Renaissance of the Family Archive: The Personal Histories

Angelica Calderon, Shadé Laurie Freeland, et al

Angelica Calderon grandmother in New York, undisclosed date. 

United by our passion for archives and belief in the importance of individual family histories, we came together to write a unique essay that reflects each of our distinct relationships to archives. In "Renaissance of the Family Archive: Personal Histories" we explore the importance of family archives and why they should be preserved. Using our individual stories, we will expand on the larger significance of families, especially Black families upholding a “keeper” role of these memories for future generations. We hope to remember the importance of the family archive and the significance of one’s legacy and the possibilities of its forms. We aim to expand our archives as it has opened up not only healing doorways but also artistic ones. In doing so, we seek to mobilize the creation of institutions aimed at immortalizing Black history, Black art, and the Black experience.  


Angelica Calderon, “Expanding the Intimate Histories of Us”  

Throughout the last decade within the growing digital space, generations of those from the African Diaspora have gravitated toward proclaiming their ancestral legacy. For example, Instagram profiles with a devotion to archiving such as evoke the significance of preservation and the feeling of nostalgia. This sentimental longing becomes useful regarding thinking about legacy and keeping someone or a moment in time. Information is found and conversations are formed after a memory is collected.  

Witnessing a person and continuing on their narrative with a shutter-release button builds a collective memory with one’s kin. Through family albums, we and our loved ones develop an inherited imagination of the stories we try to collect so we won’t forget each other, especially those who are deceased. Marginalized communities are overwhelmingly reminded of the precarity of our lives, and this can be brought up when archiving. Through archiving, we are taking on the ancestral commitment to live and to remember on behalf of others.  

Family albums have been a constant in my life for processing grief and using the archive within my artistic practice. It taught me to observe not only from the self but also how to continue my familial “sightseeing.” Family albums, or lack thereof, reflect the times, the people who tend to them, and those who document them. With the acceleration of the digital age—where is the physical family album located? When an elder passes, who takes on the role of archivist? Daonne Huff, Director of Public Programs and Community Engagement at the Studio Museum, echoed an insight on the navigation of one’s community by asking How can I be an extension of … and provoking us to continue that statement with what best fits for us. How can I be an extension of my family archive in this case? What are the possibilities of myself, my family, our faces, our phases within a photo album, and the outside, even when we cross over? How do we show a love that withstands the afterlife? What are the possible forms of the family archive?  

Noticing the shifts in my familial structure with a now mature outlook, I named myself the honorary “archivist” of my family. During a time of burnout and growing pains, I had an encounter with introspection. I found myself surrounded by family albums, experiencing a pause of tangible expansion; I felt the urgency as a descendant and artist to embrace more, to continue on. Delving into a transformation, as someone who not only holds many possibilities but ancestral data, was a practice that needed to be revisited and cared after. Having this realization, I reminisced about the times I have seen photos of my younger self. I realized my mother was a keeper of our memories (as photographs). Conversations were exchanged, and though I do not remember them, I will always feel the love. I intertwined these feelings with mediums that make me feel similarly, such as photography (to observe and archive), performance (reviving a memory through the body), and writing (to be read by my loved ones). With these tools and remembrance, I continue a familiar path, re-explored.  


Laila Annmarie Stevens: “I Am, We Are, Living Poetry” 

“Stevens Family Portrait - South Jamaica, Queens, New York” Photographer: Laila Annmarie Stevens ©2021 

The title “I Am, We Are, Living Poetry'' came to me during the Museum Professional Seminar at The Studio Museum in Harlem. During the seminar, we studied the tradition of mutual aid in the first years of the Studio Museum, where neighbors found sanctuary in the museum’s preservation of their loved one’s archives.1 This practice resonates with me because it evinces the passing on of histories rooted in community interaction and solace. The self-determination of creating, collecting, archiving, or gathering found materials for further intergenerational use, with or without intention, by past communities influences our present efforts because we are then encouraged to replicate this action for future kin. 

