Four Women (Part 1)

Over the course of Hollywood’s relatively short history, representations of minority groups have all too often been reduced to stereotypes. Black men and women in particular have had to watch Hollywood represent their own communities through such stereotypes as: the “Tom;” the “Coon;” the “Tragic Mulatto;” the “Mammy;” and the “Buck” (Shohat 195).

These stereotypical roles not only draw attention to the skewed, one-dimensional view of race in Hollywood (and perhaps the United States more broadly), but they also draw attention to the complex relationships between representation, performance, and stereotypes (Shohat 195).

Filmmaker Julie Dash explored these issues in one of her earlier short films, Four Women, which sets dance to Nina Simone’s ballad of the same name.

four women2

The four women described in Simone’s song represent four common stereotypes of Black women in America: the strong “Aunt Sarah;” the ‘tragic mulatto,’ “Saffronia;” the sex worker, “Sweet Thing;” and the militant “Peaches” (UCLA Film and Television Archive). Through her performance, Nina Simone brings the voices of these four characters to life in a way that links both their similarities and differences as Black women in America.

My skin is black/My arms are long/My hair is wooly/My back is strong/Strong enough to take the pain/Inflicted again and again/What do they call me?/My name is Aunt Sara (“Four Women”).

According to Mirielle Rosello, “the problem in thinking about stereotypes … is our stereotypes about them” (in Williams 82). Linda Williams explores this idea further:

“Rosello argues that stereotypes are important objects of study not because we can better learn eliminate them from our thinking, but rather because they cannot be eliminated. Stereotypes persist, and perhaps thrive upon, the protestations against them … ” (Williams 82).

What is required then, are analyses that shine a light on the changing historical contexts of stereotypes (William 82). In other words, we need to change how we approach the study of stereotypes if we wish to effectively understand how they exist and thrive over time.

For example, Richard Dyer (1984) critiques the stereotypical representations of homosexuality in films, but does so by looking at the roots of the representation, rather than attacking the stereotype itself. As he points out, “Righteous dismissal does not make stereotypes go away, and tends to prevent us from understanding just what stereotypes are, how they function, ideologically and aesthetically, and why they are so resilient in the face of our rejection of them” (Dyer 353).

Similarly, Ella Shohat argues that while “stereotypes and distortions” analyses do highlight the issues surrounding “social plausibility and mimetic accuracy” in media, their “obsession with ‘realism'” tends to paint the world in black and white – as “errors” and “distortions,” between “truths” and “lies” (178).

In other words, preoccupation with the accuracy and realism of stereotyping can be harmful because it ignores the ways in which the politics of representation actually operate within stereotypes. Shohat suggests that this is problematic because it assumes that the reality of a community is somehow “transparent” and “unproblematic,” while inaccurate representations are “easily unmasked” (178). Instead of focusing on the specific realism of certain stereotypes, it is more effective to problematize the social and historical context in which stereotypes are produced.

In the case of Nina Simone, “Four Women” faced ‘righteous dismissal’ upon its release in 1966. It was accused of being insulting to Black women by perpetuating stereotypes, and was subsequently banned by several radio stations.

Perhaps what these critics heard in Simone’s song were the ‘typical’ markers of Black femininity – skin colour, hair texture, social roles, names – the kinds of markers that have been at the root of problematic representations of Black women in the media. While these radio stations may have heard stereotypical representations of women, they did not look beyond the surface to really understand Simone’s message.

In Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and Media (1994), Ella Shohat describes “the burden of representation,” which refers to the synechdochal tendency of ethnic and racial representations (182). For example, colonized peoples tend to be perceived as “all the same,” meaning that any kind of negative behaviour by one member can come to represent the group as a whole, ultimately creating a stereotype (Shohat 183). As Shohat states, “representations become allegorical,” whereby “every subaltern performer/role is seen as synecdochically summing up a vast but putatively homogenous community” (183).

With this persistence of stereotypes, certain communities, such as Black Americans, come to face the “burden of representation” (182-3). Because these stereotypes are produced and projected from outside these communities, sensitivity arises “from the powerlessness of historically marginalized groups to control their own representation” (Shohat 184).

We see this sensitivity exhibited through the critique and censorship of Simone’s “Four Women.” After years of seeing Black American’s being represented in stereotypical roles, it is understandable that some people might not have wanted to hear those distorted utterances on the radio (considering that many of the radio stations that banned Simone’s song were primarily Black) (Virgin Island Daily News n.p.). But as Dyer and Williams warn, stereotypes cannot be eliminated that easily (Dyer 353; Williams 82).

Censorship only prevents us from “exposing the reactionary political force” of stereotyping (Dyer 364).

If we look closer, we might see how Simone’s use of stereotypical depictions of Black femininity operates simultaneously as a critique of stereotyping. Instead of placing a cloak on the stereotypical roles for Black women, Nina Simone sings about them, projecting her voice in a way that works to reinscribe Black female subjectivity into the roles promoted by a white, patriarchal Hollywood (and America more broadly). Through the four women, Simone uses four common stereotypes to challenge the social and historical circumstances through which such stereotypes exist and thrive.

My skin is brown / my manner is tough / I’ll kill the first mother I see / my life has been too rough / I’m awfully bitter these days / because my parents were slaves / What do they call me / My name is PEACHES (“Four Women” ).

Through one voice, Nina Simone relays the many (and different) stories and struggles of Black, American women.

“If Simone’s song suggests a history of black women in America, it is also a history of long-suppressed and finally uncontainable anger” (Pierpont n.p.).

