A middle-aged man with a full mustache, dark, side-swept hair, and spectacles poses in front of a door that opens into a women’s restroom at a Port City Java in Wilmington.
The man’s description of his coffee shop selfie: “It was the first time in several months that I entered a women’s [bathroom] due to HB 2, in attempt to comply with the law and educate people about the law.”
Another photograph, taken on Highway 49 outside of Mount Pleasant, depicts a simple graphic sign on the lawn of a business that, a second sign proclaims, sells electric fencing accessories. Adorned with the American and North Carolina flags, the first sign simply says, “We support our governor on HB 2.”
Both photographs were taken and uploaded by anonymous contributors to N.C. State professor Tammy Gordon’s digital archive, “NC HB2: A Citizens’ History.” Though at first the photos appear mundanea highway sign under brewing storm clouds, a blurry selfiedetails emerge that depict two vastly different experiences related to North Carolina’s controversial new law, compelling the viewer to look more closely.
“It’s my job to understand what [a citizen’s] experience is and communicate it effectively,” Gordon says.
Gordon is a public historian whose job is to help communities research and facilitate dialogues about their cultures and histories. Originally from Michigan, where she curated exhibits at the Michigan State University Museum, Gordon served for ten years as director of the public history program at UNC-Wilmington before moving to Cary to teach at N.C. State a year ago. She says her work has centered on “needs-based, participatory approaches to curation,” and she has tackled diverse topics ranging from Ethiopian political art to the history of migration from Russia and Eastern Europe to North Carolina.
Gordon launched the archive after HB 2 was signed into law in March. She says she was inspired by similar digital curated projects, including “Modern Wife, Modern Life,” an Irish archive that documents women’s issues, and “Preserve the Baltimore Uprising,” a project created by the Maryland Historical Society to document the response to Freddie Gray’s death in police custody last year.
Contributors upload contentimages, videos, or storiesand provide descriptions, including the place and date of the event. Then Gordon corresponds with the contributor through email to discuss “whether the item fits the mission of the site as a repository of materials related to individual experiences”unlike, for example, posts of official documents, or reposts of items someone else put up on Facebook.
With her project, Gordon wants to transcend what she sees as the limitations of social media to historians, as well as to those who want to share their experiences without being vilified in the comments section.
“Particularly in social media, people will share items, and the specific information historians look for is sometimes lost in the sharing,” Gordon says. “We don’t have specific places, specific times and dates, and so, when people contribute to this site, I’ll correspond with them to get that information so that we have a more complete story. It’s also more available to people outside the silos of social media.”
In launching the archive, Gordon says she hopes people will come to understand the experiences that lead to divergent opinions.
“Often our public dialogue reaches a very high pitch based on opinions, and that doesn’t allow for a lot of exchange of experiences,” says Gordon. “I think people understand one another’s positions better if those experiences are communicated, because it creates more empathy. So in some ways, the ultimate goal is to de-escalate misunderstanding.”
The archivewhich can be found at http://nchb2history.omeka.chass.ncsu.educurrently has nearly a hundred contributions. Many are photos, like the two from the anonymous contributors mentioned earlier. Some are images and videos shot on cell phones from public protests, like the March rally in Chapel Hill that blocked the intersection at Franklin and Columbia streets and the weekly protest-meets-public-theater performances of the Air Horn Orchestra. There is some pro-HB 2 content as well, including photos taken at a pro-HB 2 rally at Halifax Mall that Gordon contributed herself.
Still, it’s the descriptions that lend this content much of its meaning.
“Part of the value of a photo or video is not just what’s presented, but what it represents to the person who took the photo or the person who is sharing the photo,” Gordon says. “Photos and videos have very rich lives that we often don’t understand, and historians of the future will be interested in the richness of those materials.”
Gordon acknowledges that most of the current content has come from anti-HB 2 activists. This is not by design, however. “They are just very good at being heard and articulating with precision,” Gordon says. “I have been less successful in reaching pro-HB 2 groups.”
Many contributions come from people who wish to remain anonymous, like those of a state employee and LGBTQ ally we’ll call Tom, who conceals his identity because he worries about retaliation from the McCrory administration. (“Legally, he can’t touch me, but I’m not convinced, and don’t think anyone should be convinced, that these guys respect the law,” he says.) Though Tom appears at protests, his kids in tow, he tries to keep a low profile and avoid appearing in photos or on camera.
“I think we will all be looking back on this, hoping it will help contribute to the understanding of the history of this moment,” Tom says. “It is just one tiny soda straw into those events, but I hope it contributes to the experience of what was going on and what it was all about. What was it like to experience standing outside the Governor’s Mansion, or waiting for the arrested protesters at the General Assembly to come out? Twenty, thirty years from now, people looking at the history of this will have some perspective.”
Tom found the archive after Gordon posted a link to its website with the hashtag #AirHornOrchestra. The notion that social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are driving virtually all of the activism around HB 2 is inescapable.
Dawn Schmitz, an archivist at the J. Murrey Atkins Library at UNC-Charlotte, is working on a project that uses Twitter hashtags to capture public dialogue around HB 2, though her team won’t make the content available to the public “until we sort out some of the legal and ethical issues around it.”
While Schmitz and Gordon share the common goal of preserving HB 2-related content for future historians, Schmitz says their projects are actually “quite dissimilar.”
“There is an idea that people have a right to be forgotten,” Schmitz says. “When someone posts a tweet, they may think of it as being ephemeral and won’t be captured for history. We may need to go back and seek permission from people who tweeted to preserve those tweets and make them available for research.”
This is why, Schmitz says, Gordon’s work is particularly exciting.
“Tammy’s project is voluntary by nature. People upload their own content, and it is about people’s own experiences that they are willing to share,” she says. “We would be very interested in archiving the content on her website after the website no longer exists.”
Gordon says she is looking at ways to archive the site, but her focus now is to grow the archive and generate more contributions. She’s especially interested in receiving contributions from members of the news media, as well as from law enforcement officials.
“The media has been there all along, at every event,” she says. “I think it would interest many people to know what it’s like to cover a story like this, what it’s like to be in these different settings and moving among communities as you’re doing your job.”
Eventually Gordon wants to add an oral history component to the site, possibly composed of interviews her students have conducted. “Everybody is a potential contributor,” she says. “Everybody has had some experience related to this new law.”
While the experience will likely prove invaluable to historians, Tom believes it will also carry meaning for the archive’s contributors.
“I tell my kids, ‘One of these days, when you have children and take them to the museum, you will see pictures of these events, just like we look at pictures now from the civil rights era,’” he says. “‘You will be able to say you had some skin in the game, you were there fighting for the right side of history, you stood up.’ For them it has that legacy of standing up for the rights of others and for their own rights. That you didn’t just sit and let it happen, but that you fought.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “A Citizen’s History of HB 2, in Progress”