Living Memory

Illustration: Anne Le Guern @anneleguern

The first time I saw the Breonna Taylor memorial was on a livestream. It was summer of 2020, and I watched a small team of people at Injustice Square shake out tarps and cover the collection of paintings and signs to protect them from rain. The second time I saw it was in person. I walked around it, noticed the nameplates inscribed with the names of the other Black men and women killed by police encircling its edges. There was one painting of Taylor that was massive, vibrant; a sheen of purple glistened in her hair, and a small jewel glittered in her nose. At its base were poster boards proclaiming “Justice for Bre” and “She was asleep.” Around me, protestors shouted out some of those same lines through their masks.

In Breonna Taylor’s city, which is also my city, protestors have gathered at Injustice Square regularly since May 28, 2020. Beginning just three days after George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, they occupied that small square of land. Through the summer of 2020 and into the fall, they showed up every day—even after another Louisville resident, beloved local chef and entrepreneur David McAtee, was gunned down by the National Guard just days after Floyd’s death and his body left in the street for hours. Every day, even through colder months that saw protest leaders Travis Nagdy and Kris Smith shot down in the street, becoming part of Louisville’s record 173 homicides last year.

After my second visit to the square, I felt haunted by a question I didn’t know how to ask. I worried that the ink on the posters would run in a hard rain, that people’s memories would degrade. Most of all, I was terrified that the police would attack the very people desperately fighting for justice and preserving Taylor’s memory. At a loss, I turned to Google and typed: How do we save everyone, everything?

A more generative question is this: How will we remember 2020? In the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, as protests against racial injustice and police violence spread across the country, there was more than one Saturday night where I found myself Googling “pandemic archives.” Enraged and lonely and trying to make sense of why some stories are preserved and others are overlooked, I wanted to know what preservation work was already happening and, crucially, who was doing it. I wanted to know what stories and objects they deemed important enough to save, and what strategies, rationales, and systems they were using to capture them. What I found was a range of organizations attempting to chronicle a monumental and disastrous year while it was still underway.

In between a couple of links to archives of the flu pandemic of 1918 and a host of sites banking medical and scientific information about the virus were a number of crowdsourced projects, some localized, some international. Those projects boasted a wide variety of stories, from a teenager talking about discovering a love of oatmeal to stories of people losing faith in humanity. Many of these crowdsourced projects position themselves as democratic, easy to access, and welcoming all kinds of stories; many are also well-staffed and meticulously organized. But many still have limitations, and their design makes them most accessible to those who have the time and ability to write their own stories.

What I didn’t find in these early pandemic archives was Breonna Taylor’s story. And her story—not just of her death, but of her life as an essential healthcare worker and a Black woman, part of a demographic that has been devastated by systemic racism across healthcare, politics, science, and law enforcement—is central to our country’s pandemic narrative. What many pandemic archive projects are missing is something Black archivists across the country and members of the Breonna Taylor justice movement already know. The COVID-19 pandemic and the racial justice movement are not separate occurrences: protest is being enacted and lived through the crisis. The movement for racial justice is embedded in the pandemic, and the pandemic cannot be separated from the United States’ systemic inequalities. The only way to construct a truly representative archive of this pandemic, and of the United States, is by preserving the stories of the people who are most likely to be abandoned in a crisis, sacrificed to uphold those deep inequalities and white supremacy itself: Black people, poor people, and essential workers.

As it has been since the very beginning of this country, the space that Black people in the United States are allowed to occupy in 2021 is both heavily policed and oppressively confined—and this is reflected in the space they take up in the archive of this pandemic. Black people serve disproportionately as essential workers and face injustices and disparities that put them at higher risk of COVID-19—making the documents and processes that are available to preserve their pandemic memories and experiences far harder to come by than they are for white people, and far more illustrative of the pandemic’s reality.

If not for the diligence of the people who cared about her, Taylor’s death might have been overshadowed by the pandemic and forgotten by a country whose systems and industries—from journalism to publishing to the entire Hollywood ecosystem, from films to makeup—are still largely devoted to putting white people in positions of power and memorializing their stories. Despite protests by her family and friends, the news of Breonna Taylor’s death still didn’t make it past the pages of local Louisville newspapers until May, when the horrific murder of George Floyd was caught on video and ignited the 2020 summer protests.

