Scattered and Fugitive Things: How Black Collectors Created Archives and Remade History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2024).

Scattered and Fugitive Things chronicles six collectors in the early twentieth century—from the Howard University curator Dorothy Porter to the Afro-Puerto Rican and Harlem bibliophile Arturo Schomburg—who created the first enduring set of African diasporic archives and libraries in the United States.

“Schomburg’s Library and the Price of Black History,” African American Review 54, nos. 1 & 2 (Spring/Summer 2021): 109-128.

This article asks how Arturo Schomburg assembled a collection that would bear value, literally and figuratively, for the New Negro. It focuses on transactions—how Schomburg bought and then sold his library—and disavowals—what he refused to purchase. Those moments when either the financial or affective price of history was too high for Schomburg show that the project of Black archive-building turned on absence as well as acquisition. Schomburg simultaneously critiqued the market’s devaluation of Black textuality, ambivalently depended on that devaluation to afford his collection, and embraced an economic understanding of history as a form of reparations.

“Archive,” in Information Keywords, ed. Michele Kennerly, Samuel Frederick, and Jonathan Abel (Columbia University Press, 2021): 44-56.

This entry examines the elasticity of the term “archive” and the tensions that surround its ever-expanding usage as a keyword across disciplines. As a term that connotes a place, a practice, a profession, and, with the archival turn, a metaphor, archive/s offers an opportunity to think across the institutional contexts that define the work of scholars, record keepers, creators, and curators. Its continued salience as a keyword, however, depends on attending to the specificities of archives in their plural forms and to the archival labor that is often elided in theories of “the archive” as a singular logic. Whether singular or plural, then, the keyword archive/s should act as an explicit point of intersection between metaphor and materiality: the protocols of the archivist; the allure of archival imaginaries; and the many sites—both physical and ephemeral—that encode memory.

“Historical Form(s),” in Elusive Archives: Material Culture in Formation, ed. Martin Brückner and Sandy Isenstadt (University of Delaware Press, 2021): 49-63.

Behind Robert Hayden’s most famous poem, “Middle Passage,” there is an iconic scene of archival immersion: the poet, sitting in the Schomburg Collection in Harlem, reading slave ship logs and historical biographies as he composed his ode to the enslaved rebels aboard La Amistad. This chapter argues that Hayden’s preparation for “Middle Passage”—a poem of archival fragments—began earlier and elsewhere, in the bureaucracies of the Works Progress Administration in Detroit. Examining a little-known aspect of Hayden’s career—his stint with the Michigan Negro Manuscripts Unit in 1940—it traces the poet’s longstanding preoccupation with the intimacies and elusiveness of history’s material forms.

“Library Archaeology: Reconstructing a Catalog of the Arthur A. Schomburg Book and Pamphlet Collection,” with Alice Adamczyk, Miranda Mims, and Matthew Murphy, African American Review 54, nos. 1 & 2 (Spring/Summer 2021): 91-108.

This article discusses a collaboration between scholars and staff of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to identify the books and pamphlets purchased in 1926 by the New York Public Library from Afro-Puerto Rican bibliophile Arturo (Arthur) Schomburg. With no extant inventory of that acquisition, the question of what Schomburg’s famous library contained has long puzzled scholars. This article details the archival research, bibliographic work, and cataloging undertaken as part of the Center’s “Home to Harlem” initiative to reconstruct Schomburg’s library, which has resulted in an unprecedented picture of a collection foundational to the field of Black Studies. 

“Black Bibliographers and the Category of Negro Authorship,” in African American Literature in Transition, 1900-1910, ed. Shirley Moody-Turner (Cambridge University Press, 2021): 23-47.

At the 1900 Paris Exposition, Daniel Murray displayed a “Library of Colored Authors” and circulated a list of hundreds of texts written by African Americans—the first attempt at a comprehensive bibliography of Black authorship. Situated in the American Negro Exhibit alongside the photographs and charts prepared W. E. B. Du Bois, Murray’s bibliographic work promised to serve as a “revelation” to the fair’s visitors, showing the Negro as “a competitor in the literary field.” Du Bois, too, undertook bibliographical work in this era, including his 1900 “Select Bibliography of the American Negro for General Readers,” the first attempt to classify the work of Black authors by genre and discipline. These turn-of-the-century acts of list-making by Black intellectuals performed the work of literary cartography—defining, locating, and mapping the contours of an emergent category of “Negro authorship”—that made possible the field African American literary criticism. This essay critically examines the bibliographies of Murray and Du Bois, and positions them as precursors to a line of debate since the 1920s about the aesthetics—or, indeed, the very existence—of a Black literary tradition and the politics of Black authorship as a writerly category.

“On Decimals, Catalogs, and Racial Imaginaries of Reading,” PMLA 134, no. 1 (January 2019): 99-120.

Entering Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, one still passes through the “catalog room,” an antechamber filled with rows of card drawers. Inaugurated in 1930 by librarian Dorothy Porter, this catalog of the “Negro Collection” served for much of the twentieth century as one of the only extant portals to African American print culture.  This article reconstructs the creation of that catalog in order to chart the relationship between infrastructure and racial imaginaries of reading. Porter contravened the routine misfiling of blackness in prevailing information systems by rewriting Dewey decimals, creating new taxonomies for Black print, and fielding research inquiries from across the diaspora. She built public access to books “by and about the Negro” at a moment when a majority of Black readers were barred from libraries. In so doing, she fueled a broader sensibility of what a Black archive—or what Porter called a “literary museum”—might afford.

“Making Lists, Keeping Time: Infrastructures of Black Thought, 1900-1950,” in Against a Sharp White Background: Infrastructures of African American Print, ed. Brigitte Fielder and Jonathan Senchyne (University of Wisconsin Press, 2019): 82-108.

This essay takes up catalogs, indexes, and bibliographies as strange literary objects—neither “read” nor “authored”—and positions them as central to African American knowledge production in the twentieth century. It argues that in a racially segregated information landscape, Black thinkers necessarily made their arguments through files and filing structures as well as through poetry and prose. 

“The Question of Recovery: An Introduction,” with Justin Leroy, Max Mishler, Samantha Seeley, and Shauna Sweeney (guest editors), Social Text 33, no. 3 (December 2015): 1-18.

This special issue of Social Text takes as its starting point the generative tension between recovery as an imperative that is fundamental to historical writing and research, and the impossibility of recovery when engaged with archives whose very assembly and organization occlude certain historical subjects. Responding to recent debates among scholars of Atlantic slavery and freedom, it approaches archival silences and secrets not simply as antagonistic to our desire to recover but also as a beginning. The articles gathered in this issue thus foreground methodological experimentation at the boundary of archival impossibility. They develop new approaches–to archival geographies, designs, reading practices, and affect–that illuminate forms of Black politics beyond narratives of radical redemption or liberal inclusion.