Later, in ‘Part 2’ of this post, I will explore Julie Dash’s filmic interpretation and re-presentation of Nina Simone’s controversial “Four Women.”


Dash, Julie, director. Four Women. Choreography and performance by Linda Martina   Young, produced by Winfred Tennison, 1975, Vimeo,

Davis, Thulani. “Nina Simone, 1933-2003.” The Village Voice, 2003, 

Dyer, Richard. “Stereotyping.” Gays and Film, edited by Richard Dyer. New York         Zoetrope, 1984.

“Four Women.” UCLA Film and Television Archive, 2014,

Pierpont, Claudia Roth. “A Raised Voice: How Nina Simone turned music into a movement.” The New Yorker, 2014,

Shohat, Ella. “Stereotype, Realism, and the Struggle over Representation.” Unthinking       Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam.     Routledge, 1994.

Simone, Nina. “Four Women.” Wild is the Wind, The Verve Music Group, 1966, Spotify,

The Virgin Islands Daily News. “Protests continue to mount against the banning of a         recording by Nina Simone,” 1966, Google News,,2693076 &dq=four-women+nina-simone+ban+radio&hl=en. Accessed 24 February 2017.

Williams, Linda. “Skin Flicks on the Racial Border: Pornography, Exploitation and             Interracial Lust.” Freiburger FrauenStudien, vol. 15, 2004.


© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @, 2017

Against KonMari: A Plea for Packrattery

Ok. I’ll start by saying that this is not about Marie Kondo, the famed Japanese organizing guru, as a person. Rather, it’s about the contemporary North American fad for “curating” lives, homes, families, selves, etc. It’s a response to a larger movement that seeks ostensibly to get away from a consumption model of living and to move towards an approach that is simple, streamlined, and elegant.

But what, you might think, is wrong with this? Surely, we want to acknowledge the errors of our capitalist consumption-oriented ways. Absolutely. I’m in total agreement. What do we need more stuff for, anyway?

And hey, I’ve been fed the mantra, too. In grade 2, our guidance counsellor told us that if we wanted to get good marks, we should emulate those who had good marks. And those with good marks generally had neat desks and working environments.

Uncluttered. Organized. Structured. Tidy = Joy. Inspiration. Fulfillment. Intelligence. Success.

That day back in Grade 2, I peered into the nest that was my desk and shrugged. That shit just wasn’t going to happen.


No longer in grade 2. But still a nest on the coffee table.

So maybe I’m just projecting my own self-righteous spreadery.

Maybe I’m trying to find a way to rationalize the mess that is our house at the very end of term (who am I kidding? this is the mess that is all the time).


Look! It’s genetic. I’ve passed it on to my kids, too.

Maybe I’m passive aggressively responding to our department administrator’s increasingly pointed hints that it’s time to tidy my office and that she’s going to get in there with dusting supplies. Maybe I’ve amassed too many post it notes in too many places. Maybe my pile of books is too high, my clutter of discarded mugs and plates too large. Maybe I don’t want to look to see if there’s an errant tea bag still floating around in a mug that’s been around so long that it’s become part of the display…

For those of us who work with the past, this messiness, this stuff, is what allows us to understand how societies, cultures, families, worlds… life…. operated.

The discarded selfie.
The notes scribbled onto the back of a receipt.
The doodles drawn during a particularly trying meeting (I’m particularly good at those…).

The school photo that went completely awry?
The kid that weeps all the way to camp (or all the way back to the hotel from Legoland Windsor, as the case may be)?

The frozen Cheemo perogies that you forgot in the car for two weeks when the temperature hovered around zero and tried to revive anyway (oops).

The pile of wrappers, pens, lego, notes, silly glasses, and empty juice boxes under your son’s bed, on his desk, scattered across his floor.


The funniest thing about this picture? It was only after I took it that I discovered the screwdriver that we’d been looking for for months. Magpie kid had absconded with it…

The beginnings of cranky emails that fill your drafts folder.

The mush of dirty socks that never make it into the laundry basket even tough you step over them every day.

This shouldn’t be the stuff we discard. This shouldn’t be the stuff that we clean up, beautify, hide.

This is life.
These are the stories that matter most.


the back side of my attempts at embroidery. pretty sure it’s not suppose to look like this…

One of the things that has frustrated me most in the course of this current research project has been the absence of materials created by those most affected by colonial policies and practices. The colonial infrastructure was enormous, and colonial officials were organized. They’ve left researchers like me endless documents – ledgers, logs, letters, tables, lists – you name it, and it’s there. All of this can tell me an enormous amount about colonial logics.


organized boxes filled with treasures… Maritime History Archive, Memorial University


Ship’s Logs, ca. 1870-1880. Maritime History Archive, Memorial University

But there’s precious little to learn about the lives of those whose names officials listed in their ledgers and logs.

How can we understand histories of migration if we can’t find the voices of those who experienced it, or if we find them only sideways, through hints in formal colonial archives?

This isn’t a problem unique to my project. But it’s a big one.

It matters that we can often only “find” the voices of the enslaved through their resistance.

It matters that the remains of indentured lives exist almost solely in their complaints to ship captains, in their refusal to work on the plantation, in the violence that they enacted towards each other or those in power.

It matters that trial transcripts are some of the only places where we can read the voices of marginalized women.

It matters because while all of this stuff is important, none of it gets us to the everyday. Yes, it matters that the enslaved resisted, that the indentured turned to violence, that those on trial told their stories in those spaces.

