In every generation, there is one person who assumes the role of family historian, steward of story and lore. Someone who keeps the records, artefacts and keepsakes that matter most of all.
For family archivist and memory worker Renata Cherlise, that journey began as a young girl flipping through family photo albums back in the ’80s and ‘90s. Her father and grandmother were avid photographers, Nikon and Polaroid their respective cameras of choice, and each curated their own albums of work.
“The work was a labour of love,” says Cherlise, who inherited the torch. In 2011, she took her talents to Tumblr, sharing photos chronicling the Black experience that she rarely saw – images of everyday life that were both prosaic and profound. Every four years, Cherlise levelled up: in 2015 she launched the Black Archives website and Instagram feed. Success followed and, in 2019, Cherlise left her corporate banking job as a technical writer to build her company.
Now Cherlise returns with her first book, Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life (Ten Speed Press/Random House) – a love letter to the community. Drawn from a thoughtful blend of personal submissions, archival collections and her own family albums, the book is a celebration of Black life across the generations and kept alive by what Cherlise calls “the keeper of stories.”
Like her ancestors, Cherlise is self-taught, working from a position of respect, honour and devotion to help restore and preserve the stories of Black life in its many-splendored forms. Bringing together intimate snapshots of family gatherings, holidays, vacations and nights on the town, Cherlise describes the book in autobiographical terms. “This book is my origin story,” she says.
With Black Archives, Cherlise honours her own family and the collective family, as well as the transformative power of vernacular photography, which often gets overlooked. Both art and artefact, the snapshots featured here are the perfect blend of intimacy, informality and authenticity, making you feel warm and welcome.
“We often rely on our memory and imagination to help us piece together or reconfigure the stories within our family,” Cherlise says. “I’ve learned that photographs carry the answers to questions that we have. Family photo albums are sources of comfort, strength and even escape. The faces within inspire stories, reveal confessionals and invite us to reflect on our ever changing lives.”
With the advent of digital photography, the family photo album is becoming a relic of the past. With Black Archives, Cherlise hopes to help restore it to its rightful place and connect with a new generation of archivists, storytellers, and historians who are bringing Black histories to light.
With so much of Black history lost, destroyed and erased, Cherlise’s archival work has become a vital source for the community. Posts on Instagram have generated extraordinary finds, as commenters have shared personal details and memories, revealing powerful connections between present and past.
For Cherlise, Black Archives is ancestral work in service to the community, as an intentional act of love and care. “This is how we keep stories,” she says. “This is how we pass them down.”
Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life by Renata Cherlise, 2023. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.