|SAA President Danna C. Bell Just before Her Presidential Address, Washington, D.C. (14 August 2014)|
I am a person of words, of words isolated, of words in roving packs, of words sunk into the soft bedding of the page, of words swirling into my ears. I am the captive of the word, the manner in which it holds and transmits meaning, the shapes it takes upon a screen, the sounds it has in flight.
In fact, I almost forgot about it, because it wasn't listed on the little app I used to navigate the conference. I remembered at the last moment but still made it on time. Upon walking into the room, a small one, I noted that many of the sessions at this conference were more than ten times larger than that room. There were probably under 100 people in attendance, but they were all people Danna knew well, except for a few extra people who unwittingly followed invitees into the room.
I remain ambivalent about Danna's decision to give her speech in this manner. On one hand, I understand the difficulty some people have speaking in public. (Personally, I can't really understand it, because the bigger the crowd, the more comfortable I am speaking before it. The size of the crowd gives me energy. I pull it out of their bodies.) Still, I like to believe that leadership requires us to push ourselves beyond on areas of comfort. I would have preferred Danna to give a speech to everyone or to explain before the conference why she wasn't.
She begin by talking about using primary materials in education, something her life is focused on, and she demonstrated, through personal illustrations in her life, how "we must think about the story," how "we must think of the people behind the documents." She made some of the arguments I myself would make for archives and archivists. She hit some delicate nerves within me and played a bit of music.
And her ending was beautiful, if extended.
She began by quoting from, of all places, Mary McLeod Bethune's last will and testament:
I leave you love. I leave you hope. I leave you the challenge of developing confidence in one another. I leave you thirst for education. I leave you respect for the uses of power. I leave you faith. I leave you dignity.And Danna continued with that anaphoric structure, never letting on that she'd left out the details Bethune had included after each of those opening sentences, which were simply dramatic topic sentences to most of the ending paragraphs of her will.
Then Danna switched the tables. Bethune was a woman in the present past who was looking forward to a time when she would be dead and people would hear her words as words from the past urging them forward. Danna was a woman in the present giving words in that present as a means to make us move forward toward that wished-for future. What Danna did was wish for the future with us; she wasn't leaving us anything. She was telling us her desires, hoping they'd be ours, encouraging us to think of them as such. Telling us to make them so (as Bethune herself was, from another direction).
Though, maybe the world of archives seems a less important place than the struggle for racial justice, especially today, I still believe that archives holds some of the promise of that justice.
In the climax of her presidential address, Danna asked for a world where archives matter more to people. And she gave a wish for the SAA staff, saying that "full-time staff, just like archivists, deserve jobs and living wages, benefits and support." (I loved that human touch, that respect given to a group of people who work hard for the Society and accomplish more than I would ever think possible.) Danna also wished that members would support one another more, finding ways in which we are brought together as one, rather than ways in which we can separate from each other. She said, "We are a strong, vital, powerful group with great minds and passionate hearts." And I believe it. I believed her. I see it.
In the end, I don't know for sure why Danna didn't want to give a presidential address or why she gave her speech this way, but I accept that this venue, that small crowd, might have made it possible to give a speech as good as the one she gave. I'll take what I can get. I'll accept what is lost if what replaces it seems sufficient.
And this speech seemed more than good enough. And it is available on line for all to see, to hear. We can all watch it. And we can watch it again. I'd move the dial to the last eight minutes of the speech. I'll listen to that again. I already have tonight.
I am a man of words, of my word, and I'll accept these words from Danna as a gift to archivists. I'm happy for the gift.
Earlier today, I wrote to Danna to explain that I'd be writing this little essay, to say that I'd explain my thoughts about the speech and its manner and place of birth. Danna seemed curious about what I'd have to say, so I was glad I didn't surprise her with this.
Yet I continue to wish I had heard this presidential address in a grand hall, even if that meant I'd miss a chance to see her mother again or meet her aunts and uncles. I wish everyone had had the chance I had to hear this live and in person, even if not as intimately as I had.
I'm sitting teeteringly between two poles of thought. But I'll let the more hopeful thought win out.