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Freedom Archived

Aaron Sarver

The Freedom Archives are located in San Francisco in a tiny office where more than 8,000 hours of audiotape are housed. Founded in 2000, the archive is a clearinghouse of radical voices from Paul Robeson to Lolita Lebron. In These Times recently visited the Freedom Archives and spoke with Claude Marks, one of the archive founders, and Sele Nadel-Hayes, who helps curate the collection.

There's this danger of history becoming nostalgia for people who lived through it. We're really trying to avoid that, and instead craft history that captures the essence of what happened, but that can also lead people down a path of further exploration.

How do you find material for the archive? Was this stuff just lying around in a room somewhere collecting dust?

Marks: Well, most of it has come from people who had been program producers in small educational stations who kept their work intact. The programs are the product of a lot of different people who documented both politics and progressive culture. There’s documentation on everything from the Chicano moratorium to Attica and the murder of George Jackson to a takeover at Alcatraz. And then there’s a ton of music and poetry, which was largely recorded in clubs and at various community events with people who have become very well-recognized.

This material exists because of a level of vision and foresight that all of us had collectively about history in the making. It’s not just that everything had to be documented, but that there were some very profound events happening. History only dies if it’s subjugated or destroyed. And we know of course that the people running this country would just as soon have none of this be available anywhere and so we feel an additional responsibility. It’s not about ownership; it’s about propagation, it’s about access, it’s about how people reinterpret and reconstruct progressive movement and culture if it becomes disconnected. 

Does the archive provide source material for documentaries and other work?

Nadel-Hayes: Yes, but a good amount of the materials are not just used for radio programs and documentary films, but also in music. People are sampling this material and a group of our interns [are using archive materials] to create something specifically for that, a final record called the Vinyl Project that has 79 short clips from the archives. It’s designed for DJs and musicians to sample music. So, that’s one way it’s being disseminated that probably wasn’t expected when someone was giving a passionate speech about what was going on in their community. They probably didn’t expect to hear their voice mixed in with a punk band from central California or a hip hop group from New York. But all those groups are drawing on that history to create something new today. 

The biggest thing about Freedom Archives is that we don’t want it to just sit here so that people to have to come to us in order to learn about this history. We’re trying to make people feel connected to it, so the idea is that we also create these more accessible pieces of media that can go out in the world on the radio, the Internet, someone’s car CD player or their MP3 player. So we create these documentary projects or other kinds of new media out of this older media. We’ve done a poetry CD, we’ve done several documentaries – including one about the 1973 coup in Chile. We’ve done an educational CD on the radical civil rights activists Roger and Mabel Williams. We did an amazing CD, that was half about George Jackson and half about Attica, which examined what those legacies mean 30 years later. All of those projects were created out of the Freedom Archives collective. 

Marks: Thirty years ago when a lot of us started doing work on radio and video, there was a real emphasis on collectivity, on collaboration. So when we undertake a project, one of the real essential things is that it be very diverse in terms of who’s participating, what community involvement looks like, but also in being cross-generational. The goal is to combine older people with a lot of experience and skills with younger people who bring a lot of new energy and insight, but who may not have that same level of expertise. That does a lot of different things, and one of the important things it does is to make sure that whatever is created can speak to people who don’t have the same historical perspective. 

There’s this danger of history becoming nostalgia for people who lived through it. And we’re really trying to avoid that, and instead craft history that captures the essence of what happened, but that can also lead people down a path of further exploration. We don’t want it to be a static thing, where it’s just speaking to people who say, Ah I remember Paul Robson, It’s just amazing stuff.’ Well, yes that’s true, but what we want to do is get someone who doesn’t know who he is to walk away with that same experience. And we want to do something that would make them pick it up in the first place. In order for history to remain vibrant and essential, it’s important not only in how it’s created but in how it’s contextualized. 

Listen to an extended audio version of this interview at Fire on the Prairie,” a monthly radio forum exploring politics and ideas sponsored by In These Times.
Aaron Sarver is an independent audio producer and writer based in Chicago. His work has appeared in In These Times, The Chicago Reader, Alter​net​.org, and on Free Speech Radio News. For nearly three years he produced and co-hosted the radio program, Fire on the Prairie, which featured interviews with progressive writers and activists, and is archived at fire​on​thep​rairie​.com.
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