Taylor, and the movement surrounding her, constitute a critical case study in the relationship between systemic racism and the pandemic, a result of Taylor’s intersectional identities and the fact that Louisville protestors pushed her case into the realm of hypervisibility. Because so many details of her case have now been made public, the case, its outcome, and its ramifications are being consistently charted and challenged; in late April, the Department of Justice announced that, in part because of Taylor’s case, it was investigating the Louisville Police Department. Like the deaths of George Floyd, Daunte Wright, Ma’Khia Bryant, and many others who have been killed by police, Taylor’s death is an incalculable loss for her family and community. At the same time, her death has taken on a profound national resonance, driving a protest movement that has become a model in the fight for justice and ethical remembrance, and that is deeply connected to the work and mission of Black archivists.

Together, those archivists, racial justice movement activists, and Black artists whose work often marries memory and social justice are all seeking to capture the stories of the people most at risk of being subsumed by the pandemic. In the process, they’re reimagining the archive. Under their direction, that archive is transforming from physical repository into an intersectional, community-based model that’s upending the profession’s white supremacist practices and preserving the stories of people like Breonna Taylor.

* * *

In June 2020, digital archivist and memory worker Zakiya Collier wrote on behalf of herself and dozens of other Black archivists about why the work she and her colleagues are doing to preserve the stories of Black lives is so essential. That work often involves recovering, affirming, and applying Black cultural memory in addition to preserving it. The only way to “ethically and comprehensively” archive the moment, Collier wrote, is with an approach that “support(s) accountability and historical accuracy” and is rooted in “an intersectional archival practice that also presents a global perspective of Black suffering and the response to it.” Black memory workers must lead the charge, and be given “the space and resources” to do the work.

What Collier doesn’t say is that those efforts are largely antithetical to the way the archive has operated as a science—a blend of theory, methodology, and practice—in the United States. According to the Society for American Archivists, even the word “archive” is somewhat at odds with itself: it has at least three accepted meanings—records themselves, the facility where they are stored, and the organization responsible for both—and at least twelve total under contest. Collier likely doesn’t mention this discrepancy because it’s well-documented that until the early twentieth century, the archive in the United States was scattered, selective, and rooted in white supremacy rather than in the ethical preservation of the stories of marginalized people. Some argue this pattern still persists into the twenty-first century.

In Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice, Randall C. Jimerson writes about Alexis de Tocqueville, who in Democracy in America lamented the country’s early archives: “No one worries about what has been done before him. No method is adopted; no collection is composed; no documents are gathered, even if it would be easy to do it.” Jimerson notes that early Americans had a “reliance on written records” and venerated written documents such as the Declaration of Independence (particularly those that supported binding social contracts) but “seemed to have little concern for their own history or for archival preservation.” In part, the difficulty of creating a safe and fireproof location to place original documents led early Americans to emphasize publication as a way of capturing historical material and “bringing the records to the people.” There were also few organizations or systems in place to manage these materials: No single governmental archival agency was established in the United States until 1901, and the National Archives wasn’t constructed until 1933. Prior to 1901, there were more than 100 historical societies doing some archival work across the country, but most were region- or state-based rather than nationally centralized; they were largely located in the northeast, and focused on preserving the history of the “elite educated class of society” and “white male leadership.”

The result of this disorganization, and the focus on white people, was a glaring archival absence of material from marginalized populations. In addition, archival organizing principles such as the establishing of provenance—the relationship between records and the individuals and organizations that created them—had similar consequences. Provenance was introduced in the US by Waldo Gifford Leland at the US First Conference of Archivists in 1909 to move archivists away from library catalogue methods, but it gave value and import to the records of people who had the power, privilege, safety, and often the money to preserve organizational records or to save them privately and hand them over to an archive later. As a result of practices and principles like these, Southerners, working people, and minorities were hugely underrepresented and often absent altogether from these early archives.

