The digital archives of Black life are transforming how we document our history

Who gets to preserve Black joy is not solely up to the academy anymore – and that’s a good thing

The Undefeated turned 5 this week and is marking the occasion with a series of essays looking at the last five years in Black America.

For the last five years or so, there’s been an uptick in professional and grassroots digital archiving rooted in the tradition of subversive and alternative history preservation. Centuries ago, millions of Black people kept their family history alive by collecting personal belongings, important papers and journal entries between Bible pages during slavery. Using the Bible as a private family archive was a form of technology, and Black people relied on ingenuity to maintain their dignity, and to catalog and document their existence with limited resources. Imagine now, Black people using Instagram and Twitter like they once did the Bible.

The increase in this practice parallels the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. And while the 1992 Rodney King beating was the first of many attacks by the police to be captured on video by community witnesses, police violence filmed on smartphones 25 years later has become a righteous process for the people’s justice system. So, yes, there is an archive of Black death videos available on the smartphones of too many of us, and many of those videos create land mines for folk scrolling for something light. But capturing Black joy and the everyday experiences of Black people and their aliveness has become equally powerful in its ability to inspire a new cultural movement.

In 2014, Makiba Foster was on the front line of the Ferguson, Missouri, protests over the death of Michael Brown. She approached local organizers about the importance of documenting their actions as a counternarrative to corporate media reports on the protests that tended to demonize grassroots strategies. Her work with organizers, libraries and larger archival institutions helped set the stage for Black Lives Matter to become a national movement. This movement mobilized millions with the use of hashtags on social media. “There is a kind of auto-archiving practice for folks who are not trained as archivists but want to see themselves reflected in spaces where billions of people gather to stake their claim in world history,” she said.

While working at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York, Foster created the infrastructure for the institution’s digitized content through syllabi based on Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Solange’s A Seat At The Table and the Charlottesville, Virginia, white nationalist rally. Now she is the library regional manager for the African American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and leads an effort to archive Black web-based movements.

Other institutions have begun to take note. The African American Library and Museum in Oakland, California, and the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History in Atlanta began to digitize their collections in the mid-2010s. Visitation to their websites was boosted by Black social media users who started building pages and profiles around aspects of Black history and culture featured in specialized collections. A quick Google search for digital archives of Black life and history produces many results from the past couple of years. Out of this has grown a beautiful tension — a dance between digitizing existing collections and improvisational, yet intentional, online archival practices.

Steven Fullwood, co-founder of the Nomadic Archivists Project and past assistant curator of the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division at the Schomburg Center, spoke to the differences between social media archiving and archival institutions: “These platforms allow for instant posts on issues affecting Black folks globally. Regular archival institutions might have blogs or programming about Black folk, but these public platforms are usually vetted by layers of management, which hampers their ability to respond in the moment. I understand this approach by institutions because, for them, it’s all about liability and culpability. Social media archiving is less about archiving to me than it is about a collective conversation about the history and culture of Black people, and this conversation transcends boundaries, for the most part.”

Between 2016 and 2021, content creators such as the Black Archives, Darol Olu Kae, Milik Kashad and Karis Beaumont have seen their platforms double in size, partly because they add flavor and texture to that missing social context. These Instagram pages offer curated content with an eye for exhibiting the range of Black excellence and underexplored histories.

With more than 425,000 followers, the Black Archives was founded by Renata Cherlise in 2015 as a “multimedia platform that spotlights the Black experience.” The Black Archives expanded when Cherlise started to pull the visual aspect of those stories from the website onto the Instagram platform. The growth coincided with the Black Lives Matter’s hypervisible presence and the collective hunger to see Black life beyond hashtags associated with police violence.

The growing number of followers highlight, for her, why it was “essential for us to be in community with one another, to collectively take part in this process of remembering and imagining Black life. To see ourselves, to inspire new works, new worlds, and sometimes to even depart and imagine new ones.” What platforms such as the Black Archives show is the potential for digital archival storytelling beyond preservation and documentation.

Olu Kae focuses his storytelling and curation on rare interview excerpts with Black scholars and jazz musicians. Over the last three years, he built a loyal audience of jazz heads, students, creators of Pan-African cinema and curious newcomers who noticed his range of knowledge and influence on independent film culture.

“The digital space was the one place where I could not only search and explore but also begin to play around and edit ideas,” he said. “I don’t think of myself as an archivist in the traditional sense. By that, I mean I haven’t really engaged with any institutional archives in a sustained way. I relentlessly study, preserve and share found footage and archival materials in an attempt to continue and extend the conversation around Black visual language and culture globally.”

