Our second Workshop in our series, “From Process to Product: Working the Archive,” featured Carla Peterson working through excerpts from Black Gotham with graduate students and young scholars from a variety of New York-area humanities departments. We opened with a quotation from Black Gotham, which spoke to the “in” part of “Black Gotham in/outside the Archive” and to Peterson’s returning, again and again, to the Schomburg Center:
“Having reached a dead end, I turned to the archives, those storehouses of memories that have been painstakingly preserved on scraps of paper or in other forms, from paintings and photographs to digital images. Archives are man-made. Not all communities have the power to establish them since they require material resources—money, buildings, technologies of writing and preservation—as well as cultural resources, including literacy and historical knowledge. Those who have the means assemble, classify, and deposit what they deem worth preserving, discarding what they consider trivial, irrelevant, or even threatening to their way of life. They create history, determining what can be forgotten, and what must be remembered and passed to future generations. Even after archives have been assembled, they never remain static monuments but are imbued with a sense of impermanence. Materials get damaged, lost, sold, removed from their original site and forgotten, destroyed through political upheaval or just sheer carelessness. What would I find? Not find? How would I be able to put together the scraps that I found? What could I make out of those I didn’t find? I visited the Schomburg Center time and again, and haunted the city’s many other libraries, museums, historical societies, and memorials. I gradually realized that although much of New York’s black history was irretrievably lost, some of its was still there, buried but waiting to be found. I also discovered that despite any personal or cultural traumas nineteenth-century black New Yorkers might have suffered, many had made determined, if sometimes futile, efforts to commemorate their history.” (19-20)
Since the Workshop aims to train young scholars, Peterson spoke directly to her methodology, which she describes as intuitive and persistent. The heart of Black Gotham, as she told us, lies in its detail. “If I couldn’t find the detail that could make the story sing,” she said, “I’d just be replicating the work of others.” She also warned young scholars never to stop at the database – “You always have to look at newspapers. Lord knows what lies on the page.”
While acknowledging that younger scholars and graduate students might not have the opportunities to write a trade book with such personal stakes early in their careers, Peterson nonetheless offered valuable encouragement about the writing process. Often, when telling a story, the materials we use can reveal the best narrative strategy (which, in Peterson’s case, meant “writing to the scrap,” making Black Gotham’s chapters into narrative scrapbooks). Using archives allows us to revisit literary forms in new ways to reveal cultural work that they’re doing. It also gives us access to new kinds of documents to consider as literary objects.