The archive is both incomplete and endless. Led through it by the best of historians, one only gets so far before the edges of the map dissolve into the unknown. Letters unanswered, events unrecorded, and photographs unlabeled obstruct us from total certainty. The most damning of these gaps in knowledge are those created intentionally — through bigotry, greed, and notions of supremacy.
In her latest poetry collection, Unshuttered, Patricia Smith fills in some of the gaps in our knowledge of Black life in 1900s America. Each poem is based on a haunting nineteenth-century photograph from the poet’s personal collection, in which all but one of the pictured people remain unidentified. With her signature wit and warmth in hand, Smith lends a voice to these silent stars in the form of taut, aching monologues.
Readers are left in awe of the lives Smith imagines for these Black men, women, and children, as well as with grief at what can never be known for sure about them. Smith takes the ekphrastic poem to new levels, waiting at the edge of that dissolving map of history and beckoning us further along. Her speculations come from a place of honest yearning as she invokes pride, joy, lust, and fear to reveal the rich inner possibilities of these unknown people.
With each line, the award-winning author provides ecstatic sound where once there was oppressive silence. As conservative politicians incite book bans and chip away at the already tenuous grasp Americans have on the bloody history of their nation, Unshuttered is a necessary reminder of the pain and loss such censorship causes.
In Silencing the Past, the late Haitian American historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot contends that silence enters the historical record at four specific junctions:
…the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance). (Trouillot, p. 26)
Many of these silences are the result of systemic racism and violence. In the wake of the Civil War and the unfulfilled promises of the Reconstruction era, formerly enslaved people forged new lives for themselves. And along the way, white people in positions of power — politicians, police, and historians alike — sought to erase and obscure their hard-won triumphs. The modern reader often has to read between the lines of racist articles from white-owned newspapers to understand this time period.
The access the world still has to the experiences of African American life in the 1900s exists thanks to the tireless work of historians, archivists, and collectors who understood the importance of preserving records like newspaper clippings, marriage certificates, census records, and photographs at their inception.
Unshuttered places Patricia Smith firmly in this long line of folks keeping history as honest as possible in the face of overwhelming hate, ignorance, and carelessness. In what Trouillot would call “the moment of retrospective significance,” the poet demands acknowledgement of the remarkable people gazing out at us from the page.
- Unshuttered (2023) by Patricia Smith is available February 15 from TriQuarterly and Northwestern University Press. Buy it for your valentine! Buy it for yourself!! Buy it for your local public schools and free little libraries!!!
- I first read Michel-Rolph Trouillot in a class about revolution in Latin America. His book Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History is a vital anecdote to all that “fAcTs dOn’T CarE AboUT yOur FeeLings” idiocy.
- Photography became much more accessible to the average person by the late-nineteenth century and many African Americans used it as a tool for social change, as explained by Samantha Hill in The Conversation.
- Journalists (myself included) love to talk big game about speaking truth to power and supporting the underdog but uhhhh…history would like a word. Visit the Printing Hate project to learn more about the ways the press has been (and is) complicit in oppression and the obscuration of truth.
- In the spirit of replacing silence with sound, Queering the Map remains one of my favorite digital archives of modern LGBTQ+ life. So messy and earnest, each black pin a reminder that we are everywhere and everywhere we find new ways to be. Add your own entry if you please!