s the dumpster of self-censorship that some of this material represents—there is such secrecy and shame buried in it—secret yearnings, racial passing, infidelities. And then of course there’s the dumpster of my own mind. There is great anxiety about what to release to Schlesinger, what to allow others to paw through, to handle, out of my sight, and a time long after my death. I’ve had to really think about what not to give. What, if anything, to censor. The question that runs through my mind with each and every item is how did it come to this, the maw of oblivion that is the dumpster?

For me the primal dumpster is slavery, the void into which so many lives disappeared without much trace. As I think about it, my ancestors’ archive begins with the Emancipation Proclamation, with the outlawing of their bondage. It is at that moment that certain technologies became available to my great-great-grandparents. That’s when anti-literacy laws were suspended, and it was no longer against the law for African Americans to learn to read and write. That’s when photography was beginning to become available to amateurs. And that’s the point at which my foremothers and fathers spilled out of the places and plantations that had bred and contained them, that’s when they lied, charmed, walked slowly or ran fast, or otherwise got themselves out of the deep South, first a few and then in a rush, headed northward to Boston, center of abolitionism, however they could. They became first class tricksters to liberate themselves; and they picked up pens, paper, typewriters, and began to document the ineffability of themselves with a full-blown vengeance of expressive self-inscription.

The word archive comes from the Greek “arkheion” meaning the house of a public administrator, a center of governance, lists, records, and rule-making.

I’m a lawyer after all, so there is a part of me that does think of an archive in that rather positivistic and orderly way: a repository of transparent “evidence” from which “what happened” may be reconstructed with enough tape and tweezers and a big enough magnifying glass. Am I not the proverbial “handmaiden to history”? Isn’t it my role merely to dust off the documents and arrange them prettily, like specimens under glass?

Philosophers like Avery Gordon, Saidiya Hartman, Jacques Derrida—all have written about the social life of archives, the busy-ness and noisiness of artifacts. And because that social life is filled with karmic irony, I was literally in the archive room of Schlesinger Library when I received word that my mother had passed away, on October 3, 2017. Suddenly, I was living the afterlife in a quite overpoweringly mystical way. These papers became a gathering, a familiarity, a nest of faces, a syntactical family, a tattered, much-handled sensorium, a ghostly mirror.

And there were voices. Bereavement does that, I suppose. All sorts of voices bloomed within me, but also beyond me, like a gentle aura. It was like looking at a jigsaw puzzle I thought I’d assembled, but suddenly there were thousands of extra pieces, and it became an assemblage with no borders and an endless number of combinations. It was a bit of a Hansel and Gretel experience, those voices: Here is a trail of breadcrumbs, they said. This is the way to find us. This will lead you back in time. This will lead you forward. We are just behind this tree. We will be waiting in the clearing. You may see us in the morning. Look for a lesson hidden in the cupboard. And: there’s an unbreakable law you will want to know about lurking just beneath the bed.

I have always thought of reality as a present tense. But in the archive, reality has leached all over the geography of time. In my mind, time begins with emancipation from slavery. But that temporal arc co-exists alongside the reign of Great Aunt Mary; as well as side by side with the dominion of the Cambridge cousins, which overlaps with my father’s extended rule, as well as the still-reverberating echo of my mother’s voice. Each of these timelines is a completely different world.

So all of this leaves me feeling porous, unsettled, having lost the coherence of an identity I had thought of as my own. It brings felt meaning to the koan that novelist and Zen master Ruth Ozeki frequently cites as her meditative inspiration: “What did your face look like before your parents were born?”

I have spent a good deal of time recently thinking about how archives intersect with knowledge production. What does all this paper do—this stuff I keep shoveling into the bowels of the Schlesinger. We live, we die, and so it goes. From dust to being the soggy patchwork in a homeless stranger’s tent and then back to dust. This is a question of representation, I suppose: what part of a life after life lives on as “papers”? What fiction will emerge, what wormholes to the future? Saidiya Hartman calls the method of the archive “critical fabulation.” As she observed “the question—who are you?—is indistinguishable from one’s status as a social problem.”

