Working with an Archive

Now that I have finished transcribing the letters I photographed from the “Ballards Valley and Berry Hill Penn Plantation Records, 1766-1873” at Duke University (see this post), one of the challenges I am facing is figuring out what to do with the archival research I have gathered. In other words, how do I incorporate this material into my project in a way that is more critically engaging than a simple “show-and-tell”?

Before actually working with the Ballards Valley records, I had intended to use the photographs and information I collected to provide context for and enhance an analysis of Patricia Powell’s The Pagoda (1998), a novel that describes the tensions between Asian coolies and freed Blacks in mid-nineteenth century Jamaica. But during those long hours in the archive, struggling to decipher and make sense of the handwritten correspondence between plantation managers and absentee owners in London, I became acutely aware of how desperately I was searching for traces of coolies in letters, account book entries, and ledger pages.

Amidst all of the unanswered questions these documents raised on their own, I kept asking myself, what is it that I need to find? What work do I want these materials to do? And, in this process, it became increasingly impossible for me to think of the references I found to coolies as mere “background” material. Using them in this way would only reinscribe colonial hierarchies that positioned Asian coolies (and Black slaves) as part of the background of a larger network of global trade dominated by white plantation owners and investors.

And yet, if I cannot bring myself to use this material to provide historical context, how else might it figure into my dissertation? As I begin writing the chapter and preparing for a conference presentation on this research, I have come to approach my encounter with the Ballards Valley collection as its own story, one that must be told in a way that encapsulates my questions, speculations, and feelings of uncertainty, a story that I plan to tell alongside (not in the background of) an analysis of Powell’s novel.

As Tina Campt has evocatively suggested,

Working with an archive simultaneously demands narrating the story of your encounter with the archive.

Image features a letter from Henry Westmorland, Ballards Valley, to James Dansey, London, June 20, 1846  from the “Ballard’s Valley and Berry Hill Penn Plantation Records, 1766-1873” at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

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