Opening a Door to Black Pittsburgh History through the Carnegie Museum of Art

My name is Amanda Dibando Awanjo, and I am a fifth-year doctoral candidate in the English Department. My research moves in and out of the archive to explore W.E.B Du Bois’ 1927 question, “What will people say in a hundred years of Black Americans?” Focusing on depictions of Black women and girls, I explore epistemologies of Black Futurity and their relationship to Black motherhood and childhood, from Du Bois’ “The Brownies’ Books” to Octavia Butler’s Kindred. My work is supported by archival work within Octavia Butler’s archive at the Huntington Library and the digital archives of W.E.B Du Bois’ ‘The Brownies’ Book’ and ‘The Crisis’. For the 2021 Humanities Engage Immersive Fellowship, my engagement with archives is expanding as I begin a new project with the archives department at the Carnegie Museum of Art.

The Carnegie Museum is a mammoth of a Pittsburgh institution, a fact that is reflected in the museum’s archives. Within digitized art exhibits, records of letters, museum periodicals, photographs, and other artifacts, the museum’s archive is a look at Pittsburgh history through the lens of one of its biggest cultural institutions. For the immersive, I will be conducting archival research within the Museum’s special collections to explore the museum’s evolving relationship with the Black community of Pittsburgh as well as working with museum staff to explore how to use digital exhibitions and other curated archival content to address issues of racial equity within the art world. As 2021 represents the Carnegie Museum of Art’s 125th anniversary, a portion of my archival research is dedicated to exploring ways the museum can center diversity and racial equity in this year’s initiatives and messaging. All of this work will ultimately culminate in an archival report and corresponding digital content that investigates how the museum has served artists and audiences of color over time and begin to answer the important questions: What does anti-racism mean for the museum? How can the museum leverage its cultural capital to better serve both the Black community of Pittsburgh and Black artists internationally? By providing answers to these questions, I hope to highlight the historical tensions between the vibrant Black artistic achievement emerging from Black life in Pittsburgh and the institutions that cast a shadow over it.

For the Black community in Pittsburgh, the archives that make up the museum’s collections are personal, communal, and living. Take the Teenie Harris archive as an example. With over 70,000 images, the Teenie Harris archive is managed by Teenie Harris Community Archivist Charlene Foggie-Barnett, who grew up being photographed by the famed Pittsburgh photographer. With an archive that has such intimate ties to its community, learning the archives of the museum has been an education in Pittsburgh. Founded in 1895, right at the dawn of the twentieth century, the museum and its records tell the story of Pittsburgh through its art and also through the absences. Authors Joe Trotter and Jared Day state in their text on 20th century Black life in Pittsburgh, “One recent study refers to the city’s Hill District as ‘pound for pound’ the ‘most generative’ black community in the United States” (xix).1 This history is rich and the art is richer, and I am discovering material that deals with early 20th century discussions about cultural access and literacy, the fortunes and misfortunes of Pittsburgh’s various neighborhoods, cultural censorship, immigration, the complicated relationship of labor and race, and many more vexed and provocative topics. Archival work is always the work of investigation, and students of the archive must always be aware of what is and what is not present. Those absences define what the “presence” and the “present” of an archive can be. Working as a Black scholar in an archive, I am particularly attentive to who is not speaking and who is being spoken over. As my work within the Carnegie Museum of Art’s archive continues to unfold, I look forward to figuring out how to amplify as many voices as I can.

1Trotter, Joe William, and Jared N. Day. Race and Renaissance: African Americans in Pittsburgh Since World War II. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010. Print. 

Amanda Awanjo
Department of English
January 2021
Learn about all the 2020-2021 Immersive Fellows and their experiences with their host organizations.