But their absence in the United States archive is more insidious than it is accidental. Scholar Tonia Sutherland points out that, although the personhood and histories of millions of Black people populate America’s past, there is little documentation—and particularly little visual documentation—of those lives in the archive. This assiduous avoidance of the United States’ “difficult past” is what Sutherland calls a “tacit provision of clemency” for those who commit violence against Black people. As a result, Sutherland argues, there is a dire need for practicing archivists to “work actively and diligently against white supremacist bias by documenting white supremacist violence against Black Americans.”

That bias also plays out unintentionally in the way that scholars describe the kinds of archival gaps or absences that Sutherland notes. Scholars such as Carolyn Steedman and Lloyd Pratt use terms like “broken” or “incomplete” to describe sections of absence or space in the archives of marginalized populations. In addition to having ableist connotations, that language also suggests archival or material insufficiency. But that description is misleading. By describing the archival materials of certain groups as incomplete, some scholars perpetuate the belief not only that wholeness is somehow necessary, but also that wholeness of the archive existed in the first place.

That illusion persists in part because white people have largely had the privilege of keeping their historical objects and documents safe and their provenance intact. The idea of wholeness suggests that the histories and materials of marginalized communities are somehow less valid—ignoring the fact that enslavement, oppression, the fracturing of families, and other instances of trauma and dislocation have made it close to impossible for marginalized groups to produce seamlessly cohesive historical materials. When the archives of marginalized communities are cast as incomplete, the relatively intact history of whiteness becomes the gold standard of archival practice rather than what it actually is: the exception.

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During the summer and fall of 2020, protestors at Injustice Square bandaged each other’s wounds and washed the tear gas from each other’s eyes. They planted vegetables and flowers in the park’s garden beds. They hung banners that claim a section of Jefferson Street as the “Breewayy.” In the center of the square they built a shrine to Taylor, filled with photographs and drawings, with words of anger, words of lament, and words of hope. They brought their fellow protestors food and water, meat to cook on public grills, ice cream and popsicles for the children who came to learn about why the police killed an innocent young woman. Like any collective spending large amounts of time together and forced to resolve internal group conflicts under intense duress, sometimes they squabbled; but they also offered comfort, solace, and protection to each other, carefully, constantly aware of the police who patrolled the edges of the crowd and the risk of getting or passing on COVID-19. They kept watch for the white militia groups who return to the city periodically, like water circling a drain. Occasionally, protestors were joined by members of the Revolutionary Black Panthers, who patrolled the perimeters of the park and the marches for protection. From May 2020 through mid-December, right around dusk, the protestors marched or caravanned. They marched even when the heavily-militarized Louisville Police Department—the same department that gunned down Breonna Taylor while she slept—attacked protestors and journalists with projectiles and tear gas, drove them to seek sanctuary in a local church, and arrested everyone from average citizens to some of state’s most prominent officials who stood in protest of police violence.

The protestors in Louisville are a diverse group: moms and business owners; college students and local pastors; a team of livestreamers who chronicle the daily events on the ground and are making their own archive of the collective experience of resistance and resolve. But most of those who have been there, day in and day out, are Black women and men. And when those protestors made their way home at night, sometimes at 1 or 2 in the morning, sometimes after being chased or injured by the police, sometimes after spending the night in jail, they might not have had the time or the energy to take down a record of what they’d been through. They were focused on immediate needs: Sleep. Food. Safety. And always, justice for Breonna.

When winter tightened its grip on the city, things at Injustice Square changed. The memorial for Taylor was moved to the Roots 101 African American Museum. The group of regular protestors shifted to other modes of direct action; most winter nights, Injustice Square was inhabited by a handful of dedicated people who were trying to keep from ceding this one sacred spot back to the city. Now that warm weather has returned, so have the protests; many of the same faces are caravanning and marching again, demanding a justice that still hasn’t come.

Meanwhile, safely tucked away in the suburbs that skirt the city, most of Louisville’s white population spends their nights at home. They make dinner. They tend to their lawns, plenty of which sport Black Lives Matter signs. In the safety and comfort of their mostly-white neighborhoods, they post on social media about cabin fever, about the challenges of online school, about eating in restaurants again. They post vaccine selfies and talk about the promise of the coming summer. And then the white people sleep. Like the protestors, they are afraid of many things. But they are not afraid that if they close their eyes in their beds, a cop will gun them down.

