HL90 EM: Empire and Archive in the Colonial Americas

Shopping week is around the corner! Have you got your list of HL90s to shop? Alan Niles shared more about his class, “Empire and Archive in the Colonial Americas”:

Tell us about your class!

This class will engage with a simple question: what do we do with a written archive of colonialism that is weighted toward the perspectives of colonists? What are some of the ways we can counter this imbalance and open up a greater diversity of perspectives on the past? What are the limits of that effort? We will enter some of the fascinating discussions that are taking place around these issues right now in different fields of study—across and between the history of Atlantic slavery, Ethnohistory, American Studies, Native American and Indigenous Studies, and other fields. One of the goals of this class is to open up the category of what we count as a text or source—as we’ll discover, there are all kinds of ways of “writing” or recording history that don’t rely on paper and ink. (A belt of wampum might record a historical treaty more accurately than a document that was written down with pen and paper!) Thinking about what we count as a source can also challenge us to think about what we hope to get out of the past, or the ways that our present desires are entangled with past histories. My hope is that activities and assignments based around navigating digital archives, analyzing visual materials, and close reading both “along” and “against the grain” of historical sources will lead us into thinking about these kinds of big questions.

What’s something you’re excited to share with students?

In Week 6 we’re going to talk about the archive of graffiti from colonial churches in Mexico that Alessandra Russo has recovered. These doodles and inscriptions by Indigenous, mestizo, and Spanish people aren’t the kinds of sources that scholars usually focus on, but as Russo shows us, they tell us a great deal about the lived experience of colonialism—which is to say the kinds of attitudes and desires that find expression in everyday life. Some of these graffiti are (I think) even funny, though we’ll talk about how they can thwart what we want to see in them. At any rate, I think they’ll help us think differently about the history of power and graphic practice.

What’s something surprising students might not know about this topic?

Colonial relationships were messy, and European, African, and Indigenous peoples interacted in ways that could lead to conflict but also to surprising interdependencies and exchanges. Some of these encounters can be unintuitive to us: the earliest performance of Hamlet we know about was for an audience of Portuguese-speaking West Africans, for example. Our class’s focus on sources and archives will let us talk about the ways we’re able to see different, sometimes unexpected configurations of power, authority, and inequality in the past, as well as the ways they can be obscured or recovered over time.

What kind of archives will you be using?

Teaching this class in an online format is going to be interesting, because our course is centrally concerned with questions of the visibility and accessibility of sources from the past. Our assignments are designed around exploring digital collections of materials that are available for use online, like the Early English Books Online database, The Vodou Archive, Harvard Libraries’ Colonial North America project, and the Peabody Museum’s digital collections. Through group discussion board posts and individual activities, we’ll talk about the decisions institutions are making about what kinds of materials are becoming digitally available (or not), the funding limitations that libraries and other institutions face, and all the other risks as well as advantages of online research. We’ll also learn a lot about how to find interesting sources!

What does your class help us understand about the present? 

Our whole class is about the legacies of colonialism, but the last unit, “Memory, Violence, and Repair” focuses most directly on the present. We’ll engage with the ways that scholars, artists, and activists are working creatively with questions of repair and recovery: for example, what kind of politics and what new literary form emerge from a text like Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother, in its attempt to grapple with silences in the archive of slavery that cannot be overcome? I’m hoping these conversations can be a space for exploring the variety of different ways that academic research, political activism, and creative forms like autobiography and speculative fiction can channel our complex and varied desires facing the past.

For more information, you can see the syllabus on Canvas, drop by during shopping period (Wednesday, August 19, 12-2:45), or email Alan!

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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