One quiet spring morning, as a plague engulfs America, I awake, brew coffee, and shuffle to my computer. Outside my windows, a cordillera of snow-thatched roofs. I feel rooted, glooming in grief and rage. The need to stay in place. In the place of our wreckage. In other homes, I imagine children in nightshirts, and daddy flipping pancakes, and some things still good. Meanwhile, the world continues to break in the ways that it has always been broken.
On my computer, a host of small heartbreaks. Records, evidence, stories of child death in foster care. November 2017, I sat in on the murder trial of the stepfather of a young boy, Gabriel Fernandez. Gabriel Fernandez was tortured and beaten to death. We, the journalists, and the family members and the witnesses tuned in daily. Sitting in that small courtroom, I felt strongly that this was about more than one murder.
It was about the many failures of the Department of Children and Family Services, and there were many, but also about the slow, cold violence that permeates these kinds of cases. I had become obsessively curious—not about just how one family could do this, but how a nation with wealth, how any system, could leave so many children tortured and dead. Over the last five years, I’ve reviewed all the case files of murdered children with a pending Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) investigation. I’d found shelter here, in these redacted files. The dark boxes.
What I know about these children has been culled from police reports, and hospital records, and social worker investigations. The documents all come to me redacted. I spend half my days searching for names, matching names to black boxes. The names of our dead children: they give me pause, they give me agency, an agency I’m not ever certain I deserve. I create a website. I build an archive.
The word archive is derived from the Greek arkhon, “ruler, commander, chief, captain,” which is the noun use of the present participle of arkhein, “be the first.” Thence “to begin, begin from or with, make preparation for,” also “to rule, lead the way, govern, rule over, be leader of.” In these dark times I find the archive as the place to begin. A place to unearth truths.
In Muriel Rukeyser’s 1939 collection of documentary poems of witness, U.S.1, she writes, “Local images have one kind of reality. U.S.1 will, I hope have that kind and another too. Poetry can extend the document.”
This appears to be where my compulsion was born. If I stay long enough with the archive—a catalog of disasters, racism, and classism, and worker exploitation, and gentrification, and land grab, and cuts to social safety nets, and cuts to access to education, and no medical care, and no childcare, and no safe affordable housing, and mass incarceration—I will stay rooted. If I shine a light here in this dark theater, I, too, can extend the document.
Muriel Rukeyser is no stranger to the document. The FBI has comprised their own 118-page redacted chronicle of her activities. I, too, have a thick file—one that archives my adolescence as a ward of the court in L.A. County’s foster care.
Rukeyser’s poem Book of The Dead recounts the events of the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster through fragments of victims’ congressional testimony, lyric verse, and flashes of a trip south. Hawks Nest Tunnel was part of a hydroelectric project, a tunnel made near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. The workers suffered from silicosis, a lung disease brought on by breathing in silica. The conditions were so dense and dusty, the drinking water reportedly turned white as milk. In the 2018 introduction, Catherine Venable Moore writes, “I imagined the ghost lungs fluttering through the forest at night like sets of wings, surrounded by halations of shimmering silica dust.”
The majority of the workers were Black. The death toll has never been confirmed but is estimated at between 476 and 1,000 people, which would make it the worst industrial disaster in U.S. history. After two trials, a congressional labor subcommittee hearing, and eighty-six years of silence, neither Union Carbide nor its contractor—Rinehart & Dennis Company—has ever admitted wrongdoing for the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster. In 1933 the company issued settlements to only a fraction of the affected workers, in amounts ranging from $30 to $1,600. Black workers received substantially less than their white counterparts.
In reading this, I think of Ruby Duncan, a woman I heard on Krissy Clark of Marketplace’s podcast, The Uncertain Hour. Ruby Duncan is a Black woman from Las Vegas. Thirty years after the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster, Ruby was a single mother working in the kitchens at the Sahara Casino, a ringing, shucking, slinging, dinging racket with low ceilings plush with red and royal purple accents. One day, Ruby slipped on some cooking oil. As a result, she suffered back injuries and required knee replacement surgery. With no income or disability payments, she turned to welfare.
On the first of every month, mothers on welfare came to recognize one another in the markets as they filled their grocery carts. Ruby talked with the other mothers. It wasn’t long before she discovered that white women were receiving more in welfare payments than Black women. According to The Uncertain Hour, this was not unique or a fluke. For many decades, dating back to welfare’s inception in the thirties, discrimination was written into guidelines in various offices across the country. In one Los Angeles office, employee Nancy Humphries said that it was right there in the forms she filled out when signing up families for welfare: a white column and a black column. And until the end of the sixties, states didn’t just give Black families fewer benefits, but they made it more difficult for them to enroll.
