"You Can't Unknow:" A Conversation with Ashley Farmer on Inequality and Intellectual Production
Interview by Henry Jacob, Yale 21'
Transcription by Jared Brunner, Yale 22'
YHR: Through your conversations with these activists you learned that some of the best sources remain undiscovered. On the topic of repressed perspectives, I want to shift our conversation to the archive. In 2018, you wrote an article on this subject. In that essay, you dissect your difficult experiences as a researcher and as a teacher in libraries.
AF: That piece, called “Archiving While Black,” sat in my draft folders for many years. I had just come back from Howard University as well as archives in Wisconsin and California. I was struck not only by the difference in how I was treated, but also by the unfamiliarity of the archivists with what I wanted to research. I was also thinking about how often archivists assumed that I didn’t understand how the archive works as if I were not a trained historian.
Also, I always take my students into the library. By virtue of who I am, how I identify, and the subjects that I teach, a lot of my students tend to be from marginalized groups. Multiple times and at multiple institutions archivists and librarians have showed their surprise when we entered the space. It registered on their faces. And it implied that neither my students nor I belonged in that space and that we didn’t know how to operate in it.
That article focused on the physical space of the archive and my experiences in it. My broader work discusses the privileging of certain kinds of documents, histories, and intellectual production as an extension of biased archival practices. In my scholarship, I emphasize that Black women are theorists and activists in their own right. We must reconsider what constitutes a source to change our understanding of the archive and how we collect their artifacts.
YHR: In the piece, you write that, “A black body in a space presumed to be white is at best out of place and at worst a threat. This reality extends to less visible spaces, such as the historical archive. The archive, and black marginalization within it, has important implications for both scholarly and popular ideas about history.” Following this excerpt, let’s move from the academic to the general consensus on history. Because your scholarship focuses on intellectual production, I would like to hear your thoughts on the dissemination of knowledge from K to college.
AF: Look at a college catalogue. Most of the courses that I teach weren’t even in existence when I was your age; I’m old, but I’m not that old. Spelman might have offered them, but other institutions did not. Typically, the flow of knowledge trickles down from scholars in higher education to K-12 curriculums. But again, this goes back to a larger conversation about who we value, about who should be in the room. This point speaks to the larger project of the 1619 issue as well.
Often, we fit moments of Black history within a narrative that frames America as on a triumphant march toward democracy. Textbooks deem pieces of Black history valuable in instances in which Black people sought inclusion into the American nation state through existing mechanisms such as voting and civil rights. We are so invested in certain kinds of Black history that we lose sight of other valuable events and actors because they don't fit into this narrative. This approach places Black people as knowledge producers only in service of American nationalism, and this narrative pervades our educational system...