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Introducing 2021 Intern Dray Denson

by Dray Denson, Robert F. Smith Intern



Dray Denson, Robert F. Smith Intern
Dray Denson, Robert F. Smith Intern

When I consider the archive that raised me, I first think of my mother and how she does alchemy in the kitchen. On Sundays, she’d use her whole body to prepare a pot of collard greens for the stove, chorused by the voices of Sam Cooke, or Mahalia, or Aretha to move her about her work. She’s good at making things well: those collards and her soups would clear up any cold or congestion I had, and the rhythms of her music invite only levity, and Florida sunshine, and power to my days.


My first intervention to the idea of archives began with talking to her about how she remembered to cook without ever referencing a manual or a cookbook; how my mother and my aunts had all the right measurements and pinches and stirs without ever having to reference them or experiencing doubt. The only answers they had to give me were more testimonies—to the power of witnessing, to their forebearers who taught them everything—and to preternatural disposition, and the Lord, and a good foot. I’ve always been fascinated by how community creates memory, and inversely how memory moves community. So, when I entered college and was introduced to the idea of being able to do for others what was shown to me at home—archiving the lives, knowledge and environment of a particular person or place for posterity; for the community—I knew that it was something I wanted to explore including and beyond the land and gastronomy.


My name is Dray, and I’m so excited to be working with Amistad as a Robert Frederick Smith (RFS) summer intern. I’m from northern Florida, I currently live in Georgia, and I attended college in Southern California. I graduated last year from Pomona College with a degree in Africana studies with a concentration in literature. My first official departure into archival research and study focused on the origins of the 1960s/1970s Black Studies movement in the United States, with a particular emphasis on California and the Third World Liberation Front in the Bay Area. With my co-researcher and mentor Dr. Maryan Soliman (Scripps College), we analyzed and digitally archived the 1960s Black student movement for a holistic and autonomous safe space, wherein Black students could study themselves and their communities, and have access to resources toward their mental, physical, spiritual and social welfare. I developed a poster using archival photographs and protest papers, as well as my reconstruction of a chronology of key events in the creation of our Black Studies Center. For my work, I won the inaugural Claremont Colleges’ Library Undergraduate Research Award for Data Visualization in 2018.


At Claremont, I was also a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow (MMUF), a fellowship for underrepresented students in the humanities and social sciences. MMUF provided me with the resources to study and write about Black gender in the Black church as well as Black culinary histories in the American South and the greater United States. Some of my earliest interventions in the archive had to do with my understanding of the Black cookbook and Black Southern/American culinary history as an archive of community memory. In summer 2019, with friend and MMU fellow Arpita Joyce, I ventured to Miami to film a documentary on migration, food and intergenerational memory with Black and brown folks in the state of Florida. The accomplishment I hold dearest from that summer is being able to interview my mother and have her walk us through her knowledge of how to prepare award-winning pork chops, and what it was like to learn to throw down in the kitchen through her mother and grandmother.


I’m passionate about Black Southern land ownership and cultivation practices, food justice and the power of culinary histories, so working with the Amistad Research Center to archive the efforts of cooperatives, unions and sewing collectives within the Federation of Southern Cooperatives as photographed in the Patricia Goudvis collection has been an honor. I’m grateful to be introduced to more knowledge about how I can preserve the memories and critical histories of my communities in the South, and to better understand the ongoing struggles for Black land and water rights, fair and livable wages, and community autonomy, organizing and power.

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