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Dig Where You Stand: The Girl at the Factory Gates

Désirée Reynolds has been the Writer In Residence at the Sheffield Archives for six months. Using a style combining archival material, documentary prose and fiction, Désirée weaves together her creative responses to what she has found. 

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The archives and who keeps them, who records them and what gets in have long been debated as a site for racial and reparative justice. Not only that, but for most marginalised communities who still have to fight for representation and recognition, it’s proof that we were always here.

‘Dig Where You Stand’, a labour rights movement about workers investigating their employment, bosses and history, typified what we are trying to do. It isn’t about kings and queens but ordinary people who end up in the archive as fragments of a will, notice in a newspaper, play bills or a baptismal record. Black and Brown people and other racialised communities have been here as long as anyone else and I wanted to bring that out. It feels particularly important now.

The whole thing started when I was a child, when the history being taught at school was not the same history that was taught at home. I learnt to manoeuvre through the gaps.

And then a story came to me. A dead, Black baby girl, buried in Sheffield General Cemetery who refused to let go of me. That this small life of only four days was born and died here, an Ashanti baby from the gold coast of Africa, in an unmarked, communal grave, in Sheffield, 1902. This told me all that I needed to know. That there was more.

I already know everything. So do you. You just have to have the courage to look…

Sven Lindqvist “Exterminate All The Brutes”, 1997, Granta.

The Sheffield archivists were just incredible in every way. They strove to find what we all knew implicitly was there, in pieces or in part, with connections that led to silences or more questions. We never gave up. True detectives. We spoke of archives as being ‘tools for cultural violence’. We spoke of ‘who is not there’ and the agony of thinking about ‘who is never going to be there’. And as we excavated and we found out more, the more we knew, the more we didn’t know, the more we knew we had only scratched the surface.

In these archives marginalised lives are spectacle. Samuel Morgan Smith and Pablo Fanque are spectacles for a living. The rest are faced with a diametrically opposed state of being, of invisibility and hypervisibility. It’s a massive contradiction. Where there are these total and cavernous gaps and then the noise of hypervisibility, I seek to fill in some of those gaps. Not all. Some of them are not mine to fill and all I can do is point to it. We are on posters, play bills, ‘roll up’ - blackness as spectacle only, no heart, no lungs, no family. And at the same time, we are nowhere. Trails that meandered and found nothing. But that still is the story. It is this collision that I am negotiating.

So here I am representing silence. Let me help with that. I can do it.

I chose the stories and people that would not let me go. I chose the ones who spoke the loudest to me. They may not be the ones that speak to you. That’s ok. Go now to your local archives and claim an ancestor. They’re waiting.

I claimed these and I have to declare myself an interested party. I am not bearing witness. Witnessing implies impartiality and I am certainly not that. I’ve cried real hot tears, I’ve stomped around my house, I’ve sat on park benches staring at a Sheffield skyline and thinking how different it must look. I’ve bored friends and family, repeated my repeats, complained to my children, posted on socials. I am declaring myself as unimpartial as you can get.

Giving a voice to the silenced presumes I have one and presumes that my voice can replicate and replace theirs. No. But what I can do is give voice to some of the silences and share the knowledge that we already deep down know.

These fragmentary segments that are found are not the full picture, but I am a small part of it and we may never get that full picture. It’s ok. I have to choose to let go. I don’t need the whole picture and neither do you. I just need to share this small bit with you, in the hopes that your appetite be whetted, that a thirst might grab you. Walk to your local archives and choose to see. I chose to dig where I stood.

Come with me then and bring your heart with you.

Girl at the Factory Gates Banner

Girl at the Factory Gates

Let me tell you what I couldn’t find. I couldn’t find a Black woman before the wars. Her silence is like the buzzing of a generator on the phone. But she found me.

I saw that as I kept looking at her, I was willing myself to be. If we let her disappear isn’t that what awaits all Black girls? She has nothing else to give. And I think I’m lying to myself if I think I have. Can we allow her, her sadness? Was she there to give her father his lunch? Was she from a workhouse or orphanage? But she seems so alone. Black men stride across the screen. Are any of them her father? Was she there on an outing? All of these kids are not there by accident.

Archivists took out ordinance maps for me. No school or workhouse near there. And so, she slips through my fingers and I resist the urge to name her but she hovers to point out the others I might’ve missed. As with all these finds, someone knew she was here. A BFI player Mitchell and Kenyon film, 1901, depicts workers leaving a factory. It’s a curious bit of film. They seem to be directed by the top-hatted factory owner, who wants all the workers to walk in front of the camera. And then there are the children. A group of children appear, laughing, smiling. They stand grinning at the machine. And to the bottom right, there she is.

She doesn’t smile, she hardly moves, except to look around her. She stood with all those above her. The girl with the glasses, looking as if she’s keeping her back with her arm. The boy next to her picks his nose and wipes it on his jacket. She glares up at them. She doesn’t smile because she doesn’t want to. And that is enough. Trapped behind a wall made up of bodies, she looks as if she has already decided that this is all a farce.

“She doesn’t smile”.

She is moved from here and made to run over there. She’s pushed along like it doesn’t matter where her feet would like to go. She’s left to look up at others who don’t look like her.

