“The archives speak to us in different moments in different ways depending on the questions we ask of it. Student activists are asking questions that are calling for an accounting and an accountability that I feel very proud that the archives can support.”
María R. Estorino
María R. Estorino, Associate University Librarian for Special Collections and Director of the Wilson Special Collections Library
On the Books: Jim Crow and Algorithms of Resistance is a collections as data and machine learning project of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries with the goal of discovering Jim Crow and racially-based legislation signed into law in North Carolina between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement (1866/67-1967). On the Books: Jim Crow and Algorithms of Resistance uses text mining and machine learning to identify racist language in legal documents, helping expose the wide-ranging effects of Jim/Jane Crow on the American South. We have coined the phrase “algorithms of resistance” in reference to Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (2018). If algorithms can reinforce racism, could we also use algorithms to fight racism? Instead of proliferating racist ideas, can algorithms help us better study the history of race and advocate for justice?
10 Years of the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center, a statewide digitization and digital publishing program housed in the North Carolina Collection at UNC’s Wilson Special Collections Library. We work with North Carolina cultural heritage institutions* to scan, describe, and publish historical materials online, which in turn increases access to and use of their collections. We are North Carolina’s hub for the Digital Public Library of America. The Center is supported by the State Library of North Carolina with funds from the Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act, and by the UNC-Chapel Hill University Library.
Read "Without Inspection" by Edwidge Danticatía read from during the podcast. Purchase the entire story collection, "Everything Inside" here.
Archives + Accountability
ME - To be able to say that this is what this monument stands for, and it’s not because we think it or imagine it but because the archive tells us so. And I find that incredibly invigorating.
MHP - Welcome to our Southern Futures podcast on Melody Hunter Pillion with the Center for the Study of the American South. Our Guest is Maria Estoronio. She is an associate University librarian for Special Collections and the director of Wilson Special Collections Library at UNC. According also to her Twitter profile, she's a mom, wife, and dysphoric Cuban-American. Maria, welcome to the show. I want to start by congratulating you on a national recognition that you received from your peers and archival work. You recently received that recognition for your commitment to diversity in the archives and special collections professions. So congratulations, Maria, welcome to the show.
ME - Thank you so much, Melody, and for your kind words. I really appreciate it.
MHP - I am going to start with talking about you as a Southerner. So you grew up in the South but, as a young person, didn't really identify with being Southern.
ME - That's right. I grew up in Miami, Florida, in a Cuban household. My parents are from Cuba, and no I did not. Even though you can't get further south geographically the U.S. continent, the Continental Mainland right? I never considered myself a Southerner, and I would argue that none of my peers growing up really identified as Southern as part of our identity. I was Cuban, my friends were Nicaraguan, Venezuelan, and Brazilian, and it wasn't until I left Miami to go to college. I attended Loyola University New Orleans and I really had any concept of what the American South was beyond what I might have consumed in media, and it really was very jarring. I felt like I had to learn a whole new way of being and seeing the world. New Orleans is definitely a good place to be introduced to the South though. You know, the traditional notion of what it means to be from the American South, I don't think includes someone like me--who grew up in a Spanish-speaking household, who grew up with cultural traditions that really were invested in retaining an identity and cultural experience that was very tied to a place that really, for me, only existed in my imagination but that I felt that I knew very intimately because there was so much nostalgia and connection to Cuba in the community and family that I grew up. So leaving Miami was an experience of learning what it meant to be other. Even though, when I was growing up, if you weren’t Cuban or whatever you were, you were American. And so that’s what I think we’d call white today. There was that distinction, but really feeling othered, really was in leaving Miami and stepping into another context and really having to think much more intentionally about who I was, what I thought my identity was, and what mattered to me. I’ll be honest. I still don’t think about myself as a Southern, even though I’ve lived in the South for the majority of my life. It’s not an identity that I think I’ve claimed.
MHP - This question of identity though that you’ve started exploring as a young adult, but what at age what is, what about and if you can estimate it, that you started thinking about your work in the archives and preserving history and preserving heritage. How far back does that go for you?
