Treasures from the Archives

Note: PALS is kicking off its 2017-2018 year with this introduction to working with archives and archivists by guest writer Cheylon Woods. Cheylon is the head archivist at the Ernest Gaines Center and has worked with other archives in the past. Here she gives us some insight and pointers for bring the archives into our course planning and our students to the archives. Also see librarian Kelli Hansen’s post from last year on Collaborating with Your Special Collections Librarian.

In the last five years, I have noticed the word “archive” being used…a lot. From archives on DIY blogs to individuals discussing their “personal archives” in their homes, a general concept of an “archive” seems to be catching on, and I couldn’t be happier…kinda… I am an archivist, and personally I find archives completely fascinating! I love the fact that people seem to be learning what an archive is, but I find myself wondering if they really understand what archives are and what they offer, or do they think it is just a term to apply to where they keep their “old stuff” (spoiler, it’s the latter). Personally, I am of the mindset that some conversation is better than no conversation, so I am happy to take the idea that an archive is simply a place for “old stuff” and expand on that, because archives are so much more. Luckily, I am in a perfect position (being an archivist and all) to use my experience and collection to advocate for the support and use of archives.

South Dakota State Archives
South Dakota State Historical Society Archives
A brief background

First, I think I should start by introducing myself and the archive in which I work. My name is Cheylon Woods, and I am the Head of the Ernest J. Gaines Center located at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. I have a background in History, Political Science (B.A.), Heritage Resources (M.A.), and Library Science (MLIS). Needless to say, I love “old stuff” and what that “old stuff” tells us about how we have always interacted with others during any period of human existence.  I like reading about it, I like talking about it, and, most importantly, I like preserving it.  The Ernest J. Gaines Center is a manuscript archive. The center was opened in 2010, and its mission is “to foster research and scholarship on the life and works of Dr. Ernest J. Gaines, to archive, house, preserve, protect and utilize the ‘Collection of Ernest J. Gaines,’ and to make the collection available to scholars in perpetuity.”

While the above mission was written specifically for the Ernest J. Gaines Center, at its heart is the purpose of all archives. The spaces where “old stuff” is stored are treasure troves of information, and potential projects, just waiting to be used. Archives and archivists have a unique calling to ensure that history is not forgotten. Such a statement sounds so lofty, “to ensure that history is not forgotten.” But that is the easiest way to explain it, and not explain it at the same time. I could drill down and get really detailed about what exactly archivists and archives do, but what is more important to understand is WHY we do what we do. As a society, when we think of “historic” documents, we set the bar really high, but archives and archivists have a much broader approach.

When people think about historical records they normally think about “iconic” records, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation, or government records, like census reports and draft records, but archivists also see your grandmother’s letters or cookbook as historic. The Ernest J. Gaines Center is a perfect example of the broad definition of historic when discussing archives. The Ernest J. Gaines Center is a manuscript archive, and the majority of our collection is the multiple drafts of the published works written by Dr. Ernest J. Gaines. We do not have any records about the plantation where he was raised, or community in which he grew up—things that are easy to understand as historic—but we have the letters written to him by students and inmates about how his work affected them. We have his research that influenced his books, journals that he helped edit, gifts given to him by other writers and researchers.

While, on the surface, it may not seem like this information has historical value, looking at it through the greater lens of the Black Arts Movement and the social movements happening during the decades Gaines chooses to write about provides a researcher with connections and shows how something as small as A lesson Before Dying  can have a lasting effect on a reader.I n the Gaines Center Archives, there are a series of letters from incarcerated men about the Jefferson. Jefferson is the character in the book A Lesson Before Dying who is sentenced to die for a crime he did not commit. in some of the correspondence, the writers expressed  how the evolution of Jefferson reminded them about their own humanity as they served their time in some de-humanizing spaces.

The records created by people,  be it a grandmother in Detroit during the 1940s or a world renowned author like Dr. Ernest J. Gaines, are important and they provide an interesting context to the dates and places memorized in class. Everything that happens in “history” happens to the people who happen to occupy that particular intersection of time and space, and the records they create give those events context. Without context, it just feels like “timey whimy wibbly wobbly” stuff;  archives, archivists, and the records they preserve help untangle history by saving relatable experiences.  Prior to completing my MLIS, I was am IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Science) Fellow at the Alabama Department of Archives and History.  During my internship I worked with birth records that date back to the turn of the century, an African American family that dated back to emancipation, and civil rights flyers. All of these documents put faces in the spaces where Alabama History took place. Reading letters and wills discussing how property (including slaves) were to be divided after death, or looking at the original charter for a university or state college illustrate decisions that affect present day society.

