Thursday, March 26, 2009

African American Cultural Preservation

In June of this year my company, Heritage Row, will debut a new publication geared toward preservation issues related to communities of color in the African diaspora.

Why a magazine about African Americans and Cultural Preservation, you say?

A historic preservation resource that focuses on issues of concern to African Americans and other ethnic communities is critical at this juncture of our collective, global history. With loolpholes in current zoning laws, urban sprawl already spreading like wildfire, and the impact of gentrification it is vitally important that communities which are experiencing such encroachment and development be empowered with information that will facilitate their ability to identify the historic and architectural character as well as the communal value of their respective neighborhoods, cabildos, kilombos, and barrios. The role of this magazine is to provide critical analysis, visibility, and access to information to African American communities in the United State and the Caribbean Islands.

Traditionally, the unique character of African American communities has been systematically marginalized in the preservation field. I am especially hopeful that Heritage Row can be of tremendous assistance in providing the kind of information and knowledge that will afford these communities some salvation as well as aid in building stronger relationships between these diverse communities and mainstream preservation organizations. After all, these communities have the same desires to sustain their architectural and cultural heritage and to provide quality of life in an ever changing physical environment for themselves, their children and future generations.

In general, mainstream preservation in the United States has tended to overshadow projects of concern to African Americans and other ethnic groups for historic reasons related to economics, human capital, strategic planning, and a concept that I have termed reflective social value. That is the extent to which an individual’s exposure to historic sites and objects allows them to create a personal connection to the site and the greater American past. Thus, the consumption of these types of cultural products that are inherently weighed down with the systematic alienation of various groups is typical of America’s social policies during the eras of colonization, industrialization, progressivism, imperialism, the modern civil rights and current immigration policies. It is precisely the imbalance of political and social power that has guided the direction of historic preservation since the founding of the Mount Vernon’s Ladies Association.

Ethnically diverse communities have had to approach historic preservation in a manner that emphasizes their level of access to sources of the cultural production. A Richer Heritage suggests that preservation in these communities must take into account the cultural process, that is to say how they were able to engage in the local and greater American economy when they, through no lack of personal ambition, were closed from participating in the right to land ownership.

Multicultural preservation organizations (this includes specificity to race, religion and gender), utilize the conventional tools of historic preservation practices in America, but they also go beyond the typical salvaging of a colonial era historic house by including marginalized narratives that may be quite uncomfortable to most people. Preservation professionals and other cultural workers understand that preservation of African American resources also include a high level of responsibility and accountability. These historians, ethnomusicologists, linguists, historical archaeologists, and folklorists are also conscious of the fact that preservation methods in these communities may look somewhat different; however, these cultural differentiations add variety to the stock of American historic resources currently on the National Register of Historic Places.
By Hermina Glass-Avery, MHP