One of the things 2018 became known for, as Ashley Farmer points out in “Archiving While Black,” was the cultural realization that white people in the United States use the police to keep Black people out of presumed-white spaces. What 2020 made more of us realize, especially in cities like Louisville, is that those white spaces are everywhere: not only downtown streets but suburban ones, city parks, the trunks of Black people’s cars. These white spaces can even be the bedrooms that Black people inhabit in their sleep.

Since United States archives have also often been one of these white spaces, it is not enough to simply preserve the materials, movements, and histories of marginalized groups; it is also vital to pay attention to who is doing that preservation work. Who, then, are the chroniclers of Black lives in the pandemic? Who is doing the work of remembering the Black essential workers in the battle against COVID-19? Who is memorializing the history of the people who are fighting for racial justice, and who is doing so in more depth and detail than the small snapshot that I offer here? How are they capturing the stories of people whose lives have been so disrupted by the pandemic and white supremacy that it prevents them from building their own comprehensive history?

Some doing this work are archival studies scholars. People like Ricardo L. Punzalan and Michelle Caswell have outlined the archive’s challenges and proposed including more material from marginalized groups. Among other things, Punzalan and Caswell have suggested finding new ways to evaluate those materials, giving the subjects themselves a say in how the history is documented, and creating broad-based community archives that form a web of materials and information rather than a centralized housing of them. In addition, Caswell and others like her have done considerable work to identify white privilege in the archives and to identify steps for dismantling those privileges. Others, like Lae’l Hughes-Watkins, discuss the necessity of building what they call a “reparative archive” that helps to highlight the lives and experiences of marginalized populations.

Hughes-Watkins herself notes, though, the hazards of the word “reparative.” The root idea of “repair,” as Merriam-Webster defines it, is “to put into proper order something that is injured, damaged, or defective.” And Black archivists like Hughes-Watkins have long known that the reparative process is not simply a process of repair but of liberation and decolonization, which as J.J. Ghaddar and Michelle Caswell note, is also the process of rehumanizing people whose history, culture, and self-worth has been devalued by colonizers. Black archivists illustrate in word and in praxis that the work of the archive should not be simply to order, control, and systematize the objects and materials within it, but to also honor and make sense of what is not there. Reflecting on his decision to leave the archival profession, Jarrett M. Drake wrote that the purpose of the field was “to curate the past, not confront it; to entrench inequality, not eradicate it; to erase black lives, not ennoble them.” What the archival profession must do, Drake suggests, is to open its ranks, focus on inclusivity, and facilitate an understanding of the documents of a diverse population as they are, not make them conform to the systems established by whiteness.

At the end of his piece, Drake noted that he was leaving the profession to do exactly that kind of work: the more “liberatory memory work” that brought him to archival work in the first place. This is, of course, also the work that Hughes-Watkins is doing; later in her own article, she adopts Drake’s term and says that reparative work is really the work of building a liberatory archive. And this, of course, is the work that Zakiya Collier, Tonia Sutherland, Ashley Farmer, and hosts of other Black archivists and archivists of color are doing. Their vision—not just of reconstructing the archive, but of establishing a collaborative practice of identifying and highlighting the overlooked contributions that marginalized populations have always made to our historical knowledge—helps us see the United States archive as dynamic and accessible rather than inert and out of touch.

It’s in great part because of archival whiteness, the myth of archival wholeness, and the tendency of US archives to ignore stories like Taylor’s that the work of Nikole Hannah-Jones and her co-authors in The 1619 Project is so important. The 1619 Project illuminated the obvious ruptures, rather than the cohesion, of the United States archive; in doing so, it illustrated that those ruptures were not a feature of the archives of marginalized populations and their inability to record-keep, but instead a byproduct of white supremacy’s desire to maintain control over a people and their story. As a collective, the project’s authors documented how slavery destroyed networks of Black families, communities, and lives, and illuminated how a brutal system of rape, torture, and genocide made memory-keeping and documentation of family and collective histories nearly impossible.

