Archive Toxics

Description

 

            Los Angeles has a deep connection to slavery, but those who were subjected to having to grapple with the institution and its legacies in early California have been relatively absent from the archive. California’s early history invokes images of white pioneers who settled in California from the mid 19th century to early 20thcentury. These types of images are plentiful, and their abundance has previously concealed African Americans from the history of early California, as Black pioneers have been documented through very few traces. Biddy Mason, one of Los Angeles’s first Black pioneers, is one exception. Yet, regardless of the small traces of information we have about Mason’s life and impact on the formation of Los Angeles and the foundation she built for the Black community, she is forced to stand as a marker, a representation of those for whom no records exist.

            The gaps in the history of African Americans in early Southern California impedes an appreciation for the range and depth of experience within a place, even more so for Black women whom are virtually absent from the archive altogether. Archive toxics are produced through selective inclusion which operates as a form of power, mobilized through historiography that produces an imaginary of particular peoples and places. While the archive is assumed to provide a literal and conceptual place of stable knowledge established from the individuals and institutions that constitute it, toxicity lies in the misinformation, the emptiness, and the selectiveness of knowledge that forms a contaminated ecology of information. Toxic through inclusion and exclusion, producing vacuous spaces and relegating some subjects to the very margins of existence. However, there are always the specters that haunt this place of the archive.

            Saidiya Hartman (2019) writes that “Every historian of the multitude, the dispossessed, the subaltern, and the enslaved is forced to grapple with the power and authority of the archive and the limits it sets on what can be known, whose perspective matters, and who is endowed with the gravity and authority of historical actor” (7). Interrogating the archive as a place of toxicity pushes us to read beyond the literal materials that establishes it as a place, and consider the power dynamics as we utilize the archive to produce historical actors and the places they have inhabited. A focus on the minor traces is central to bringing forward the silences of the archive. 

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Archive Toxics Cover

  Los Angeles has a deep connection to slavery, but those who were subjected to having to grapple with the institution and its legacies in early California have been relatively absent from the archive. California’s early history invokes images of white pioneers who settled in California from the mid 19th century to early 20thcentury. These types of images are plentiful, and their abundance has previously concealed African Americans from the history of early California, as Black pioneers have been documented through very few traces. Biddy Mason, one of Los Angeles’s first Black pioneers, is one exception. Yet, regardless of the small traces of information we have about Mason’s life and impact on the formation of Los Angeles and the foundation she built for the Black community, she is forced to stand as a marker, a representation of those for whom no records exist.

            The gaps in the history of African Americans in early Southern California impedes an appreciation for the range and depth of experience within a place, even more so for Black women whom are virtually absent from the archive altogether. Archive toxics are produced through selective inclusion which operates as a form of power, mobilized through historiography that produces an imaginary of particular peoples and places. While the archive is assumed to provide a literal and conceptual place of stable knowledge established from the individuals and institutions that constitute it, toxicity lies in the misinformation, the emptiness, and the selectiveness of knowledge that forms a contaminated ecology of information. Toxic through inclusion and exclusion, producing vacuous spaces and relegating some subjects to the very margins of existence. However, there are always the specters that haunt this place of the archive.

            Saidiya Hartman (2019) writes that “Every historian of the multitude, the dispossessed, the subaltern, and the enslaved is forced to grapple with the power and authority of the archive and the limits it sets on what can be known, whose perspective matters, and who is endowed with the gravity and authority of historical actor” (7). Interrogating the archive as a place of toxicity pushes us to read beyond the literal materials that establishes it as a place, and consider the power dynamics as we utilize the archive to produce historical actors and the places they have inhabited. A focus on the minor traces is central to bringing forward the silences of the archive. 

Archive Toxics 3

This is a found visualization that invites viewers into the archive as a place.

Archive Toxics

This image first includes a typical archived photograph that represents the Western Migration of white pioneers. I superimposed the image of Biddy Mason, a Black pioneer of early California, to illustrate the alternative histories which challenge this imaginary. I've lightened Mason's portrait to invoke a spectral visualization, playing on the notion of silences and hauntings.

Archive Toxics 2

This altered image first includes an early photograph of Los Angeles. Additionally, I superimposed the image of Biddy Mason to push against the white imaginaries of Los Angeles as a place. Mason's portrait is meant to invoke a spectral visualization, again playing on the notion of silences and hauntings.

Archive Toxics 4

This image is one of few that the archive holds of African American pioneers during the formation of early Los Angeles. The image is from the 1870's and displays members of the Owens and Mason families, whom under close examination of the photograph can be seen glaring back at the camera. While these figures are present in the archive, they represent an exception to the reality of the archive’s toxic dynamics of exclusion.

License

All rights reserved.

Contributors

Created date

February 2, 2020

Group Audience

  • - Private group -

Cite as

Monique Azzara. 2 February 2020, "Archive Toxics", Center for Ethnography, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 7 March 2020, accessed 4 December 2021.