ME - When I think of my own origin story, I have two kind of points that I think of where it all began. When I was nine years old, my cousin started dating a woman who eventually became his wife. We started a lot of time with them, and she was very generous with her time and saw that I had an interest in photography, taught me how to use a camera, a single lens reflex camera. She taught me how to use a darkroom, and she gave me a book about American photography for young people. That was really a turning point for me. I was always really interested in history and social studies as a kid. But for me, seeing photographs of historical moments really did something to my mind. It really shifted something in how I understood the past and solidified for me that interest in history and in the past. Around the same time, I read a story about Margaret Bourke-White. She did the first cover of Life Magazine, and she was a photographer in WWII. She’s probably best known for photographs she did… There’s a really famous photograph of her sitting on a gargoyle on the Chrysler building because she had an office there that opened into the gargoyle, and someone took a portrait of her there. She also did a famous portrait of Gandhi sitting with a spinning wheel in front of him. Anyways, photography and the visual experience of historical figures and moments really had a big impact on my path forward. When I was in college, I was studying history, and the only thing I understood that you could do with history was teach it so I started off as a secondary education minor but very quickly lost interest in that but not in history. I really didn’t know what to do with that. Like I didn’t know how to translate that into a career. In my junior year of college, I was lucky enough to get an internship with the Smithsonian Institution Archives. They were starting to do research and preparation for the (6:23-6:25) Centennial, and I was assigned to a research project in the archives that was looking at the relationship especially the scientific relationships between the Smithsonian and scientists in Latin America. So that was a real game-changer for me, as well, in that it really exposed me to a lot of careers that you could pursue that were not in the classroom, that were not in an academic setting, but that really were trying to engage people in an experience of history and and how we understand ourselves in our present through an engagement with the past. I also I would say that, right when I was at the Smithsonian, they had just released a report that was put out by a task force that the Smithsonian had commissioned to look at how its various, because you know the Smithsonian has 17 museums, how the museums in the Smithsonian Institution talked about, represented the LatinX experience. The report was called “Willful Neglect” so you can imagine what the assessment of the task force was. That had a very big impact because that was the moment for me where I connected the absence in the historical record, and that there were intentional choices that people who make up institutions make about what is included, what is not, what stories get told and known, and which ones don't.
MHP - The origin story you just told really goes back then to this recognition you received this year for your peers, this national recognition, because of your commitment to diversity in the archives, and as a historian of color myself, I appreciate the huge role that diversity plays in collections and so, for folks who are not as familiar with or type of work, could you talk a bit more about how diversity or you know, even more so the lack of diversity, has impacted preservation and therefore history and the narratives about who we are, who we think we are?
ME - The history of south Florida or even Cuba as we understood it, and so many things. You know the Negro leagues are celebrating an anniversary this year. So many players in the Negro baseball leagues were from Latin America. From Cuba, from the Dominican Republic, from Puerto Rico, because that was the only league that they could play in in a segregated United States. You know, all of these kind of unknown stories I felt really compelled to be a part of that. So what happens is this. If whiteness is the norm, which I think we’re all coming to think more critically about whiteness as an identity, whiteness as supreme. If you think of whiteness as a norm, and if librarians and archivists are primarily white, there is going to be inherent bias in what are the stories we feel connected to, that we feel we understand and that we value. I think that what happens in archives is not different from what happened in the field of history, which transitioned from the Great Man approach to social history with the social movements in the sixties and the seventies. Archives did the same thing. I forget what year it was, but I think that it might have been 1970… I’ll have to factcheck that, but Howard Zinn spoke to the society of American Archivists, and he basically said that you have to be activist archivists. This notion that archives are passive repositories where other people deposit their materials is no longer viable. We cannot do the work of social history if archivists aren’t actively pursuing and documenting the Great Men and the Great man that we think are making history. So there is the matter of the historical record, but there is also the matter of the field. Librarianship and archives is still a predominantly white field. If you don’t have people who have lived different experiences working in libraries, it becomes difficult to have a broader perspective on what history matters, what history is worth preserving. I can tell you that, at Wilson, it really bares out. Some of those collections were really built at a time that parallels the Lost Cause movement and the idea that the truth about the South needed to be preserved. The foundation of many of those collections are these plantation records and these families that enslaved hundreds of people over time to create their wealth and their prominence. So that is one version of the South, but is it a complete version? Absolutely not. What does that mean? Does that mean that we can build relationships of trust with communities that we have not represented in our collections? We may not be able to. Sometimes we can, and we work very hard to earn that trust and do right by those relationships. And sometimes we can’t, and so that calls on us to think about our work differently. To think of our work as not just archive-building, like “give it to us and we’ll take care of it and do our professional work to make sure it’ll be forever documented and preserved”. It may be approaching relationships with humility and with a different point of view. Instead of starting with “You have things that we want, give it to us”, starting with “What are the stories that matter to you? Why do they matter? Where do you want your stories to be told? How can we help you in preserving those stories and collections and digitizing those stories?” And whether we can get the materials into our library or not, we have a lot of opportunity and responsibility to engage in different ways in archival processes.
MHP - This is Southern Futures, and our guest is Maria Estorino, Associate University librarian for Special Collections and the director of Wilson Special Collections Library at UNC. Maria, the materials housed in special collections are from the past. You’ve spoken about that, but you also mentioned that they’re very much part of and play a role in contemporary needs. So how are archive materials getting used by, for instance, student activists or to examine the campus and its history?