But what about their daily lives? What were those like?

What did they eat?
Who did they eat with?

What were they thinking aboard the ships that took them so far from everything they’d known? What were they feeling?

What about the anger, joy, love, despair, longing, frustration, agony?

When I researched the life of Suzanne Necker and later, the stories of those who consulted with Samuel Auguste Tissot, I had all of this. After all, these were privileged folks who wrote letters and confided in friends and colleagues. These were folks whose letters were kept for them, and as a result, folks whose stories are still available to us today. In a world that values the evidence of the written word, these folks had it good. And as a consequence, I had it good, too.

But it shouldn’t be only the privileged whose stories remain.

A few days ago, medieval book historian Bex Lyons posted a short thread on Twitter asking women to write in the margins of their books.

The problem, as she sees it, is that a) we know a lot about men of the period because they wrote in their books, and b) our knowledge systems celebrate the written word over all other. As she points out, there are many reasons why women didn’t – or couldn’t – scribble all over their books. And we do need to find ways of working differently with the material that exists.

But here’s the thing – first we need to have stuff to work with. Not just the curated, tidy stuff. Not just the bookshelves organized by colour (who invented that trend, anyway?). Not just the carefully coordinated paint colours. And not just the stuff that others have organized on our behalf, either.

No, we need the stuff of daily life itself. We need the messes. We need the chaos. We need the false starts, the bad hair days, the unfortunate accidents.


food porn gone wrong. I think it was supposed to be tofu curry.


recipes escaping their cookbook!


A tangle of shovels, tossed willy nilly by the house.

This is the stuff that matters. This is where we tell our stories. And this is where those who come after us will find them.


somewhere near the PowerPlex in St. John’s, sometime in early spring.

It doesn’t matter how many filters we apply or how many hashtags we use.

Life is #messy.
It’s #chaotic.
It’s #neverneatandtidy, no matter how much we might will it to be.

And so here’s my plea – my #manifesto – for packrattery.

Embrace the chaos.
Revel in the mess.
Write in the margins.
Argue with your authors.


Keep every scrap of paper.

Embrace your failures.
Share your grief.
Take pictures of garbage.
Refuse to clean your room.
Accept the assemblage of random trinkets under your bed.

Laugh so loudly that you make others uncomfortable and then record your joyful noise.

Keep the saggy Ron Weasley sweater that your favourite aunt knitted for you.

This mess is the archive of your life, and I promise that historians of the future will love you all the more for it.


With thanks to Bex Lyons (@MedievalBex) and Will Pooley (@willpooley) whose recent tweets and blog post got me thinking about inspiration, joy, archives, tidying up, and packrattery.

The Blur Between

When writing about the making her film Daughters of the Dust (1992), Julie Dash credits the archives for helping shape the historical, ethnographic foundation of her story: a Gullah family at the turn of the century, contemplating northern migration from their Sea Island home to the US mainland.

Turning to the archives myself, I decided to browse the photographs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “public domain” collection to see what I could find.

One image caught my eye.

It was a photograph by Henry P. Moore of a group of former slaves on a plantation during the American Civil War (1862).


sea island met

Moore, Henry P. “Negroes (Gwine to de Field), Hopkinson’s Plantation, Edisto Island, South Carolina.” Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1862.

 While in residence, [Moore] made some of the earliest and most poignant Civil War photographs of slave life in the Deep South. Moore focused on the changed lives of African Americans in the aftermath of the Union victory (navy and army) at the Battle of Port Royal, South Carolina, in November 1861.

 With the departure of their owners, plantation workers in Union-controlled areas were no longer slaves but, before the Emancipation Proclamation, not yet free. (Metropolitan Museum of Art,*&offset=40&rpp=20&pos=42)

 “No longer slaves but not yet free.”

A liminal state.

Caught between a divided nation,

Between time,

Between place … but where is home in the inbetween?

I think what really caught my attention about this photo was the way in which the plantation workers looked towards the camera. I do not know if this photograph was staged or not, but the fact that the Black workers return the gaze of Moore’s camera really jostles the power dynamics of the photographs. In a way, this gaze seems to acknowledge the tripartite relationship between subject-artist-viewer.

But what does this relationship signify? What power structures exist in this frame, and beyond it?

If we take the title, for example, what can we learn?

After the word “negroes” (a word quite out of date, although only so since about the 1970s) there is the bracketed phrase: “Gwine to de Field.”

gwine (gwīn)

  1. Chiefly Southern & South Midland US

A present participle of go1.

[African American Vernacular English, alteration of going.]

(The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language)

The inclusion of this in the title makes me wonder if it was Moore’s conscious attempt to more “authentically” (a loaded word, yes) represent his subjects? Does this title allow the subjects to speak, in a way? Or is Moore exoticizing their own language? Are the subjects ‘othered,’ and silenced through the power structures imbued in this photographic (and somewhat ethnographic) pursuit?

We also learn from the title that this image depicts a plantation on Edisto Island, one of the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. This is near St. Helena Island, which is the Sea Island in which Daughters of the Dust was set (the focus of my current research).

Julie Dash has said that she wanted to make Daughters of the Dust to tell untold stories, the untold histories.

What stories are held in the frame? What histories are hidden?

Screen Shot 2017-03-12 at 7.17.16 PM

Moore, Henry P. Detail of “Negroes (Gwine to de Field).” Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1862.

