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Ghost Stories

On-Going Reflections about Grassroots Archiving

In 1973 when a group of us began discussing the idea of something that would become known as the Lesbian Herstory Archives, we had no idea, I think, of the crucial cultural journey we were undertaking. Not just for lesbian, women’s or queer culture, but as participants in the archival movement, for us a grassroots one, where the rooms of an apartment replaced marble mansions. Of course, others had done this before, in the face of a colonizer’s ignorance. I am thinking of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, who spent his life collecting the documents of Caribbean and African American culture after a grade school teacher had “taught” her class that “blacks had no history.” Now in this time of a political regime that refuses access to its papers, that pulls into secrecy its messages of power, that makes its memory different from a democratically available national one, I feel as if that choice we made so many years ago, that door through which we walked into rooms filled with memory and echoing cultural conversations of refusals, assertions, disruptions and continuities, puts us at the center of our times. The place where memory becomes history and history lives as memory, with all our poignant desires for permanence, for an unachievable clarity. The poetry of memory, the anger of memory, the clenched fist of memory, the wails of memory, the bodies of memory, the lives that will not be buried—how the word “archives” resonates for me now, a place where abusive power will be called to reckoning, where ignorances will be preserved in all their human arrogance, and where meanings can shift in a moment’s juxtaposition of the past with the present.

On October 25, 2003, I was privileged to be the guest speaker at the 25th anniversary celebration of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives (ALGA). Founded at the fourth National Homosexual Conference in Sydney in 1978, the archives is now a flourishing grassroots research and community resource. When I walked into the community center where the dinner was being held, I felt I had returned to my archiving roots. Surrounding the 40 or so dining tables were archival displays of organizational and political banners; along the walls, long tables overflowed with photograph albums, copies of early gay publications, carefully indexed buttons. But it was the group of volunteers, who were to be honored that night, that made me feel the deepest rush of connection. Women and men, many in their 70s and older, queer youth, old-time lesbian-feminists and new time feminist sex radicals were still busy decorating the room. This was a busman’s holiday for me, an archival moment far away from New York City. I spoke between the main course—all food prepared by volunteers—and the dessert. I focused my words on a pile of Australian newspaper clippings I had brought with me. In the months before the dinner, the Melbourne dailies were running articles on an almost daily basis about the civil humanity of gay people: articles questioning gay people’s right to be in the church, the right of gay partners to receive the pensions of their deceased lovers—a battle lost—, and article after article on the scourge of paedophilia, which was helping to solidify a growing national homophobia. One article blared, “Time Up for Gays, says Sydney Bishop.” The audience saw my cut-out and pasted-up collection and I explained to them my passion for the subject files I had created out of 30 years of such news coverage back in the States. I have always found clipping these articles and filing them under our own auspices, in the context of our own historical stories, a way of taking the sting out of their assumed power. Archives allow irony, the public display of one time’s ignorance or bigotry. In the 1950s, I and so many others suffered the “perverts-in-the-government” slews of newspaper headlines silently and deeply. Never again, I said. A strange act of defiance—filing.

And then I spoke about archiving in a time of war.

In these days of national certainties, in these days of fear-mongering, of sex panics and religious assaults on the humanity of queer people, never doubt the importance of the work you do with the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives and with all the grassroot gay archives around the world. What I have come to understand is that the deepest gift we can give our historical stories is the gift of uncertainty, the sense that every document or photograph or news article is a challenge to what we think we know about our own lives. Unbounded by time, the archival document “provides new historical objects for reflection,” and is a way of testing thought, of evaluating past decisions, past selves that seemed so stabile. In the words of Foucault, “the archives involves a privileged region, at once close to us and yet different from our present existence, it is the border that surrounds our presence.” These words—reflection, testing thought, evaluating, crossing borders—are not popular concepts in a time of war, in the Bush times. They lead to complexities of vision, to ironic changes in perspective. Our documents so lovingly and carefully cleaned and catalogued are, in reality, uncontainable. They will float up to different surfaces, become another story when read through later eyes—this is the lovely kind of freedom for the possibilities of human thought and action that archives make happen.

And then we ate home-made lamingtons (a favorite Australian dessert) together.

Ghost Stories: Previous Entries

9 August 2005Dear friends, readers and Web explorers...
16 May 2005Aging in a Time of War

© 2005 Joan Nestle

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