ME - The presence of the past is very obvious. When I started at UNC in January of 2017...In August is when the Unite the Right rally happened in Charlottesville, VA and when protests on our own campus about Silent Sam, the confederate monument, really started to pick up again. I say again because there is a long history of student activism around the monument and what it stands for on our campus. One of the things that was really amazing for me being on this campus was seeing how student activists engaged with the archive, not just to understand but to document, to bring the receipts forward, to be able to say and it’s not because we think it or imagine it but because the archive tells us so. And I find that incredibly invigorating. You know, whoever collected Julian Carr’s papers never imagined that they would be used to prove that he was a white supremacist and that the monument represented his views. That is not why the papers were collected, but that is the magic of archives is that the archive speaks to us in different moments and in different ways depending on the questions we ask of it. Student activists are asking questions that really are calling for accounting and an accountability that I feel very proud that the archives can support. You know, if you look at the Silent Sam Reckoning Twitter account, that has vigorously research each and every one of the students that the monument, that fought in confederacy that the monument was meant to honor and their relationship to slavery. I mean, that’s thanks to records that we’ve kept, the state archives have kept, newspaper accounts that we’ve digitized and made searchable online. That knowledge is there because the archives are there and are open. We really value access, and that’s really one of our driving motivations. I think that there is a lot more that we’re going to see the archives being used for as students come to understand the past, make sense of our present but really imagine a different future. I think, as an example, the commission on race history and a way forward, and the recommendations to rename buildings on campus, that research is again grounded in the archive. As we understand who exactly we’re honoring and what they did, and as we think, imagine and dream about who we want to honor in renaming those buildings, that is also going to be grounded in archival research. So I’m really excited about that.
MHP- Artists are also using the archives in ways for artistic expression. How does the library encourage that type of engagement with artists?
ME - I am really excited that you’re asking about this because you really hit on something that matters a lot for me. We think about the past as dormant. As someone who has worked in archives for over 20 years, I see them as more active spaces than I think exist in our everyday imagination about what archives are. Whenever you hear archives mentioned in a newspaper article, for example, they’re dusty or they’re quiet. And it’s true, we are quiet spaces, but we’re not dusty because we do care for the materials that we have. To me, this idea of action is really important because that’s where the value of the records lie--in how they’re used. We tend to think of their use as a researcher either sitting at their computer or coming into our research room requesting a box, or a book, or a newspaper, leafing through material and going off and doing their work based on what they found in the archive. What I am interested in is other uses for the archive, other ways in which, maybe not-researchers producing an article or a book might turn to the archive, and artistic engagement is a space that I think is really interesting and exciting for how an artist may approach a historical record. This was happening right when I was getting to UNC, Liz Ott, who is our rare book curator, and Alice Whiteside, who is head of our art library, were collaborating to create funding for students who wanted to use special collections in the creation of art--not in the creation of a research paper but in the creation of an artistic piece. Performing art or visual art or whatever. So thanks to them, we launched what is now called the incubator program or incubator rewards.
MHP - So what does that mean? How does that change the landscape of research and creativity in the archives when we think of archival collections as data?
ME - It challenges the notions of what we think the archives are for and how people use them. On The Books is a perfect example of that. Several years ago, we partnered with the State library to digitize the North Carolina laws. Sarah Carrier, who is our North Carolina research and instruction librarian at Wilson library, is involved with K-12 teacher training programs with Carolina K-12. She got a question from a teacher, a high school teacher, who said “I am looking for all of North Carolina’s Jim Crow laws. Where would I find one?” Well, one doesn’t exist. So Melody, if you wanted to do that, your first thought would be that you would have to read every one of these books and identify which laws are Jim Crow. So that if you’re thinking about over one hundred years of books, that’s going to take you forever. So imagine instead if you ask a computer to read you, a computer can do it faster and it can produce different results than the human can. Thanks to Melon Foundation support for collections of data as an initiative, and what we will have is essentially two data corpa. We have one data corpus that is all of the North Carolina laws and we’ll have a second one that, through text-mining, we have identified as Jim Crow laws. So then what are you able to do? You can ask that corpus, “What are the laws relating to education? What are the laws relating to land acquisition and zoning and land sales and restrictions? What are the laws relating to gender? What are the laws relating to Native Americans?” We can start to ask more and more questions.
MHP - We’re entering Southern Future’s reading corner, and Maria, I love this part of the show because I don’t know what excerpt someone is going to read and what piece of literature they’re reading from. And it does tell us something about each person--I think, so I am just going to see what this might tell us about you. What did you choose for us? Tell us why you chose this particular selection.
