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Community Archives: Assimilation, Integration, or Resistance?

Rolls of film

An excerpt from Information Studies Professor Michelle Caswell's new book Urgent Archives: Enacting Liberatory Memory Work that looks at how the accidental discovery of a home movie of an interracial South Asian American family provided a window into the society in which it was created.

In her latest book, Urgent Archives: Enacting Liberatory Memory Work, (Routledge Press, 2021) Michelle Caswell, an associate professor in archival studies at UCLA, explores how archivists can inform and disrupt the “white supremacy and hetero-patriarchy” narrative that typically characterizes and compartmentalizes minoritized communities in standard liberal archival solutions. In an excerpt, she recounts the accidental discovery of a set of home movies that begins in 1959, depicting the marriage of a mixed-race South Asian American couple. It chronicles a compelling glimpse over many years, into the lives of this American family and how it has provided a better understanding and context of cultural appropriation and conformity all while trying to preserve personal heritage in an America during a time of deep, profound societal change.

This film’s beauty belies the racist context of the society in which it was created. Filmed in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1959, the wedding of Sharanjit Singh Dhillonn and Dorothy Dhillonn would be illegal for another eight years, when the 1967 Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision legalized consensual interracial marriage in the U.S. 

Highlighted quote: “Twelve years of the couple’s daily lives together unfold over three reels.”

Twelve years of the couple’s daily lives together unfold over three reels:  first one baby, then a second; the man, now clean-shaven and devoid of turban, having fun with his children: celebrating birthdays, learning to walk, taking baths, sharing an ice cream cone, dressing up like cowboys. We see what we previously thought was impossible on screen—everyday footage of a South Asian American family in middle America in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Historians have long known that there was a small but thriving Indian community in the U.S. in the early 1900s.  But in 1923, a U.S. Supreme Court decision denaturalized Indian immigrants based on racial grounds, barring them from citizenship and causing many in the once-burgeoning community to return to India. Many scholars used to think of the time between 1946, when the Luce Cellar Act imposed a restrictive 100-per son a year quota on Indian immigration, and 1965, when the U.S. Immigration Act was passed, repealing the quota, as being a kind of dead space for the community, with little cultural and political activity. This film is evidence of a largely unknown continuity of South Asian American stories.  

The footage came to me, through a combination of random luck and years of outreach. I am the co-founder of the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA), an online community-based archives that documents and shares the histories of immigrants from South Asia to the U.S. and their descendants. I am also a professor of archival studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In Spring 2016, one of my students in UCLA’s media archives program was working on digitizing some home movie reels for a class project that she thought might be of interest to SAADA. When she sent me a link to the digitized footage, my eyes widened, my jaw dropped and I started jumping up and down.  

I immediately sent the footage to SAADA’s Executive Director and co-founder, Samip Mallick. who said “It felt like I was glimpsing a piece of history that I never thought I would see, home movies from the South Asian community from that period in time…” For Mallick, the film resonated on both a personal and social level. “There is something so relatable in the mundane experiences recorded, yet, these images are in credibly important, to the South Asian American community and its history, our awareness and knowledge of the diversity of the American experience as well,” he said. 

We both knew instantly, and viscerally, we wanted to acquire this record for SAADA. With the help of my students, we soon tracked down its owner, Bibi Dhillonn, who is an administrator at UCLA. Her father, Sharanjit Singh Dhillonn, came to the U.S. from India to pursue masters’ degrees in chemical engineering and mathematics at the University of Oklahoma. In 1958, Sharanjit met Dorothy, who was also studying at the University of Oklahoma. After their 1959 wedding, the couple had four children, then moved from Oklahoma to rural California, where Sharanjit got a job as a chemical engineer at Borax. After a racist attack at a gas station, Sharanjit cut his hair and beard and stopped wearing the customary Sikh turban. He was an avid fan of film and photography and an amateur filmmaker.  

Bibi had been looking for a way to digitize the three movie reels her father had left behind in order to share them with her siblings, and reached out to UCLA’s IS Department. The student assigned to the project also knew about SAADA’s mission and scope, as I am constantly talking about the organization in the courses I teach. As Alam described, both the original footage and its reinterpretation in ‘Lavaan’ enable us ‘to see ourselves in a new light, despite differences of time and space.’🙷

Soon after the acquisition of the digitized versions, SAADA launched the “Where We Belong: Artists in the Archive” project with a grant from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. The funding enabled the organization to launch a discovery process whereby we selected five South Asian American artists working across a range of media and genres to create new works of art inspired by records in SAADA. One of the explicit goals of the project was to create new artistic representations of South Asian Americans that combat historical erasure and re-contextualize the community’s century-old history considering contemporary racism and xenophobia.  

In October 2016, at the initial meeting of the cohort of artists participating in the project, Mallick and I met the musician Zain Alam, an artist who composes under the recording project Humeysha.  Alam was at that time a graduate student at Harvard and had previously worked as an oral historian at the 1947 Partition Archive, an organization that documents the dividing of the Indian subcontinent between India and Pakistan. Alam spoke eloquently about the impact of everyday stories on larger historical narratives and the importance of robust and accurate representations of South Asian American Muslims, particularly in light of post-9/11 Islamophobia. When Alam mentioned he might be interested in composing a score to accompany the Dhillonn film, Mallick and I instantly thought he would be a perfect match.  

