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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Fragments of a Seemingly Anonymous Life / リー・ハリスの日常の歴史

Perhaps you have been embarrassed by your mother dragging out the family photo album of your blubbering baby years, every time the guests come.
Or perhaps you have kept trinkets of childhood memory stored in the attic, just for the sake of nostalgia.

Lee Harris, a bus driver who was born in New Jersey 1940 and lived with his wife as a New York City bus driver through the 1970s-, chose to save memorabilia of his life and donated his treasures to the Anacostia Community Museum in 2003.

As I began to process the Lee Harris Papers, I found that a good part of the collection was meticulously labeled (much to my delight), the photographs painstakingly wrapped with non-archival tape and plastic (much to my dismay). The labels were invaluable; needless to say, the plastic had to go. The wrappings did, however, convey how precious these items had been for their owner.

Lee Harris lived in a turbulent stage of American history, through World War II, the Cold War, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, etc. As activists and politicians elsewhere were struggling to orchestrate the nation, Lee Harris documented events in his own life that fill in the gaps of this "schoolbook" history – namely, the birth and death of family members, graduation ceremonies, military service, marriage, vacations, and community activities. His individual perspective gives us insight into what might be called the “typical” American experiences of the time.

It is surprisingly easy to forget that the larger stream of historical events is always occurring among the milieu created by individuals, whose lives intersect with these events in varying degrees. As I was going through the documents, I encountered a carefully preserved signed photograph of an astronaut, a news article of John F. Kennedy's assassination, and Lee Harris’s participation in a community salute to Martin Luther King Jr. However, those were the only materials that hinted anything about the major “current events” of his time. I was instead more struck by the level of detail on the labels at the back of the family photographs, and realized that those details were precisely what Lee Harris had deemed worthy of preservation, over anything else.

While studying history in college and interning in the archives, I have learned that often the silences speak out as much as the remaining words and images. Besides the significant lack of mention in the Lee Harris Papers about what we would now think of as historical events, there was hardly any documentation on his career either. Considering the level of detail that he goes in with other aspects of his life, why would he choose to ignore the 30 years or so of his work? Is this another indicator of the centrality of family events for Lee Harris?

Be it out of interest in history of 1940-70s America or out of pure curiosity, I hope that someone will take the time to muse over and interpret these fragments of a seemingly anonymous life. You may see the stalwart figure of a young African American man stepping from Boy Scouts to the military, a travel-lover, or a loving family with strong bonds. You may even be inspired to start accumulating a collection yourself - how would your own life history be defined, half a century later? (And if you have long-term preservation plans for your collection, please do label them for a happy archivist!)

Images: (Top left) Lee Harris standing on a sidewalk in Manhattan, New York.
(Below right) Lee Harris sitting on mother’s lap at the home of his grandmother.

Anna Wada
Anacostia Community Museum Archives Intern

(Here is the translated version for Japanese readers)






1 comment:

  1. History is in the eye of the beholder ;)

    I love the Japanese version!