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Librarian Seeks To Reclaim The Archives For Everyone

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Photo by Emmai Alaquiva
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Courtesy pf Carnegie Mellon University
Bekezela Mguni is a librarian, educator, artist and activist.

Even after a year when something historical seemed to happen every two weeks, the fight over how history is written continues.

"Reclaiming Cultural Stewardship and Decolonizing the Archives," a webinar by Bekezela Mguni: 7 p.m. Thu., Feb. 25

In 2019, the New York Times’ “1619 Project” elicited protests from critics who said the publication overemphasized the foundational role of slavery in American history. This year, the Trump administration’s 1776 Commission -- created in part to rebut the 1619 Project – issued a report that defended “the Greatness of the American Founding”; newly seated President Joe Biden promptly disbanded that commission, and removed the much-maligned document from the White House website.

But the issues run deeper than these high-profile intellectual skirmishes, as Pittsburgh-based librarian, artist and educator Bekezela Mguni will explore in her Feb. 25 webinar “Reclaiming Cultural Stewardship and Decolonizing the Archives.”

One problem, said Mguni, is the implicit reverence with which people view repositories of historical information and artifacts.

"A lot of people think that libraries, archives, are these neutral spaces"

“A lot of people think that libraries, archives, are these neutral spaces,” she said. “And it’s actually like, ‘No. You have the ability to choose what cultural information is shared with a community or shared with future generations. You are in a position of power, and you have a responsibility to do that in an ethical way.’”

Those who curate the past, she noted, have long been mostly members of a small, privileged and Eurocentric elite, who over the centuries have been heavily influenced by racism, sexism and other prejudices.

Think of how much of our knowledge of Africa has been filtered through the lens of colonialism and you start to get the picture. Egypt, Mguni said, was essentially written out of Africa in such a way that Africans were shorn of due credit for the rise of civilization.

“We are essentially erasing and making Black people invisible, which is a form of violence,” said Mguni.

Many of the world’s cultural treasures, she adds, were appropriated or outright looted by Europeans from the lands where they were produced – and then interpreted through privileged Western eyes for Western audiences.

As a Black, queer, Trinidadian woman and activist, Mguni understands how to view history through the eyes of the marginalized. She earned her master’s degree in library and information science at the University of Pittsburgh and is founder of the Black Unicorn Library and Archive Project, a Black feminist community library. She’s also librarian-in-residence at Pittsburgh International Airport and education program director at Dreams of Hope, a nonprofit serving LGBTQ youth.

She’ll give her Feb. 25 talk as part of Carnegie Mellon University’s University Libraries Speaker Series. The venue provides a ready example of her subject matter: In early 2020, CMU apologized after its undergraduate-admissions department was found to be distributing to prospective students a map of Pittsburgh that highlighted multiple neighborhoods but left blank spaces in place of such majority-Black communities as the Hill District, Garfield and Homewood.

“Mapmaking is one of the oldest ways white supremacy can manifest itself and also cultural erasure can happen, because you can say, ‘Oh, this doesn’t exist,’” she said.

One solution, of course, is for museums and other institutions to become more inclusive, in both who makes curatorial decisions and what material is deemed worthy of curation -- from oral histories by everyday people to works by contemporary artists.

Cultural stewardship, Mguni said, isn’t just about ancient marble statues, first editions of novels, and government documents. It “happens every single day. It happens in the hair salon, it happens in the barbershop, it happens on the corner at the bus stop. It happens when we remember something and share it with our loved ones,” she said.

“That’s why it’s important for Black people, indigenous people, people of color, LGBTQ people, people who have traditionally been marginalized by dominant narratives, to be in that space of reclaiming the storytelling, reclaiming who is naming what is important to us,” she said.

“Reclaiming Cultural Stewardship and Decolonizing the Archives” is free, but registration is required here.