A recent New York Times article on contemporary African American scrapbook makers reports on what happened when Tazhiana Gordon featured her pages on attending Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. She shows her pages on Instagram, where a scrapbooking community shares their work. But when she placed her activism and Blackness at the center of her work, some of her white followers dropped her.
The many African American scrapbook makers of the 19th and 20th century would have been right there with Tazhiana Gordon in documenting the BLM movement, and paying attention to responses to the police killing of a black man. Even those who saved memorabilia about their own lives – programs from concerts they attended, family achievements – also clipped and pasted newspaper items about lynchings, government collusion in lynchings, and the suppression of the Black vote. Their private lives were not separate from what was happening to the local and national Black community.
African Americans of the past have known how essential it was for them to archive their own activities. We would not know anything about Alice Dunbar Nelson’s work for women’s suffrage if she hadn’t kept a thorough scrapbook of her 1915 campaign work around Pennsylvania.
Nineteenth and twentieth century African American scrapbook makers might have been more puzzled to see people ornamenting the pages with purchased stickers, and by the online community that shares ideas for page layouts and designs. Their own sharing was within the Black community, to offer one another the histories they’d compiled. I wonder what William Henry Dorsey, son of an escaped slave, with his 400 scrapbooks spanning over 4 decades, or Shirley Graham DuBois and her mother, or Joseph W.H. Cathcart, a janitor, whose 150+ massive scrapbooks attracted reporters from the white press to write about him, as “the Great Scrap Book Maker,” would have thought of today’s Black scrapbook crafters? All (with the exception of L.S. Alexander Gumby, who loved frames and pockets) might have been puzzled by the attention to the visual aesthetics of scrapbook making. But they surely would have applauded their demands for recognition and paid work within a white controlled industry.