I look to the woman on the ride side of the photograph, carrying a child. The skirt of her white dress is blurred, as if caught in the midst of movement. At a glimpse it looks ghostly. Mother and child caught in motion – in a flash of the camera, caught between past and present. They may be caught in between – in the liminal – yet, in their ghostly, blurred visage, they appear to transgress the limits of the photograph.

Moore may have wanted to capture a moment, but what he also captured was (a) movement.

In any case, in that blur, I am reminded of the life behind the image. The stories untold and the histories that still resonate.


Dash, Julie. Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film. The New Press, 1992.

Dash, Julie, director. Daughters of the Dust. Kino International, 1991.

Moore, Henry P. “Negroes (Gwine to de Field), Hopkinson’s Plantation, Edisto Island, South Carolina,” photograph, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1862,*&offset=40&rpp=20&pos=42).

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @, 2017


taste as archive

taste as archive

Lisa M. Heldke has argued that food making is a “‘theoretically practical’ activity — a thoughtful practice” (1992, 203). As Rosalyn Collings Eves observes, recipes might be understood as sites of embodied memory. What we ‘know’ about food is located not just in the ingredients, but in all of the body’s senses; in Heldke’s words, “[t]he knowing involved in making a cake is ‘contained’ not simply ‘in my head’ but in my hands, my wrists, my eyes and nose as well.” (1992, 219).


Cooking up a batch of raspberry jam takes me back to the mosquito-infested patch of raspberry bushes we had in the back yard when I was growing up. Even in 30 degree heat, I’d cover up from top to bottom, sweltering in the heat as I picked, my ears filled with the sounds of mosquito wings….


Taste, these writers suggest, is never just about flavour. It is about texture, look, feel, smell, touch, sound; it is about movement; about a kinaesthetic knowledge (Sutton) located within the very sinews, bones, muscles – the very stuff – of the body itself.

How do I know which pepper to buy? What constitutes a good bulb of garlic? Who can tell me if a watermelon is juicy and sweet?

What constitutes a pinch of salt? How do I know that I’ve put in enough cinnamon? What is the exact science of mingled spices – garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, turmeric – for my curry?

None of this can be found in a book. Well, it can. But the true understanding of food making exists in the body itself.

“Taste,” writes Barbara Kirsehnblatt-Gimblett, “is something we anticipate and infer from how things look, feel to the hand, smell (outside the mouth), and sound …. Our eyes let us ‘taste’ food at a distance by activating the sense memories of taste and smell” (qtd. in Sutton 2010, 218).


Eating pom, one of two main Creole celebration dishes, with my aunt and uncle in Suriname. Made with a Surinamese taro root, chicken, a stock mixture and orange juice, this is comfort food par excellence. Creamy, rich, flavourful. Served here with cassava, plantain and sauteed Chinese long beans. What I wouldn’t give for some of this right now….

Taste is, in and of itself, an archive of senses, meanings, histories. Consider Julia Kristeva’s visceral accounting of abjection in the form of food loathing:

Food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection. When the eyes see or the lips touch that skin on the surface of milk – harmless, thin as a sheet of cigarette paper, pitiful as a nail paring – I experience a gagging sensation and, still farther down, spasms in the stomach, the belly; and all the organs shrivel up the body, provoke tears and bile, increase heartbeat, cause forehead and hands to perspire. Along with sight-clouding dizziness, nausea makes me balk at that milk cream, separates me from the mother and father who proffer it.” (2-3)

Taste, as Kristeva observes, is more than individual; it is about the self, certainly, but it is also about the social. For Kristeva, the skin floating on top of milk “separates [her] from the mother and father who proffer it” (3); taste here disrupts normative kinship; it also disrupts the intergenerational transmission of food and food memories.So, too, might we consider Fred Wah’s (1996) revulsion at the slivers of ginger floating in his dinner, even as he simultaneously acknowledges their role in his hybrid Chinese-Canadian identity.

None of this can be exactly measured. None of this can be accurately marked. These are knowledges located on our tongues, at our fingertips, in our muscles, between our teeth.


I’m a sushi fan, but I can’t quite wrap my head around the Dutch penchant for raw herring topped with chopped onion. This is my moment of abjection. Doesn’t matter how far back I can trace my Dutch heritage (1750 last time I worked at it), I still won’t eat herring….


Oliebollen, on the other hand…. pass ’em right over! In The Netherlands – and at our house – these donut like balls are New Year’s Eve fare. 

But these archives of taste are also political. Food is never just about the private, domestic sphere of home and family; food – and taste – cross borders, break boundaries, challenge private/public dichotomy (Sutton 2008, 160). David Sutton (2010) references the work of Sydney Mintz, for example, who links the taste of sugar to questions of political economy. Sugar, he argues, is never solely about sweetness; rather, it is intimately linked to questions of morality and politics. In Sutton’s words, “the addictive taste of sugar made it difficult to give up, and thus, a contentious item of anti-slavery boycott, whereas its taste once again led commentators to suggest it would lead the working classes into idleness and women into other desires and illicit pleasures” (2010, 212).

Certainly, foods have long played a role in questions of politics. In a letter to Samuel-Auguste Tissot, one of the most celebrated physicians of eighteenth-century Europe, a correspondent named Lavergne detailed with precision the recipe for his healthy drinking chocolate:

My drinking chocolate is made with 56 ounces of cocoa, 28 ounces of sugar, never vanilla. I distinguish between three different types of drinking chocolate: the first with half an ounce of cinnamon (instead of the full ounce I used in the past), the second with a quarter ounce; the third with no cinnamon at all … if I am missing something in order to consider this a true health drink [chocolat de santé], please let me know.”