When Alam saw the footage, he too had a visceral reaction. “It put a lot of things into perspective for me. I grew up in Kennesaw, Georgia, post-9/11.  Seeing the videos made me realize not only are we not the first, but there were other people even deeper in the heartland of America who were having the experience of being American for the first time and asking, ‘Do we assimilate, do we integrate, do we resist?’ There’s such a long arc of history there, both personal and on a much larger scale.”  

Alam began composing a score for the Dhillonn footage and ultimately decided to remix excerpts of the home movies with contemporary news footage covering white supremacist violence against Sikhs and South Asian Americans. The resulting nine-minute multimedia piece, “Lavaan,” juxtaposes a moving homage to Sharanjit and Dorothy Dhillonn’s marriage and everyday family life in the 1950s and 1960s with the current rise in hate crimes and xenophobia, suggesting an almost wistful longing to return to an imagined time of intimacy and security.  

Yet, even the seeming domestic bliss of the Dhillonn footage is haunted by the unspoken violence that triggered Sharanjit’s assimilation, his transformation from someone whose turban instantly marked him as “other” in 1959 to a clean-shaven man dressed in western clothes in later footage. Violence that is merely hinted at in the

home movie foot age rages out of control in CNN headlines running across the bottom of the screen. We move from romance, to sorrow, to outrage, all the while questioning narratives of racial progress. The piece not only “sets back [our] mental clock” (to use Alam’s phrase) in terms of when we date South Asian immigration to the U.S., but also reminds us that the themes of love and violence intersect across space and time in complicated, circular routes. There is no clear linear path set forth here from a couple’s love to a fully functioning, racially just society.  

The personal becomes a metaphor for the political in “Lavaan.” We see the Dhillonn children take their first unsure steps, fall down, and get back up again.  

“To me,” Alam explained, “the great er narrative of learning to walk, getting up and falling back down again connected heavily with present moments where the Sikh community has been targeted since 9/11…. It’s easy for us to say we’ve progressed so much since the 1950s, but often it feels like we’re taking two to three steps forward and then six steps back. Maybe, in some places like Norman, Oklahoma, there were aspects that were better [for] immigrants, before people got caught up to this degree of national xenophobia that can now catch fire so quickly on social media and spread.”  

We also see footage of a family trip back to India for vacation, and then back in the U.S. These small personal acts mimic the larger repetition of history unfolding later in Alam’s piece, the seemingly never-ending stream of headlines announcing new waves of violence against South Asian Americans, the emboldened waves of racist attacks again after Trump’s election in 2016. What we see is not a progress narrative where society gets less racist over time but a cyclical repetition of oppression in which a minoritized community is doomed to suffer the repeated consequences of white supremacist violence.  

When Alam presented the film at an April 2017 SAADA event in Philadelphia, PA, its impact was palpable. A room full of more than 100 people, mostly second generation South Asian Americans, stared raptly at the screen, some visibly moved to tears. The room erupted into applause when the piece was over, and what followed was a lively discussion that was not only personal, but deeply political. Some expressed the surprise and joy of seeing South Asian Americans represented in that time period, a shock of self-recognition where they did not expect it. Others moved beyond the joy of representation towards expressions of anger, stories of their own experiences with racism, and questions about how best to mobilize against such repeated violence. As Alam described, both the original footage and its reinterpretation in “Lavaan” enable us “to see ourselves in a new light, despite differences of time and space.”  

At their best, that is what archives empower people to do—see themselves in a new light across space and time, and catalyze this new self-reflection into action, motivating users into activism beyond their personal contexts.  They get activated and reactivated, con textualized and recontextualized, creating a new record with each viewing, catalyzing limitless visceral and political responses.  

Most importantly, the film moves us. First, there is the initial shock of representation in the face of the erasure of South Asian Americans from archives. In previous work, I’ve used the terms “symbolic annihilation” to describe the affective impact of being ignored, mis represented, or underrepresented in archives and “representational belonging” to describe the feeling of complex and nuanced representation after such erasure. Community archives count er symbolic annihilation by marshaling representational belonging in minoritized communities. But the Dhillonn home movies and Alam’s reuse and remixing of them move us beyond the affective impact of representational be longing, towards a deeper understanding of our current political moment. That understanding gets us one step closer to action.  

The questions Alam raises—“Do we assimilate, do we integrate, do we resist?”—are central to the work of community archives like SAADA. If community archives are to fulfill their liberatory potential, they must be activated for resistance rather than assimilation or integration into the mainstream. As such, community-based memory workers must go beyond the recuperation of minoritized histories, however important, to set in motion those histories for liberation.  

Michelle Caswell is an associate professor of archival studies in the Department of Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she is also the co-founder of the South Asian American Digital Archive. Her book, Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia, was published by the University of Wisconsin Press as part of their Critical Human Rights series in 2014 and won the 2015 Waldo Gifford Leland Award for Best Publication from the Society of American Archivists.