Intersectionality in the Archive: Power Structures, ‘Absences’ and Partiality in Archival Research

By Hannah Martin

The first week in April 2019 saw over 9,000 geographers and social scientists arrive in Washington D.C. for the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers (AAG). Due to the generous support of the Sociological Review Foundation, I was able to attend and present a paper at this internationally renowned conference.

I contributed to the first of a double session entitled “Archives and Geography: Knowledge, Politics, Ethics”. Presentations spanned vast chronologies and geographical boundaries, ranging from childhood experiences in early 20th century North American homes for destitute children and Black Community Archives in 1960s London to the role of voluntary organisations in Britain 1940-2010. Yet all of these presentations had one thing in common – innovative and challenging archival methodologies.

My paper, ‘Intersectionality in the Archive’, was a response to the methodological challenges I have faced when tracing everyday experiences of BAME British colonial seafarers in the North East of England, 1919-1938. For the most part my work focusses on Yemeni, Somali, West African and West Indian seafarers in South Shields, North Shields, Blyth, Sunderland and Middlesbrough. Much focus has been placed on ‘exceptional episodes’ of racialised disorder, however I want to detract from the overarching significance of such moments of exceptionality and rather focus on inter-ethnic everyday interactions and experiences.

BAME seafarers in early twentieth century Tyneside appear in national, regional and local archives sporadically, inconsistently and seemingly at random. Nevertheless, their presence in the archival record is more than coincidental; it is dependent on complex socioeconomic and geopolitical contexts and varies immensely over temporal and spatial boundaries. Through using a lens of intersectional theory, it becomes possible to highlight the different ways that BAME seafarers come to be visible in the archival record. Issues of race, class, gender, literacy, occupation, citizenship and subject hood, intersect with one another to either inhibit or guarantee a BAME presence in the archival record. These socially constructed forms of oppression, relational and independent at different times, in diverse spaces and in various ways, has clearly shaped the archival record.

These seafaring men experienced specific forms of marginalisation and discrimination not simply because of a sum of their identities but rather because of the nature of their intersectional identities. Their daily life and everyday experiences were shaped because they were Black, working class, male, British Colonial Subjects, working in the merchant shipping industry, in interwar Britain. For example, they did not share a similar experience with white British Colonial Subjects or the wider white working-class due to increasing white labourism in this period. They did not experience discrimination in the same way as BAME female British Colonial Subjects due to increased fears of miscegenation and racialised masculinities in the 1920s.

The BAME archival presence in the early 20th century can only be understood by situating these intersectional identities both within the archival record itself and against the backdrop of the issues prevalent in inter-war Britain. Through the contextualisation of experiences and identities, it becomes clear that they have direct bearing on the contents of the archive. 

My paper opened discussion for how we can consider integrating more theoretical approaches when undertaking archival research of marginalised groups; changing the way we perceive, address and experience the limitations of the archive and its absences, partiality and fragmentation; developing practices where we can centre subdued or constrained voices and ‘turn up the volume’ of their testimony.

I am extremely grateful to the Sociological Review Foundation for supporting my attendance at this conference, I received encouraging feedback and questions were posed which will greatly enhance not only my reflections on personal methodological practices, but also the wider trajectory of my current and future work. 

Hannah Martin is a second year PhD candidate in Historical Geography at Northumbria University, Newcastle. Her thesis focusses of the intersection of race, class and politics across Tyneside in the period, 1919-1938. Hannah’s wider research interests lie within everyday histories and geographies of working class identity formation and cultural development and the ways in which local spaces were delineated along racial, classed and gendered lines in nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain.

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