New Covenants in Special Collections

On February 1, 2008, Emory hosted “New Covenants in Special Collections: A Symposium on Obligations and Opportunities.” This essay is an edited excerpt from a presentation during the symposium.

The Keeping of Records
Alice Walker’s archive as an act of self-authentication
Rudolph P. Byrd, Professor of American Studies, Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts and the Department of African American Studies


 

Vol. 10 No. 5
April 2008

Return to Contents


Getting Real
The academic commitment to service learning at Emory

Further Reading

“I would love to see a day when students, staff, and faculty choose Emory because they want to pursue the finest liberal education in order to civically make a difference.”

“The setting for testing our theories of neighborhood transformation and social change is outside the classroom and in the community.”


New Covenants in Special Collections

In the Dangerous Hands of Undergraduates
The teaching mission of Emory’s Manuscripts and Rare Books Library

The Keeping of Records
Alice Walker’s archive as an act of self-authentication


Overwhelmed?
The rising tide of faculty responsibilities


Letter to the Editor


Endnotes

People are known for the records they keep,” observes the writer Alice Walker. “If it isn’t in the records, it will be said it didn’t happen. That is what history is: a keeping of records.”

Walker’s pithy observation was written, like a note to herself, on a scrap of paper and then carefully stored away. This fragment, along with letters, drafts of novels, poems and essays, photographs, and memorabilia, is part of the Eatonton, Georgia, writer’s archive for which Emory University is now privileged to serve as the custodian, for this generation and the generations to come. Walker’s observation about records and history raises important questions about the nature of an archive and the special importance an archive would possess for a black Southern woman writer.

Certainly an archive is, for a writer, a record of the effort to achieve conscious eloquence. This effort for Walker began at an early age, and in her sixteenth year it culminated in the self-publication of “Poems of a Childhood Poetess,” a remarkable volume of her earliest poems, many written in her own hand. She dedicated the volume, again most remarkably, to herself and then to others. Since many women writers often chose to publish under a male pseudonym—or worse, as anonymous—this self-dedication is intriguing. It reveals, I believe, that Walker recognized her own value and potential as a writer very early in her life. The self-dedication is neither vanity nor egocentrism, but rather a prescient and self-conscious affirmation of her potentiality, which, as the historical record shows, has been richly realized.

Among other things, an archive is also a lieux de memoire, or site of memory, to invoke the twentieth-century French historian Pierre Nora. Seen through the lens of Nora’s theorizing, an archive is, in one sense, a recognition on the part of the writer of the nation’s tendency towards amnesia and of her efforts to ward off the disastrous effects of this national trait. “If it isn’t in the records,” Walker warns us, “it will be said it didn’t happen.”

An archive also chronicles the effort on the part of the writer to negotiate the complex relationship between history and memory, between region and its impact upon an artistic imagination. One could select almost any work by Walker to illustrate this claim, but of course none more than her maligned and celebrated novel
The Color Purple (1982).

And what is the value of an archive for a black Southern woman writer? Walker’s clear-eyed assertion bears repeating: “If it isn’t in the records, it will be said it didn’t happen.” In a nation whose founding documents of state reduced African Americans to three-fifths of a person and where African American women possessed even less constitutional significance, for Walker an archive is a means of anticipating and refuting the warping effects of racism and sexism. Certainly, the trials of Phillis Wheatley, the founding figure of the African American literary tradition and a poet much beloved by Walker, provide us with some perspective on the Georgia writer’s decision, one made long ago, to leave us with a record of the manner in which genius became legend.
As the author of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), Wheatley published the first book by a black and the second by a woman in Colonial America. Many were disbelieving, because of racism, of Wheatley’s capacity to reason, let alone produce art. To appease this incredulous readership and to boost sales, Wheatley’s London publisher included in the volume a letter signed by influential whites who provided assurances that the former slave was indeed the author of the contested volume. Scholars call this now famous letter an authenticating document, and such testimonials are a defining feature of early African American literature.

In this singular instance of self-authentication, Walker’s archive contains indisputable evidence of her commitment as a black Southern woman writer to the sublime effort to order human experience through the medium of art.

In her poem “A Litany for Survival,” Audre Lorde, Walker’s comrade, friend, and fellow writer, says, “We were never meant to survive.” In “We,” read there African Americans and all people of color, women, gays, lesbians, and all those discredited by the unceasing operations of white supremacy; indeed, all those about whom Walker has written with vision and compassion. In the keeping of records, Walker provides us with the full context for the creation of art, and thus the manner in which she, as a black Southern woman writer, not only survived, but also prevailed against a system that meant to destroy her.

Walker chose Emory as the custodian of her very substantial archive “because I myself feel at ease and comfortable at Emory. That being so I can imagine in years to come that my papers and memorabilia, my journals and letters, will find themselves always in the company of people who care about many of the things I do: culture, community, spirituality, scholarship, and the blessings of ancestors who want each of us to find joy and happiness in this life, by doing the very best we can to be worthy of it.”

Far more than just a record of a public and successful career, Walker’s archive is the record of a courageously lived life devoted to the highest artistic standards and to civil and human rights. A life, as it is distilled in her archive, that educates the heart and mind and nurtures the spirit. A life, thankfully, that is still in process.