Image (left to right):  Black Women Writers at the Inauguration of Sister President Johnnetta B. Cole” 1988. Dr. Cole, Spelman's 7th president, was responsible for bringing Mari Evans to campus as a scholar-in-residence. Top Row: Louise Meriwether, Pinkie Gordon Lane, Johnnetta Cole and Paula Giddings. Middle Row: Pearl Cleage, Gwendolyn Brooks and Toni Cade Bambara. Bottom Row: Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni and Mari Evans. photo credit: Susan J. Ross. ©1988; 

Works produced out of the Black women's literary renaissance of the 1970s2 have served as my personal lodestar, and are reflected in the structure of Lorde’s poem "A Litany For Survival."3 I turned to these texts as I came into my queerness and embraced my blackness, as I sought to find comfort within these growing pains. I remember sitting alongside my sisters wearing white floral lace gloves in my grandmother Lillie’s garden as we posed while she photographed us on her disposable Kodak camera. Two weeks later, one hundred four-by-six lavender-hued Walgreens prints stuffed the sleeves of our family albums and leather journals stowed away on a top shelf of our attic. Folded in these pages are names, smiles, and hands we once held, close to our hearts, at a moment in time. “We knew we had to love the women we were and the women of our lineages, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, the women we never got to hold, the people coming after us and ourselves and the bridge and an invitation to all of it.”4 The rawness of their written truths on paper danced as glimmering speckles on water, where I soon recognized my reflection. I mirrored myself in the queerness of June Jordan, the petite nature of Nikki Giovanni, and the dancer/playwright Ntozake Shange, whose mother recited poems to her from the Harlem Renaissance. The community they sought in each other by founding platforms such as The Sisterhood, established in the 1970s by Alice Walker and June Jordan, was “a space for Black women writers and other creatives to reject societal opposed competition and embrace one another as friends and colleagues,”5 has expanded my vision of what family and community looks like. Developing new modes of kinship and intimacy through visual art, my photographic and audio series, “Clayton Sisterhood Project,'' preserves my moments of spiritual, familial, and ancestral love. 

With all that we do, our efforts are deeply sourced back to the 1960s Black Power Movement emphasis on self-determination.I reflect on the Black School’s Process Deck definition—“To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves. Effort directed toward the community building and improvement among individuals within a regional area or with a common interest.”7 As artists and storytellers, the key word within this statement is “create.” To create is to embark on an effort guided by imagination and perseverance. Furthermore, in this process of creating an archive, I ask myself who am I creating, collecting, and archiving for? My answer: For those after to say, “I saw this and I am kept.” 


Ayanna Woods “To Hold Us: On My Family Archives” 

The archives I create of my family are not just treasures in a trophy case. As a creative and a memory worker,8 I believe archives to be transformational spaces of healing, remembrance, creation, and conversation. I think of the archive not as a repository, but as a generative space. Because of this, my archival efforts are alive, often being shared or referenced freely. When I worked on the Gloria Naylor Archive Project in 2020 and 2021, the team and I were passionate about opening the archive to the scholars and the greater community as a resource, despite it being located on the campus of a private university. Sharing the collection’s contents both online and in person was a key part of the project from its inception and a large part of the conversations I had with the primary investigator when drafting parts of the mission statement. 

 My great-grandfather, Willie Jenkins, 2019 

In 2019, I interviewed my great-grandfather, Willie Jenkins, about his migration to Philadelphia from Savannah, Georgia, and his forced participation in World War II. For a time, an audio recording of this interview lived online and it was freely accessible to anyone who wanted to listen. They could play the interview while also reading a transcription and a short biographical essay I wrote about his life. This website was precious to me from the moment it was created. I was just beginning to discover my passion for memory work and the interview and photos it displayed were, to me, an enchanting encapsulation of some of my family history. It became even more sacred to my mother and me after he passed away in March of 2020—just four months after our conversation. After we lost him, I was able to share the link with anyone who loved him and wanted to hear his voice or listen to him tell those stories again.  

 Willie Jenkins’s army portrait, c. 1942 

The website no longer exists because I couldn't pay to keep the domain. Such a situation is exactly why institutions that create and maintain community archives are vital. The Paul Robeson House and Museum in Philadelphia, for example, is currently archiving and preserving decades of art, recordings of Robeson, posters, photographs from press and community events, and so much more. For Black folks, these kinds of projects are much needed. Most of our family archives live in boxes, cell phone or computer files, attics, and basements. And with the structural barriers in places to inhibit Black families’ pursuit of financial stability, the resources it would take to create a space that can safely store our history are often inaccessible. So, it's painfully rare for the everyday or even the remarkable stories of our elders to be properly immortalized, despite those stories being foundational and awe-inspiring for everyone who knows those elders and holding profound, historical value.  

