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Activist, Scholar, Dandy

Archives for Liberation

How SAADA catalyzes corollary records
By Michelle Caswell |
AUGUST 2, 2021
The following is excerpted from the book Urgent Archives: Enacting Liberatory Memory Work (Routledge, May 2021).

Archival studies scholars have spent the past two decades asserting that archives can support social justice movements. The question is: how?

Speaking at a July 2020 community-wide Zoom meeting, SAADA Executive Director Samip Mallick said, “As an organization, even though we are thinking about and engaging with the past, our work has really always been about the present, the now.” Mallick had called the meeting in the midst of three intertwined crises: a global pandemic that has disproportionately devastated Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities; the ongoing state-sanctioned murder of Black Americans brought to the fore by the murder of George Floyd; and inept, malfeasant, white supremacist national leadership in the White House.

In this challenging time, Mallick’s invitation promised “good news.” The July meeting was an opportunity to celebrate SAADA’s twelfth birthday, to announce a new grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that would help support the organization for the next two years, and to launch a fundraising campaign with supporters. It was also an opportunity to demonstrate the archives’ value by drawing on what I call corollary records from corollary moments to catalyze political consciousness and action in the now. Corollary records document reoccurring moments in time in which the same or similar oppressions are repeated. A corollary moment is a point in time with historical precedence. It is a moment from a community’s past that can help it to make sense of the seemingly senseless and increasing overwhelming present. In July 2020, Mallick activated records in SAADA’s collections to inspire action around three major events: the COVID-19 epidemic, the movement for Black lives, and the upcoming 2020 election.

Embarking into the Present

“There is little doubt we are living through a historic moment,” reads the opening text of SAADA’s participatory initiative to document South Asian American experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Launched in April 2020 (and ongoing at the time of writing), Letters from 6’ Away asks South Asian Americans to write a letter to their future selves about their experiences with the pandemic. With the creator’s permission, the letters are to be included in the archives and mailed to the creator a year after submission. (The first batch of letters will be returned to creators in late summer 2021.) Participants respond to a series of prompts online, upload a photograph of themselves, designate degrees of privacy or publicity from a continuum of options provided, and submit a mailing address for return of the letter. There is also a space to honor a loved one who has passed during the crisis. At the time of writing, SAADA has received 162 submissions.

The submissions are deeply personal and self-reflexive, yet collectively offer a window into a wider community ethos of grief, feelings of isolation, and the search for solace. In these letters, historic traumas surface and resurface as South Asian Americans learn to cope with the new reality. For example, in her public entry to the project, Samira Ghosh of Texas writes:

“I would remember the first news that we need to store food. My first instinct was to buy rice and salt at Gandhi Bazar [sic]. It was a reaction to a historic trauma that my community went through. Bengal had a big man-made famine post WW-2 and rice and salt were in scarcity. I had heard stories of what my family went through. I was surprised that this deep seated insecurity had surfaced.”

The Bengal Famine of 1943 emerges as a powerful inter-generational memory, being relived even though the writer herself did not directly experience it. She continues that getting groceries delivered in the early days of quarantine “felt like Christmas morning.”

For some participants, the pandemic surfaces deeply ingrained traumas and enacted circular temporalities as if history is repeating, oceans and decades away, in a vastly different context. One participant, quoted on SAADA’s public Facebook page, writes, “One thing that really surprised me about this experience has been how deeply hard and transitory it's been, how days feel like they both move fast and slow. How everything feels like there's a residue of grief." The pandemic has shifted the very nature of time for some participants.

The letters are created to be read at a non-corollary moment in the near future. It is the hope that, when the pandemic has presumably subsided (or at least its demands on us are different), activating these records by reading them will offer new insights into what will then have become that present moment.

The project builds community by providing a platform for community members to share letters with each other. But more importantly, it underscores the affective importance of the creation of records to participants. Those who write letters to themselves feel validated and heard; they are documented in the historic record, even if they choose not to share their letters with others. In a year’s time, the project transforms records creators into records users as participants read their own letters from the not-so-distant past. It also ensures the records will be activated by these users in the near future. In so doing, it inaugurates a cyclical temporality, catalyzing movement back and forth along a pendulum swinging back and forth between now, a year ago, a year from now.

“Let's Be On the Right Side of History”

After inviting attendees of the July 2020 community meeting to participate in the Letters from 6’ Away project, Mallick then pivoted to another crisis on everyone’s minds: the proliferation of and impunity for state-sponsored violence against Black people. South Asian Americans have a complicated history with the American racial hierarchy, as many records in SAADA attest; some early immigrants from India aligned themselves with whiteness to varying degrees of success, while others passed as Black. The 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act that enabled South Asians to immigrate to the U.S. in larger numbers would not have been possible without the Civil Rights movement. Yet anti-Black racism remains an ongoing problem within the community, despite the efforts of many South Asian American activists.

