I appreciate a failure to be respectable. Want to know why? Because.
In a panel entitled “Activating Histories: Visualizing and Restaging the Archive,” I prepared to have a sobering experience about what it means to read an archive and what it might entail to examine and construct a narrative from archival material. I got that and more. Between Kellie Jones, Mary Schmidt-Campbell, Tanisha Ford, Tiffany Gill, and Renee Mussai, I got my entire wanna-be archivist life. There’s no way to do justice to all of everything they said, so I’m going to focus on three moments (not in order).
First, Mary Schmidt-Campbell (NYU & Spelman) re-read Romare Bearden’s collages with an eye toward Black women nudes. Imagine my surprise when she showed a piece of his where you can see – plain as day – a woman pleasuring herself in the upper right corner. (Yep, “corner.” It is a fine arts term.) Even after an entire panel on pleasure, people were not prepared. I think I heard someone say “Oh my.” Schmidt-Campbell’s point was that Bearden practiced, perfected his understanding of a black nude body, thinking of it as beautiful enough for studied artistic hands. Bearden also, given his interest in Black nude forms, found Black women’s pleasure a prime subject for his art.
Second, Tanisha Ford (University of Massachusetts) read a series of Blue Note album covers from the 1960s as an avenue into understanding the role of fashion in/around the Black erotic. Her reading reframed the understanding of the covers: rather than be beholden to a male gaze, Ford adjusts the lenses to see what the models’ agency (where agency is power and is part of the compound noun ‘modeling agency) creates in terms of images. My favorite part may have been an aside, but I found it intriguing nonetheless. She read one model’s dress, a sheath dress, as a condom: a barrier between the model and the male onlooker, a piece of protection, and a safety net. I thought Ford’s read was brilliant, crystallizing for me where the power lay in that interaction and why both interpretations were possible. When Tanisha Ford’s book, Liberated Threads, drops, I will buy it.
Third, Tiffany Gill (University of Delaware) gave an incredibly generous presentation where she made clear that she was doing new work on black travel. One of the reasons that kind of presentation is so generous is because it invites you into the scholar’s thinking and allows you see it in process. Gill showed us some photos of Martin Luther King, Jr. shirtless on vacation. There were so many gasps in the audience for so many reasons. I was surprised because I hadn’t ever thought of him on vacation. There were others who were oohing and aahing because they found MLK attractive. Whatever the reason for the gasping, it was so audible that even Gill paused and expressed a small modicum of surprise at the reaction.
To my mind, each of these gasp-worthy moments evince a failure to be respectable. And, they also foreground that the archive itself may not support such a stance of respectability when it comes to folks’ lives. The archive is constantly surprising us. You never know what you might find.