History organisations like libraries, archives and museums often commemorate important dates, days and anniversaries through social media posts, events, book displays, and exhibitions but why? What do we hope to achieve with these commemorations? To me, historical anniversaries have frequently been associated with nationalism and I believe anniversaries are just propaganda if they don’t come with critique. As Jane Ellison said in their keynote address at DCDC “anniversaries have to do more than just jog the memory” This is why I feel the ways in which some of us in libraries, archives and museums utilise important dates is generally shallow.
The way we celebrate the anniversaries of the events and people related to different aspects of invasion and colonization rarely offers a large space for critique, only a small footnote or an afterthought public talk or exhibition addition. An Aboriginal perspective may be asked for this type of exhibition, but this perspective can’t make white settler audiences uncomfortable or feel guilty.
Besides the fact that it is disgusting to celebrate colonization, audiences do not take anything away from these commemorations without critique because, without the truth about the physical, legal and material repercussions of colonization, they lack social relevance. They do not assist in creating contemporary social change which should be the goal for our output in libraries, archives and museums.
Social Justice Anniversaries
Social justice anniversaries particularly in terms of racial justice, are frequently celebrated in a way that conceals many details and creates dishonest narratives. Narratives like “look how far we’ve come”, which ignores contemporary oppression and maintains the myth that racism is in the past. It also neglects many regressive actions that follow events of racial progress. For example, Delgado & Stefancic (p.29-30) note what followed the landmark case of Brown vs the Board of Education was that the benefits won in the case were quietly cut back down by narrow interpretations and administrative obstructions which left minority groups are left a little better, if not worse. Another example is the 1965 Freedom Rides, which has been been highly celebrated by us in libraries, archives and museums, as it should be, however we usually leave out that some of the towns in NSW the Freedom Rides bus visited are still highly segregated.
We must be wary of overemphasizing “look how far we’ve come” in our exhibitions, programs, educational kits and explore how racism of the past influences the racism of today. To coincide this, we need to create space for critical self reflection for our audiences as well as ourselves (libraries, archives and museums are not innocent regarding oppression).
In addition to “look how far we’ve come”, the ways in which some of us in libraries, archives and museums utilise important social justice dates can proliferate the narrative of heroes and villains. The problem with a narrative with villains is that it may portray racism as the disturbed acts of individuals rather than a structure. It can also discount the fact that most villain’s views reflect the mainstream society. Similar to how racial prejudice and police is often conveyed as incidents with bad apples and if you get rid of those bad apple police, everything would be okay, rather than look the whole policing system as the problem.
Additionally, how we tell the stories about people we frame as heroes related to racial justice events and anniversaries often sanitizes them, makes them more palatable to a general, white settler audience. Their demands for liberation become demands for equality and their work discussing their want for peace gets privileged over their work that discusses the evils of capitalism. Furthermore, it can be neglected that people we now see as heroes were hated in the past, are probably still hated by some in the present, and if they would or could speak about issues of racism today, they would get a lot of hate from mainstream white settler society. Their work fighting oppression rarely gets connected to the oppression people are fighting today. This hypocrisy was highlighted by a tweet by Aamer Rahman who wrote in 2016 “White people: You can’t celebrate Muhammad Ali’s life and then 2 months later be mad at @Kaepernick7 [Colin Kaepernick]”
Hero narratives sometimes lean toward a story of Black exceptionalism rather than tell a story of systemic racism. For instance, DiAngelo (p.40) notes the way Jackie Robinson is generally celebrated is as the first African American to break the colour line and play in major league baseball. As DiAngelo suggests maybe it should be framed as Jackie Robinson was the first black man white people allowed to play major league baseball. This framing makes the distinction because no matter how fantastic a player Robinson was, he could not play major league baseball if the white people who controlled the institution did not allow it.
Because of the above, we should be careful how we use historical figures. They are powerful. Their achievements are worth celebrating and libraries archives and museums should publicly do so. When discussing them in our exhibitions, tours, reading groups, we can use their stories to inspire action in our audiences and inform our audiences of their strategies to help them better enact the structural change we need now.
Like all history, I believe we should utilise anniversaries to better understand the present and better understand the historical context which we live in. Especially, in terms of oppressive structures. This understanding should be a call to action to make the present better. Commemorations, like all things libraries, archives and museums do, should have a purpose.
Please comment the best examples you know of libraries, archives and museums effectively commemorating important dates, days and anniversaries
By Nathan “Mudyi” Sentance