As a trigger warning for descendants of enslaved people, the archival sources of the history of enslavement of the African Diaspora tend to be framed by the gaze of the slaveholder and to silence the intellectual production of the enslaved. These manuscripts systematically evidence imperial sexual violence, painful exploitation and torture of enslaved persons, the influence of scientific racism in the Atlantic World, and the use of hateful language as violence, including racial slurs. Examining the silencing of public memory about racialized slavery is in itself triggering, since many archival sources that affirmed the intellectual production of the enslaved were destroyed or appropriated with the intentions of depersonalizing the enslaved and keeping Black resistance movements in the margins of History. The reimagining of archives is urgent because the legacies of the history of racially-premised slavery propel contemporary structural racism and the policing and exploitation of communities of the African Diaspora around the world. The primary sources in the archives might be misgendering people, and Firestone Library of Princeton University stands in Lenape territory and within an institution with historical ties to racialized slavery.
If you search the word “slavery” in the Princeton University Library Catalog and refine the search for “manuscripts” in Rare Books and Special Collections at Firestone Library, you will find files that were historically meant to commemorate slaveholding families. If you read the Catalog descriptions of the files, you will find dehumanizing language, such as “stealing slaves” and even “competing rival slave” when referring to the leaders of the Haitian Revolution. The current status of the archive poses immeasurable barriers for scholars of African American Studies. It alienates and perpetrates harm on Black researchers, who in turn are underrepresented in academia. It disregards the public memory of the enslaved and poses burdens on the scholarly production about structurally marginalized groups. It maintains the historical empathetic gaze on the slaveholder, silencing the stories and lived experiences of the enslaved.
The Archival Justice for the Enslaved Project aims to support decolonizing the archives of Rare Books and Special Collections at Firestone Library, creating a counter-narrative dataset that shifts the narrative from the slaveholder to the enslaved. This public-facing dataset contributes to the ongoing ethical conversations about humanities data and the history of slavery and institutional racism. This alternative searchable dataset not only modifies the current dehumanizing language of the archive, but also generates new descriptions that are centered on the stories and experiences of the enslaved, while also dismantling the current “miscellaneous” conceptualization of the archives on slavery. This is therefore an invaluable resource for graduate and undergraduate students pursuing a concentration or certificate in the Department of African American Studies at Princeton, in addition to scholars who would like to pursue ethical research about slavery in Rare Books and Special Collections. In light of Princeton University’s historical ties to racialized slavery, the approach of this project is guided by scholarly activism for reparations and restorative justice within academia. The Director, Associate Director, and Research Associates collaborated on designing the goals and the framework for this project. All entries were limited to digital research due to the COVID-19 pandemic and written by students affiliated to the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University. Each entry grants merit to its author, and some entries include a list of suggested readings to encourage engagement with the history of racialized slavery outside of the limitations of the archive. The Project created entirely new or revised descriptions for a selection of files, boxes, and manuscripts that have been labeled by Firestone Library as related to the history of slavery, but acknowledges that there are many files that have not been designated as related to the history of racialized enslavement, particularly because many files were historically acquired to commemorate slaveholders. Therefore, this Project cannot do much more than to spark conversations about contemporary archival anti-Blackness and the possibilities of reparative archival justice.
Dannelle Gutarra Cordero
Department of African American Studies
Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
Addressing Racism Funding Initiative Grant, Office of the Dean of the Faculty, Princeton University
Dataset Curation Grant, Center for Digital Humanities, Princeton University
Research Assistance Grant, Anonymous, Undergraduate Research Assistants in Humanities and Social Sciences Fund, University Committee on Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Princeton University