If Radcliffe Magazine has made me lovely, this is what I looked like to the Daily Mail in 1996, which denounced me as a “single black mother” of “slave stock”:

(Note the way they positioned my portrait atop a bottle of Prostex, a health supplement for prostate problems. Full money back guarantee. Such a nice touch.)

Seriously, this was a painful representation. I considered leaving it out of the Schlesinger repository. Kind of the equivalent of what my great Aunt Mary did to some of her less-flattering photos: she used to deploy a pair of cuticle scissors and very carefully pare her image out of the picture. In the excellent example below, that blank white square is where her head once was:

I’ve decided not to do that, at least as a rule, for this is how history gets put into the dumpster. Ultimately the very suppression leaves a void that will surely haunt us. Jacques Derrida’s extraordinary essay, “Archive Fever,” exhorts us to remember the future.

Nonethelesss, we’re all implicated in withholding as oblivion. Indeed, it is precisely those small acts of calculated forgetting that makes archiving a matter of social history. To record-keep or not to record-keep is a ritual of information management—of remittance or rejection, of the politics of the gatekeepers.
In other words, there are choices to be made, even by me. Do I kill some stories? Amputate some bits?

Somewhere in the boxes, there’s a trove of love letters from my father to a woman not my mother. I have no idea why he kept them. They are quite beautifully written, so I suppose it might have been his considerable vanity. I am struggling to figure out if vanity and infidelity should be included—whether it betrays the memory of my father, or if it makes him more complexly human, or whether it feeds a stereotype of rapaciousness, or if it invades the privacy he sought in life.

It is hard to navigate these challenges of representational ethics. And it’s obviously not just about letters and photos, but about all the complex kinds of pictures that emerge from the entanglement of images and voice, correspondence and culture, temperament and time.

One more example: Some years ago, I lost the audition to record the version of my memoir, Open House. If one looks at the description on the packaging for the CD of Open House it says: “[Patricia Williams’] voice is powerful, provocative, and utterly charming.” But in fact it’s not my actual voice. A very talented professional actress won the role of speaking me. She did a fine job, and her delivery was probably much better than I could have done—although I had to learn to hear myself in her, to own this rendering of my words. I was told that the reason I failed the audition was that my voice “did not sound black enough.”

The voice that is not always heard as mine resounds beyond me, both digital and disconnected. I think of Echo, the nymph who always had to have the last word, and who was cursed unto death by the inexpressible and repetitious, her last words mouthed by others.

Let me shift gears to another issue: that of the process of the archive, the activity of archiving, again that critical confabulation. As I mentioned, some of the photographs in my possession go back to the 1800’s.

Two of the most precious images I’ve found are photos of relatives who were born slaves. This is Peter Williams, my paternal great-grandfather, in what must have been his late 90’s—he lived to be over a hundred:

He was born in slavery, and was in his 70’s when he walked away from the plantation, so slowly no one noticed. We call him the walk-away slave, and my son is named after him. He had a superpower that many black men today are having to learn to harness, for better or worse: that of being present in the world, while steeling oneself into slow un-noticeability. No sudden moves, just blending on in while walking really, really quietly down that road. (This is perhaps “passing” of a different sort than we sometimes think.)

Anyway. Old Peter walked to freedom and started a lumber mill. Freedom suited him well. He got married in his late seventies, learned to read in his 80’s, had a family of eight children, the eldest of whom was my paternal grandfather.

This is a photo my paternal great-grandmother, Old Peter’s wife. I do not know her name:

And here is a photo of my maternal great-grandmother, Mattie Rose Miller, also born into slavery, taken from her mother to be raised as a house slave. She was still a child when Emancipation set her free:

Her mother was a slave named Sophie; and Sophie is the subject and the starting place of my book The Alchemy of Race and Rights. Sophie was 12 when she gave birth to Mattie Rose, who grew to be this woman in the picture. Mattie Rose’s father was white, a lawyer and a judge named Austin Miller, whom my family remembers as “the master” rather than as kin. Austin Miller was in his 30’s when he purchased Sophie from somewhere in Kentucky. She was 11 years old at the time of that purchase, and he wasted no time at all in breeding her.

