Events

Reflections on the ARC Conference

Last Friday I had the pleasure of presenting at the Archival Research Conference, sponsored by the Advanced Research Collaborative at The Graduate Center, CUNY. It was a wonderful opportunity to share my experiences working in the archives at Duke University, which I have discussed here and here. I was on the panel, “Mining Alternative Geographies of Race and Labor,” chaired by Professor Herman Bennett from the History program.

My paper, “Traces of the Coolie: An Archival Encounter” was largely a reflective piece, showcasing some of the important letters and documents I was able to find in the “Ballard’s Valley and Berry Hill Penn Plantation Records, 1766-1873” that contained references to coolies and coolie labor. Presenting alongside supportive colleagues and to such a generous audience gave me the confidence to share my questions and concerns about the materials I came across in this collection and how I plan to incorporate them into my dissertation. Usually introducing work that is still “in progress” would be a daunting experience  for me, but I found it energizing to participate in a conversation about how we approach archival research, including how to negotiate the volume of the material we collect and how to grapple with what is missing or absent from the archive.

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Research

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.

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Research

Reading the Archive

Last week, I traveled to Duke University to conduct archival research for the second chapter of my dissertation, which investigates how the figure of the Chinese coolie and the history of the coolie trade could reconfigure the spatiotemporal dynamics of the construct “Asian America,” including questions around diaspora and memory. This chapter engages explicitly with Patricia Powell’s The Pagoda (1998), a novel that relates the story of a queer female coolie struggling to cope with a racist colonial system in nineteenth century Jamaica. In order to further contextualize my reading of the novel and to enhance my capacity to approach questions about the practice of archival research and knowledge production, I decided to visit the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The main collection I researched was the “Ballard’s Valley and Berry Hill Penn Plantation Records, 1766-1873,” which consists of account books, ledgers, and papers for a plantation in St. Mary’s Parish, Jamaica.

Working with the Ballard’s Valley records this summer was my first experience handling archival materials so it took me a while to get adjusted, but the staff at the Rubenstein Library was incredibly patient and helpful in terms of explaining the proper procedures and numerous do’s and don’ts for working with fragile documents.

One of the challenges I wasn’t prepared for was the difficult process of deciphering the handwritten letters between the plantation owners and managers. Since this correspondence, which documents the transition from slave to coolie labor on the plantation was the main reason for my visit, I realized that the bulk of my time in the archives would be spent training myself to read these letters, to try to make sense of what was actually written, but also to learn how to read between the lines and recognize what remains unaccounted for and unsaid.

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