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queer archival tactics and ‘the stories we tell’

9 November 2020

Molly C Farrell, Glasgow University

Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2020).

Shola von Reinhold, LOTE (London: Jacaranda Books, 2020). 

‘[N]arrative may be the only available form of redress for the monumental crime that was the transatlantic slave trade and the terror of enslavement and racism’, says Saidiya Hartman (Columbia University) in a 2018 interview.[1] ‘That’s a long way of saying that the stories we tell or the songs we sing or the wealth of immaterial resources are all that we can count on’.[2] The colonial economy, slavery and its afterlife, and the historical continuation of racism are the roots upon which our modernity was built, from which our modernisms were created and recorded, and which have lent to the creation of archives used in modernist studies today. This review considers two texts that examine the specific challenges in practice of isolating queer black subjects within the archives of modernist research: Hartman’s book from 2019, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, and Shola von Reinhold’s debut novel, LOTE, published in the first half of 2020. It considers the value of experimental ‘archival tactics’ in recent cross-genre attempts to re-/construct the queer black subjects of modernism, using the vocabulary of queer archival practice. 

Queer archival projects – as Clare Hemmings demonstrated in her 2018 monograph on the twentieth-century white anarchist feminist Emma Goldman[3] – attempt to find ways of resisting the heteropatriarchal norms of dominant archival practices through the material interactions between archive and visitor. They play with different ways of telling stories, of reading between the lines. The archives themselves are recognised not as pure repositories for information or hoarded knowledge, but as sites of conversation that exist for and are animated by personal interactions. Central to the claims of queer archival practice is the assumption that the archives are partial in their representations of whatever subjects they revolve around – created with displacements, authorities, and ideological blindspots. 

Hemmings’ work offers us a new vocabulary for archival practice, positioning the archive as an intersubjective, feeling project, driven by individual and institutional desires: ‘archival tactics’, ‘citational traces’, ‘citational histories’.[4] The project foregrounded her own explicit desires for a different, queer history of Goldman – as a queer academic, herself – but without attempting to ‘find’ in Goldman some nonanachronistic, antiracist modern feminist who had been fundamentally misread by existing archival histories. She writes with feeling about the frustrations of having no access to specific sources, only to the sources which write about them, and of how to make sense of those gaps without attempting to go back into the archive and fill them back in. 

Still, while the queer modernist archive is but fledgling in its existence as an archival category, intersections with colour and class – it should go without saying – are multiply precarious. Certain significant protagonists of von Reinhold’s LOTE and Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments – queer modernists of colour – exist at the nadir of the contemporary archivist’s necessary confrontation with the incompleteness and ideological violences of the archive. The need to create this archive through experimental methods of excavation, piracy and imagination – from the suppressions, blanks and erasures of existing archival practice – looms intimidatingly large. 

LOTE follows Mathilda, a present-day queer Black researcher, obsessed with the Bright Young Things of the 1920s and 30s. During a stint of unpaid archival work in London, Mathilda discovers a forgotten Black modernist poet, Hermia Druitt, conjured in the marginalia of the collections, whose lost 1928 poem The Fainting Young was to have been published by the Hours Press, plausibly placing her alongside such other Black modern artists and activists as Evelyn Dove, C.L.R James, and Richard Bruce Nugent. 

von Reinhold’s novel is about many things, most of which remain beyond my own material understanding as a white, middle-class researcher, but it feels to be exactly the novel I – and the rest of the white modernist research body – should be learning from and teaching. The book evokes so well the material interactions and longings at play in archival work. These longings will be familiar to most researchers, but identifications with the subjects of the archives are almost exclusively limited to those who – like myself – look like the people who compiled them. Hermia Druitt is a narrative invention that affords Mathilda a moment of identification so atrociously rare for any queer subject of colour (‘My mouth ached to say the name aloud’).[5] Near the end of the book, Mathilda finally finds the poet’s lost manuscript within the confines of an oblique-sounding residency held in cultish honour of a continental thinker named Garreaux. Druitt’s complete and untouched material archive has been secreted away to serve as some invisible feature and function of the white thinker’s own intellectual archive and thereby genius. Of many things, LOTE is a novel about the foundational ideologies of normative and historical archival practices, which have fundamental bases in exclusion and deletion, and continue to be upheld or ignored by those who act as its institutional gatekeepers.  

