How Black archives are highlighting overlooked parts of history and culture

Jiya Pinder, the creator and curator of We The Diaspora, looks at historical photos.

(CNN)To scroll through We The Diaspora is to meditate on the mundanities of Black life.

Vintage photos show Black people splashing around in water, dancing in a nightclub, kissing their partner on a balcony. Portraits capture Muhammad Ali waiting in a hallway before an exhibition match, Prince playing basketball, Diana Ross eating a rib. Whether the camera is aimed at regular people or famous figures, the moments on display are delightfully ordinary.
That quality is intentional, says the Instagram account's curator Jiya Pinder. She launched We The Diaspora during the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020 -- a salve for the barrage of images depicting Black pain and trauma. It's not that there wasn't truth in those images, she says. But there was so much more that wasn't being reflected.
      "It was an accessible way for people to peek into the past," Pinder says of the project. "I really just wanted to create a photo archive that captured the history, cultural diversity and everyday life experiences of people across the African diaspora."
        Outside of her day job as a social media manager, Pinder says she spends a few hours each week combing through digital archives and photographer portfolios to source images for We The Diaspora. The result is a rainbow of imagery -- metaphorically and literally -- that provides a glimpse into Black life over the last century.
          Pinder is part of a larger movement of archivists, curators and memory workers who seek to elevate overlooked parts of Black history and culture. Though their mediums range from social media accounts to digital libraries to museum collections, their missions are the same: To tell a more complete story about Black existence.

          Archives are a way to fill in the gaps

          In recent years, digital archiving projects from both amateurs and professionals have made Black history -- and the process of preserving it -- more accessible.
          The storied Instagram account Black Archives showcases the Black experience through visuals, much like We The Diaspora, which came after it. The Black Beauty Archives celebrates the evolution of Black aesthetics and beauty rituals through digital museum collections. Black Film Archive contextualizes lesser-known works of Black cinema and lets users know where to stream them. Archiving the Black Web aims to document Black internet culture and make the process itself more inclusive. And thanks to the efforts of archivists and activists, artwork from the Black Lives Matter memorial is now on display online at the Library of Congress website.
          It's notable that many recent efforts originated at the wcommunity and grassroots level. According to data from the Society of American Archivists, the most recent of which was published in 2006, about 3% of professional archivists in the US identify as Black. (The organization plans to release updated numbers early this year.) And while there are certainly several notable institutions with trained professionals who process and contextualize Black culture and history, some individuals have taken it upon themselves to fill in the gaps.
          That was the ethos behind the Black Film Archive. Maya Cade, who works for the Criterion Collection by day, says she started the project partly to shift the conversation around Black cinema. While the world of Black film dates back more than a century and includes musicals, romantic comedies and science fiction, Cade noticed online discourse tended to emphasize stories of trauma.
          "The World, the Flesh and the Devil," a 1959 post-apocalpytic movie starring Harry Belafonte, is one of the films featured on Black Film Archive.
          "When we have a deeper engagement with history, we quickly see that that is not true," she says.
          Cade, who considers herself as a lifelong student of Black film, wanted her archive to showcase how Blackness has been portrayed in cinema over time -- and in turn, highlight "the fullness of Black identity and cinema."

          Recent projects cater to Black communities

          What's special about many recent archival projects is that they're for Black people -- by Black people.
          Cade says she wanted her project to specifically expand Black people's knowledge of Black cinema -- that anyone else might find that information interesting was just the cherry on top.
          "Archiving is really a regenerative practice," she says. "The act of collecting, sorting, preserving and making available is an act of love for a group. It's an act of care. At least, I think it should be."
          Maya Cade created the Black Film Archive to spotlight the expansive scope of early Black cinema.
          Black Film Archive's focus on Black communities is evident in details big and small. Cade says she spends at least three hours a day researching films to include on the platform, writing descriptions that put them into context and fact checking and editing her own work. From website design to film selection, from what context is included to what knowledge is assumed, Cade says she's constantly asking herself how she can better serve the people that her archive is intended to celebrate.
          The question of what audiences are being served by archives is something Dorothy Berry grapples with, too.
          Dorothy Berry is the digital collections program manager for Harvard University's Houghton Library.
          Berry works as a digital collections program manager for the Houghton Library, Harvard University's primary home for rare books and manuscripts. While being at an institution like Harvard means that archival materials are inevitably catering to a wider audience, Berry says she makes a deliberate effort to ensure that the library's collections are just as accessible for a scholar conducting research as they are for someone who just wants to learn more about their own history.
          "I think of what I do as advocating and trying to get this material in the hands of people for whom it has both research and personal value," she says.
          Over the past year, Berry led a project that digitized and contextualized African American primary sources on around slavery, abolition and emancipation. While materials in major collections and archives often center the perspective of enslavers, Houghton Library's exhibit instead amplifies the Black voices from those time periods through a free and publicly available collection on its website.
          Dorothy Berry shows materials from the Richard E. Norman Collection to actor Danny Glover at the Black Film Center/Archive.