Black Canada and Why the Archival Logic of Memory Needs Reform

There is no definitive national Black archive in Canada to preserve, promote, and protect the historical books, documents, and artefacts of Black Canadians. Instead, Canada’s Black archive comprises disparate collections, spread across the country, that aim to preserve the histories of African Canadians who live(d) in specific provinces and/or cities and/or towns. 1 By contrast, national Black archives exist in other parts of the world. In the Netherlands, for instance, there is a historical archive managed by the New Urban Collective (NUC), which is a network of students and young professionals with the mission to empower young people with ethnic minority backgrounds, in particular those of African descent (Esajas and de Abreu, 2019). It holds a unique collection of books, documents, and artefacts, which are the legacy of Black Dutch writers, scientists, and activists, and it also documents the history of Black emancipation movements and individuals in the Netherlands (Esajas and de Abreu, 2019). The archive’s aim is to “inspire conversations, activities and literature from black and other perspectives that are often overlooked elsewhere, and to make black Dutch history accessible to a wide audience” (Esajas and de Abreu, 2019, p. 404). In the absence of such an archive in Canada, there have been inquiries into Black collections across the country, which inform this article.

As founder of Northside Hip Hop Archives, a digital platform that documents Canadian hip-hop history and culture, Mark Campbell observes that “archives of hip hop culture today are both virtual and physical spaces that collect and accumulate items of material culture and (re)locate them most often within a university context, whose public accessibility can be questionable” (Campbell, 2018, p. 76). The problem of accessibility extends to other archives in Canada. For example, Seika Boye, who worked at Dance Collection Danse (DCD) Archives, explains that until 2013, DCD was located in a relatively small row of houses in the St. Lawrence district of Toronto and inside the home of its cofounders, Mariam Adams and her late husband Lawrence Adams (Boye, 2013, p. 17). While there were archives housed in every available corner, with artifacts, paintings, and kitsch decorating on all of the walls, a photograph of a nameless Black woman hung behind Mariam and Lawrence’s desk. This photograph was the catalyst for Boye’s observation that “The mystery woman’s blackness … highlights the lack of accessible material about African-Canadian amateur and professional performance during this era available for reference” (Boye, 2013, p. 18).

With these conversations in mind, this article focuses on the question of how Black women appear in Canadian visual archives, and on the issue of their namelessness. Some of the myths that surround the archive are “that it is unmediated, that objects located there might mean something outside the framing of the archival impetus itself,” and “that the archive resists change, corruptibility, and political manipulation” (Taylor, 2003, p. 19). If “what makes an object archival is the process whereby it is selected, classified, and presented for analysis” (Taylor, 2003, p. 19), what can be said about Black women in Canada’s archival record? What recourse do researchers in Black Canadian archives have if individual things mysteriously appear in or are absent from the archive? What are the ethical challenges of recovering Black Canada in the archive? And what are the possibilities for a Black Canadian national archive?


The archive is not considered as an inert repository for historical information (Stoler 2002)—a neutral, benign, transparent record, whose meaning is stable, definitive, and static—but is aligned with dynamic, fluid processes of knowledge-production, -systems, and -formations (Farber, 2015, p. 2). The United States (US) represents the most exemplar case of multiple Black archives that all aim to accumulate information, documents, data, and memories of Black people coupled with artifacts that reflect subjectivities, identities, and knowledge production. Since 1905, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library, has held manuscripts, archives, and rare books that are available to the public and which document the history and culture of people of African descent not only in America but also across the Americas and Caribbean. In 1974, the Black Archives of Mid-America (BAMA) in Kansas City, Missouri, has collected, preserved, and made available to the public materials documenting the social, economic, political, and cultural histories of African Americans in the central United States. In an interview with American Visions, Horace Peterson III, founder and executive director of BAMA, said, “We want to bring black information into the twenty-first century. We want to have a process at work that will allow us to collect information about our people, preserve it and make it accessible to all Americans” (Helms-Mindell, 1989, p. 56). Similarly, when the Black Archives Research Center and Museum (known as “The Black Archives”) opened on the campus of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee in 1976, the archive was not aimed solely at academics; instead, there was a belief that Black history was in danger of being forgotten not solely by the dominant culture but by Black people. “It must be dug for, and a tradition for preserving it must be established,” said James Eaton, director of the archive, in an interview (Ashdown, 1979, p. 48). All of these efforts culminated in the building of The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) located in Washington, DC, which opened in 2016. NMAAHC, part of the Smithsonian Institution, is located on the National Mall, and is devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history, and culture.

