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Ordinary Black lives should be remembered, too

In her new book Black Archives, Renata Cherlise makes the case for celebrating everyday Black joy.

Founded by Renata Cherlise in 2015, Black Archives is a “gathering place for Black memory and imaginations,” a multimedia platform that brings a spotlight to the Black experience, a mirror for Black folks to see themselves in, a visual study into the nuances of Black life, and so much more.

Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life by Renata Cherlise, 2023. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Ten Speed Press/Penguin Random House

Ahead of the release of Cherlise’s book, Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life, I spoke with Cherlise about how family experiences sparked her interest in photographs and archives as a child, why Black Archives chooses to highlight ordinary Black life, how social media fits into the creative practices of Black women cultural workers, and why documenting one’s Black life even if just for oneself or one’s family is important.

Drawing from Cherlise’s family archive and photos submitted from around the world by the Black Archives community, the book is laid out in three sections — The Foundation: Keeper of Stories, Interiors: Holding Space and Keeping Time, and Exteriors: To Be Witnessed. Each section moves us through different parts of the Black experience, from our homes with our immediate and extended families to moments with our wider communities to the ways Blackness experiences and interacts with the landscapes, cars, and other devices of the outside world.

Ultimately, Cherlise hopes Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life serves as a collective family photo album. One that reminds us of the similarities of the Black experience no matter where we’re from; leads us to reflect on what Black interiority looks, sounds, and feels like; and places care and reverence on these and other intimate photos that depict the beauty, style, and magic of ordinary, everyday Black life.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

David and Stephen Hunter pose near a television set, circa 1960.
Ten Speed Press/Penguin Random House

Tell me about the moment of finding your grandmother’s Bible, because that’s something that so many Black people can relate to. We often keep our records in our Bibles. How did finding her Bible and seeing what was recorded in it spark your interest in photographs, snapshots, and family histories?

I was in my grandmother’s bedroom singing, dancing, and doing kid things and then just wandered over to her dresser, saw this Bible, and opened it. I didn’t know what it was because I never really saw her take it out. It just stayed there, on her dresser.

I opened it and thought, what is this? Who are these people? Why are these names here? And as I went down the list, I saw my name and was like “Oh, that’s me, right? That’s my date of birth. That’s my mom. That’s my dad.” And I was just overwhelmed because I didn’t know what this meant.

I brought it to my grandmother and she explained it to me, and I was like, “Wow.” I was still young, though, so that wasn’t the moment I knew I wanted to do this work, but something within me just held on to that moment.

How did Black Archives come about?

I started on Tumblr around 2011. At that time, I really didn’t know what I was doing, but I was really interested in these photographs. I was working full-time in the mortgage industry doing work I didn’t enjoy. So nights, evenings, and weekends, I would hunt for photographs and share them on Tumblr, not really thinking much of it until a few years later.

I was really curious about the broader story of the Black experience visually and trying to figure out, how can I do this all the time instead of just nights and weekends. So in 2015, I created the website and Instagram account and just started telling visual stories and curating photo essays, because I didn’t really have an archive outside of my family photos.

Mother and son, Toronto, Canada, 1978.
Ten Speed Press/Penguin Random House

The project focuses on everyday, seemingly ordinary Black life and often Black joy. Why did you choose to highlight Black ordinariness? Why is record-keeping and showing up with care around Black vernacular photographs and the everyday ordinariness of Black life important?

The family photo album was my entry point to archives. I’m most familiar with vernacular photography and snapshots, so I wanted to create a book that creates space to honor that. I focus on the ordinary because there were other stories already being told about Black excellence, and not to take anything away from that, but I also wanted to hold the stories of Black ordinariness.

You don’t always have to be doing something in order to be celebrated or remembered. You can be doing nothing as long as you’re there. That’s enough. It’s a reminder that just being, just being Black and living, taking care of your kids, taking a nap, loving on someone, sharing that space — that’s enough.

Polaroid of the author’s parents during a night out, 1985.
Ten Speed Press/Penguin Random House

In an article for MoMA, you wrote that “We must view the archive as a living extension of ourselves and listen for the breaths while counting the heartbeats beyond the unknown, the unnamed, and the unspecified.” Can you say more about that?

Sometimes, especially when we’re pulling from repositories where collections may not have all of the information, and sometimes even when we’re looking at our own family photos, we don’t know the story behind what we’re looking at. But, for example, I know this is my auntie, right?

The author’s aunt Brenda, Jacksonville, Florida, 1979.
Ten Speed Press/Penguin Random House

So whether or not I know the date, where she was, or other details, I love this photograph of her, and there’s still so much there on its own without other metadata that we can get from these images and the archive.

You may not know this part, but what else can you get from that? What else is in here that you know you can hold on to? How can you engage with the photograph and either think back or imagine? And not only imagine the past but imagine a Black future.

What are some of those imaginaries for a Black future? What visions are you hoping come to pass? What possibilities are you dreaming up?

It’s funny you ask that, because my daughter who is a college sophomore majoring in computer science was recently home for the weekend. And she’s very much interested in the work I’m doing with archives and engaging with archives. She’s very analytical and logical and likes to create things. So it’s funny listening to her try to blend these two worlds to contribute to a Black future. She’s like, “Mom, you know, I’m trying to figure it out.”

So when I think about how Black Archives contributes to Black futures, it’s allowing space for not only inspiring her but other people. I don’t know if I’ll be the one doing the imagining or if my assignment is just to create space to allow people to imagine. I’m not quite sure of that yet, but I think about Black futures as taking the work forward, and Black Archives as this simple vehicle for connecting Black memory and imaginations by bringing a spotlight to the Black experience.

What do you see as hallmarks of the Black visual experience?

Vietnam, 1970s.
Ten Speed Press/Penguin Random House

Style. Even in your ordinary photograph of a Black person just being themselves on a regular day, the way that they carry themselves, the way we carry ourselves, has so much style within that. As Black people, the way that we show up, it’s almost effortless.

In light of all the attacks on Black studies, African American studies, and critical race theory taking place around the country, what does this project represent to you right now?

It’s evidence that regardless of who tries to erase our stories, we’re still here and we’re still making the work. We’re still going to continue to be despite the greatest attempts to discredit our contributions to this country. This type of work is just a reminder that we’re not going anywhere. And we’re going get our message across and get our stories told.

How are you feeling about social media lately, and how does social media fit into the creative practices of Black women artists and cultural workers?

Social media allowed me a different entry point into this work, because I didn’t have an academic background. I didn’t have a degree. I didn’t have 20 years of experience. I didn’t have this or that. So my question to myself was, how can I still do this work, without waiting 15 years to finish school? Social media was that entry point for me.

Why is documenting your family, particularly if it’s just for your own family’s purposes, crucial? Why is it key that Black people document their lives, even if they never think or plan to publish a book about it or create an Instagram platform?

We need to continue the tradition of making the record and recording and documenting our lives as evidence that we were here.

We need to make a record so that a future generation who’s maybe not yet born can see how we took up space when we were here, how we engage, how we were in fellowship with one another, what our voice sounds like, how we laughed, you know?

New York City, 1960s.
Ten Speed Press/Penguin Random House

I’m grateful that before I was born, that’s what our families were doing. That’s what my grandmother and my great-grandmother and my mom did. They created proof that we were here. And I’m pretty sure they didn’t know I was going to make a book and include their photographs in it. But there’s still something about the intentionality of making sure that we are accounted for.


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