How to use archives and archivists in the classroom

Outside of history, using archives and working with archivists can seem daunting, if not impossible. This is furthest from the truth. Archives are spaces that were designed to preserve the human footprint in history, and human interaction has an effect on every aspect of society, be it the arts or STEM.

In all of his work, Dr. Gaines’ writes about technology and mechanizing the agricultural spaces. If a STEM student or educator was so inclined, one could look at the Dr. Gaines’s manuscripts and identify how the inclusion of tractors affected the communities who traditionally farmed  “by hand”, or consider the concept of rotating crops and how it not only had benefits for the soil, but also created a type of calendar for the people who lived in the quarters.  Records of oil drilling and infrastructure in a municipal archive or university archive could be used to evaluate the effects of certain projects have on communities, and how future innovation can benefit or harm a community of interest.

If you are in literature, you can assign a project that asks your students to use their archive to write a fictional story based on someone in one of your college’s or community archive’s collections. Special Archives (like mine) can also be used beyond the scope of their collection mission. One of the more interesting artifacts housed in the Ernest J. Gaines Center is script (a type of currency) from Riverlake Plantation, which is where Dr. Ernest J. Gaines was raised. I use the script to explain how people were paid in the quarters. This currency could not be used in any other location except Riverlake Plantation, and, during class tours,  is a great example of the hardships people faced under the tenancy and sharecropping systems. The Ernest J. Gaines Center is mostly used by the English Department, but his stories could easily be incorporated in other fields, like Education, History, or Social Services. His short story “A Long Day In November”,and the associated manuscripts, have been used in education classes to explain why new teachers should be empathetic to their students. The characters Dr. Gaines creates and how they evolve can be studied (without going through IRB) for a number of types of papers or used as teaching tools. If you work at a university, you can set up visits with your archivist to discuss collections that relate to your course, and if you work in K-12, local archives are great field trips, and most have some sort of educational outreach programming in their repertoire.  The best thing about archives and archivists is that we can be used, and we want to be used, in almost any way that suits you. If you are not sure, don’t be afraid to ask your local archivist, I am sure they will be excited to be invited into your class.

In conclusion

Honestly, archives are really cool places. We are more than a place for “old stuff” or people who “organize old stuff” ( we do that too). We are people and places that can help you create more robust assignments. We understand the very complex nature of humans and pour over boxes and boxes of the things they created, and are currently creating, documenting their lives. We are places where no one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten, and no movement, fandom, organization, or entity is forgotten. We are places where people matter because we exist because of people. People create records, even if they are on a corporate level, and those records speak volumes about the society that produced them.

Archives can be your best resource if you choose to use them. Not only are they full of cool things, a treasure trove one may say, but they are full of cool people who can help you become an expert on all of their cool things. All those boxes are filled with lessons, and they are just waiting for you to pair them with all of your syllabi, and one day (hopefully) they will be filled with your records as well.

Contributor Bio

professional.photograph.cheylon.woods (1).jpgCheylon Woods, Assistant Professor and Archivist/Head of Ernest J. Gaines Center, received her MLIS from LSU. After completion of her MA in Heritage Resources from Northwestern State University, she was awarded an IMLS (Institute of Museum & Library Studies) fellowship through HistoryMarkers (oral history archive based out of Chicago) where she was assigned to work as an Archivist at the Alabama State Department of Archives and History. She actively worked with communities and prominent figures in the region to fill in information gaps related to African American history in the state of Alabama. Cheylon also received a dual BA degree in History and Political Science from Louisiana Tech University. She is a member of Phi Alpha Theta, Society of American Archivists, Louisiana Library Association, and Association for the Study of African American Life and History. She has presented at annual meetings for Society of American Archivists and worked on numerous public programs for the Alabama Department of Archives and History specializing in preservation and displaying historical documents and artifacts.


“I think Aladdin looked kinda white”: Teaching Cultural Projection in the Classroom

PALS Note: PALS recently published an overview of the Ernest J. Gaines and the Southern Experience NEH Institute written by PALS Co-Managing Editor Shelli Homer. As a companion piece to that post, we have a piece from Matthew Teutsch on a concept, cultural projection, that was important to discussion at the institute. We are happy to help continue the conversation and provide information about the institute to a wider audience. If you participated in an NEH Institute or Seminar this summer, we would love to hear from you about your experience and how it will affect your teaching in the future. 