I know a lot about Austin Miller because his papers—his property holdings, his judicial accomplishments, the names of his white wife and white children—his “legitimate” family—are preserved in The National Archives in Washington D.C. By all such accounts, he was a wealthy and respected man.

I know very little about the child who was my great-great-grandmother Sophie. I mourn not having pictures of her. I mourn her. I am committed to rendering her into existence, to make a mark on her behalf, to give her form and face, to cherish her in the not-national archive of my memory. And so I dream her, but she is unthinkable. In his book Silencing the Past, Michel-Rolph Trouillot writes that “[t]he unthinkable is that which one cannot conceive within the range of possible alternatives, that which perverts all answers because it defies the terms under which the questions were phrased.” But there’s a placeholder for Sophie in my mind. I know that imagining my great-great-grandmother’s face, while irresistible, is really much too easy, and overly-sentimental. She is, indeed, the face my face looked like before my parents were born.

I once heard the filmmaker and theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha speak about how she approaches her projects: “We have to walk not only with those whom we can see. We need to learn to walk with those who have disappeared.”

Meanwhile here is another picture of Sophie’s daughter, my maternal great-grandmother Mattie Rose, with her children and her husband, William Ross, who was not born in slavery, but had been raised somewhere in Canada, we think in Quebec. He was a very fine musician who played with some sort of band that had traveled to Memphis to play, and that’s how he met my great-grandmother. Their two sons—the boys in the picture, my great-uncles Richard and Rufus—were also musicians, spending their entire careers playing with W.C. Handy’s blues band. My grandmother is the child on the very far right:

Still, in my combing through the photos, much has been lost. In the days before my mother’s death, I was sending her questions, not all of which she got around to answering. The archive is filled with questions and unidentified faces.

For example, I have an image of my Uncle Carl as a very young child, in an oval frame. My late cousin Marguerite told me who it was. I look at this picture and realize no one on earth will remember who this is—I am quite literally the only one who still knows. The image is so tenuously bound to me and me alone in the universe.

I suppose this ache for recuperative connection across generations is ritualized by such cultural phenomena as the Day of the Dead, when spirits rise from the grave to join their living loved ones for food and drink. If those spirits are forgotten by the living, if the stories of them cease to be told in the real world, then they disappear. When no human is left who will preserve your memory, or make a shrine of your pictures, or lay out the food that symbolizes communion with the living—then that’s when you do actually pass away, forever.

Let me shift gears once more, this time to the question of context and background, the ethic of the caption. I spend a lot of time thinking about pictures without captions, without stories, without narrative or history. I fear that images alone risk becoming strangers, profiles, free-floating signifiers, landscapes upon which viewers inevitably project whatever they think they see. Whether that is an essentially good thing or a bad thing is a freighted question for me. Can a picture stand on its own? Must it?
Theorist Fred Moten asks: What is “the sound that precedes the image?” Indeed. How does one write shading and background, soundscape and understanding into and around each image?

Here’s another photo, from 1942, of my paternal grandfather and Aunt Margaret and Uncle Lonnie and a family friend; they are all standing in a row eating slices of watermelon. I become anxious about its display: it needs me to interpret it. I live with the fear that if it is just seen by the public at large, they’ll tend to see a random line of black people with large slices of watermelon, smiling—“grinning” they might even say—while they consume a highly overdetermined fruit, shamelessly!

But I know, or I knew, these people, I know the backstory, I grew up hearing their voices: and this is a picture of four doctors poking fun at the stereotype. Note that my grandfather is wearing a full three-piece suit in the picture. He holds his slice with dignity, with the tips of his fingers, the graceful hands of the surgeon he was. If you look closely, they are all quite well-dressed: all elegant professionals—four black doctors asserting that hard-earned status with insistent and relentless pride, never letting anyone forget the dignity of that title, “doctor”—mocking the mockery of The Birth of a Nation and black-faced Disney cartoons. Among family, this photo was something to laugh about. But in the archive it may have to stand alone.

