Adventures in the Archives
Adventures in the Archives: The First Time

Adventures in the Archives: The First Time

The possibility of having an “adventure in the archives” always seemed a bit far-fetched. My perceptions of academia, particularly as they related to notions of adventurousness, were dominated by images of Indiana Jones holding a dirty artifact and marking an X on a map. When Professor Carolyn Lewis (the adviser to whatever academic adventures loomed on the horizon for me) suggested that the archives were a time-warping place of magic and discovery, I conjured visions of swashbuckling conflicts amongst dueling historians, perhaps a diverting romantic intrigue amongst the dusty stacks — anything less than that couldn’t be an adventure, and to call it so seemed simply and woefully inaccurate.

My own adventures in the archives began with a torrential downpour. I was soaked through with a mildly cold summer rain that sent me scurrying around an unfamiliar campus, eager to find the warm, dry, and friendly library that would house me as I attempted to make enormous historical contributions for the next several hours. University of Illinois at Chicago’s Richard J. Daley Library emitted some sort of captivating siren song, drawing me to it through the rain: my first hint that the day before me would be extraordinary.

(ubarchives/Flickr | CC BY-NC-ND)
(ubarchives/Flickr | CC BY-NC-ND)

Once I settled in the reading room — no weapons or violence or romance in my immediate vicinity — my boxes were brought to me in a singular march, one by one. Those who have had the pleasure of working in an archive will remember these boxes: grey, unassuming, but somehow singing on the inside, with knowledge and history bursting forth. I heard a hundred different voices whispering at me, all asking to be pulled apart, one careful thread at a time.

I thumbed through the manila folders, attempting to give each scrap of paper the reverence it deserved. I stopped quite often, trying to understand my place as viewer and reviewer of this history, uncovering hidden nuances and tracing ridges in the paper with my hands. My research called for the close examination of Black Panther Party materials, and so I explored UIC’s Black History Collection. I felt, simultaneously, a remarkable sense of enormity and a frightful insignificance as I read the powerful, frightened, and brave words of the Panthers. I’d carved out a position on the outer edge of this timeline, struggling to reconcile the complicated theories and strategies of the 1970s with where I was then, at that moment. I often found myself looking up, blinking rapidly, traveling between times and eras at an impossible pace.

Design for Gwendolyn Brooks' "We Real Cool," 1966, by Cledie Taylor. (An American Time Capsule/Library of Congress)
Design for Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” 1966, by Cledie Taylor. (An American Time Capsule/Library of Congress)

A former professor once advised me to take the time to read even the folders that seemed, at first, to be irrelevant to my project. My ears rang with calls of “you never know…” and since I had the time, I began to carefully examine the contents of a folder in the Black History Collection that seemed completely irrelevant to my project. What I found, tucked in its thin manila enclosure, was unexpected and magnificent. In a cream colored envelope bearing neat cursive was a handwritten note from Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize. Brooks was the renowned author of the novel Maud Martha and a number of poems that painted bright, vivid pictures of the lives of Black people in underprivileged communities. One of her most famous poems, titled “We Real Cool,” reads: “We real cool. We / Left school. We / Lurk late. We / Strike straight. We / Sing sin. We / Thin gin. We / Jazz June. We / Die soon.” Her masterful command of the English language, evident in her simple but affecting sentence structure and word choice, have rendered her an American literary icon, particularly in her intimate and honest portrayals of Black women’s experiences with racism and sexism in their daily lives.

Gwendolyn Brooks appearing at the Miami Book Fair International, 1985. (MDCarchives/Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA)
Gwendolyn Brooks appearing at the Miami Book Fair International, 1985. (MDCarchives/Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA)

In the spring of 2014, I took a seminar that explored the work of Black female writers, spending a significant amount of time reading Brooks’ Maud Martha. It was an especially poignant text, as the class grappled with concepts of interiority and the practice of preserving the Self against onslaughts of explicit and implicit racism. To find a handwritten note from the woman whose words I’d spent hours poring over felt like some extraordinary gift, a reminder of serendipity, chance, and luck, all of which maintain an elusive but obliging presence in reading rooms in colleges and universities all over the world. Addressed to Mr. Giles B. Robertson of the Chicago Library Club, the letter politely declines an invitation she believes was mistakenly extended to her. She writes, “Please! You assign me a distinction I have got to send right back to you! I have received one Pulitzer Prize! – not two awards! – and I find it hard to believe I was ever so fortunate.” (FYI, Gwendolyn Brooks makes a short line through her y’s and is fond of underlining words for added emphasis; she writes with a blue pen, and her handwriting slants to the right.)

Stumbling upon a correspondence from Gwendolyn Brooks felt like my true adventure in the archives, a pivotal lesson in the unpredictability of doing archival research. In the possibility of tremendous discovery lies the adventure that my professor promised, the addictive rush of potential, the chance to find something amazing. This discovery reminded me of the ever-present (but occasionally forgotten) connections between disciplines, particularly history, the appeal of which lies in its interdisciplinary nature. The discovery of Brooks’ note combined my preferred disciplines of English, History, and Women’s Studies in an exhilarating package that simultaneously renewed my appreciation for historical and academic processes and confirmed that archival research is indeed an adventure. Not too bad for my first time.

Further Reading

Brooks, Gwendolyn. Selected Poems. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. Maud Martha. Third World Press, 1992.

Williams, Kenny Jackson. “Brooks’ Life and Career,” in The Oxford Companion to African-American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Audrey Smith is a senior at Grinnell College studying English and Gender, Women's, and Sexuality Studies. She is currently completing a research project that focuses on the reproductive rights of Black women in the 1970s.