Reflections on Black Joy in the Archives

There is often a focus on negative emotions in archives. Historical records document the breath of humanity including trauma and pain. Traditional archival practices are rooted in colonial logics. There is a violence to the archives. Yet, there is also joy. There is the joy documented in the records. There is the joy experienced by archivists, researchers, and communities.

Black joy is radical. It is a resistance to a society that has dehumanized and devalued Black life. Black joy is a way of reclaiming our dignity and humanity. Black joy represents our resilience. Although we have endured trauma, Black people have also enjoyed life’s simple moments. Being in community. Being with family. Playing, laughing, celebrating, cooking, socializing. We have held onto joy even when society has tried to take it away. Our joy does not dissolve the grief and pain; but rather, it lives alongside it. 

History records our story as one-note narratives of pain. This is why Black archival collections are so powerful – they keep our memories alive. They allow us to understand the beauty and complexity of the Black experience. These bodies of records represent a refusal to be misrepresented, erased, or forgotten. Black archival collections are a declaration that Black life is worth celebrating and remembering.

For many Black archivists, archival work can be a source of joy. Archival labour is liberatory work. It’s memory work. It’s our way of understanding ourselves and keeping the memories of Black people alive. It is outreach and community engagement work that inspires others to document the fullness of their humanity. We are not keepers of dead records. Our work is about Black life. Our joy drives us. This work is more than a job, it is a way of life.

For Black researchers, their work can mean more than creating a publication. It can be deeply spiritual work. It can mean finding one’s self, reconnecting with ancestors, or bringing about collective healing. When we engage with the archives, we develop deeper connections to the people, places, and events represented in the records. Healing can bring joy.

Archives are full of gaps and silences. Archivists have made decisions that shape what we remember, and what we forget. The ordinary and simple moments are rarely found in the archives, yet they are crucial to the bonds we create. Archives need to move towards a future where we truly reflect the communities we serve. There are transformative possibilities when we preserve records of Black life.

Wilma and her husband Lorne, ca. 1951. Wilma Morrison fonds (F 4721), Archives of Ontario.
Photos of friends, ca. 1951. Wilma Morrison fonds (F 4721), Archives of Ontario.
Melissa looking at records inside the Archives of Ontario.
Melissa and a participant in the “Visual Journaling with Black Archives” workshop.

Header image is photos of family and friends, ca. 1890-1950. Daniel G. Hill fonds (F2130), Archives of Ontario.

1 thought on “Reflections on Black Joy in the Archives

  1. Great article. Black joy includes having a sense of humour and enjoying life’s little moments which helps make the journey a lot easier.

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