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The Price of Black History: Racial Values, Archival Affects, and the Market for Slavery's Artifacts
“History must restore what slavery took away”: such was the urgent, if haunting, imperative issued in 1925 by the Afro-Puerto Rican bibliophile Arturo Schomburg. At a moment when the very idea of black historicity aroused doubt, Schomburg amassed an unprecedented archive by and about African diasporic subjects. He constructed his collection through acts of acquisition, but also through acts of exclusion. Like other black historians of his generation, Schomburg wavered between preservation and disavowal in accounting for the history of enslavement and racial violence. But for Schomburg, a shrewd buyer and seller of artifacts in the antiquarian marketplace, that accounting was literal. He wrestled with black history’s price. Embedded in an economy of information and memory, Schomburg asked which artifacts would bear value—both pecuniary and affective—for the black present. His methods of accounting show us how early African American archives simultaneously critiqued, depended upon, and recast the market’s devaluation of black lives and letters.
About the Speaker
Laura Helton is a visiting fellow at the Center for Humanities and Information at Penn State University. A historian of American and African American literature and memory from the nineteenth century to the present, she is particularly interested in social histories of archives and print cultures of the long civil rights movement. She holds a PhD in history from New York University and a MLIS in library studies from Rutgers University; in 2016, she won the McNeil Center’s Zuckerman Prize in American Studies. Her book manuscript, Collecting and Collectivity: Black Archival Publics, 1900-1950, examines the emergence of African American archives to show how historical recuperation shaped forms of racial imagination in the early twentieth century. In 2015, she co-edited a special issue of Social Text on “The Question of Recovery: Slavery, Freedom, and the Archive.” Her interest in such questions grew out of working for many years as an archivist of American social movements. This coming fall she will join the English Department at the University of Delaware as an assistant professor of print and material culture studies.