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Establishing historical agency through archival practice

Establishing historical agency through archival practice

Rachel Lobo is a fourth-year doctoral student who is a recipient of a CGS Joseph-Armand Bombardier Doctoral Scholarship awarded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Her research explores the historiographical challenges brought on by dislocation and demonstrates how longstanding Afrodiasporic communities in Canada have collected and preserved photographs in order to combat erasure, and reshape and reinterpret dominant historical narratives. Specifically, it investigates the role that nineteenth century photographs of Afrodiasporic communities play in articulating Canada as a Black transnational space. These examinations of the Black diaspora and Black Atlantic have been conducted in collaboration with PhD advisors, Drs. Honor Ford-Smith, Warren Crichlow, and Liette Gilbert.

Her research further explores Canada’s place within these histories through a close reading of nineteenth and early twentieth century tintype and cartes-de-visite photographs of Afrodiasporic communities. It examines their historiographical function in the context of Black erasure in Canada, looking not only at omissions in Canadian and photographic histories but also how archival practices sustain these omissions. The main site of her research is the Alvin D. McCurdy fonds at the Archives of Ontario, a collection of historical photographs of African Canadian communities in Amherstburg, Ontario—a major terminus of the Underground Railroad. Like community or grassroots archives, the McCurdy fonds can be understood as a form of archival activism, whereby collections are built in order to challenge colonial histories and combat erasure.

Building on recent scholarship, Rachel’s research investigates the discursive continuity between archive and historical narratives, and reconceptualizes the term “archive” to include alternative sites and materials for the reconstruction of historically marginalized groups. These “counterarchives” can perform a recuperative role in mapping the development of diasporic identities and communal memory—providing spaces for alternative historical narratives and cultural identities to be created and preserved. They not only honour specific communities but also forge new relationships between parallel histories, reshape and reinterpret dominant narratives, and challenge conceptions of the archive itself.

Writing in a 2019 Archivaria journal article about the role of activist archives in preserving collective history, Rachel explained that, “there is a need for further examination of the pedagogical and ideological elements of activist archives and their contribution to social movements and archival practice.” This informs the overall goal of her research in attempting to situate the McCurdy fonds within a broader history of the Black Atlantic by acknowledging the continual crisscrossing of Afrodiasporic communities across borders and waterways—not only as commodities, but as engaged in various struggles towards emancipation, autonomy, and citizenship.