At a time when government and school officials are erasing Black history from schools’ curricula, Renata Cherlise’s Black Archives centers the life of Black individuals through lens-based media. Bringing together photos and videos of family members, friends, and community members, the platform connects people to images of Black people that might otherwise remain unseen. Cherlise, its founder and author of the new book Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life, released on February 14, says she curates the repository to feel like a living family photo album.
When she first put out the open call for the book’s photo submissions, she wasn’t sure what to expect.
“I didn’t know what I was gonna receive. As they were coming in, I was open to anything,” Cherlise told Hyperallergic. “Essentially, I printed all the photographs, laid them out, and started sorting and sifting through common themes.” The photos submitted reminded her of home, and she decided on that theme as a framework for the book.
Cherlise first launched Black Archives in 2011 on Tumblr when she was 29 years old. Blogging was still new to her and she didn’t know what it would lead to, but she knew she had a passion for photographs. Her self-exploration led her to reflect on the creation of her family’s photo archive, especially the images captured by her father, who curated her family albums when she was a child.
She remembers when her relatives would document birthday celebrations and the joy that brought her.
“A lot of those people are no longer here. Now, looking back, I’m very thankful that we took the time to document ourselves,” she said. “I think about everyone laughing, telling jokes. It was always loud, but in a good way. I just felt love.”
Since its founding days on Tumblr, Black Archives has shared archival black-and-white and color photographs of family celebrations, parades, religious services, and school events. The platform continues to spread the love Cherlise felt looking at old family photos, which led her to launch the website and Instagram page in 2015 and now her book.
Duquann Sweeney, an active follower of Black Archives and a self-taught photographer, says the project acts as “a counter-narrative.”
“It’s basically saying to the world: This is who we are, this is how we live, this is the beauty of us. Just that Black gaze, there is so much power and dignity and love in that,” he told Hyperallergic.
Cultural critic bell hooks argued that photos taken by and for Black people, like those on Cherlise’s platform, are a way to reclaim our stories. “Photography has been, and is, central to that aspect of decolonization that calls us back to the past and offers a way to reclaim and renew life-affirming bonds,” she wrote in her 1995 book Art on My Mind: Visual Politics. “Using images, we connect ourselves to a recuperative, redemptive memory that enables us to construct radical identities, images of ourselves that transcend the limits of the colonizing eye.”
Marcella D. Zigbuo Camara, the curator of pop-up art gallery and creative consultancy Young, Gifted, and Broke, started following the Black Archives Instagram page after feeling a connection to a post featuring a photo by a Black photographer from her native Durham, North Carolina. The image, which showed three young Black men holding a baby, belonged to The Youngest Parents (1997), a book about teen parenting and public health from a local photographer’s perspective.
“I remember that picture was always so visually stirring to me and visually arresting, and I think I followed the page that day because it just resonated with me,” Camara said. “I wasn’t used to seeing archival material from my hometown.”
Black Archives is a platform that allows people of all ages and backgrounds to learn about and see Black history that is not being taught in the classroom.
The first pages of the book highlight Cherlise’s family photos and the process her family took to document and archive their legacy through photographs and videos. She then divides the photo book into three sections, titled “The Foundation: Keeper of Stories,” “Interiors: Holding Space and Keeping Time,” and “Exteriors: To be Witnessed.” Each subsection includes a blurb written by Cherlise describing the theme of the classic photographs included in each section. The photographs selected for the book capture Black people experiencing moments of love, joy, rest, leisure, and everyday life.
Cherlise left her full-time job to create the book during the height of the pandemic, as Black people were dying at a higher rate than any other racial group. She aims for her book to celebrate those who have passed on and provide people with the joy and warmth she experienced at her family’s birthday celebrations.
“I hope this book brings similar feelings and that people feel seen,” Cherlise said. “That people can relate and imagine their own if they don’t have actual family photos and perhaps, if they do, to sort of go back and reflect and let it inspire them.”