A Methodological Guide to Manuscript Sources in the Rubenstein Library at Duke University
Any attempt to do African-American women's history is inevitably fraught with frustrations. Sources are difficult to locate, and when found are often biased and filled with observations that require careful analysis. The scarcity of such sources in archival repositories is due in part to a long tradition of collection development from an elite white perspective but also reflects the oral tradition which has prevailed over a written tradition in the transmission of African-American heritage. Therefore the challenges of documenting African-American women's lives are felt by both archivists and researchers alike.
The goal of this guide is to reduce somewhat the frustration level by providing a guide to using primary sources found in the Duke University Manuscripts Department that pertain to the lives of African-American women. Often the roadblock to research on black women's lives is not the lack of sources, but that the handles needed to take hold of the information - the cataloguing, the terminology, and methodology for locating information - are not suited for the changing nature of scholarship. In this case, we culled through endless citations in the department's catalog to ferret out those references which specifically point to the lives and experiences of African-American women and located additional collections which had not been identified as such.
What we found was a rich and diverse pool of resources which can be used for a variety of research projects. The sources included here differ greatly in their form, size, and origin. They range from detailed reporting of personal experience to abstracted discussion of general conditions and events. They incorporate the perspectives of black educators and laborers; slaves and slaveholders; women's grassroots organizers and elected officials; McCarthy-era investigators and Black Panther revolutionaries. With differing amounts of detail they all give information on the work, political, family, and community lives of black women. Many of the collections are not single-mindedly focused on black women, but contain information on events or communities in which African-American women were involved or which provide evidence of larger social or political trends in the black experience.
The guide is selective, so researchers should consult the Manuscript Department's catalog for access to additional collections. The department houses extensive Civil War collections, farmer and merchant account books, family and financial papers of plantation owners, and political collections which can be mined for further information on African-American women. Additionally, a large number of collections that illustrate Anglo-American concepts towards African-American people have not been included in the scope of this guide. Included here are only those white commentaries which serve to document aspects of black life and not white theories on slavery, abolition, or segregation.
For researchers attempting to do revisionist history, the source of information, in addition to the topic being explored, plays a significant role in determining the questions the researcher must ask. One can utilize a northern abolitionist white women's travel journal, a slave owner's plantation records, and a black Union soldier's letters home to shed light on the role of black women's family life in the antebellum South. However, each collections must be approached with an understanding of its derivation. What reflections of life that remain in these documents are not representative of the whole truth or even fragments of a singular truth. The methods by which these documents were created, collected, and used must also become a part of the research process. Perspective and therefore, methodology, can shift with each document.
The collections listed in this guide are not arranged by topic: the index serves to pull sources together by subject matter. Instead, the collection descriptions are arranged according to the relationship of the records to their creators and to the people whose lives the records serve to document. Entries are grouped into broad categories of record types which suggest particular methodological approaches to the materials.
The materials do not exhibit clear and unequivocal significance. The questions are not obvious and use of the materials is not necessarily self-evident. Therefore, each section is headed by an essay which offers approaches to the specific types of materials included. These essays are not intended serve as a comprehensive discourse on contemporary methodologies, but simply to suggest what sorts of questions to ask of the materials with regard to their format and to identify blind spots in the content of the materials.
The very exercise of retrieving African-American women's history in all of its complexity begins to reveal our own interactions with history. Historical inquiry reveals patterns and choices that begin to define the ways we digest experience. In this sense, this guide serves as a mode of cultural representation - a place of shared identity. These voices and sources remind us of the diversity of African-American women and at the same time demonstrate that their lives can be bound together in ways that resist the perception that these women were ever marginal.
Compiled by Jennifer Morgan, Graduate Student, Department of
Edited by Virginia Daley, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, 1989
Note: This is a published guide describing the collections held at Duke University and not scanned images or digitized text of actual archival documents. Contact our Reference Desk for more information on particular collections or for information on ordering copies from any of the collections listed.
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