ME - So I am reading an excerpt from a story from Edwidge Danticat’s collection of stories “Everything Inside,” and the story, it’s the final one in the book, called “Without Inspection”, and I chose it for a couple reasons. One is because it’s the most recent thing that I read that literally moved me to tears and it really affected me. In part, because of the story itself, but all the ways it touches on the South Florida experience. The other reason is because I have a bit of a gripe with how we understand Florida, literature in Florida (fiction). I think that most people, if you think of a Florida writer, if you’re not thinking about Zora Neale Hurston, you’re probably thinking of a white man who writes funny stories about the crazy Florida people and the politics and the corruption down there. And I think that, while that is part of the Florida experience, it’s not what I experienced.
MHP - Yeah, so people think about Hemingway, right?
ME - Well, they think about Hemingway. You might think of Carl Hiaasen. Not to call these people out, they are funny authors and very successful. Dave Berry. You know? Folks like that. To me, Edwidge, as a Haitian American, even though she did not grow up in South Florida, she has lived there for a long time. I love all of her work in general. She mostly writes about Haiti, but when she does write about South Florida, it’s incredible. You can really pick up any of her books and be blown away, but this story especially, Without Inspection, is wonderful. I am just going to read a little part of it. In this story, Arnold is a Haitian man who is working in construction and has fallen. He’s helping to build a luxury hotel in Miami and is falling. This story takes place while he is falling from a scaffold into a cement mixer. I am picking it up literally in the middle of the story.
He was still falling, faster by the second. The wind felt increasingly resistant, each gust a hard blue veil to pierce through, even as the ground rose to meet him. His body veered farther left and directly below him was an open cement-mixer chute, attached to a truck, the kind that had always looked like a spaceship to him.
He’d been looking down at the cement truck a few hours earlier, as he sat on the scaffold platform eating his breakfast. Darline liked him to eat at home with her and Paris, but he was always in too much of a hurry to do it, except on the rare Saturdays and Sundays when neither of them had to work. During the week, he drove her to the Haitian restaurant where she was a cook, then he dropped Paris off at school. By the time he got to the construction site, he had only a few minutes to buy a guava pastry and a cup of coffee from the Lopez brothers’ food truck.
What enterprising guys the Lopez brothers were. Only five years earlier, they’d arrived from Cojimar on a raft made from a refitted nineteen-fifties Chevy, and look at them now. The Lopez brothers’ raft story, which he’d once heard them tell to another Cuban, while he was waiting for his breakfast, had reminded him of his own landing, which was, oh, so different from theirs.
Darline had been the only person sitting on the beach in the predawn light the morning that he, nine other men, and four women were ditched in the middle of the sea and told by the captain to swim ashore. The sea was relatively calm that morning. As Arnold got closer to the beach, he became aware of the towering buildings behind her.
All four women had drowned. They could not swim. Their bodies might eventually wash up on the beach, just as his did, except that he was still alive. Some of the men who had been on the boat with him were alive, too. They lay on the beach and tried to convince themselves, by digging their heels and toes into the sand, that they were no longer moving. He, on the other hand, just sat there looking at her. He did not want to walk over to her and frighten her away. He stank, and he was certain that the patchy beard he’d grown on the trip made him look menacing. She was staring back at him. Then he heard the sirens and he began pleading.
It's an amazing story. I hope, I really hope that people will pick up the book but especially that last story. It speaks to so many different things, Melody.
MHP - Thank you again for introducing us to for me a new writer anyway and for that particular excerpt, but Maria we're going to wrap up now. I want your thoughts on the South and the future. Again, you are a professional leader and an archivist. You’re a mother also. So in those combined roles, how do you reimagine the South?
ME - You know, I think a lot of this in terms of how not only we can imagine the South and how the South can be reshaped. As someone who often is an outsider or feels like an outsider, I often think about how much room this organization or this place or this community have to be changed by people like me or people who are not from here and have any of the shared definitions of what it means to be from whatever. So in this case, to be from the South, you know when I look at the rising number of of LatinX communities in the South, Even in our own state here in North Carolina, do they have to become southerners or do we have to reimagine what it means to be a southerner and what it means to be the South by the way that that people and communities reshape it? Now I don't know if I have an answer for how to do that. But I certainly hope that the South is a place that has room to be redefined by new influences, a new cultural tradition, new perspectives because ultimately that's what diversity is, right? It's not saying this is who we are, and you are diverse, and we welcome you into our organization and now we are diverse. Diversity and change really happens when the organization is willing to change because of the diverse perspectives that are brought into it, and I would argue that that is the same for how we think about the South.
MHP- So thank you for, of course, also your dedication to preserve and share history and culture in an era when it's very challenging to do so.
So now if you're listening to Southern Futures, we want to thank you for your time. To executive producer, Dr. Malinda Maynor Lowery and sound editor Mark Meyer. I’m Melody Hunter Pillion. Southern Futures is a podcast powered by the Southern Futures initiative--the new collaboration between the College of Arts and Sciences, UNC libraries, the Center for the Study of the American South, and other units of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Southern Futures, reimagine the American South.