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Unghosting Apparitional (Lesbian) History

Erasures of Black Lesbian Feminism

Michelle Moravec, Author

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Beyond the Footnotes

I'm left with some enticing bits of information. One of the authors of a well-known and oft cited article, Bonnie Johnson, earned an M.A. in women's history from Sarah Lawrence and served as a "history project" director for an activist/organizing group, the NCHE.  She circulated in the women's liberation and feminist academic scene in New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The disappearance of women like Johnson from historical accounts bothers me to no end, not only because women’s history set out to “write women back into history,” but on a larger, historiographical level because these disappearances distort the production of feminist theory by relegating some women to the footnotes.  

"History can be used as an organizing tool," haunts me still, as I wonder what else Johnson did after I lose track of her in 1984.

To a certain extent this is a heuristic pondering.  I could, via the more conventional methods of scholarly inquiry, probably locate Bonnie Johnson.  I've certainly done it before, and already my graduate school advisor Ellen Dubois, who taught at SUNY Buffalo with Barbara Smith, also a member of the Combahee River Collective, has offered to put me in touch.  I could email Christina Greene or Sarah Lawrence's Program in Women's History.
I do consider though,  perhaps this Bonnie Johnson wishes to remain a ghostly presence.  Perhaps I'm outing her in ways she would not welcome.  As Róisín Ryan-Flood and Rosalind Gill ruminate in the introduction to Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections

 “often the liberatory potential of research has been unproblematically assumed to be a linear move from silence to voice" omitting the 'difficult dilemmas for the researcher ... making choices about who to represent and how'” 

This project has explored, from the relative safety of an extremely common name, exactly what can and cannot be found via the internet about one woman who participated in feminist events of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  My tracings raise two crucial issues about the process I've called unghosting.  

As I wandered in search of Johnson, I frequently hit dead ends.  The ghosting of Johnson in historical narratives is paralleled by absences in online digitized source material.   In an increasingly digital age, I worry that what gets digitized and put online will be what is more likely to be used in making of new histories.   I have greeted with tempered enthusiasm projects like Reveal Digital's Independent Voices, which contains more than 50,000 pages from the Women's Alternative Press of the 1960s and 1970s.  Online availability of these materials may facilitate histories of women's liberation based on sources beyond the well-known, much-anthologized groups.   However, the online dissemination of digitized materials from an archival collection raises many questions.   As Julie Enzer asked me recently on Twitter, is it right to digitize and make available on the internet the writings of women from decades ago without their consent?   At what point does “public” in the women’s movement become “public” in general?  My project not only raises crucial questions about what gets prioritized in archives for digitization, but also the ethics of online access.  

Figures like Johnson were public in the sense that they published, participated in conferences, and did things that left a record of their name behind.   Although they were "public" at the time, they may or may not have gone on to keep a public profile. What people did or wrote or said decades ago, they may or may not wish to have made searchable especially on the internet.

There are risks of (not) writing.   

As Alexis Gumbs describes in her brilliant dissertation on Audre Lorde (2010)

This project is haunted. There is birth somewhere here. There is ink and blood and halted breathing all up in here waiting. There is a history to be invented and time to be stolen. There are ghosts reading this over my shoulder.

How would Bonnie Johnson react if reading over my shoulder?  What of the other Bonnie Johnsons
Join this page's discussion (5 comments)

Discussion of "Beyond the Footnotes"

from Twitter

Posted on 6 February 2014, 7:08 am by Michelle Moravec  |  Permalink

from twitter

Posted on 7 February 2014, 3:13 am by Michelle Moravec  |  Permalink

Public, Semi-Public, and Private Contributions - with much in between

The question of people's degree of "publicness" in the past fascinates me, especially in relationship to lesbians and gay men. From my experiences working in LGBT communities in the late 1980s and 1990s, there were a variety of calculations made about the degrees to which people were public about the sexual orientations - and about their politics. Everyone drew these lines in different ways and with different consequences. How can our scholarship respect these different decisions that people made? For instance, some people I know felt comfortable writing for a gay and lesbian newspaper and considered that closeted because it was just for the community. If these are then digitized, they can potentially out people in very different ways than people ever imagined. There was a way in which speaking in feminist or queer newspapers was not a public statement in the same way as speaking to the New York Times. Therefore, digitizing these material changes the terms of engagements for the authors and for the readers. How do we translate that information into a new age? Particularly that we are in a space now where people value public work, public persona, and public engagement, how do we craft an understanding of the different types of contributions that people made in the past and the different expectations that they had about privacy and publicness for their contributions in the past. These are important questions for me to think about and grapple with in these types of projects.

Posted on 9 February 2014, 12:53 pm by Julie R Enszer  |  Permalink

storify of twitter discussion April 2014

Storify here of twitter discussion about these issues. Takes a long time to load in scalar

Posted on 29 April 2014, 10:31 am by Michelle Moravec  |  Permalink

digital archives

A couple of thoughts here, Michelle. First, while I see how it makes good sense for this purposes of this project to keep yourself to the digital (to see its edges and ghosts, politics and problems), I think most of us now understand there to be no pure digital outside of or in opposition to the real (where you ask your advisor to make the connection...) There's something so false and yet so true in your method (one which I was often taken to task for, rightly, in Learning from YouTube, where to better understand its architecture, ownership, norms, and practices, I chose not to leave it and not to let my students leave it: but who uses YouTube (or archival research) like that!?!)

Posted on 2 May 2014, 10:22 am by Alex Juhasz  |  Permalink

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