Students in the course Christian Ethics 223, “Queering Ethics,” taught by Prof. Sarah Azaransky at Union Theological Seminary, visited the Burke Library on Wednesday, March 6th, to discuss queer frameworks of power, authority, and queer subjecthood in relation to archives. The class and I delved into hands-on archival inquiry with the papers of emilie m. townes, a former professor at Union and currently the Dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, a self-identified lesbian and a leading figure in womanist thought. We framed our activity with discussions of archival theory, with readings from Derrida and Foucault among others. The students debated the ethics of archival acquisition processes and research — especially as it affects the history and lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) persons today. For several of the students, this encounter at the Burke Library was their first time handling archival documents.
In preparation, the eighteen masters-level students in the class read a literature review of theoretical views of the archive by Marlene Manoff titled “Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines” (Libraries and the Academy, 2004, 4:1). We framed our discussion around ethical issues at play in critical archive studies when it comes to the custodianship of both literal archives as well as the proverbial collective archives of social memory. If, as Derrida says, “There is no political power without control of the archive,” who decides what is kept in the archive, and how is their political power sustained? When it comes to topics in LGBTQ studies, especially in art, literature, and political movements, key figures often defy typical organizational frameworks, and resist categorization. How do researchers identify a gay or transgender writer, for example, who spent their early life in the closet, and was not labeled as such or recognized for their work (or their identity) until later in time? What are the power dynamics at play for archivists, in curating and making primary-source materials of these figures available and searchable for scholars? How do researchers with questions pose their inquiries without being imposing on, or intrusive to, queer subjects? Hefty questions indeed. After a break, we shifted gears from discussing archival processing to handling materials from the emilie townes papers first hand.
The students worked in pairs to examine the contents of one document folder each from the emilie townes papers, including some manuscript writings from early in her PhD program. One group found that some of Dr. townes’s personal research notes had been typewritten on the back of what appeared to be event flyers or inserts for church program booklets. The students speculated it may have been to save paper, but the reason was not readily apparent; we were unable to tell from the Finding Aid whether the existence of these flyers had been previously documented at all. One of the event flyers (pictured below) advertised a 1987 event called “Homosexuality and the Church” at Faith United Methodist Church, in Downers Grove, Illinois — a particularly eye-catching object, given the present ongoing debates concerning homosexuality in the UMC denomination. (Leaders at the recent UMC General Conference in St. Louis, MO, debated and voted to reaffirm the current stance of the denomination, that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” But the debate continues, as numerous LGBTQ-affirming UMC churches around the world maintain the contrary stance, in welcoming solidarity with their LGBTQ communities.) It is truly a pressing issue, one that is deeply personal to me and to many students at Union. Yet, from a cursory look, without apparent information about this document, we cannot know how it came to be among her papers, nor what role this event played in Dr. townes’s life and education. A key takeaway from this exercise, predictably, was that archival documents often raise more questions than answers.
Some of these masters-level students are beginning to consider the possibilities for continued graduate study, and possible projects for future archival inquiry. Some students are even considering collaborating on a potential project on the LGBTQ history of Union Theological Seminary together, requiring extensive time in the UTS records held at the Burke archives. Such a project would be a hefty undertaking, but one of great value to the community here, I have no doubt. In the end, the session received a greatly positive response, and it seems these intrepid students thoroughly enjoyed their close encounter with the archives.