Foreword by Research Associate Asia Matthews


Under the direction of Professor Dannelle Gutarra Cordero, the Archival Justice for the Enslaved Project was born to critically modify existing archival representations of enslaved figures in the Princeton University Rare Books and Special Collections manuscripts. I worked alongside two other Research Associates to create a database of historical documents about slavery that consciously shifted the narrative from slaveholder to the enslaved. The team identified two core problems within the archives: language and categorization. The archive contained dehumanizing language, imprecise subject headings, and sloppy descriptions. Not to mention, the collection is primarily accessed through search categories and terms that propagate the conceptualization of slavery as a “miscellaneous” research topic. As a group, we carefully crafted document descriptions that matched the sensitivity of slavery as not only a research topic, but as a traumatic condition of our ancestors, with reverberations that still haunt us today.

By emphasizing the importance of language, we were able to propose a meaningful critique of the “objective historical voice.” This objective historical voice desensitizes researchers to Black trauma and invisibilizes enslaved subjects in the recounting of their own memory. Our interventions in the documentation of Black historical memory are crucial for reimagining what accessibility necessarily means and for constructing historical spaces that nurture Black figures and researchers.

At the time I was involved with the project, I was oblivious to how my work was a crucial contribution to the legacy of Black historiographers, who also detested the dominance of colonizing voices within Black historical memory. My senior independent research on Arturo Alfonso Schomburg and his bibliophilism in the 1920’s was undeniably shaped by this project. The key question of this intersection between my work and my research is how can we use Schomburg’s legacy to theorize about contemporary Black historical memory and juxtapose the past with the present?

Arturo Schomburg was a New York resident who migrated from Puerto Rico in 1891 during a period of liberation movements across the Caribbean. He settled in the city as an active member of Antillean liberation groups and promoted Pan-Africanist ideals that emphasized Black unity across the Black Atlantic. In my research, I depicted his mission as the creation of Black institutions that functioned to accurately represent Black contributions to human culture across space and time. He believed firmly that Black oppression would continue around the world if Black people did not centralize their history and become agents within their own historical memory. To achieve this mission, he dedicated his life to accumulating any Black artifacts, manuscripts, books, and documents that he could find globally. Not only did he assert that Black people tell Black history best, but that Black advancement and Black historiographical institution-building were intrinsically linked. He noticed early on that history-telling lacked the scope of how Black people contributed to societies and lacked the depth of our memory which humanizes us.

The impact of his personal collection was the deconstruction of a historiographical tradition that misrepresents the lives of formerly enslaved persons and their ancestors. Today, the largest collection of Black artifacts was adopted from his collection by the New York Public Library and is called the Schomburg Center in his honor. Unfortunately, the dangerous cycle of Black invisibilization and exclusion within academic archives continues due to White occupation of Black historical spaces. And as Schomburg believed, this cycle continues to be detrimental to Black social, political, and economic advancement.

The fundamental link between Schomburg and the Archival Justice for the Enslaved Project is the ongoing critique of “historical objectivity”. This concept has been employed as coded language that symbolizes the writing of history within colonizing frameworks. The critique of this ideology means incorporating new perspectives and intentional language, upholding a commitment to honoring the sensitivity and trauma associated with the study of slavery, reversing how Black actors have been excluded from historical narratives, and reimagining how we can utilize historical memory as a site of resistance and liberation.

Schomburg advocated for changing who documents Black history, and the juxtaposition of his ideology with our work demonstrates the ways in which White control of the archives still persists. It is essential that we consider Schomburg within contemporary historiographical frameworks given that he is often overlooked in both Latin American studies and African American studies, despite his colorful legacy and substantial contributions to both disciplines.

It was indescribably meaningful to work alongside two Black women peers in Princeton’s African American Studies Department, and a professor who is exceptional at engineering spaces with an overwhelming amount of validation. We collaboratively intercepted the aforementioned cycle, and I am proud that our work was a realization of Schomburg's dream and a tribute to our silenced ancestors. My hope is that people in our field can engage more holistically with the study of slavery, as we continue to carve out spaces that prioritize Black narratives.