Archives and Activism

Did you know that this week is New York Archives Week? I didn’t–until it was too late!   The Archivists Roundtable of New York is hosting a symposium on Archives and Activism  to celebrate and I am missing it today (check out the twitter trails via hashtag #archact). Anyway, its too bad I’m missing it, because it’s exactly the kind of event I need to be attending as I  gradually realize that the first stage of my Re/Sounding project is really about wrapping my brain around the relationship between activism and the history and work of the CBMR. The Center for Black Music Research certainly came into existence as a result of the intellectual entrepreneurship and vision of its founder Samuel Floyd Jr. But also very much in the wake of arts, humanities and culture activism of the late sixties and seventies. The Civil Right, Black Arts, and ethnic studies movements contributed energy, urgency, and institutional legibility to Floyd’s efforts.

The CBMR’s mission can certainly be understood as activist. When founded in 1983, the field of black music research was severely marginalized in the academy. In fact, the CBMR can probably claim more responsibility as a driving force in fostering interdisciplinary scholarship about black diasporic music traditions than any other single organization. However, as far as I see it, there is still a massive amount of work to be done. Black music scholarship has gained a cherished (or at least stable and recognized) place in Africana studies, American studies, and cultural studies but too many academic music departments continue to hold last century’s Western-centric models up as the end-all. These departments work as an originating part of a broader scholarly communications system that continues to tell an unbalanced story about what cultures’ musics are important enough to study (and in what ways–consider the balance of black music representation in applied/performance-oriented departments in relation to more comp/ethno/musicology-oriented ones).

Finally, I have felt an increased sense of activist intensity and urgency in my own work at and for the CBMR as it has moved through extraordinary shifts in institutional culture , and a series of difficult staffing and budget cuts, some following a recent campus-wide, consultant-led program prioritization process. Numerous large scale factors have insured that instability is the new normal for entities like the CBMR. The Great Recession. The so-called digital revolution.  The cultural status of U.S. education is changing. Affirmative Action is under fire. The position of the arts and humanities in universities and in the culture at large is changing. Our understanding of the nature, roles, and importance of libraries and archives are changing. The budget forecasts of academic administrators across the country are reflecting all these these realities, not the least at the CBMR’s parent organization.

* It bears mentioning that the CBMR’s travails  brought out the activist in a lot of folks in and outside the Center. Fellow ethnomusicologist Fredara M Hadley was one of hundreds who spoke out in defense of the Center when it faced the threat of elimination. Visit this link to read the great blog post she wrote urging others to support.

The kinds of challenges the CBMR has been facing are happening everywhere. Hopefully, the worst of them are over for the time being. However, it remains vulnerable to a kind of political backlash that would call the work of the Center  unessential or worse, divisive. The kinds of cultural sea changes happening in and around higher ed and the arts and humanities make it easy for this backlash to be misidentified.

It makes me happy that the young archivists-in-training at The HistoryMakers are coming up in the midst of these cultural shifts and consequently developing as critical archivists and (also, possibly) activist archivists! I found it a little late, but here’s a link to a HistoryMakers fellows’ blog post that gives a shout out to the CBMR. It was a pleasure to have all those young lions in the house!







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