Employees were told to ask invasive questions, in order to discourage Black families from signing up, such as, “How often do you have sex?” There was also the good-housekeeping test, during which a caseworker would don a white glove and run their finger along a windowsill to check for dust. To ensure there was no man in the house, welfare officials conducted midnight raids, pounding on the door to look for evidence that would disqualify a single mother from her benefits: the man himself, or a man’s belt, or a razor, or a large shoe.
One afternoon in 2017, I arrived at the William H. Hannon Library’s special collections in Playa Vista, California. It’s two miles from the beach and less than ten miles from where my high school was located. I climbed the escalators. I was on assignment to write about the twenty-fifth anniversary of the LA uprising. Most of the Center for Study of Los Angeles’s collection was shared with me. I’d arrived again at the archive, which to me, had come to represent a kind of gaze. A corporate gaze. I donned white gloves, wiped clean the loupe, and returned the gaze. I was particularly interested in Rebuild LA, a corporate nonprofit setup to remedy the damage done to South LA after the LA uprising. Amid photos, and blueprints of job-training projects, grocery stores, and gas stations (none ever realized), I came upon a musical score.
I’d read about Rebuild’s job creation efforts briefly before: the supermarkets that would be built, the minority business enterprises (MBEs), the vans to be distributed. Nothing had prepared me for the extent of their liberal looting—they acquired both private and foundation funding in the millions. The privatization argument advanced by Rebuild LA was that over the last decade, the government had failed to deliver. The inner-city neighborhoods of LA, and its residents, were insolvent, inefficient, lazy, corrupt thieves and public subsidies had run them into the ground. This community needed a group of people with good business sense. Those people with good business sense put the money in their own pockets. As noted in a memo by Chuck Frumerie, an executive who was loaned to RLA in their first eighteen months of operation, the organization solicited over $500 million of public and private investments from companies such as IBM and GM, and all of the oldest and largest private sector companies in the world.
Those funds were spent on board salaries and motivational projects, as if what our communities needed to recover were a snappy slogan or a nice song. For example, on June 6, 1992, one thousand chorus members of South LA churches were bussed into the Hollywood Bowl to perform the new anthem to LA. RLA commissioned the song: David Cassidy’s “Stand and Be Proud.”
This is our chance
Now we gotta take it
We may never get to pass this way again
We gotta be strong
If we’re gonna make it
Now it’s time to dry the tears.
Through the ashes hope appears
And if we reach out for the sky
We might touch the stars.
We have a dream
Now we gotta live it
It’s gonna take some work to make this dream come true
All proceeds from this feel-good motivational ditty went to Rebuild LA. The song brands Rebuild LA as a beam of hope, and poverty as an identity problem and the result of poor life choices, rather than circumstances or a lack of access.
Five years after the song, Rebuild LA folded, leaving our neighborhoods in very similar conditions as it had found them.
I was fifteen years old during the LA uprising. I watched as the news directed foot traffic. The news would report looting at Pep Boys, then I’d watch as, outside my window, kids ran over to the Pep Boys, then to the RadioShack. People pushed carts of formula and diapers, a man was pulled from his car and it was set on fire. I sat in my foster parents’ home in West Los Angeles, blocks away from the high school. I looked from my foster parents’ white faces to the brown one of our housekeeper, to my own tan skin, and wondered what I should be doing next. The summer before, I had undergone a prolonged identity crisis. “What is she?” people would say. “So exotic. So modern. But what is she?” They got close to me, invited me into their home, supported me, but continued to protect their hearts from my otherness. Would I leave? Would I be removed? Would their love suffice? What is family without a biological echo? The unknown. That trick switch inside.
In school the next week, we heard about how, over in Watts, the malt liquor from forties of Old English 800 had been poured on the ground outside Imperial Courts Housing Project as the Grape Street Crips from the Jordan Downs Project, the P Jay Watts Crips from Imperial Courts, and the Bounty Hunter Bloods from Nickerson Gardens Housing Projects negotiated and signed a peace accord. The formal peace treaty was modeled after a ceasefire reached between Egypt and Israel. The document called for “the return to permanent peace in Watts California” and “the return of Black businesses, economic development, and advancement of educational programs.” Together they laid out a more detailed economic plan and made their demands of the city. Rebuild LA responded with promises to create jobs, requiring the employers to hire only within the affected areas.