There are very few scholars in Canada who work with Black archival collections, specifically image archives. Similar to the US collections, Black archival collections in Canada document the lived experiences of Black Canadians and communities; in some cases, the documents are labelled “Black history” because of subject matter and/or because they are connected to Black communities and/or experiences. In other instance, these archival collections are not “archives” in the sense of comprising “a range of multi-faceted, nuanced, differentiated yet potentially interconnected definitions, conceptualisations and meanings, within each of which alliances and connectivities may be discerned” (Farber, 2015, p. 2), but would more aptly be described as “evidences.” Stated otherwise, there is often no way to connect artifacts and/or images in a Black collection in one location with other artifacts and/or images in another location because many are not cross-referenced or annotated. That said, there are two kinds of archival collections with Black Canadian records—image-based (photographs, ephemera, lithographs, prints, etc.) and textual (newspapers, magazines, documents, personal records, etc.). This article is primarily focused on image-based archival records because these are the most difficult to access, owing to a paucity of searchable images and/or to missing and/or incomplete catalogue labelling. While the problem of inadequate archival indexing for Black archives is experienced on an interpersonal level (i.e., encounters with archival matters stored in unsorted manila envelopes and/or cardboard boxes with “stuff” and staff lacking expertise to discuss collection contents), the real issue is structural. Around the world, Black communities have found ways to circumvent structural barriers towards the aim of establishing a national Black archive.

For example, in the United Kingdom (UK), the Black Cultural Archive (BCA), founded in 1981, is the only national heritage centre dedicated to collecting, preserving, and celebrating the histories of African and Caribbean people in Britain. Len Garrison, founding member of the BCA, once said:

The Black Cultural Archives would hope to play a part in improving the image and self-image of people of African and African-Caribbean descent by seeking to establish continuity and a positive reference point ….. Advancing this scheme within an educational context, outside a university setting, is a development that would bring primary sources of archaeological, historical and contemporary materials within reach of both Black and white communities. It would also provide a basis for recording the social and cultural history of African and Afro-Caribbean people in Britain” (Garrison, 1994, p. 238).

At the same time, over the last two decades, informal and independent archives have substantially grown in the UK. Some of the reasons for this growth include an increased awareness of the absences and challenges to dominant heritage narratives; the continued impact of migration within the UK, as well as international movements in stimulating interest in place and belonging; the formation of virtual communities; and the ability of geographically distributed individuals to focus on and collaborate around the heritage of a shared identification or a specific geographical location (Flinn, Stevens, Shepherd, 2009, p. 74). While these collections are often held by community archives (similar to those in Canada) that include created as well accumulated materials frequently found in museums such as books, ephemera, documents, photographs, and audio-visual materials, some are located in a physical space, a virtual archive, or some hybrid of the two (Flinn, Stevens, Shepherd, 2009, p. 74). Nevertheless, the term “archives” has been used to describe these collections to convey “a sense of the historical significance and treasured nature in which these materials are held by those responsible for their collection which perhaps the terms library or even museum might not” (Flinn, Stevens, Shepherd, 2009, p. 74). For a similar reason, the term “archive” is appropriate to use to describe Black Canadian collections though some collections—especially those small in size—might not be categorized as an archive.

The lack of a national Black Canadian archive creates two ethical challenges. First, how can the archive move from its depository role to become a site where memories about Black Canadian experiences across time, space, and place are curated and narrated, where they are searchable and have cross-references to other archival collections? Second, if we are to shift the archival logic, what would this kind of reform look like? Over the last decade, the archive has become an increasing area of interest for academics, especially in the field of Canadian history where, historically, Black Canadians have been written out, erased, and ignored. Cecil Foster’s most recent book, They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada (2019), was written largely because of first-hand accounts Foster was able to gather from railway “Pullman” porters who were still alive, and, in addition to their stories, he made use of archival materials. My first book could not have been written without image, newspaper, and manuscript archives (Thompson, 2019).

Despite these successes, however, doing-archival-work-while-Black means you have to refuse to take “No” for an answer when you hit the proverbial denial of even having Black collections in the first place. There were many instances between 2010 and 2016 when I was conducting research for my book where I purposefully had to scour online collections with detailed cataloguing information before attending an archive because I knew I would interact with people who would tell me either that they were not sure whether they had any collections or, most often, that what they had “probably would not be of much use” because it was only a few artefacts. These responses point to an institutional problem rather than to the actions of individuals. Stated otherwise, invariably, the impetus behind the conscious decision to “constitute” the archive (as opposed to a collection of materials that were produced as part of another activity) is in part a reaction to the lack of representation and visibility of the community concerned within the dominant culture and formal heritage organizations (Hall, 2001, p. 89). Additionally, once the archive is formed, it is a discursive formation in that “since the materials of an archive consist of a heterogeneity of topics and texts, of subjects and themes, what governs it as a ‘formation’is not easy to define. The temptation would be to group together only those things which seemed to be ‘the same’” (Hall, 2001, p. 90). Hence, Black collections are often filled with some images and/or textual records that “connect” but some that do not. This article makes the claim that there is a need to rethink the act of restoring, maintaining, and cataloguing Black Canada in order to bring diverse histories into the present and future.