(Lavergne l’aîné, October 1772, Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire de Lausanne, Fonds Tissot, IS784/II/

For this correspondent, food and diet were linked directly with questions of health.

As I observe in my 2015 book, Telling the Flesh: Life Writing, Citizenship, and the Body in the Letters to Samuel Auguste Tissot, this framing was integral to Tissot’s own approach to questions of public health. In his Essay on the Disorders of People of Fashion, for example, he contrasts the healthy body and mind of the rural peasant with the disordered body and psyche of the “man of fashion” in the city:

The man of fashion, disturbed by business, projects, pleasures, disappointments, and the regrets of the day, heated by food and drinks, goes to bed with trembled nerves, agitated pulse, a stomach labouring with the load and acrimony of his food, the vessels full, or juices which inflame them, indisposition, anxiety, the fever accompanies him to bed, and for a long time keeps him waking; if he closes his eyes, his slumbers are short, uneasy, agitating, troubled with frightful dreams, and sudden startings; instead of the labourer’s morning briskness, he wakes with palpitations, feverish, languid, dry, his mouth out of order, his urine hot, low spirited, heavy, ill tempered, his strength impaired, his nerves irritated and lax, his blood thick and inflamed; every night reduces his health and fortifies the seed of some disease. (38)

The seductive qualities of rich flavours – cream, meats, wines, sweets – would lead inevitably to a life of excess. Unhealthy eating habits damaged not only the body of the individual, Tissot argued, but also the body of the citizen, and in so doing, undermined the health of the state as a whole.

Taste, then, is never just a matter of intimate relations; it is also a matter of politics writ large.


Speaking of too much…. why have one pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving when you can have two? Last year we had four. With lot of whipped cream, of course. 

My students and I experienced this first hand when we considered the politics of presidential cookie baking. In those halcyon days of yore, when Hillary Clinton was but a First Lady in waiting, the Democratic Party thought up a plan to make their candidate’s wife more palatable to the American electorate.

I’m not sure how “We’ll have her bake cookies!” won the day, but the cookie bake off between First Lady wannabe’s has been a tradition ever since (worth noting that I don’t recall Bill Clinton and Melania Trump facing off over the kitchen table during the last election cycle). Taste, in these contests, is not just about flavour, but about home, family, generations, domesticity, class politics, race, religious belief, and more (I wrote about the cookie bakeoff in a post called “Arugula and Chocolate Chips”)

“Cooking,” David Sutton (2001) argues, “is not simply an everyday practice, but an attempt to reconstruct and remember synaesthetically, to return to that whole world of home, which is subjectivity experienced both locally and nationally, if not at other levels as well” (86). Taste, here, operates in multiple registers; while intimately located within the body, it cannot be understood without the larger context in which foods and memories circulate.

Taste is about gender, race, class, ethnicity.
It is about how we locate ourselves within our webs of belonging.
It is about how we remember.


A spectacular dessert concoction dreamed up by a good friend and my younger son, while we were staying with these friends in London. This dessert brings me to conversations we’ve had over the 20+ years we’ve been friends, to the music we’ve made together (both serious and silly), and to evenings of laughter in the back garden in North London.

In a recent article, Lisa Heldke (2016) reflects on the memory itself as a sense, considering the intensely embodied food memories that shape her relationships to her pasts and, inevitably, her futures. She recalls her response to seeing her deceased mother’s handwriting on a recipe card, writing:

It’s not the recipe itself – the list of ingredients, the set of steps – that carries this stunning visceral power….It’s the handwriting that does it, seeing it brings the past – brings her into the present moment with me …. Of course it’s not not the recipe. Indeed, whenever I make a favorite family dish, I purposely ‘go there’; I retell myself a story about this food and its place in our family lore. I invite myself to marinate in memories of when and where and how we might have eaten this food. (90)

What memories do you marinate in?
What tastes do you hold close?


Fresh garlic. Where would we be without it?

Food historian Ian Mosby observes that “studying the taste of history is more than just a novel way of engaging with students. In fact, it is a key tool available to teachers for opening students’ eyes to the profoundly important role that the sense have historically played in determining important changes to societies, empires, economies and environments” (170).

What might this sensual archive tell you, if you listen to what it has to say?


Mangoes. My all time ultimate favourite fruit flavour sensation. Look at them all, just hanging there. It’s almost impossible to get a good mango in St. John’s…. 

Works Cited

Boon, Sonja. Telling the Flesh: Life Writing, Citizenship, and the Body in the Letters to Samuel Auguste Tissot. McGill-Queen’s UP, 2015.

Eves, Rosalyn Collings. “A Recipe for Remembrance: Memory and Identity in African-American Women’s Cookbooks.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 24, no. 3, 2005, 280-97.

Heldke, Lisa M. “Foodmaking as a Thoughtful Practice.” Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food, edited by Deane W. Curtin and Lisa M. Heldke, Indiana UP, 1992, pp. 203-229.

Heldke, Lisa M. “My Dead Father’s Raspberry Patch, My Dead Mother’s Piecrust: Understanding Memory as Sense,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies vol. 18, no. 2, 2016, pp. 87-91.

Heldke, Lisa M. “Recipes for Theory Making.” Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food, edited by Deane W. Curtin and Lisa M. Heldke, Indiana UP, 1992, pp. 251-265.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. Columbia UP, 1982.