What I saw the summer after was that nothing had changed. By then, the streets were teeming with gangsters, busted businesses, and trafficked girls. Somehow, to ourselves and our own streets, we had become a menace. It was the first time I began to consider that I, too, could become one of them. As I neared my eighteenth birthday, talk of college began to dissipate; instead, it was brochures of independent living programs and talks of signing up for general relief. I took a razor to the underside of my thick curly hair. The hair everyone complimented. I lined my lips with a rusted crimson-colored pencil. This won’t be catalogued in the archive. I perfected a dull, flat look of disinterest. One that said, I’m not pleasing you. Yet there was something deeper than these outward changes, and less defined. Something that frightened me. It was at this time that I’d accepted the idea that I was unlovable. That deep down, that trick switch was not a trick at all but rather a monster. A monster maybe because I had done everything I was told to do, by the church, by my grandmother, by the courts, by the teachers, by the city, by the state, and I was still left standing with few to no options.
Tuesday, June 3, 2020: helicopters screamed in the skies above Downtown Los Angeles as thousands took to the streets. This time, we were diverse. We were Black, brown, white, Asian. This time we went where the privilege was: Beverly Hills, Fairfax District, Burbank. We did not burn our own storefronts and neighborhoods that still sat in disrepair from the 1992 uprising.
June 4, 2020: family and friends congregated inside a sanctuary at North Central University to pay tribute to George Floyd, who died at age forty-six. Meanwhile, in D.C., the Senate reached an impasse as Senator Paul Rand blocked the anti-lynching bill exactly one hundred years since June 15, 1920, when Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie were dragged from their cells by an angry white mob, then tortured, beaten, and hanged.
June 12, 2020: Minnesota voted to pardon Max Mason, one of six Black men who were wrongly accused of raping a woman by the name of Irene Tusken. It was June, 1920, and Tusken’s boyfriend said that six men approached them at the circus and raped her, but there was nothing to support this allegation. A total of thirteen men had been jailed, and three—Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie—were dragged from the jail and lynched by a white mob the night of June 15. Mason was convicted in November, 1920, and paroled in 1925. He died in 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee.
In The Red Record, Ida B. Wells writes, “The Negro does not claim that all of the one thousand black men, women, and children, who have been hanged, shot and burned alive during the past ten years, were innocent of the charges made against them. We have associated too long with the white man not to have copied his vices as well as his virtues. But we do insist that the punishment is not the same for both classes of criminals.”
Her call to action stands today, “Can you remain silent and inactive when such things are done in our own community and country? Is your duty to humanity in the United States less binding? What can you do, reader, to prevent lynching, to thwart anarchy, and promote law and order throughout our land?”
Wells writes that the frequent inquiry after her lectures is “What can I do to help the cause?”
“The answer always is ‘Tell the world the facts.’ ”
The documents that live in my computer: police records, hospital records, social worker assessments. “Assessment Tools,” the Department of Children and Family Services call them. But like any tool, it can be calibrated to offer the results you are seeking. So, if the department is urging family reunification, the assessment will be more lax; if the department is urging the removal of Black and brown children, the assessment will be more stringent.
Saidiya Hartman addresses this discrepancy in her book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. Of the archive she says, “Power and authority of the archive and the limits it sets on what can be known.”
She chose to excavate a story of joy and liberation from behind the redacted documents. “In writing this account of the wayward, I have made use of a vast range of archival materials to represent the everyday experience and restless characters of life in the city.”
These records Hartman engaged with—trial transcripts, slum photographs, prison case files—all represent Black women as a problem.
In her note on methodology, she states, “The wild idea that animates this book is that young black women were radical thinkers who tirelessly imagined their ways to live and never failed to consider how the world might be otherwise.”
Hartman writes that Wayward Lives elaborates, augments, transposes, and breaks open archival documents so they might yield a richer picture of the social upheaval that transformed Black social life in the twentieth century.
If ever I want to catalog the failings of our world, our country, our police, the Man, big business, I can come here to the archive. I can take all my helplessness, and hopelessness, and rage, and shine a light into the dark theater of bureaucracy. I can then do what Wells urges us to do: to tell the facts, publish them, point to them. Be a social arsonist, light minds and hearts on fire. I can also dare to do as Hartman has done, and imagine a different, better world. One where we dance and sleep undisturbed, look at birds, and breathe, always breathe. And then push further. We reach, and shimmer, and shine. I sit at my desk reading The Book of The Dead and imagine sheer lungs floating like butterflies over the mountains. In Rukeyser’s poem, she writes
What three things can never be done?
Forget. Keep silent. Stand alone.
Melissa Chadburn’s work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, Longreads, and dozens other places. Her essay on food insecurity was selected for Best American Food Writing 2019. She is the recipient of the Mildred Fox Hanson Award for Women in Creative Writing. Her debut novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, is forthcoming with Farrar, Straus and Giroux. She is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern California’s creative writing program.