The NEH Summer Institute, Ernest J. Gaines and the Southern Experience, provided participants with various pedagogical tools to take with them into their own classrooms. There were too many techniques to discuss here, but I would like to focus on the concept of cultural projection that became a topic of conversation during the four week institute. Specifically, I want to talk about how we can introduce that concept to our students and why cultural projection is an important concept to help students think more critically about the media that they consume in their day-to-day lives.


Before defining cultural projection for students, we should begin by posing questions to them about the media’s representation of subordinate and dominant groups. To do this, we can provide them with different examples that either uphold hegemonic structures or seek to question and/or change them. One such example comes from P.O.S.’s “Safety in Speed (Heavy Metal),” a song that challenges the projections of subordinate groups in the mass media. P.O.S. raps, “But for a middle eastern guy, I think Aladdin looked kinda white.” Through this line, P.O.S. calls upon the listener to question what Aladdin looking white instead of Middle Eastern in Disney’s Aladdin (1992) ultimately means. Showing a picture of Aladdin to students then playing P.O.S.’s song, or just quoting the line above, will spark conversation by having them interrogate the purpose of a film like Aladdin or even a film like Disney’s The Princess and the Frog (2009).

Another way to introduce students to this concept, before defining it for them, could be through the use of book and film covers. Two examples of this occur with the book and film cover for Ernest J. Gaines’s A Gathering of Old Men (1983), a novel that tells the story of a group of seventy- to eighty-year-old African American men standing up to racism and oppression in a rural Louisiana town. The first edition cover of the novel has an image that encompasses the front and back of the book. On the front, three African American men sit on the porch with shotguns. The back shows four African American men with shotguns and, above them, the white sheriff, Mapes, and Candy, a white owner of the plantation where the action takes place. The paperback edition, though, only contains the front image. Thinking about this, we could ask students what changes about the projection of the book once the back image gets removed.

In contrast to the book covers, the film shows a more white paternalistic image of the narrative. Rather than highlighting the heroic actions of the African American men, the film cover depicts Candy and Mapes benevolently protecting Mathu. Candy even has her arm around Mathu in a paternalistic, protective manner. Ask students to compare/contrast the two covers and have them either discuss or write about what each image makes them think. Students can do this before they even read the novel, having them think about expectations before experiencing the story. It must be noted, here, that a German director did the film. This is important because the cultural perception of the race relations in the Southern United States becomes filtered through European perceptions of America. He has a speech on YouTube about the filming of it and the power of the book.

Gathering Film Cover

After having students think about cultural projection before defining it, they will recognize how the act of cultural projection affects them in their day-to-day lives without them possibly even knowing it. Next, define cultural projection for them and show them more ways that it manifests itself. During the institute, Herman Beavers defined cultural projection by using Richard M. Merelman’s Representing Black Culture: Race and Cultural Politics in the United States (1995). Merelman defines it as follows:

A politically, economically, and socially subordinated group engages in cultural projection when its allies put forth new, usually more positive pictures of itself beyond its own borders. By inviting respect, commendation, debate, and engagement, these new images contest the negative stereotypes that dominant groups typically apply to subordinates. For its part, a dominant group engages in cultural projection when it and its allies develop a newly positive set of self-images, and put forth such images to subordinate groups. These new images not only contend that dominant groups deserve the right to rule, but also ask subordinate groups to approve rather than resist or distrust rule by dominants. (3)

The key thing to take from the definition above is that the subordinate group, along with its “allies,” work to create more positive, non-stereotypical images of the subordinate group. However, even though a dominant group may perceive, and label itself, as an ally to a subordinate a group, that allegiance brings with it cultural baggage that may deter the union’s efforts. Have students think about this juxtaposition and tease it apart before showing them the three varying equations for cultural projection. During our discussion at the institute, Beavers noted that there are three different types of cultural projection: hegemonic (maintains dominant projection), counter-hegemonic (challenging dominant projection), syncretic (dominant and subordinate working together). The most beneficial, of course, would be the syncretic; however, this type does not always appear. In fact, one of the most determinate would be the hegemonic which, while voicing solidarity, maintains its position of power through its cultural projections of the subordinate group.