Olu Kae’s deep engagement of jazz musicians, both world famous and unknown, illustrates the rich legacy of Black music and how social media provides the opportunity for Black users to reframe stories from white-produced documentaries and biographies that don’t get at the essence of Black musicians, or the experiences that shape their sonic signatures.

Kashad, founder of the @iLoveArethaFranklin fan page, understands how scholarship and practice of care offer Franklin the roses she deserves. The Instagram page, with more than 25,000 followers, is like an online museum dedicated to the Queen of Soul and her soul music affiliates. The page is a community space for Black music fans looking for a break from trauma-informed movies and images about Black female musical giants (Billie Holiday, Whitney Houston and Nina Simone).

The page is described as “an educational archive dedicated to preserving the rich and unending legacy of Aretha Franklin and countless popular and unsung pioneers of Black music, through a variety of original content such as video essays, vocal analyses, documentaries and carefully curated rare, remastered performances of music legends.”

“My process for research,” Kashad said, “is really just going through many archives — university archives, French archives and media archives. I do a lot of archival research online. Sometimes I go to archival libraries and search through the materials. Also, it is not as common today, but there are fan groups that trade archival material. Or you can buy the archival material, which I do on occasion.”

There’s no denying that when people refer to “Black Twitter,” they are doing so with Black Americans in mind, but social media is a powerful way to think with a diasporic frame. Beaumont, who runs the Bumpkin Files, an Instagram and Twitter account that explores Black life in Britain and beyond, said, “During my photography practice, I started to understand the magnitude of owning a powerful tool like the camera and using that same tool to document our communities. We’ve seen and experienced throughout history how our stories get erased and whitewashed, so why allow that to happen again, especially during this social media age?”

Jack Dorsey, a founder of Twitter, once described it as a place for “a short burst of inconsequential information” and “chirps from birds.”

Inconsequential information has a unique meaning in Black communities whose histories were typically not found in textbooks. Gathering information about one’s past was, for centuries, punishable by law. Many Black members of Twitter and Instagram have actively moved away from posting “inconsequential information.” They are, instead, offering “short bursts” of social commentary, comedic critique and independent archival practices to fill the gap in the representation of Black history. Having the tools to resist erasure opened up a plethora of renegade archiving. Nowadays, people use creative technology to craft instant stories around their own collections – collections built from personal records and underused public records – to redefine how history gets taught and told.

Using social media to build an underground digital archiving practice has created a repository of Black history, aesthetics and music while also opening up the space to create community connections. Black people have been influencers for American culture since the 17th century, and social media amplifies that influence today. But what are the ways that Black users and content creators can be compensated or recognized for their labor?

There are other questions to contend with as we contemplate the future of the curation of Blackness and the vulnerability that comes with not owning a competitive social media platform. In 2017, cultural critic Lauren Michele Jackson gave us some useful language to dig through the ways in which digital blackface, which she describes as “various types of minstrel performance that become available in cyberspace,” is a new way to understand the thin line between passive spectatorship and profitable appropriation. This trend has prompted many conversations about the vulnerability that occurs alongside a viral moment where a simple dance you did in your home for a small group of followers becomes the latest craze for Hollywood celebrities.

Other examples include the use of Black queer language, such as “spilling the tea” or “shade,” that are now used widely without an understanding of how that language developed out of the most vulnerable folk in Black communities – transgender and other gender non-conforming folk.

Will intellectual property and copyright issues hinder future digital archiving? And what will happen to the millions of videos, memes and photographs of Black life should the social media platforms collapse or drastically change form?

The assumption is that Instagram and Twitter will be around forever. The good news is that creators have been able to use their social media presence to garner opportunities in the live realm — museum exhibitions, films and other cultural products now have a place in the world beyond social media. Still, social media is a breeding ground for creating and preserving history. All that means is the future of Black cultural excellence is still being tucked between the pages of a now-digital Bible.

DJ Lynnée Denise is an Amsterdam-based artist, scholar, and writer whose work reflects on underground cultural movements, the 1980s, migration studies, theories of escape, and electronic music of the African Diaspora. She is a 2020-2021 Artist-in-Residence at Stanford University and a lecturer for African American Studies at UCLA. Her current book project, Why Big Mama Matters will be published in 2022 by the University of Texas Press.