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Witnessing and Fixing the Archives

At the 2022 P. A. Christensen Lecture, Dr. Kristin Matthews analyzed the focus of contemporary Black American women’s poetry on historical archives and documents.

Dr. Kristin Matthews
Photo by DJ Arnett

History is biased by those holding a pen or a paintbrush and depicting their perspective. As Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” In the United States, the fable that is our history has overlooked and minimized the voices of marginalized Black citizens in many historical documents and records.

During the annual P.A. Christensen Lecture, lectureship-recipient Dr. Kristin Matthews (English, African American Literature) addressed skewed histories in relation to the Black freedom struggle. She showed how the Black American women poets today are challenging the racist documentation of history kept in the archives. Dr. Matthews explained that poets such as Eve Ewing, Claudia Rankine, Robin Coste Lewis, and Tracy K. Smith “use their collections, their testimony drawn from official documents, to make visible the ways that White supremacy structures the West’s archives, epistemology, and language. In a way, their work sings ‘I was blind but now I see,’ calling readers to see, and then leaving them to work out what they will do with that insight.”

These poets returned to the archives of historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence to inspire their poignant arguments and to “bear witness to that which lies therein.” The archives themselves were written, edited, and organized predominantly by White people, which allowed for a biased and racist representation of history. “To control the archive is to dictate what stories are told and how, what is commemorated and why, and what is erased from the official record,” said Dr. Matthews. “The real inhumanity is in those behind the brush.”

Dr. Kristin Matthews, P. A. Christensen Lecture
Photo by Bekah Mecham

Dr. Matthews showed some of the documents from the archive that the poets read and reworked. In many cases, the creators of the original documents were ignorant of their content's racism, or the documents had been doctored to remove violence or racism, and to replace “historically specific markers” and perceived racist terms with contemporarily acceptable terms, erasing from history the injustice.

The poets noticed these things, and used their poetry to call them out. They “draw attention to how museums have erased racist language and efforts to sanitize the past and how that white washing of history seeks to absolve whiteness of its sins and deny the reality of racism,” Dr. Matthews said. Lewis in particular noted that some museum exhibits containing art and catalog titles “rendered Blackness inhuman or grotesque,” while others used terms like “African American” in place of other more racist terminology in an attempt to lessen the racism itself. The edited history removed fact; the poems re-correcting these choices amplify the issue of racism itself. Why poetry? Dr. Matthews quoted Smith, saying, “Poems bear witness to the dark facets of experience. They gave us vocabulary for the terror, the shame, the regret.”

When asked about the poets having a goal to fix and re-correct the archive, Dr. Matthews explained that the poets aren’t taking on the mission themselves. They are giving their readers the tools and encouraging them to use them: “We’ve given you the tools; now you go save it,” Dr. Matthews paraphrased. The poets' real goal is to educate their readers, to help them “see the ways in which these forces are working in their own lives, and invite a collective repentance.”

The 2022 P. A. Christensen Lecture was held on March 17, 2022, in the JFSB at BYU.