To help students see these definitions at work, speak with them about film versions of books, especially the film version of Ernest J. Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974). After watching the film, Beavers commented that the movie is a cultural projection developed by the dominant and subordinate groups. However, it is, ostensibly, a film for whites. In that manner, it becomes a form of hegemonic cultural projection. Even though the film garnered nine Emmy awards and paved the way for Roots, it placates a white audience and makes them, in many ways, feel better about their position because the problems of racism and subjugation have been solved, or at least challenged, through the film’s final scene. There are numerous differences between the book and the film that highlight the film’s role as hegemonic cultural projection in opposition to the novel’s position as counter-hegemonic. Ask students, after they have read the book and seen the film (or clips from it), to think about these definitions and to explore how the printed text can be counter-hegemonic while the film version can be hegemonic.

miss jane p

Regarding this, there are a couple of major discrepancies between the film and the book that highlight the different cultural projections that each presents to an audience. When Jane drinks from the water fountain in Bayonne, no one, not even the stern sheriff, challenges her. He stands, as other whites do, above Jane as she drinks from the fountain, maintaining a position of power. In the novel, however, Jane defiantly counters the hegemonic structure of the Samson Plantation by walking directly past Robert as he stands there trying to stop her and the rest of the people form the quarters going to Bayonne to demonstrate after the murder of Jimmy Aaron.

As well, the movie presents a white newspaper reporter as Jane’s amanuensis instead of the African American history teacher that records her story in the novel. This change totally reverses the narrative and who, ultimately, tells Jane’s story. The history teacher wants to record Jane’s story for his students because her story, and others like hers, do not appear in their text books. Since the books do not contain Jane’s story, the history teacher seeks to challenge the hegemonic cultural projection that marginalizes her and others by providing a counter-hegemonic cultural projection. The film, however, chooses to maintain the hegemonic cultural projection because the white journalist comes to interview Jane for an article, not to fill in gaps for students who need to know her story but for a public who wants to feel better about themselves and their hegemonic position. Expanding upon these examples, have students think about what other aspects of the film and the novel highlight the different forms of cultural projection apparent in both.

Tying this all together, show students Lecare’s TED talk “Heroes and Villains? Is Hip-Hop a Cancer or a Cure?”

In his talk, Lecrae speaks about the semiotic meanings of “hero” and “villain.” On a basic level, this creates a cultural image of people, whether good or bad (terms which in and of themselves are problematic). What Lecrae does, though, is then walk through a history of Hip-Hop and how it began as a cultural voice that eventually, while still providing a cultural voice, became gangsta rap, a genre that “glorifies” violence. Using statistics about the drug trade and the availability of drugs in the 1980s during Ronald Reagan’s presidency and the rise of gangsta rap and incarceration rate in the 1990s, Lecrae weaves a brief history of Hip-Hop that can be seen through the lens of cultural projection. Specifically, at 14:20, he states, “In order to wear the badge of authentic masculinity, you had to be associated, in some kind of way, with this wayward [gangsta] lifestyle. You certainly needed it to get a record deal.” In two sentences, Lecrae summarizes cultural projection and its mediation. The mediation of culture, through a company or distributed, needs to be examined in conjunction with the creator of the product. In many ways, this aspect determines how the public will receive the cultural product. Above, Lecrae briefly points to this in regards to the way record labels sign then market Hip-Hop artists.

For students, have them, after speaking about cultural projection and providing them with examples, find various cultural projections in the media that they consume on a daily basis. They can do this as a homework assignment or as a larger project. In my classroom, I would have them give brief presentations on the product that they chose to examine and how that product’s cultural projection is either hegemonic, counter-hegemonic, or syncretic. This type of activity could be done either in the literature classroom, as discussed above, or in the composition classroom, as the references to P.O.S. and Lecrae show.

I want to conclude with lines from P.O.S.’s “Safety in Speed (Heavy Metal)” that students need to think about when confronted with the image of Ronald Reagan as a hero to some and villain to others as Lecrae states. P.O.S. intones,

You ever feel like you’re being tricked
Tricked-out, dicked, or dicked around with
Or flat out lied to?
Welcome to Hollywood, DC
Where Reagan Youth grew up cowboys
Off Ronnie’s westerns

Works Cited

Merelman, Richard M. Representing Black Culture: Race and Cultural Politics in the United States. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Contributor Bio:


Matthew Teutsch is a graduate of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and currently, he is an English Instructor at Auburn University. He maintains Interminable Rambling, a blog about literature, composition, culture, and pedagogy. In the classroom, he strives to provide agency to students through collaborative and active learning assignments. He does this in both composition and literature classrooms.