Mosby, Ian. “Eat Your Primary Sources! Researching and Teaching the Taste of History.” Methodological Challenges in Nature-Culture and Environmental History Resaerch, edited by Jocelyn Thorpe, Stephanie Rutherford, and L. Anders Sandberg. Routledge, 2016, pp. 166-72.

Sutton, David E. “A Tale of Easter Ovens: Food and Collective Memory,” Social Research vol. 75, no. 1, 2008, pp. 157-180.

Sutton, David E. “Food and the Senses,” Annual Review of Anthropology vol. 39, 2010, pp. 209-223.

Sutton, David E. Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory. Berg, 2001.

Tissot, Samuel Auguste, An Essay on the Disorders of People of Fashion. London: Richardson and Urquhart, 1771.

Wah, Fred. Diamond Grill. NeWest Press, 1996.

(c) Sonja Boon, 2017 (sboon @

To Have and Have Not a Room of One’s Own



A still from my short documentary,”Muriel Box and the Celluloid Ceiling” (2014): Who is left out of the ‘frame’ behind the camera?


In an effort to learn more about the context through which Julie Dash developed as a filmmaker, I have been browsing the virtual world of her alma mater at the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

There, I found a link to a 1979 interview with her by the UCLA student cable program, “The View”.

The interviewer, Barbara McCullough, spoke with Dash about her most recent film, The Diary of an African Nun (1977), which was adapted from Alice Walker’s short story of the same name.

It was only a short interview (clocking about 7 minutes), but it was jam-packed with valuable insights into filmmaking, particularly with regards to African American women, as well as into broader thematic issues of colonialism, religion, and identity (via the African Nun).

What really caught my attention, however, were Dash’s comments about studying at UCLA. She praised the facilities offered by the university, saying that they were incredibly valuable for young film students such as herself.

On the surface level, discussing such things as space and equipment might seem less interesting than the actual storytelling side to filmmaking, but I think it really helps draw attention to the very real, logistical struggles of independent filmmaking.

Having a story is one thing, but in the medium of film, having the materials to actually tell these stories is often a significant barrier for novice filmmakers.

 I did look forward to coming to UCLA to use their facilities, because it is very hard as an independent filmmaker to attempt, and bring to completion, an independent film without the sound stages and equipment and so on. (Dash, “L.A. Rebellion”)

Following this, McCullough asks Dash how she will manage these obstacles once she has moved on from UCLA. Dash’s response centered on one thing: money.

It’s really about money, more than anything else. (Dash, “L.A. Rebellion”)

Despite even one’s best efforts, the artistic vision of a filmmaker means little to the rest of the world until money helps bring that vision to reality.


Odd Woman Out, an autobiography by Muriel Box. London: Leslie Frewin, 1974.

When I heard Dash discuss the significance of having financial support, two names came to mind: Muriel Box, and Virginia Woolf.

Three years ago, I made a short documentary about the British director Muriel Box. For research, I read her autobiography, Odd Woman Out (1974), where she chronicled her journey through the male dominated, British film industry. One thing in particular that stood out to me in this book, which I later used to formulate my primary argument, was Box’s reference to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.




Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own made such an impact on me in my twenties that I had been possessed ever since with a strong urge to support the cause of equality between the sexes. Thus my approach to this subject was perhaps more enthusiastic and dedicated than to any other theme previously attempted. Unable to chain myself to the railings, I could at least rattle the film chains! (Box 222).

After this, Box goes on to discuss the kinds of financial struggles she faced with her films. The positioning of Woolf beside Box’s financial woes immediately made me think back to Woolf’s own argument: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write” (4).

While Woolf is commenting on women in fiction, I think it can be related to filmmaking as well.

As a creative endeavor, which involves various forms of storytelling (including writing), I think it only fitting that women filmmakers, too, “must have money and a room of her own” in order to tell their stories.

Without backtracking too far into this project of mine, I must say I am intrigued by the connections between Julie Dash, Muriel Box and Virginia Woolf, all women of different times and creative perspectives, yet all fueled by one common goal: to have equal access to funding and facilities in which to work.

At the same time, I cannot ignore the issues of race and class when putting these three figures into hypothetical conversation with each other.

How do race and class influence funding for independent filmmakers in the US? What opportunities were available for African American filmmakers in the 1970s and 1980s, the time when Julie Dash herself was a student?

Who in the film industry gets to have, or have not, a room of one’s own?



The film editing suite at the University of Manchester. Having the proper space and equipment to work with was essential for a student filmmaker like myself. Photo: Lesley Butler, May 2014.



Box, Muriel. Odd Woman Out. London: Leslie Frewin, 1974.

“L.A. Rebellion – Julie Dash on UCLA’s ‘The View’ (c. 1979).” Youtube, uploaded by UCLA Film and Television Archive, 3 May 2013,

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London: Penguin Books, 1928.


Lesley Butler (lvb717 @, 2017

going home

Between 1916 and 1975, all the colonial archives in Suriname were brought to The Netherlands. This material included materials  from 1667, when the Dutch and the English signed the Treaty of Breda, granting the Dutch Suriname and the British New York, right through to 1975, when Suriname became an independent country. This week, on 19 January 2017, the final boxes will be returned to Suriname.

As part of the project, the Dutch National Archives scanned and digitalized some 5.5 million pages, all of which can be accessed via the archives website:

I’ve worked in both Dutch and Surinamese archives. Each has its own personality; each has its own processes, its own rhythms (which I wrote about here). The cities, too, have their own personalities. The Hague feels like a seat of government; it is a bureaucratic city organized by its political function. Paramaribo moves to a different rhythm. Still a national capital, it’s nonetheless shaped by South American heat and humidity and a Caribbean sensibility. Time is more fluid.

