10 May 2023 Archiving ‘unwritten’ stories: Enabling efforts towards archival justice in the Caribbean
Stanley H. Griffin
“I am living while I am living to the Father I will pray
Only him know how we get through every day,
With all the hike in the price
Arm and leg we haffi pay
While our leaders play…
I could go on and on, the full has never been told.”
—Mark “Buju Banton” Myrie, Untold Stories 1995
Jamaican lyricist and dancehall legend, Buju Banton in his popular song Untold Stories describes the daily struggles of the working masses of Jamaica, and the Caribbean. Through his reggae dancehall lyrics, Banton captures the arduous realities of everyday lived experiences as well as the general perspectives of the working classes that are not formally documented in customary writings found in Caribbean archives.
The Caribbean still suffers from the colonial hierarchical dynamics and politics that shaped its societies. From the arrival of Europeans, conquest of the territories inhabited by the various Indigenous communities, to the importation of European indentured servants, African enslaved labourers and later Asian and Indian indentured workers, the Caribbean developed from plantations into multicultural nations, whose various cultures were oppressed by colonialism.
This enforced Eurocentric homogeneity not only expressed itself in language usage or architectural design, but also in information forms and record-keeping practices. Of the many present-day injustices that colonialism engendered, the injustices that were written still often overshadow the injustice of “the written”, i.e. an injustice created by the writer on the written.
While the written word is appraised, held as “reliable and truth” and then placed in the Archive for preservation, it simultaneously negates the value of the spoken word, i.e. oral traditions – with its songs, stories, movements, etcetera, and suggests these expressions lack reliability and truth, and therefore should not be seen as archival. These expressions and forms of documentation are perceived as cultural activities, integral to the rituals of living and community formation, but are not openly appreciated as archival forms. These unwritten stories cannot be accessed in archives that were designed and resourced for preserving paper-based written memories.
Archives in the Commonwealth Caribbean do not necessarily reflect the totality of social, economic, and political narratives that inform the popular or national discourse. There is some disconnect between popular memory and the evidences of the histories championed by those in authority. Victoria Borg O’Flaherty, former national archivist in St Kitts and Nevis, describes this very real national memory dilemma.
“Many natives of St Kitts have claimed that they do not care about the past because there is nothing in it that is worth remembering. The complexities of the relationship of post-colonial societies and their history have often had an impact on the way archives are viewed. Kittitian researchers approach them with a sense of awe, that something so old has survived while others call them ‘white people archives’ and refuse to use them. By recognizing that the archive was an inherent part of the machinery of colonialism, one becomes conscious of its limitations in contributing to the history of the colonized in a post-colonial community and yet it is still a source of information about them.”1
Thus, there is an “archival injustice” which is based on the exclusion of the information details and memory practices and which privileges Eurocentric forms of record-keeping and information details. This legacy of information forms dictates what can be found in the holdings of Caribbean Archives and what is generally remembered by populations, thereby further perpetuating the social injustices of the day that shaped the records and subjugated the recorded, i.e. archival injustice.
Defining archival justice
One may ask, is it possible to define and achieve “archival justice”? One could envision archival justice as the positive result of “archival decolonization”, which is defined as:
“[The] reconsideration of the contexts, perspectives, subjects, and mechanisms of the record, which has to be redefined to include non-traditional information materials. This requires a reinterpretation and re-evaluation of historical circumstances, cultural realities, and information sources. The results of decolonization should be deliberate action to include the details, memory, practices, records, recordkeeping principles and subjects of the formerly excluded by colonial archival thought and praxis.”2
In other words, if Caribbean societies, and its memory institutions, recognize and validate non-traditional information materials as indeed archival, then there will be equitable representation within the “houses of memory” for all in the society. Hazel V. Carby offers an intriguing description – if not an ambition – of archival injustice:
“There should be space for alternative realities, alternative ways of knowing, in the archive. There should be room for imagining a world in which justice not injustice triumphed, a world where wealth had been returned to those who had produced it… no one should look to the colonial archives for social justice.”3
Decolonized Archives create spaces for other forms of documentation, and for culturally appropriate ways of accessing those forms of memory, which in turn, gives rise to archival justice. Thankfully, there is a growing recognition and appreciation for these alternate forms of knowledge, ways of documenting and expressions of memory that are being included within the holdings of Caribbean archives.
Efforts towards archival justice
Within the Caribbean, there is a growing recognition of the informational values of the internationally renowned cultural expressions and practices. Oral tradition, in the Caribbean, is the key source for accessing, interpreting, and retelling the details and perceptions of the masses and not solely the traditional archive. Additionally, each community has its own unique histories, narratives, and personalities, which are expressed within local cultural contexts and are based on particular historical experiences. The social resistance that took place daily in the plantations and occasionally in rebellions between colonial masters and African enslaved labourers also occurred in the forms of information creation and documentation.
“While the colonial establishment wrote their reports, diary journals and jotted observations as notes, the marginalized masses sang songs and chants, danced, told stories and held community gatherings. The creativity of the gifted singer, musician, dancer, storyteller, and community leader is central to the creation, dissemination and preservation of information, as is the scribe with ink and paper.”4
There are deliberate efforts to collect materials from the community, such as family and personal papers, audiovisual recordings and photographs. Some institutions have either conducted or supported local oral history projects, while others have created initiatives at enabling interest in community memory. Undoubtedly, these efforts result in other formats of materials being donated/deposited at the Archives. Regional archives are steadily increasing and diversifying their capacities in order to preserve non-paper materials.
