Sarah Kanu is the president and sole officer of Pratt’s chapter of the Black Student Union. Starting this year, Kanu has been working closely with Pratt Institute Archives to collect and display artifacts from the BSU in the 1970’s, and to keep the current organization alive for years to come. While still in the early stages, this project is one Kanu is dedicated to continuing, particularly when it pertains to the transformative ways archives, and other people, can do better to preserve a collective and accurate memory. Read our conversation below.
Carly: How did you begin this project? Was there a specific catalyst that inspired you this summer, or was it an ongoing idea?
Sarah: Ever since I got to Pratt, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that organizations are 90% student-formed, led, run and maintained. Although of immense value, this also presents issues of inconsistency and a potential inability to establish legacy and a passing down of knowledge. I frequently use the phrase “dropping the ball” to describe how being a member of the Black Student Union for the past four years has felt; not as a phrase to chastise any former leaders, but to express how exhausting and isolating it can be for anyone new trying to fulfill [its] goals. Due to this, it’s always been at the back of my mind to figure out methods of saving and passing down the work that was done by the Presidents before me, [as well as] the work I’m currently doing as president.
It wasn’t until the July Community Meeting, however, [which was] graciously hosted [by] Black Lives Matter Pratt, that I decided to begin this work. At the meeting, we were collectively presented with the last recorded demands on the BSU from the 1970’s. The fact that many [past] issues have persisted throughout the [fifty plus] years since then—and the fact that in the fifty years since, no recollection of the work done by any iteration of the BSU exists in our institution—was harrowing.
You’ve emphasized how important the Pratt Archives’ role in this project has been. Can you expand on that; what do they do exactly?
The work of the Pratt Archives predates me. I’m simply an opportunist who saw the work they were doing and wanted my years [at Pratt] to be saved in that archive. I’m working with Cristina Fontánez Rodríguez (Virginia Thoren and Institute Archivist at Pratt Institute Libraries), who, in a motivating moment similar to my own, noticed that Pratt’s institutional records are heavily centered around administration, which historically tends to be white, cis and/or male. She has since prioritized [documenting] marginalized, underrepresented and misrepresented student-centered organizations, [and] actively involving us in making the archives more inclusive.
Were any challenges imposed by the current pandemic? Are you mainly working remotely?
The pandemic hasn’t presented any challenges. If not for the pandemic—and the space it opened up for questions on race, accountability and the end to policing in all forms—I wouldn’t have [realized] how little Black history at Pratt is saved or remembered beyond those who experienced it. Time and resources are more of a challenge. I’m unable to separate the different spheres of work that I do. I’m nowhere near campus, so I’m unable to do anything in person. I’m working completely online while running clubs, serving on Student Government, being a full-time student and a daughter and sister at home. It gets pretty overwhelming.
You’ve shared some scans from DRUM, a radical publication by members of the 1970’s chapter of the Black Student Union, online. Can you talk more about the magazine?
It’s a wonderful resource saved and shared with me, thanks to the Pratt Archives. It was illustrated, written and put together by [Pratt students] at that time. It’s all the more striking when you realize how much of what they were experiencing, struggling through or demanding from the Institute is what my peers and I [are facing] today. On the BSU Instagram, we only posted a few pages of two issues, but I highly recommend checking out more volumes of the magazine that are digitized and available to read and reference through @prattinstitutearchives.
Have you seen any changes within the Black Student Union through these artifacts? Has anything remained the same?
I can’t speak confidently about what’s stayed the same, but there have definitely been shifts. Any changes in the multiple iterations of the Black Student Union are reflected in how society has shifted as well, and the perception of what purpose a BSU serves for students across time. At its core, Black Student Unions are about gathering and uplifting Blackness in whatever form that takes.
To say that erasure in archives, both on our campus and beyond, is harmful would be a gross understatement. You mentioned in your Instagram open-call for material that the “institutional and student memory” of the BSU is short, and has had to restart every four years. What are ways that Pratt and its students/faculty can start to stop this, both in the archives and in our everyday lives? What about archivists outside of Pratt?
The first thing we need to come to terms with is as long as these organizations are solely student-run—and the average Pratt student feels too overworked with courses to devote energy beyond that time frame—we will continue to see the falling of our organization to the detriment of lineage. In all honesty, I have been President one year [and] my predecessor was President for one year. Both of us maintained all of the other officer positions on our own. It gets exhausting. There have been several times this semester where I [asked] myself, “What is the purpose of continuing when what I have built during this time could completely disappear in May 2021?”
This is an odd time to be making demands when people are already being asked to work less, but what I wish was that Pratt had an official role dedicated to saving the information of/about these clubs that went beyond the capacity of the student. In my experience, the students’ average cycle of institutional memory is maybe 4-6 years: actions, demands, requests [and] events that do not last in conversational memory. The legacy of each organization when the last remembering party leaves is always up in the air. What I hope is for a distinct relationship between the Archives and Student Involvement to be built; [one] that allows for continuity and provides the groundwork for incoming students to know they are furthering the fight of those before.
Has the project helped to form a new community around the BSU or beyond?
Currently, the project is still intimate. It's mainly [Cristina and I] saving what I’ve gathered over two years. However, when the DRUM magazine and call for submissions posts were made, I was surprised to see how many people were resharing and talking about it. There is room for this project to affirm the community of Black students, faculty and staff at Pratt.
Has your view of the archive shifted, from an artists’ or personal perspective?
I’m not sure that my artists’ perspective shifted, but more so my community-focused perspective, inspired by the teachings of the numerous educators I’ve had from the Humanities & Social Science Department. They opened my eyes to the fact that the archives are not a stuffy place to collect and save whiteness. [Instead], they are fluid [and] can be current. [I’ve found] that there is value in the archives in 2020, especially for Black, Brown, Queer, [and] Disabled folks.
As an art institution, there is value in being able to archive the artistic and aesthetic work of BIPOC/LGBTQIA+ communities. [Mapping] the evolution of art that has historically been underappreciated over space, location and time is needed. In the age of the internet and the co-option of Blackness as “millennial culture,” it’s significant, more than ever, to ensure we accurately record and share Black art and culture within our communities.
What are your hopes for this archive? What do you hope people will take away from it?
That in 2035 or some time from now, Black students on campus will hear stories of, and have access to, the ways we were gathering, supporting and uplifting one another in 2017-2020. That they won’t enter Pratt feeling like the first Black student to ever go through those gates, and that they won’t leave feeling like the last Black student to walk through those gates [either].
Lastly, are there any resources (for contributing or viewing materials or related education) that you can provide?
Absolutely. Anyone who is or was a member of the Black Student Union can submit content to be archived to me (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com) or message the BSU Instagram (@bsupratt). I will be graduating this year, though, so in the future, you should also consider contacting Cristina Fontánez (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Pratt Archives [on Instagram] @prattinstitutearchives).
Readers should also check out the BSU’s [resource list] “2020 Black Lives Matter: Resources, Rest and More.” This living document was put together earlier this summer in response to the conversations students were starting at Pratt and in the greater world. Hopefully, the future leader of this organization continues to add to it.