11/30/2022 0 Comments
"This Is How We Know Who We Are": Kinship Networks, Community Care, and Archival Preservation in the Mobile Homecoming Archive
Grey Weinstein (he/they)
Mobile Homecoming, an online archive of oral histories produced by Black queer elders, was founded in 2019 with the goal of preserving and documenting “intergenerational [...] Black LGBTQ+ excellence.” The archive is centered on the value of the knowledge of Black queer elders, and engages in the project of recording this knowledge via video and preserving it online. At the same time, Mobile Homecoming works to provide housing and living assistance for the Black queer elders who contribute to the archive; it also hosts retreats and other interactive experiences that bring together Black queer community.
When read in conversation with the writing of Kwame Holmes and Karen Hansen, it is clear that the Mobile Homecoming archive’s contributions to Black kinship networks innovatively expands on the current understanding of archives’ purposes and goals. Black kinship networks are characterized by intracommunal solidarity around a shared struggle against white supremacy, resulting in relationships that meet community members’ material needs as well as their need for love and support. While archives are generally understood as having the power to preserve evidence of these kinship networks through documentation of primary sources, The Mobile Homecoming archive challenges scholars to view archives as taking an active role in the continued creation and maintenance of such kinship networks. In doing so, it seeks to render Black queer history “visible” to Black queer communities, and forms a democratic, accessible, “bottom up” retelling of these histories.
To begin, kinship networks were a means of sustaining communal support between members of Black communities during the Jim Crow era, enabling individuals to help one another fulfill their physical and emotional needs. Specifically, Karen Hansen’s “‘No Kisses Is Like Youres’: An Erotic Friendship between Two African-American Women during the Mid-Nineteenth Century” reveals that communal ties between formerly enslaved people provided not only loving care for one another but also the resources needed to survive. For example, familial bonds and an extended network of familial relations within Black communities became flexible, adaptive, and in tune to the needs of their members under slavery and its aftermath. One such instance of an extended familial network is the one described by Hansen. Hansen’s article “‘No Kisses Is Like Youres’” analyzes letters between Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus, two Black women whose “romantic friendship” reveals the dynamics of queer female relationships within Black communities in the mid-nineteenth century. Hansen writes, “Like many African-American communities in the North, Hartford had flourishing systems of exchange; people shared food, loaned money, traded goods and services, ran errands, and conducted business with one another. Addie and Rebecca fully participated in these networks.” These “systems of exchange” demonstrate the adaptability of Black communities to meet one another’s material needs (such as food, money, and other goods and services). In the context of segregation, virulent racism, and the systemic economic and political marginalization that was the legacy of slavery, the existence of these kinship networks in the 1860s represents a creative and compassionate strategy employed by free Black workers for communal survival. Hansen’s argument that Addie and Rebecca’s “full participation” in these networks “signifies that the Black community in Hartford accepted them as full-fledged members” reveals that membership in Black kinship networks conveyed a sense of communal belonging. Thus, in addition to providing for one another’s survival needs, kinship networks also fostered a sense of solidarity and even love among Black community members in the face of white supremacy. Clearly, then, such networks emotional as well as material support; counter to the narrative that slavery “broke” or “distorted” the Black family, kinship networks evolved as an ingenious method of meeting the needs of a growing and loosely defined “family.”
Typically, historians view archives as having the power to preserve evidence of a community’s way of life, including evidence of the communal nature of Black kinship networks. The Mobile Homecoming archive takes the role of archives a step further than the mere preservation of records, instead aiming to continue the legacy of Black kinship networks through the active provision of care for elderly Black queer community members in a manner similar to mutual aid projects. Particularly, the archive’s “Mobile Homecoming Trust” provides housing and living assistance to Black queer elders, engaging in community care by providing for their survival needs and need for emotional support. For example, the Mobile Homecoming archive’s website describes their Mobile Homecoming Trust’s goals “to sustain the lives and legacies of Mobile Homecoming elders and Black Feminist elders, their legacy bearers and care givers” through a trust that will “steward the archive and library into perpetuity” and “develop an all ages/intergenerational assisted and interdependent living community.” This demonstrates the most distinctive aspect of Mobile Homecoming’s archival preservation: that they view the project of maintaining archival material (“steward[ing] the archive and library into perpetuity”) and the project of caring for their community members (“develop[ing] an all ages [...] interdependent living community”) as inherently connected. If an archive’s purpose is to preserve that which has “continuing value,” then Mobile Homecoming clearly sees such value in the very lives of Black queer elders, not just in the archival material they may produce. By centering the care of these individuals, the Mobile Homecoming archive puts forth an argument for the importance of Black queer community members a source of wisdom and knowledge, themselves deserving of preservation, protection, and nourishment. This aspect of the archive particularly resonated with me due to its similarity to mutual aid projects, in which community members support one another by providing for each other’s survival needs. The Mobile Homecoming Trust could arguably be interpreted as a form of mutual aid through its provision of both housing and living assistance for elderly members. This seems particularly powerful because in the process of caring for Black queer elders, Mobile Homecoming acknowledges the worth and dignity of their lives. This gestures towards an analysis of Black queer history not merely as preservation but also as a matter of continually maintaining and building upon intracommunal support networks.