What makes The 1619 Project so critical—and so connected to Breonna Taylor and the movement behind her—is not just its research but its argument. To understand the United States, the project argues, you have to understand slavery and its consequences, and how the contributions of Black people made the country’s formation and flourishing possible. This understanding goes hand-in-hand with the pandemic and with the United States archive. We cannot grasp either the archive or the pandemic without recognizing how many lives have been destroyed to keep white supremacy intact.

While the archives of marginalized populations may boast fewer objects and documents than white archives, their gaps have become sites of community-building and creative and intellectual reinvention. In Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York, for example, scholar Carla Peterson chronicles her research into her family at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; she frames each chapter as an item or event of importance in relation to her great-grandfather and then, like a scrapbook, lets “the work of memory, history, and archival discovery guide me through my narrative.” She sutures together research into the lives of Black New Yorkers from 1795 to 1895 with anecdotes about her archival trips, with questions that her research generates, and with speculation about what lies outside the tidbits of information she finds.

The result, Peterson explains, is “not exactly a family memoir, but neither is it traditional social history. It is a narrative that lies somewhere in between.” The in-betweenness, writes Peterson, is because of the nature of the process of remembering: “nations and other communities…hold onto memories of people and events they deem historically significant,” she notes. “These memories lay the groundwork for group identity.” As a result, she writes, “we need to think of remembering…as a dynamic process, an act of imagination.”

But scholars are not the only ones chronicling Black lives and memorializing their histories. In Breonna Taylor’s Kentucky, a vast network of Black activists and artists is also engaged in this dynamic archival process. Charles Booker—a progressive Black state legislator who challenged Amy McGrath for the right to take on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and who now is considering a Senate run against Rand Paul—started a movement called Hood to the Holler that spans all of Kentucky’s working class and is enfranchising voters, especially the formerly incarcerated. By protecting Black voters, Hood to the Holler will help document how integral Black lives have always been to Kentucky’s prosperity.

In Kentucky—as in Georgia and across the country—a collective of Black women activists and leaders is heading up the movement for memory and justice. Women like Representative Attica Scott—the only black woman in the Kentucky legislature—are enacting change through legislation: Scott introduced “Breonna’s Law,” a bill proposing the statewide ban of no-knock warrants like the kind that led to Breonna Taylor’s death. Sadiqa Reynolds, head of Louisville’s Urban League, is calling on businesses to push for justice for Breonna. Brianna Wright led the successful District 4 city council campaign for Jecorey Arthur to ensure Louisville’s Black West End has a strong advocate; she now serves as Arthur’s legislative assistant.

Others in Louisville are supporting memory work by applying the principles of Black cultural memory that prioritize communal support during times of crisis. Nonprofits such as Change Today, Change Tomorrow—under the direction of Taylor Ryan, Nannie Croney, and a Black-woman-led Board of Directors —provide a multitude of resources and support to Louisville’s Black community, including two initiatives spearheaded by activist Shauntrice Martin that are bringing fresh food to what has long been a food desert. Activists like Chanelle Helm, who founded the Black Lives Matter chapter in Louisville; Louisville mayoral candidate Shameka Parrish-Wright; and organizer and trainer Talesha Wilson are supporting protestors and moving them forward. As Wilson told the Courier-Journal, “we’re better in numbers. We’re better collectively. We’re better united.”

Some in Kentucky are Black artists and writers trained in memory work as a creative process: a memorializing of Black histories, narratives, language, and lyricism. Hannah Drake is a well-established poet, activist, and storyteller who also happens to be Brianna Wright’s mother and whose widely published work has been retweeted by Colin Kaepernick and Michelle Obama. Minda Honey is a professor and writer who launched TAUNT, an alt-indie publication focused on “elevating the voices of the unaccounted.”

