What Does it Mean to Revolt? (Helton)

“On Decimals, Catalogs, and Racial Imaginary of Reading” by Laura E. Helton is a history of the archival process of black history. To intervene with an awesome concept in “The Image of Absence: Archival Silence, Data Visualization, and James Hemings” by Lauren F. Klein; “moments of silence enter the archive at four crucial moments.

  1. The moment of fact creation (the making of sources); 

2. the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); 

3. the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); 

4. and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history)…” (pg. 2)

Helton is constructing a history of the construction of the of Howard University’s Negro Collection through the actions of its curator Dorothy Porter by interrogating this moment as an intervention into knowledge generation and imposition. According to Helton, Porter witnessed these four moments of silence creation (83 years before Klein described them) and dedicated her life to achieving a new archival system for black history that was extensive and more importantly inclusive of blackness in its cataloging of black authors, artists, and sources.

 The argument that quickly materialized was the question of Porter as a revolutionary or faithful to orthodoxy. “Could one be a revolutionary and love the library?” is the quote that Helton presents. (pg. 101)

As I read the article I kept teetering back and forth between revolutionary or orthodoxy. The point where I leaned toward revolutionary was in the discussion on descriptive terminology. (pg. 107) In this section Porter created new terms and classifications to describe blackness and black life, elevated the importance of certain words like ‘insurrection’ that were important to black existence, and destroyed the racial classifications of authors. This is an active and violent re-imagining of the archive to forcefully include black authors and artists (now just authors and artists) into the mainstream and to include terms essential to black life on the same level as terminology previously used. Porter not only tore down walls of otherness and silence but integrated black life as equal and essential to the previously white archival format. Helton argues that Porter “produced new black imagery” and that makes her revolutionary. (pg. 112)


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2 Responses to What Does it Mean to Revolt? (Helton)

  1. Karuna Maddava says:

    I agree with you that Porter was a revolutionary. I find it fascinating to consider a librarian as such…picturing a quiet and calm person meticulously going through her work. At first, I found it difficult to read her actions as revolutionary, as they seemed so ordinary and logical, but of course, for their time, they were astonishing. Porter exemplifies the power, importance and impact of how we organize our knowledge. She should have been wearing a superhero’s cape.


  2. ce189 says:

    Porter took the challenge and overcame the racial barriers to complete her fascinating work. Her confidence and her self-courage, combined with her diligent work ethics enabled her to defeat the obstacles. I agree with Karuna, Porter was indeed a revolutionary and one of the first woman to be in her area. Very impressive assessment on Porter’s contribution to civil rights. Thank you for your valuable comment Devin.


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