Mallick saw an opportunity for SAADA to reinforce its position as an organization committed to justice for Black people. Acknowledging complex histories, he drew connections between the ongoing Movement for Black lives and corollary moments in history in which South Asian Americans were involved in activism for Black liberation. Yet, he also directly confronted anti-Black racism within the community and did not gloss over its history of aspirational (mis)alignment with white supremacy. “In response to the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and too many others, we are sharing stories from our community’s past that help engage our community today in the struggle against anti-Black racism,” Mallick said. He recounted the story of H.G. Mudgal, an Indian immigrant to Harlem in the 1920s, who became the editor of Marcus Garvey’s newspaper, Negro World, and an outspoken activist for Black independence. “H.G. Mudgal’s story is a reminder both of the historical possibilities and duties for South Asians to engage in solidarity with Black communities, but moreover, the urgency now for us to engage in those solidarities and to address anti-Blackness within our own communities,” he said. Mallick continued: “to be able to share these stories from the past, to be able to engage with contemporary discourse and dialogue and movements has been really rewarding and enriching for us an organization and I hope they help to move our community as well.”

Mallick’s comments reflect a temporality of urgency, in which records from the past are invoked to inspire contemporary political action. In this way, the 1920s are set up as a corollary moment to the 2020s, and records documenting H.G. Mudgal from the 1920s are set up as corollary records to those being created by South Asian American activists fighting anti-Black racism now. By catalyzing corollary records from corollary moments, Mallick showed precedent for South Asian American solidarity with Black Americans, evoking “historical possibilities,” as he put it, that align the community with the contemporary Movement for Black lives. These activations forge a cyclical temporality that dispenses with the racial progress narratives of white time; instead of insisting that “it gets better” for minoritized communities, these efforts show how oppressive histories repeat, how “historical possibilities” can be invoked to forge affinities and solidarities in the present, how a precedent of anti-racist activism can inspire action for Black lives in the now. In this work, archives become urgently relevant and crucially contemporary.

The current moment demands more from the archives than simply documenting these stories of solidarity in hopes that some future users might find them. SAADA catalyzes these records into action by forging corollary moments across cycles of time and creating a temporality of urgency for the communities it serves and represents.

“How Easily They Can Be Taken Away”

Mallick’s final announcement at the July 2020 meeting also conveyed the urgency of the past by forging yet another a corollary moment with the present. Looking ahead to the November 2020 U.S. Presidential election, Mallick discussed a video that SAADA produced in May 2020 featuring Rani Bagai, whose grandparents, Vaishno Das and Kala Bagai, were among the first immigrants from India to the United States. They arrived stateside in 1915.

Against a backdrop of sepia-toned photographs, newspapers clippings, and correspondence from the Vaishno Das and Kala Bagai collection in SAADA, Rani Bagai’s voice asks: “Why does your vote matter? Well, allow me to tell you a story…” She then tells of how her grandfather, Vaishno Das Bagai opened up a prosperous import-export business in San Francisco, became active in an international political movement to overthrow the British Raj in India, and became a U.S. citizen, despite significant racist discrimination. A 1923 U.S. Supreme Court decision stripped South Asian Americans of their citizenship based on racial grounds, rendering Vaishno Das Bagai stateless. Refusing to return to being a British subject, Vaishno Das Bagai killed himself in protest in 1928. In the short video, Rani Bagai notes that it would be more than two decades after her grandfather’s suicide until citizenship rights were restored for South Asian immigrants, like her surviving grandmother and father. Over a photographic backdrop of a recent South Asian immigrant’s citizenship ceremony, Rani Bagai continues, “This is why voting matters. I hope my family’s story is a reminder of what we have endured to get the rights we have now, how easily they can be taken away, and how hard it is to win them back.” The visuals switch back to a photograph of her grandfather, as she says, “If you haven’t yet, please register to vote right now. And please, please vote in November.” The film ends with the tagline “Your vote, our future,” and SAADA’s logo.

In this brief video, Rani Bagai articulates a cyclical temporality, later echoed by Mallick at the community meeting, that refuses the logic of white racial progress narratives. Progress is not a given; the granting of an ever-increasing number of rights is not inevitable. Rather, these messages communicate: South Asian Americans did not always have these rights, our ancestors fought for them, they could be rescinded, and we might have to fight for them again. Oppressive histories repeat themselves; the threat of this repetition looms large. In just two minutes, this video counters temporalities that assume the inevitability and desirability of a just, post-racial future. Instead, we see a community weathering repeated attacks throughout history and using traces of the past to ward off the next attack in the present, drawing on records from corollary moments, in this case the 1923 dismantling of citizenship rights, to catalyze voter registration in 2020.

At their most useful, archival records can be activated in corollary moments in the present, so that community members can learn activist tactics and strategies and get inspiration to keep going. In each of the above examples, SAADA’s community members interrupt reoccurring oppressions by learning from how previous generations faced corollary moments. This is one way that archives can dismantle systemic oppression and engage in liberatory memory work—by catalyzing the activation of corollary records in the past to inspire activism in the present. “We have been here before, we have survived this before, we have resisted before,” corollary records assert, and “here’s how.”

Michelle Caswell is an Associate Professor of Information Studies at UCLA. Together with Samip Mallick, she is the co-founder of SAADA.