By Mariam I. Williams
“In South Africa, a common greeting is sawa bona, which translates to, ‘I see you,’ or, ‘I acknowledge your existence.’ The response to this greeting is sikhona, which means, ‘I am here–when you see me, you bring me into existence.’ … [I]n every space I enter, I am waiting for someone to exchange this pleasantry with, not just in word but in intention. And usually, I am met with silence.” —Jessica J. Williams
I found this quote in an essay in which Jessica J. Williams is discussing what it’s like to be Black in academia, a traditionally and abundantly white space. It resonated with me in regards to Chronicling Resistance because there are few spaces whiter than the archive.
I am a Black woman. The cohort of Activist-Curator Fellows and Consulting Curator for Chronicling Resistance are Black, Brown, Indigenous, uterus-having, same-sex loving, gender-queer, immigrants, impoverished, non-English speaking, and people otherwise pushed to the margins. When we enter the archive, we are looking for ourselves, and the archive—the documents found in rows and stacks of clamshell boxes and acid-free folders, locked away in chilled rooms of centuries-old institutions, the raw data scholars use to write history—does not see us. It meets us with silence. Or it too often speaks to us as objects, side players, and background noise, rather than to our humanity and our agency.
This is neither accidental nor coincidental. Traditional archives and the people who built them have not acknowledged our existence. Though efforts have been underway since the 1960s to expand or diversify collections, and though librarians who work in archives and special collections know the lapses, traditional archives still reflect the society in which we live, one that operates as a hierarchy in which people who are white, male, cis-gender, heterosexual, and wealthy or famous have histories worth remembering and papers or artifacts worth preserving. In this way, the archive both affirms and invalidates what happened, who exists, who has power, and whose stories are or will be worth remembering for future generations.
This project does not make up for centuries of silences. It can’t and doesn’t attempt to. Chronicling Resistance does, however, attempt to amplify the voices of a small cohort of local activists, cultural organizers, and artists by sharing with Philadelphia what they found in institutional archives and in their own communities.
In October 2020, the Chronicling Resistance Activist-Curator Fellows began looking within the Free Library and Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries institutions for stories of resistance in Philadelphia that reflected their communities and their own areas of activism. Defining “resistance” on their own terms, they have challenged the systemic erasure of Black, Brown, and LGBTQ+ people from the historical record. Though the work has not been easy, the Fellows have shown that there is power in contending with the traditional, in bringing yourself off the sidelines and to the center, in making your ancestors’ names known, in declaring, “I am here.” There is also joy in uncovering what has been hidden, in bringing ourselves out of the silences and into bold existence.
—Mariam I. Williams, Co-P.I. and Project Director