Wayward Lives is a similarly intoxicating read – an urgent blend of theory and narrative. In Hartman’s own words, the book ‘recreates the radical imagination and wayward practices of [young Black women at the turn of the twentieth century] by describing the world through their eyes’.[6] Hartman uses radical archival tactics of excavation – reading backwards into legal documents, newspaper articles, and social work reports. She argues that the errant and everyday young Black women of New York’s Harlem or of South Street in Philadelphia were leaders in a revolution of intimate life and radical imagination, and should be recognised as ‘sexual modernists, free lovers, […] anarchists [… in] their experiments with freedom.[7] Alongside known details about the lives of famed ‘bull daggers’ and ‘gender-queer strollers’ Gladys Bentley, Jackie Mabley and Mabel Hampton (activist and founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives), are elaborations and close-narrative inventions of the intimate histories of subjects like fifteen-year-old Mattie Jackson of Hampton, Virginia, and Mamie Shepherd who rents a three-room tenement flat on Saint Mary Street, Philadelphia.[8] Hartman’s self-proclaimed mission is    

[…] to exhume open rebellion from the case file […] and free love from their identification as deviance, criminality, and pathology […] and to illuminate the radical imagination and everyday anarchy of ordinary colored girls, which has not only been overlooked, but is nearly unimaginable.[9]

Both von Reinhold and Hartman come from a position of obvious respect for the nominal practices of archival research, and for the untold stories that might be excavated from their fissures. In different ways, both writers use tactics that step beyond the authority of normative archival practices. 

Alongside Hartman and von Reinhold, other contemporary writers making queer and creative interventions to the institution of the archive include Ann Cvetkovich (Carleton University), Carla Freccero (University of California), Julietta Singh (University of Richmond), and Jordy Rosenberg (University of Massachusetts-Amherst).[10] Together, these experiments are not simply works of revisionist history, they make clear how little the verification of such historical creations actually matters. The absolute plausibility of these stories, combined with the overwhelming evidence of such subjects’ struggles to exist not least in their own present-day but also in the archives that so frequently write them out, is proof enough. It is not just a task of filling the gaps of a racist and multiply violent history, although this is certainly an important and necessary ongoing exercise. It is also the task of foregrounding different identifications with marginalised subjects of those archives, whether they existed literally or not (but, certainly, they did). 

The only way to access ‘what really happened’ may be to, in the words of Frecerro, ‘let go of the anchor of “what really happened”’ – to use queer archival tactics (imagination, piracy, excavation) – ‘as a way to get at how subjects live, not only in their histories but also history itself, to the extent that history is lived through fantasy in the form of ideology’.[11] 


[1] Thora Siemsen, ‘On Working with archives: An interview with writer Saidiya Hartman’, The Creative Independent (2018) <https://thecreativeindependent.com/people/saidiya-hartman-on-working-with-archives/>

[2] Ibid.

[3] Clare Hemmings, Considering Emma Goldman: Feminist Political Ambivalence and the Imaginative Archive (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).

[4] Ibid, various.

[5] von Reinhold, p. 27.

[6] Hartman, p. xiii.

[7] Ibid, p. xv.

[8] Ibid, p. xix.

[9] Ibid, p. xiv.

[10] Ann Cvetkovich, An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003); Carla Freccero, Queer/Early/Modern (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005); Julietta Singh, No Archive Will Restore You (Santa Barbara, CA: Punctum Books, 2018); Jordy Rosenberg, Confessions of a Fox (London: Atlantic Books, 2019).

[11] Freccero, p. 23.

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