Through their work, the Mobile Homecoming archive argues for the importance of making Black queer history visible to those within Black queer communities, rather than appealing to outside authority built on white supremacy. Specifically, Kwame Holmes argues in “What’s the Tea: Gossip and the Production of Black Gay Social History” that Black queer people must look beyond a visibility politics framework that appeals to police; similarly, the Mobile Homecoming archive redefines “visibility” to shift focus away from racist institutions and towards intracommunal solidarity. For instance, Holmes states that following a series of murders targetting Black gay men, the queer Black publication Blacklight chose “not to call on protection from the police, or even any formal political organization” and thus “suggested that visibility could not ameliorate the community’s challenges.” Here Holmes defines “visibility” in terms of Black gay men’s legibility to police as a political class deserving of protection; Blacklight’s rejection of visibility as a pathway to safety represents their refusal to follow white gay and lesbian groups in demanding police protection. When “visibility” means seeking to make oneself respectable and thus valued by white supremacist institutions like the police, Holmes argues, queer Black men preferred to discard visibility altogether as a strategy for liberation. The Mobile Homecoming archive does not disagree with the futility of appeals to racist systems; however, rather than abandon it completely, the archive takes steps to redefine what “visibility” means. For example, they list efforts to “create spaces to honor and grow the visibility of elders whose work has benefited the Black Queer community” as one of their goals, adding, “This is how we know who we are.”. Although the archive centers “visibility of elders” in its work, it also interrogates the concept of visibility itself by redefining to whom it aims to be visible. The statement, “This is how we know who we are” powerfully articulates that the intended audience for the archives is the very same community from whom the archive is drawn. In other words, the Mobile Homecoming archive seeks to make Black queer history visible to Black queer people, not to an outside authority like the police. In doing so, they reaffirm a commitment to visibility while also rejecting, like Holmes, calls to use such visibility as an appeal to a white supremacist establishment.
In practicing communal care, Mobile Homecoming is able to create a historical archive that is democratic and anti-hierarchical in its retelling of history. In particular, by centering the experiences of everyday Black queer community members under the leadership of Black queer scholars, the Mobile Homecoming archive creates a “bottom up” historical narrative that prioritizes the knowledge of the wider Black queer community. For example, the archive is shaped by its focus on videos in conversation with Black queer elders and historical figures as its primary genre. This form of archival documentation centers the experiences of ordinary Black queer people rather than focusing on individuals with power or leadership roles. This creates a “bottom up” retelling of history that draws on the knowledge produced by a great number of working class queer people of color, rather than a “top down” history focused on a select few individuals in positions of authority (who are more likely to be white, wealthy, heterosexual, or a combination of the three). Since these “everyday people” are more likely to bear the brunt of systemic oppression, focusing on their experiences gives historians a more complete understanding of how systemic racism, homophobia, and transphobia affected individuals’ lives. This video format also makes information easy to understand, as it is stated in non-academic language using a conversational tone. Thus, the genre also democratizes access to Black queer knowledge and history by making it widely available and digestible to a wider audience. (However, the archive is not without some shortcomings in accessibility; its lack of audio transcripts or captions on videos makes it less accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing.) Finally, the creators of the archive, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, PhD and Sangodare Akinwale, are both Black queer academics; Gumbs is “a black feminist love evangelist” with “a PhD in English, African and African American Studies and Women and Gender Studies” while Akinwale is “a multimedia artist, filmmaker, musician, composer and theologian” focused on “Black feminism [and] African spirituality.” The pair created the archive motivated by the desire to “to amplify generations of Black LGBTQ brilliance.” Clearly, this archive was founded by two individuals firmly situated within the context of Black queer communities, and who doubtlessly bring a depth of expertise and passion to the project of preserving Black queer history; this results in the centering of queer Black voices and stories. Additionally, the Mobile Homecoming archive is made less hierarchical by the absence of white or heterosexual authority figures who might act as gatekeepers.
In conclusion, the Mobile Homecoming archive’s work extends beyond just documenting the history of Black kinship networks, instead actively contributing to their continued existence by providing housing and living assistance to Black queer elders. In doing so, the archive makes a “bottom up,” non-hierarchical retelling of Black queer history both visible and accessible within Black queer communities. The work that the Mobile Homecoming archive is doing demonstrates the creative and innovative strategies that historians and archivists can use to keep history alive. Mobile Homecoming clearly has applied lessons from Black queer histories– about the importance of solidarity, community, and care– to bear on the present through their ongoing efforts to support Black queer elders. Black queer stories are still being written, and the Mobile Homecoming archive is not just preserving them but also taking an active role in their creation. Perhaps their work can provide a model for other archives to become involved in projects of mutual aid and community care in the future.
Leave a Reply.