One of the state’s most prominent Black artistic voices was also compelled to create a poetry collection about the protests as a way of memorializing the events. Frank X Walker, Kentucky’s former poet laureate, heads the Affrilachian Poets, a collective of prolific Black Appalachians writers such as Crystal Wilkinson (who was just named Kentucky’s newest poet laureate), Nikky Finney, Kelly Norman Ellis, and makalani bandele. Walker told me he wrote his book of pandemic protest poems because he wanted poetry to serve as his own form of protest since “my knees are too bad to march.” It felt necessary, he said, “to document a pandemic that was looking more and more like genocide in real time. It was heartbreaking to watch the news and see what was happening in Black and brown communities due to the multiple pandemics that included state-sanctioned police violence and open season on anyone who dared complain out loud in public.”

The work is critical, said Walker, because it’s capturing the voices that have often been excluded from the historical register. “I hope my historical poetry helps cement important legacies of real heroes that have been slowly written out of history books, if included at all,” he said. “It’s not revisionist history or alternative facts. It’s simply and finally the truth.”

None of these Black scholars, archivists, artists, or activists need the guidance of the public; they are already experts in their fields. But they can do their jobs more effectively if they receive sufficient material support and a growing public awareness that dismantling white supremacy in the United States archive requires both systemic change in archival best practices and a collective urgency to preserve the country’s diversity of stories with the same care we have always devoted to preserving white ones. That support and awareness will make it easier for each of these memory workers to focus on doing what they do best: telling their own stories and the stories of the people who are no longer alive to tell theirs themselves.

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On March 13, 2021, the one-year anniversary of Breonna Taylor’s death, there was a memorial service at Injustice Square. Hundreds of people turned up to pay tribute. Under a large tent, the No Justice, No Peace choir sang; a host of speakers talked about the continued fight for justice, which will take the power of protest and also shift to pushing for policy change. In the middle of the square, the memorial had returned. On either side of the tent, two human-high paintings of Taylor faced the crowd.

When I think of 2020, I think of those paintings. I think of how small pieces of Taylor’s likeness and life have dispersed across the country and into people’s homes. I think of how we’ve heard the testimonials: her family describing her as the star of the show, her teachers saying she was brilliant and fast, a natural born leader, someone to count on. These fragments circulate everywhere: Breonna the loving daughter, the kind sister, the caring friend. Breonna the EMT, the ER tech, the future nurse.

These fragments are both comforting and unsettling. What has made its way into the public memory of Taylor is not the complex person she was, but the broad strokes that paint her as exceptional, saint-like. In a mid-March article in a local indie publication called the LEO, Taylor’s sister Ju’Niyah Palmer talked about her frustration with this very phenomenon. “I don’t like that you only see her in her work uniform,” she said. “I want people to see when she didn’t get dressed up and she would be outside…I want y’all to see that she’s more than this person who worked as an EMT, she was still just an average person.”

In Louisville and across the country, people are still showing up at protests and saying that Taylor’s life mattered. But what they mean is not just that she was valuable simply because she was a human being. They’re saying each of us has an obligation to her. They’re making not a point, but a promise: to do better than has been done for every single generation of Black people and every single marginalized person in the past. Preserving the fullness of Taylor’s memory is one key step in that process.

These days, instead of looking up pandemic archives, I look up the average number of lives that an EMT saves each year. I watch videos of Taylor on her sister’s Instagram, and think of the thousands of songs Taylor would have danced to, the thousands of times she would have laughed and left the imprint of lipstick on her sister’s cheek, the thousands of people that she would have loved and argued with and helped, had she lived. I think about the legacy that Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham honor in the introduction of their visual anthology Black Futures: “Blackness is infinite,” they write. “A single book cannot attempt to contain the multitudes and multiverse. This is just one manifestation of a project that spans millennia.” Because of the collaborative memory work of Black archivists, artists, and activists, and their dynamic approach to archive as an ongoing ethical practice rather than simply a repository, the United States pandemic archive can begin to make good on its promise: it can work toward saving a memory of Breonna Taylor for every memory she would have made and every life she would have touched, as well as the legacies of the millions of people like her.

Author’s Note: Several brief sections of research on the history of archives in the United States and interpretations of scholarly approaches and arguments used in this piece have been paraphrased or excerpted from Megan Pillow’s dissertation.