My Relationship with Eugene Winslow; Or, Why People Think I'm Crazy

 

(By Emily Minehart: BMRC Processing Intern)

I spend a lot of my time, a lot of it, explaining what an archivist does. I also spend a lot of time watching people’s eyes glaze over when I describe the details of processing a collection: the digging through endless boxes; the labeling, erasing, re-labeling, re-erasing, and re-re-labeling folders until there is eraser snow so far under my nails there’s no hope of getting it out; the paper cuts; the endless debate over just the right place for that God-forsaken oversized box in the container list; the never-ending trail of the greatest of all inventions, colorful Post-its; the tedium, always the tedium. This is certainly not a profession for the impatient, and I can easily understand why people look at me with bored horror when I explain what I want to do with my life. I recognize that I sound insane when I elatedly explain the miracle of file folders. (Bless you, you magnificent person who invented the three creases at the bottom of folders to expand them.) Maybe I am crazy, maybe all archivists are crazy. That is certainly a possibility I have considered. But I also think this community of maybe-crazy people does important, exciting work, and I think this is what I haven’t been able to explain to those other people, those future-teacher, future-lawyer, future-nurse friends of mine whose eyes glaze over. So here’s my next attempt:

We get to talk to dead people.

That statement probably isn’t a good case for my sanity, but it’s about the closest explanation I have for why I love what I get to do at the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature. Yes, I have gone home with cracked, nearly bleeding hands from digging through crumbling newspaper clippings from nine to five. But I also go home with a new perspective on the world, knowledge of the past and of a person that I had never known before. In Spanish there are two verbs that mean “to know.”  Saber is to know facts, dates, things. Conocer is to be acquainted with people and places. Saber comes from history books, conocer comes from interaction. I get to know, in the conocer sense, people and places that are gone or otherwise inaccessible to me, people and places that I would only know in the saber sense if I did not do what I do. I get to talk to dead people.

Beth Loch and I are currently working on the Eugene Winslow Papers at Harsh. Winslow was a writer and artist who worked in publishing in Chicago, especially at the Afro-AM Publishing Company, in the 1960s and ‘70s. He illustrated, and was a ghostwriter for, the first biographical compendium of African American historical figures, Great Negroes, Past and Present. Winslow died in 2001, but I still get to have conversations with him, I get to know, conocer, him. Sure, I know his biography, I know that he was one of the Tuskegee Airmen and that he graduated from Dillard University, but I also know that he liked to copy line drawings of people while he read articles about them and that he recorded his dreams in scrawling, looping cursive. I know he used scraps of art and graphics from magazines as inspiration for his own art, sometimes scraps as small as the nail on my pinky finger. (Those, I might add, are not particularly fun to work with. I am developing a gloriously attractive hunchback and a permanent squint.) Winslow kept his papers in a very particular order; that order told me that he was especially interested in African American inventors, musicians, and writers, that he was fascinated by the race of the Egyptian pharaohs.

Of course, archival collections cannot tell an entire life story, every minute detail. More often than not when I talk to dead people I’m asking them ceaselessly tiresome questions. Why did you include Abraham Lincoln’s file in Subject Files rather than Biographical Files? What on earth is on that film role? What exactly was your relationship with President Clinton, that he wrote you a personal letter? Those questions don’t get answered because, alas, I can’t actually commune with the dead, though that would doubles be a useful skill for an archivist. I think the mystery, though, is part of the fun. It leads me on a dusty, musty quest through the collection to try to understand, to unpack the way Winslow thought when he arranged his papers the way he did. I try to think the way he thought. This is how I really get to know Winslow.

For me, the beauty of processing a collection is in the conocer, the really knowing someone. I get a sense of accomplishment from the sea of manila folders lined up in a lovely row, and I feel like I’m contributing something to society knowing that researchers can now access the collections I have processed, but those are extra benefits. It’s all about touching the paper, digging into someone else’s life, the mystery of it. It is slowly, one piece of doodled-upon paper at a time, assembling the puzzle of a life. It is starting to work on a collection only knowing a person’s dates and a few lines of their biography, then leaving it feeling like I have a personal relationship with them. It is looking at their papers, their life, the world from their perspective. Being an archivist is like looking at a pointillist painting. Standing with your nose touching the canvas staring at that weirdly tantalizing dot is like looking at individual papers. But when you step back from the painting and watch Seurat’s lovely park take shape, that is like processing a collection. And it’s beautiful.

The next time people ask me what I do I’m going to tell them that I’m currently in a relationship with the late Eugene Winslow. Crazy? Probably. But also fairly true. Maybe I’ll buy an Ouija board.