What Was Saved

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tags: historiography, African American history, New Orleans, archives

Archives have always been contested spaces. Who and what gets recorded often has more to do with those in power than it does those without it. Historians have wrestled with this fact for decades, trying to address the assumed neutrality of the political and cultural institutions responsible for recording our past. In the last 40 years, a wave of cultural and social historians, mostly writing about the black Atlantic, have done so by finding new archives to mine, uncovering those voices left in the margins. In his sweeping history, Silencing the Past, Michel-Rolph Trouillot put forth a powerful indictment of what historians of the Atlantic world have chosen to ignore (the Haitian Revolution, slave revolts) or commemorate (Christopher Columbus, the American Revolution) and offered a counterhistory. In Reconstructing Womanhood, her study of African American women novelists, Hazel Carby rewrote 19th and 20th century literary history, forcing readers to focus on the fiction of black women intellectuals. And in her classic essay “Venus in Two Acts,” Saidiya Hartman exhumed ignored slave archives and used what she termed “critical fabulation” (the process of closing gaps in the archives) to retell the story of a black woman’s murder aboard a slave ship. “How can narrative embody life in words and at the same time respect what we cannot know?” Hartman asked. “How does one listen for the groans and cries, the undecipherable songs, the crackle of fire in the cane fields, the laments for the dead, and the shouts of victory, and then assign words to all of it?”

Though many of these historians focused on slavery, their insights and methodologies have informed a new generation of writers as they examine the wider history of being black in America. Sarah M. Broom, a contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, deploys these archival techniques in The Yellow House, a memoir that reconstructs not only her family’s history in New Orleans but also that larger arc of the black experience in the United States. Her sources range from maps and pamphlets to interviews and journal entries. But perhaps most compellingly, one of her primary texts is the titular house in which she and her siblings grew up.

The Yellow House has garnered well-deserved praise; it won a National Book Award and appeared on several “best of the year” lists. More than just a narrative about a family, it is a masterpiece of personal and social history, examining the devastating consequences of decades of government neglect and revealing the very weak foundations on which the American dream rests. Using oral history, forgotten pieces of journalism, photographs, deeds, and other artifacts, The Yellow House helps to fill in those painful “silent leaps,” as Broom puts it, that fragment the history of her family and her home of New Orleans East.

By giving her family members space to tell their stories, Broom does far more than help knit this history back together. Like Hartman, she also poses a set of vexing questions: How do you reconstruct the history of a place and a people whose importance has been deemed negligible (at best) by those in power? How do you use the archives to write the narrative of a life (or in this case, lives) without replicating the initial violence?

Read entire article at The Nation

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