While the documents themselves haven’t changed as a result of their oceanic crossings, the way we read them just might.


Slavenregistern Inv. nr. 33, Plantage Sarah. Nationaal Archief Suriname. Photo: Sonja Boon


a tale of two archives (and more)

I’ve been working in archives for almost twenty-five years, first as an early musician in search of flute treatises and long-lost masterpieces by long-forgotten composers, and more recently as someone who researches the life stories of those who have come before me.

Archives have fascinated me from the moment I first stepped foot into the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague (then the Dutch national home of all the materials relating to music – history, performance, instrument construction, etc; they’ve since been moved to the Royal Library).

As a group of new students, we crowded into the heart of the archives – the basement storage areas – our necks craning to see the treasures the archivists had unearthed for us. It was cool and shadowed, temperature and light controlled to ensure that these documents could live on.

The archivist showed us a medieval manuscript, pointing to the thickness of the paper, the richness of the colour. We passed it amongst ourselves, filled with wonder.

“Wait,” said one of my fellow students, “this is 800 years old?!”

She couldn’t even comprehend it. And to tell the truth, neither could the rest of us. 800 years. And it was in our hands. Right. There.

That day, I learned that medieval manuscripts, while fragile, are much less fragile than nineteenth-century ones. Pulp and paper mills may have revolutionized paper production, but they didn’t make for lasting products. As I myself have since experienced, nineteenth-century papers can crumble at the touch, the past turning to dust before your very eyes.

That day, I also learned how much I love to burrow into the past, how much I enjoy the process of following a story, finding pieces, and trying to figure out how they fit together. Archives are places I can call home. They are my childhood dreams of locked trunks and dusty attics realized. They are all the mysteries that filled the books I devoured, and more.


The Hague, City Arms. October 2014. Photo: Sonja Boon

I’ve been thinking about archives again, now considering them as physical spaces, and considering what those physical spaces tell, who they invite in, who they exclude, and why that might matter. I guess, in a sense, I’m thinking about the autobiography of the archive, as told by the physical space it occupies.

These are not, of course, new questions. There’s been much work done on the politics of archives (see reference list below for a small sampling of literature on the topic). Scholars have considered the nature of the knowledge produced by the processes of archival collection, processes that take certain assumptions about race, class, gender, ability, and yes, history, for granted. They’ve also considered how it is that archives are formed, and why it is that some individuals and groups have actively chosen to donate their materials to national collections while others have fundamentally resisted this process, choosing instead to create alternative archival spaces. And they’ve looked at the politics of protecting and sustaining archival projects that could challenge and even threaten the powers that be.

But what of physical space, and what of how that space – and the processes that organize that space – operate?


Skyscape, The Hague downtown. October 2014. Photo: Sonja Boon

This started out as a tale of two national archives – the Nationaal Archief in The Hague, The Netherlands, and the Nationaal Archief Suriname in Paramaribo, Suriname, two places I have come to know reasonably well over the past few years. But as I started thinking about the differences between them, the ghosts of other archives intruded, reminding me that the story was much bigger.

I needed to dig further into my own research stories….

October 2006. I’m in Paris for the first time in my life, in a tiny hotel just off the Rue St. Honoré, a location I chose because it was within easy walking distance to the Richelieu site of the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the Archives nationales de France. It was also, and perhaps more romantically, around the corner from the former home of Madame Geoffrin, one of the leading salon women in eighteenth-century Paris, and one of the subjects of my doctoral research.

My doctoral supervisor had warned me about the intricate processes involved with accessing materials at the Richelieu location. I’d need a letter from her explaining the reason I was there. I’d get a card. And then I’d need to arrive early to put my stuff in a locker. They’d give me a red card and a green card upon entry and I’d have to pass the green card to someone and the red card to someone else and then I’d get a seat and the materials would arrive and if I wanted to leave the room, I’d have to reverse the whole process. She also warned that I’d have to dress appropriately. No sandals. No casual. Professional. It was long and convoluted and I don’t even remember all the ins and outs any more. There was gatekeeping upon gatekeeping upon gatekeeping upon gatekeeping. These documents were meant to be protected, and only certain eyes could have access.

The working space is magnificent, a child’s dream of a magical castle library, complete with a high ceiling, a winding staircase in a corner and a few more floors of books. The documents themselves nestled on velvet cushions, with velvet beanbag snakes to hold the pages down without damage.

Who wouldn’t want to work there for a few weeks?

Madame Geoffrin’s story (or, more precisely, her daughter’s story) ended up getting jettisoned from my thesis (she reappeared later, in an article), but that visit taught me much about the relationships between archives and national identity. The Bibliothèque nationale de France is not just a repository for esoteric mouldering documents to be read by people like me; they are France’s patrimoine – its legacy, its heritage, its inheritance – and it is clear that the archivists take this responsibility seriously.

Fast forward a decade, and I’ve found myself in both formal and informal spaces. In Berlin, on the hunt for flute manuscripts from the court of Frederick the Great (an avid flute player), I had to surrender my passport and wait three hours for materials to appear. In Lausanne, chasing Samuel-Auguste Tissot’s patients’ myriad complaints about, I shared a much more casual work environment with flip-flop wearing university students working on class assignments (more on that research process, and the loveliness of la Suisse romande, here).