Another effort Caribbean memory institutions use to promote archival justice in the Caribbean is by participating in community education and memory-recovery training on-going initiatives. In one territory, the archivist used the holdings of their archives to create a local history course that was offered at the nearby university. This became an opportunity to introduce aspects of the island’s history, while capturing community narratives which offer complementary details to those reflected in official records.
In another island, archival staff participate in community heritage research and renovation/re-enactment projects. By conducting training sessions on how to research official records, document and record oral histories, archives empower community members to actively engage in preserving memory from their perspectives. In another instance, archivists use outreach initiatives, such as open days, exhibitions and social and traditional media programmes to encourage donation of materials and engagement with archival holdings. By using websites and social media platforms, memory institutions are making their holdings relevant to their communities while encouraging their target audiences to find greater value in their materials. However, there is one more effort that is enabling access to other forms of archival memory.
Using the internet as community archive
The internet, especially social media platforms, have grown increasingly popular among community enthusiasts and grassroots movements for creating and sharing informational details, community records and objects and stories. Groups such as “You know you are Antiguan if…” create and give participating audiences the space to share personal photographs, video-recordings, and recollections about community details that may are based on particular times and places and may not have survived to present-day.
The international lockdowns that formed part of the response to the 2020 Corona virus (Covid-19) pandemic created opportunities for greater use of web-based video conferencing and social media platforms for activities and events that were traditionally held in community-oriented festivals and designated spaces. These events, coupled with the creativity of artistes, designers and performers, provided spaces for persons to use traditional cultural expressions in new digital ways.
Calypsos, for example, found new audiences and articulations, such as Tik Tok dance and singing challenges, while creating songs and lyrics which detail and document pandemic experiences. Finally, these digital expressions are saved and made accessible on online video sharing platforms, such as YouTube. These YouTube videos create other opportunities for global access to contemporary community and cultural expression, practice and thought, which are not always found in memory institutions.
Archival justice initiatives are as empowering and impactful as social justice movements. These efforts push for recovering and supporting the revitalization of information forms and cultural practices. These efforts affirm the “alternative ways of knowledge” that are produced by communities that were marginalized by colonialism. Caribbean archives have undoubtedly ostracized its masses with holdings that were created by, and used for, colonialism. These efforts at attaining archival justice recognize the autonomy of communities to document, keep, preserve, share their own stories. Communities can be confident custodians of their heritage and nurture their own traditions.
In so doing, communities can provide evidence of their narratives and experiences in ways that are unique to their contexts and cultures. By creating their own recordkeeping spaces, communities can support memory institutions by complementing traditional holdings with their cultural records. Finally, archival justice promotes the human rights of all persons within a society, by respecting the community’s information-modes of creation, preservation and sharing, while offering access to the community’s particular social contributions and voice in the society.
Records and archives should include and represent all within a society. All should have their voices documented and preserved. All should inform the patrimony of the nation. The efforts towards attaining archival justice in the Caribbean are still a work in progress. As long as there are “untold stories”, the work will go on and on.
1. Borg O’Flaherty, Victoria, “Overcoming Anonymity: Kittians and Their Archives”, Bastian, Jeannette and Alexander, Ben (eds), Community Archives: The Shaping of Memory London: Facet, 2009, 221
2. Griffin, Stanley H. “Decolonization (of records and archives), Patricia Franks (ed), Handbook of Archival Practice New York: Rowan and Littlefield, 2021, 8
3. Carby, Hazel V. “The National Archives” Invisible Culture: An Electronic Journal for Visible Culture Issue 31, November 2020 https://ivc.lib.rochester.edu/the-national-archives/ accessed 12 January 2023
4. Griffin, Stanley H. “Noises in the archives: Acknowledging the present yet silenced presence in Caribbean archival memory” Moss, Michael and Thomas, David (eds) Archival Silences: Missing, Lost and, Uncreated Archives London: Routledge, 2021, 117-11
Stanley H. Griffin is Deputy Dean, Undergraduate Matters (Humanities) and Senior Lecturer, in Archival and Information Studies in the Faculty of Humanities and Education, Department of Library and Information Studies (DLIS) respectively at The University of the West Indies, Mona Jamaica Campus. He holds a BA (Hons.) in History, a PhD in Cultural Studies (with High Commendation), from the Cave Hill Barbados Campus of The University of the West Indies, and an MSc in Archives and Records Management (Int’l), University of Dundee, Scotland. His research interests include Multiculturalism in Antigua and the Eastern Caribbean; the Cultural Dynamics of intra-Caribbean migrations; Archives in the constructs of Caribbean culture; and Community Archives in the Caribbean. His most recent publications include Decolonizing the Caribbean Record: An Archives Reader (Litwin 2018), and Archiving Caribbean Identity: Records, Community, and Memory (Routledge, 2022) co-edited works with Jeannette Bastian and John Aarons, several book chapters and journal articles on Caribbean archival, historical and cultural issues. Stanley is active on the executive of several academic, heritage, and archival professional societies, including the Caribbean’s archival association, CARBICA, and is a member of the Editorial Board of The International Journal of Information, Diversity, & Inclusion.