I am touched every time I see an institution or archival project that gives Black history and Black people deserved reverence. I believe every Black community needs a place to record our histories in the ways we want them to be remembered. Oftentimes, our artifacts end up in the hands of colonial or academic institutions that are controlled by white executives. This lack of autonomous control over our precious artifacts and documents, items that hold our stories, is dangerous. The telling and preservation of history are subjective and colored by those who hold and preserve said history. For this reason, we need institutions like the Studio Museum, founded by and for Black people, to maintain our archives or empower us to do so ourselves. All people should have control over their own historical narrative, and autonomy in archiving is a key aspect of such control. Projects that seek to reestablish Black control over Black history and archives have been slowly emerging over the course of many decades, like the Black Women Radicals, the Black Lesbian Archives, and so many others. Many more will emerge in the future, so long as we remain searching for a place to hold our stories, and through their emergence, new ways to honor our history and culture will be born.  


Shadé Laurie Freeland, “When the Keeper of the Family Archive Dies, What Happens Next?” 

Dedicated to my father, Andy M. Freeland, who passed away on January 16, 2022. He is sorely missed! (Pictured: two-year-old me and my father, 1989.) 

It is often said that life has a way of throwing curveballs and in an instant, your world can change. This was my reality at the start of the year when my father passed away in January 2022. His death was unexpected and still does not seem real to me nine months later. I often replay the day my father died in my head. That memory is ingrained in me and, though time moves on, it is still there, clear as day.  

While the grieving process never stops, I find the most solace in looking through my father’s collection of family photos. When I was younger, he was an avid photographer who took pictures of anything and everything. He was also a collector of mementos; he held on to lots of random knick-knacks throughout his life. One thing that he held onto, which means the world to me, is a cut-out of my hand that I made in preschool. It warms my heart to know my father kept this hand for over thirty years. Having possession of the cut-out today is bittersweet.  

What happens to an archive when its keeper dies? Should you continue to keep it alive or let it fall by the wayside? When a family archive is not preserved, you lose a connection to the past, and that wealth of knowledge your loved one amassed is now lost forever. 

I regret not speaking to my father about the best way to preserve his personal archive of photos and mementos. These past few months, I have been wondering what I can do to preserve my father’s memory. As his only child, it is imperative I keep his legacy alive. I decided the best way to do this is to keep his archive intact by digitizing all his personal mementos and photos. For the past three months, I have been scanning photos and storing them on an external hard drive. Not wanting to keep them stored away, I decided to also document my journey as a healing process and as a way to keep family members who are not near updated; I created an Instagram page called “TheFreelandArchive” where I post the scanned photos and other items he had in his home. The page is a personal project and at the moment is private, for family only. One day, when I feel comfortable, I would like to open it up to the public. 

Taking on this role as the keeper of my father’s archives has me nervous, but also, I feel much closer to him. This process has been therapeutic and healing. 

If I could give one piece of advice to anyone, it would be to devote time to starting or contributing to your family archive. If your family already has an established archive, find a way to be a part of it. Whether it be through oral recordings, photographs, or videos, it can be a way for future generations to connect to the past, and also a way for them to know about their relatives who are no longer living. Likewise, it can be something you revisit when you miss someone who has passed. I miss my father dearly, but I know he is proud of me. I take pride in carrying on the family archive and keeping his memory alive. 

As Jamaican Dancehall artist Beenie Man sings in his remake of the song, “Memories,” “Memories don’t leave like people do, they always 'memba you, Whether things are good or bad, It's just the memories that you have.”


Authors: Angelica Calderon, Shadé Laurie Freeland, Laila Annmarie Stevens, and Ayanna Woods


1) David Velasco et al. “A Studio Museum Roundtable,” Artforum, September 1, 2021,  

2) “(Re)Creating the Narrative,” National Museum of African American History and Culture, December 8, 2021,  

3) Audre Lorde, “Audre Lorde – A Litany For Survival,” Genius, nd, accessed September 28, 2022, 

4) Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Briona Simone Jones, Mouths of Rain: An Anthology of Black Lesbian Thought (The New Press, 2021). 

5) “She Puts Things in: Toni Morrison and the Legacy of Black Women Writers,” Rose Library Blog, February 19, 2020,  

6) “The Foundations of Black Power,” National Museum of African American History and Culture, December 1, 2021,  

7) The Black School: Process Cards – the Black School,  

8) In my own words, memory work is its own lineage of archival work. Memory work was born from the exclusion of non-white archival material from longstanding, predominantly white institutions. This work is distinctive not just in that it is primarily done by Black and brown people for Black and brown people. The heritage and epistemology guiding this work reflect commitments to definitions of knowledge and scholarship that don’t center on Eurocentric ideas. Early examples of memory work can be found in the work of people like Arturo Schomburg and Zora Neale Hurston, who worked constantly to preserve Black history and document Black culture in the early twentieth century.