I hand over these pictures of the past as a gift to the future. But so much needs translation, just as this photo needs context to read it as a facetious statement about how to enjoy life, how to subvert the constraints of respectability, and amuse oneself with the forbidden genus citrullus lanatus, the fruit of disreputability, while pantomiming the irredeemable practices of leisure, lounging, laziness, and lust.

So, providing not merely identification, but the the sound and circumstance for these photos has felt pressing to me.
Pattern recognition is another game of the archive: there is much repetition of poses and themes and family resemblances.

This is a photo of my paternal Aunt Margaret, circa 1922, with her dolls:

This is a photo of me, with my doll, circa 1956:

The obvious thing to see is a long intergenerational history of little black girls playing with exclusively white dolls. But I also look at this and see I am wearing my aunt’s face. It is as though we were twins.

By the same magic token, my mother in the moments after her death became an entirely different person. She, the mother I knew, was gone. Instead my mother in death wore the face of my grandmother and great-grandmother, as though they had swooped in and were occupying her body. They looked at me through her, appraising across time and generation.

The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote that it is the face-to-face encounter that inspires one to give to and serve others, for it “involves a calling into question of oneself, a critical attitude which is itself produced in face of the other.”

My mother was such a magnificent storyteller. When I was growing up, her stories always sat outside our bodies, a magical thing-in-the-room, protecting us from goblins, reassuring us, making us laugh. It’s as though we could pick them up and put them on and they’d live forever as long as we wore them. They shimmered. Those shared stories composed us, rooted us, made us consistent and satisfied.

In this sense, the complicated visual effigies in the archive have taken up residence within me like marvelous secret agents of love, sadness, healing, and heroism. Their shapes have insinuated themselves as armatures for carrying on, brave imaginaries for the mind and heart. They have become ethical reference points in the seeping disfigurements of trauma, rage, cruelty, and death. They speak figuratively. The echo of their voices is an epiphany of repair, assurance to lost children of their place in worlds to come.

In Otsuchi, Japan, there is something called the telephone of the wind or a wind phone. In 2010, a seventy-two year old man named Itaru Sasaki lost his cousin. To comfort himself, he set up a phone box high on a hill overlooking the water. There’s a rotary phone inside that is “connected to nowhere.” Since there is no wire, Sasaki speaks of the wind carrying his voice, from the living to the dead. Tens of thousands have come to commune with the dead by wind phone—this surreal link between the grieving and the lost. This commitment to connection when connection has been cut.

Surrealism is a movement designed to make art of such fugue states, a search to make meaning of the irrational, the inexpressible.

Just so, the archive is surreal. It is inhabited by objects that speak, silence that writes volumes, and the life of witness without words. As I put things in, I do so in the name of releasing these intimate interactions into an uncertain future, a zeitgeist. A time-spirit far beyond me. I do yearn to control it. Sometimes I flatter myself with privilege of inscription: The dead are mine. I write them in and out of being. I talk over them, behind them, through them. And they speak to me. They speak through me. Even as they are perfectly indifferent to me.

Such is the conceit of archiving as a social process. I yearn to have future beings see me and my wonderful forefathers and mothers. We were all here! I wish them to live in social imagination more fully than many of them were able to while on the planet. And so I need to explain. I am constantly explaining. I am always looking for the right words, the right accent, the perfect analogy, the smoothest homology, the felt connection, the link that sparks a mental orgasm of humanizing recognition. I throw myself at this task over and over again. It’s promethean. It’s obsessive, compulsive, disordering. But I also like to think of it as principled folly, moral insistence, an endeavor for the long haul.

1 Read more at:
2 Saidiya Hartman, “The Anarchy of Colored Girls Assembled in a Riotous Manner.” Keynote, University of Chicago, May, 2018.
3 Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing The Past: Power and The Production of History, Beacon Press, 1995.
4 Keynote, University of California, Berkeley, October, 2011.
5 Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1979, 81.

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