Welcome back to Book-ish, Unbothered’s hub for Black folx who put the 'lit' in literature! Book-ish is a space for Black people who love to read, by Black women who love to read. We’re excited to bring you content highlighting must-read Black authors and more. For Women’s History Month, Black Archives founder Renata Cherlise talks to us about her debut book — Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life — the legacy of Black family photo albums, their role in collective preservation, and why Black folx must continue to document their own stories during a time when they’re being attacked and silenced.
The photo album was my entry point to archives. I always remember the joy I felt going to my grandmother's house and racing my cousins to see which one of us could grab the photo album first. That carried over to my home and my dad curating our family photo album.
My mom inherited my grandmother's Bible and my auntie inherited my great grandmother's Bible, and I'm just so grateful that my mom's been a witness to the work that I've been doing. She said, “Hey, you're next in line, here's the Bible.” So now I have it, and I'll get to pass it on to my daughter. And she's already doing that work. She's a sophomore in college, but she's been with me and she's had a front row seat to the work that I'm doing. At some point I feel like there's something within her that maybe she'll feel called to carry on.
As I got older and I started going through our own family photos and our family home movies and digitizing them, I came into this role at the family level. My dad was the one recording everything and documenting everything, and when he and my grandmother passed it was like I became that person within my family. I come into this work through an online presence as far as a collective curating of photographs of the Black experience through our social channels. I know that seeds to take on this role were planted along the way. When I came across my grandmother's Bible as a child and I saw my name, it's something that I held on to.
My book Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life is going back to the foundation of Black Archives and my entry point to Black archival work. When we launched in 2015 with our website and Instagram account, we were sharing all sorts of different types of photography, but I felt that it was so exciting when our community would DM or email us things like, “Hey, I found this really cool photograph of my parents. Can I share it with you?” Even if we weren't going to post it, it was the ability to share their personal story or a moment from their personal family archive [that was special], and in this book I wanted to honor that. I wanted to give other people the opportunity to share their family photos and then bring myself in through my personal family photos and show collectively how our stories relate.
It's necessary to mark our presence and our existence, to make a record that we are here so that our stories are accounted for.
When I started working on this project, I already had access to a lot of family photos via my mom. But I went to my older cousin who inherited my auntie's family photos and I set up shop in his dining room with the scanner and everything. As I'm scanning everything, I'm like,”Who is this?” Sometimes he has an answer, but sometimes he doesn't, and so that's where my mom came in. There is this one photograph that makes an appearance in the book; it’s of my great grandmother in the "Life Between Life, in Black and White" section. She's sitting in a yard in Daytona Beach, Florida, and she's holding a baby. And I ask, “Mom, who's this baby?” And she says, “I don't know.” In the book you have to realize that you're not going to have all of the answers for each photograph. I list that it's my great grandmother and an unidentified baby because it could be a family friend. We don't know.
We can do our best and try to fill in the gaps and sometimes we can't; sometimes we just have questions without answers. Thankfully, I have my mom who's still around and is able to help us attach these names to these faces and give us stories. It was an experience. I think sometimes we can get caught up in metadata, like, "Okay, where was this taken?” That would be helpful to know, but if we don't have that information, what can we still gather or gain from this photograph? I'm really into leaning into that.
We've seen physical photo albums fade away through the evolution of technology, and I think what I'm trying to do is get us back to a piece of that. Because I remember that feeling of taking up the family photo album and just seeing us just doing nothing. And as technology forced us into this space where everything is digital, I had to admit my daughter doesn't know much about the family photo album except for what we're seeing when we're going to my mom's or older relatives' homes. They still hang on to that tradition. So here I am getting back to this so that she can experience that, too, because there's something about that.
With this book, in a society where everything is in a cloud or online, I wanted to in some fashion get us back to that and for us to start thinking about ways we can do that within our own homes. These pictures are so intimate and some of them can be published online, but there's a lot of photographs that are really intimate within this book. I believe that it deserves its own space, a sacred space, and I think this book allows that to happen.
It's necessary to mark our presence and our existence, to make a record that we are here so that our stories are accounted for. It's just as simple as that. As someone who was born and raised in Florida and a witness to what is happening in Florida and across the country, it's just a reminder that we have to continue to do the work. This book is saying that despite your attempts to erase and count us out, this is evidence that we are here and we are not going anywhere, and we will continue to fight to have our stories told.
As told to Stephanie Long. This interview has been edited and condensed from its original transcription. Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life is available now.