Over the years, I’ve grown accustomed to the different requirements of different archival spaces; I’ve moulded myself to what they expect and worked with it. And to a large extent, I’ve done so because I’ve been able to do so. I can be the professional. I can be the academic. I can look the part. I have the right credentials. And with my computer, pencils, loose papers, and magnifying glass – all in a clear plastic bag – it’s clear to all involved that I have the right tools.

But I’d never visited the National Archives in The Hague and Paramaribo.


How many windmills do you need to change a lightbulb? Never mind. Not The Hague at all, but the Zaanse Schans, just after dawn. October 2014. Photo: Sonja Boon

The Hague’s National Archives is located right next to Central Station. The reading room is a bright, shiny, modern space. If I had to define it in one word, it would be: IKEA. There’s a Scandinavian aesthetic to this space, and, more to the point, it looks as if it’s been styled by someone who develops the annual IKEA catalogue. The work tables are all white, as are the lamps that hang over them. Colourfully-patterned oversize “book pillows” hang from hooks on the wall. The floors are also light and bright. Colourful accents in pink, red, and orange complement the white and add visual energy (I’m sounding like a home decorating blog! But seriously, it’s a gorgeous space, aesthetically speaking – look here). The space is generous and open. I ordered materials online and they were waiting for me, delivered with quiet efficiency. It’s a great place to work; even when it’s busy, there’s room to spread out.


Newspaper story from the Volkskrant about a protest concert I was involved in in The Hague in June 1997 to protest what was proposed as a tripling of international student fees. Who knew early music could be radical?

But while the space is visually appealing and welcoming, the usual checks and balances still operate: I still needed to get a membership card, and guards carefully police anything that goes in an out of the space. I couldn’t even bring my glasses case in – they provided me with a clear plastic one instead. This wasn’t a place you could just walk into, from the street. There were formal hoops to jump through, and there were also informal etiquette rules to learn.


The Hague, view of the Binnenhof from the Hofvijver. October 2014. photo: Sonja Boon

This gatekeeping was reflected in the archives’ patrons: all of us were professional researchers, actively engaged in research projects of various sorts. Almost all of us were in business/professional casual – dresses, dress pants, jackets, some ties. Almost all of us had computers. Almost all of us were silent. And almost all of us were white. We may all have come in off the street, but before that we’d been in university or formal institutional offices, and it was to those offices that we would return. The stories here, if read through the space and its organization, were stories for professionals first. Once translated and interpreted, they could be shared with others.

The National Archives of Suriname are very different. The Paramaribo space is small and contained, the tables close together. There is little room to spread out here, especially when there are more than a few people working at the same time (and when one person is looking at oversize newspapers or ship’s logs, watch out!). And perhaps all of this is fine; by population, this is a tiny country. There is no apparent reason that it would need to have such a big space.


Century-old house in the Rainville area of Paramaribo. July 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon

And yet, it’s an active and busy space, with people regularly coming and going. In The Hague, researchers tend to settle in for the long haul, spending hours at a time in pursuit of their stories. They stretch legs and bodies every hour or so. Sometimes they head out for a smoke or some fresh air, but they almost always return. In Paramaribo, however, patrons come and go throughout the day.

A large part of this, I suspect, is because the gatekeeping is much less pronounced. You don’t need to register to use the archives here. You don’t even need formal identification. Everyone has access to this national heritage. You just sign in: your name, address, phone number, and research interest. And that’s it.

During my time there, I saw the usual students and professional researchers; dogs of a similar breed, we learned to recognize one another, nodding in acknowledgement as we arrived in the morning. But I also saw others – an elderly woman with her daughter both working together to solve a family history mystery, a frustrated man who desperately wanted to find out his heritage but who had just too little information to begin a search, a couple with heads bent close to a screen, a woman with a notebook reading carefully through slave registers on microfiche, jotting down notes as she went, a mother with a baby in her lap looking at plantation stories, and a wide-eyed toddler wandering the room, a bottle dangling from her mouth.

What journeys brought them to the archives? What stories did they hope to find? What mysteries did they want to solve? These were not career researchers; these were people looking into their own pasts, seeking evidence to support stories they’d been told, or documents that could fill in blanks and silences.


One of the many small Moravian churches in Paramaribo. July 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon

If the stories in The Hague are stories for professional researchers, then the stories in Paramaribo are stories for average, everyday people, and, more significantly, for people who would likely be formally turned away from almost every single archive I’ve ever worked at, or who would find themselves so uncomfortable that they would leave.

The Hague and Paramaribo: two national archives, two different narratives.

What kind of welcome do they extend?
Who might they exclude?

To whom do the archives belong?



Buss, Helen M., and Marlene Kadar, eds. Working in Women’s Archives: Researching Women’s Private Literature and Archival Documents. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2001. Print.

Eichhorn, Kate. The Archival Turn in Feminism: Outrage in Order. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2013. Print.

Morra, Linda M. and Jessica Schlagerl, eds. Basements and Attics, Closets and Cyperspace: Explorations in Canadian Women’s Archives. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2012. Print.

Morra, Linda M. Unarrested Archives: Case Studies in  Twentieth-Century Canadian Women’s Authorship. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2014. Print.

Vernon, Karina, “Invisibility Exhibit: The Limits of Library and Archives Canada’s ‘Multicultural Mandate’.” Basements and Attics, Closets and Cyberspace: Explorations in Canadian Women’s Archives. Ed. Linda M. Morra and Jessica Schlagerl. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2012. 193-204. Print.

Weld, Kristen. Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014. Web.

(c) Sonja Boon, 2016 (sboon @