Featured below is the second half of our interview with Dorothy Berry, Black Film Center/Archive’s 2015-2016 Graduate Assistant. (Part 1 here)
When Dorothy Berry is asked about her future plans, it’s clear that they involve calling attention to African American narratives that seem to linger in the periphery of American culture.
“I guess my curatorial goals are to get audiences and viewers to have an awareness of African Americans, specifically African Americans as present throughout the entire length and breadth of American history. I get really excited about a Black carpenter in 1785. I feel like we often start our African American history at about 1850…we start a little before the war…but who knows what happened before? Those are things that I find really exciting. I would love to see an exhibit about the clothing in Charleston in 1820’s. I think that was the decade that they made it illegal for African American women to buy beautiful fabric because they were dressing so great and they had amazing head wraps and they were walking down the promenades on their off nights and it was upsetting to people. There was a letter to the editor at a local newspaper, in which it was mentioned that it was shocking that you would walk behind a woman in a beautiful dress, that you would brush by her and say ‘Pardon me, ma’am,’ but then you’d turn around and she’d be Black and that would be horrible, because you just said ‘Pardon me, ma’am’ to a Black person! She doesn’t get a ‘Pardon me ma’am.’ I think things like that…there are so many aspects to Black culture beyond these flashpoints that I’d like to bring to the forefront. And that’s a real joy of mine. Not just earlier history (though I have loved the 19th century since I was a child, a small dork).”
Berry’s interests also include an examination of the erasures found throughout the scope of African American history.
“I was just recently working with Indiana University’s Moving Image Archives for an online exhibit, which may potentially be educational material accompanying the films for their collection of Black Journal, which was a public TV show in the late 1960s and early late 1970s on WNET in New York that was part of the period when African Americans were getting some funding because there was a lot of controversy about who public television funding was going to. And there are just all these things that we brush over because they weren’t game changers in African American history and the history of all marginalized people gets concentrated down to big things.”
“That’s what I mean when I say that we start Black history around 1850,” Berry adds. “We’re all thinking about these very concentrated things… ‘Slavery was terrible…and then war was over. And then they were free.’ And then we kind of skip Reconstruction. Skip Black people in the Senate. Skip voting. Move to Harlem Renaissance. Again, another 40 years gone and then move from Harlem Renaissance to like 1947, ‘We couldn’t drink at the same fountains’ and then move to Martin Luther King.” These huge gaps, Berry posits, are missed opportunities for exploring Black history. “So many things were happening, and there’s so much archival information…there’s so much in the archival record about Black history, but because there haven’t been funding opportunities or archivists of color with the ability to make those things accessible and to contextualize them, everything is just scattered throughout different collections. So I guess my real curatorial vision is to combine my research interests with my skill set to share African American history that gets left behind.”
Berry also speaks to the almost serendipitous nature of research that uncovers fragments of important African American history and how this can serve to both the detriment and fortune of African American history.
“I’m sure that there are intentional erasures, but I think that a lot of it has to do with lack of time and opportunity given to African Americans to really pursue high level historical research, so I think a lot of times, people just end up discovering something just by chance in a book, and they feel like ‘This is important and I need to forefront this!’ And so they produce something and scholars are like ‘This is subpar,’ and it maybe is subpar in the scale of how we can do academic writing and how we can do historical research…but nobody else was doing it.”
When asked about an exhibit that really resonated with her love of the intersection of art, history, writing, curation, and archival work, she shared the following:
“An exhibit space just design-wise that I found beautiful was when the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian had its pop-up in the National Museum of American History. It was really a walk-through of Black history, it was a highlights type thing because they had a very small amount of space, but they had a section on the March on Washington, where they had constructed an open room, three walls and a cube, with one wall missing and they had printed a giant print of the March on Washington in an immersive way, so you walk in with the people on both sides, speech in the front.”
“That image was so visually powerful I think that the kind of artistry that brings is really important because I think that sometimes design and that sort of thing gets left behind because we’re so much at a disadvantage…people know so little of us. People have had so little opportunity to learn about African-American history, that it feels like you want to start at square one but I feel like sometimes when you do that, then you’re compared to some really cool exhibit that’s more established and has a style because you’re just trying to do is get people to be like “That’s a slave cabin!” because they don’t even know … because there won’t even be that intrigue that you find at another museum, and also there’s just like the aspect of funding and the aspect of respect…you don’t want to make a ‘fun’ slave cabin!”
Berry offers an example of an institution that privileges both aesthetics and historical accuracy in its narrative:
“But then there’s also a type of beauty that can be brought in like the Whitney museum in Louisiana, that has been funded specifically to forefront the slave experience, which is rare because plantation museums are generally a place to explore how great it was to be rich in the Antebellum South and ‘slaves are like family members to us.’ What they’ve done is that, instead of having a lot of people do historical reenactments, is that they have statues that are representative art and they are also somewhat abstracted…so you’ll go to a slave building and there’s a half circle of these child statues of slaves. I think that this is a type of respectful artistic beauty.”
Berry also cites a career inspiration whose power lies in her ability to simultaneously transcend genre while critically engaging audiences around the world.
“When asked about what archivist or curator inspires me for this type of thing, my first thought was Kara Walker, who’s neither a curator nor an archivist. But that’s the kind of thing that I’m interested in.
I’m really interested in the combination of hardcore, citation-heavy, footnoted, the-white-man-can-respect-this-research, history with the kind of beauty, and aesthetic, and design, because I think that that’s compelling, and I think that that in a way, which is not the only way, which is not necessary, but it’s relevant to me, and resonant for me and it brings that history up to the level of all other histories that are already treated that way.”