As I’ve progressed on this project, I’m wrestling with a couple of things.
First, as context (and just in general) I recommend that you read Gina Schlesselman-Tarango’s excellent recent article in Library Trends “The Legacy of Lady Bountiful: White Women in the Library.” It has me shook, in a good way (and, again, you should read it – and the other articles in the issue, they’re all great). Got me thinking a lot about whiteness, its relationship to femininity, the patriarchy, and how all that manifests in LIS – all things that are deeply resonant in general, and definitely related to this project. Second, and related – I’m feeling a bit unmoored on this project.
Some of the “why” about my unmoored-ness might be obvious given the context – I’m a white woman researching and writing about Black women at the University of Denver (DU). I started this project with a main co-author/co-lead (Dr. Nicole Joseph) who, at the time, co-led a group of graduate women at DU (the Sistah Network) who identify as Black . Our goal was, ultimately, to mount an exhibit to coincide with the university’s 150th anniversary, celebrating the history of early Black women alumnae. Due to time and resource constraints, we weren’t able to complete the project at the time, but it was an example of the kind of work that both Dr. Joseph and I felt that our archives needed to be doing – and that, to be frank, we didn’t do, for a lot of reasons that are too obvious and mundane to go into – as a part of the celebration of the University’s sesquicentennial.
Fast forward to 2017 (DU’s 150th was in 2014), and my sabbatical proposal, which I made about this project, was accepted. I’m now deep into the throes of original biographical research. As a related aside, it’s a good thing I put aside the whole of a summer to work on this because doing original biographical research, especially on women, and especially on African-American women, is NO JOKE. First, ladies get married – they change their names, sometimes multiple times. Aside from all the usual transcription and other errors with census and other readily accessible public records, you also have to contend with all of the issues with how census enumerators dealt with race and ethnicity. For just a glimpse into this, read Christine Hickman’s “The Devil and the One-Drop Rule” which is not only a foundational text of critical legal studies, it includes, in a footnote, an example from her own family which I found particularly illuminating: “In reviewing the 19th century census records for my own family, I noted that a “W” had been crossed out and replaced with an “M,” suggesting that my great, great grandparent may have gently corrected the mistaken impression of the [enumerator].”
It is this footnote that, I think, gets at the crux of my concern. The goal in this project is deceptively simple: document early African-American women alums at the University of Denver. However, the records that we have at our disposal – or at least those that we’ve been able to identify – have the same, and in some cases, even more issues than those noted in Christine Hickman’s article. The University (and my guess is, most universities) did not retain race or ethnicity data on admitted students until fairly recently (2001-on). So, in 2014, we decided that the place to at least begin to identify students was one of the few places where we did have at least some data – yearbooks. There are numerous flaws in this method. First, not all students appear in the yearbooks, even by name, and definitely not all students are pictured. Second, even if a particular African-American woman happened to appear in an image in the yearbook, we’re using visual cues to identify students as either “African-American” or “not African-American.” (again, see the Hickman article for a far more detailed explanation of the legal implications of hypodescent, i.e. “the one-drop rule”). We added in a second “check” to this process – each potentially African-American woman, once identified, would be cross-referenced in these super-problematic historical records that denoted race/ethnicity. So – we could take one of two routes: either, we could circle back and look at another set of records – say, commencement programs or even student transcripts – and take each name in each commencement program or transcript and cross-reference those names against the census – or, we could take a shortcut. We could use yearbook pictures to In order to identify some early African-American graduates, and cross-reference our visual analysis with census records.
The issue(s), I hope, are obvious. These women, all of whom graduated prior to 1940 (1960 if I have additional time), are now deceased. We can’t ask them how they self-identify. The University of Denver is now, and has been since its founding, a predominantly white institution (PWI), and the number of African-American graduates, let alone African-American women graduates, is statistically very low relative to other race/ethnicity categories. In addition, I only have 10 weeks to not only identify women, but do a significant amount of additional biographical research on them. In additionally addition, though the first round of identification was done by a generous group of women from the Sistah Network, the remainder of this ID’ing and cross-referencing is being done by me.
I’m left wondering: how much of Lady Bountiful is at work in this project? Do I have the range? How can I circle back around to ensure that this project serves the community it was initially intended to serve, now that my co-lead has moved on to literally greener pastures at Vanderbilt? I think I have the beginnings of answers to these questions, but they seem like important ones to keep circling back to as I’m doing this work. I’m sure there are questions I’m not considering. But, as Dr. Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” So I’m going to keep trying to do better.