Her smile will be her own.

You would like her to be happy that she’s there because she wants to be, but everything about her shows she’s not.

“Smile, why don’t you?”

Maybe her face isn’t used to it.

She’s clean. A comb won’t go through her hair.

I remember watching Silence of the Lambs on TV with my parents and the black FBI agent gets chosen to take flowers to the house where the detectives think the killer is. And my parents said, please let him not die, let him get away, like there was a special kind of danger that only exists for Black people and you are too young to formulate words about it, but you already know.

That’s a hell of a thing, isn’t it? For a young Black girl to know there are special - special in a bad way - dangers that await you. You know. You know that in the way adult men would sometimes look at you and talk to you. You learn to keep your head down and out of the way. No matter how big you are, you can always make yourself smaller.

As small as a Black girl’s absent smile.

Girl at the Factory Gates Image

Girl at the Factory Gates

Sheffield Archives

Marginalised peoples, especially women and girls, collided with the archive in ways we can’t really fathom now. A teenage pregnancy leading to a lifetime of hospitalisation. An encounter with the police because at 12 you steal from your neighbours because you want to go to the theatre. You’re three and found wandering on the streets far from home, given a toy to play with that is taken back.

The most incredible thing that happened on this journey is that children kept coming. I have to keep letting go, but I don’t like it and I’m not very good at it. I can’t keep them all in my hands these children. I can’t keep them all in my eye but here they all are, in my chest. So whilst we all live, we’ll have to find a way to get along, me and them. We’ll have to find a way to coexist - uncomfortable, unwieldy and with great knowledge gaps that plague us.

I imagine Thomas is all limbs. I imagine Shirley being in awe of her surroundings. My body. I imagine the girl, whom I am desperate to name but perhaps have no right to, is thinking about bread and butter for dinner.

I’m typing. And then I post what I find on Insta:

More tales from the archives.

How do stories come to you?

These lost and alone Black children of Sheffield have been finding me. So I must hang on to them as they are hanging onto me.

Here is Shirley, “the three-year old tap dancing piccaninny”. She was abandoned on the streets of Liverpool by her mother in 1938. Her grandfather from Jamaica, living in Sheffield, married a local woman in 1874. Their daughter is Shirley’s mother.

“A few hours previously the child had been brought to the shelter by a coloured woman who asked that it should be taken in while she went to work… This request was denied, had to be refused”.

It? Refused?

She is put into Grenoside Institution.

The questions are, as ever, a part of the story. What happened to her?

Was she really a performer? Was she three? The adultification of Black girls continues to this day. What do they mean by piccaninny? Did she perform? Where? Did she? I will probably never find out enough.

Look at that smile.
It looks like a new coat.

I’m claiming Shirley now. She’s living in my chest with the other children. I have room. I think we should all have room.

#sheffield #archives #history #localhistory #blackbritish #northernblackbritish

#liverpool #writer #writing #writerinresidence #criticalfabulation #blackbritishhistory

3rd September

Thomas Pompey Baptism Record Image

Thomas Pompey Baptism Record

Sheffield Archives

I read the words “negro flogging”.

But Shirley tells me to hold my breath. Thomas hits his head on my ribs. Our little girl is just staring. Negro flogging shouldn’t be in the National Newspaper Archive. Not without warning. There are so many gaps. Imagine history being dependent on funding.

My letting go should have a name.

In the National Newspaper Archive, where the search is more than you can give it in a lifetime, I did not realise that local papers carried international news. Speech of a negro, religion and fidelity, virtue and reputation. More flogging.

What is all of this?

“Another trade outrage to Sheffield. Negro flogging.” There’s a full stop there. Related only by page proximity.

The Glasgow Evening Citizen, 23rd March 1867

The failure of justice in Jamaica.

A woman is beaten.

We don’t know if we expected justice. Thomas and I didn’t.

“And in cases of Ensign Cullen and Dr Morris - tried for negro murder - the court martial after spending after the fashion of the court martial, two or three months upon each case appear to have acquitted both prisoners”.

Pall Mall Gazette.

I’m not sure I should keep looking at this. Thomas Pompey doesn’t want me to. Shirley Campbell does. Our little girl doesn’t care either way.

A letter asking why floggings are still allowed in the military. There is a petition to abolish flogging in the British army. I can guess who’s flogging who.

Knowledge is a presumption. A luxury. I’ll have to let go or give in. I am a character in a story that isn’t all mine. I am the narrator with problems of my own. Huge holes that archives can’t entirely fill. But my imagination can. Let me see for myself what you’ve decided to take out and what you’ve decided to leave.

Tell the story by any means necessary. Speak story to power.

Dig Where You Stand will be a city centre exhibition in various locations, with hubs in the Moor Market, Theatre Deli and Sheffield Central Library 25th-30th October. Now Then is serialising the project with writing by Désirée Reynolds and poems by Otis Mensah over the rest of the month. Design by Jamie @ Peter and Paul.

Next in series

Dig Where You Stand: Thomas Pompey

Désirée Reynolds has been the Writer In Residence at the Sheffield Archives for six months. Using a style combining archival material, documentary prose and fiction, Désirée weaves together her creative responses to what she has found. She continues her serialisation of ‘Dig Where You Stand’.

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