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Telling Black Stories and Tracing Black History with The Luster Company
Episode 45th April 2022 • Mission Megaphone • Growth Network Podcasts
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We’ve handed the megaphone to Dominique Luster, founder, and principal archivist at The Luster Company.

Dominique believes in archives and storytelling, and The Luster Company is the outpour of that spirit by way of helping individuals and organizations uplift, honor, and tell stories that represent the lived experiences of the Black diaspora.

Working in the cultural heritage and memory work field for nearly 10 years, she has come to understand that history is not merely a listing of events in chronological order. But rather a meticulously curated phenomenon of power. All too often the stories of marginalized communities are suppressed, oppressed, erased, or forgotten. The Luster Company seeks to rechart that path.

You'll learn;

  • the difference between the past and history
  • why digitization of records is not always the best option
  • the power of archiving to empower a generation

To learn more visit The Luster Company and follow on Instagram.

This is a Growth Network Podcasts production. Our producers are Lynz Floren, Sari Weinerman, and Jeffrey Morris. Production Manager is Maura Murphy Barrosse. Original music by Nicolas Fournier. Promotional support from Marsha Ord. Website by Nick Brodnicki.

Mentioned in this episode:

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In partnership with podvoices.help we encourage listeners to visit www.choice.crd.co for resources on safe abortion access.

Transcripts

[:

Dominique:

All you see is darkness, it's really dark. It's really dark.

It's really dark. And then you see a tree. The lights lifts slowly on this tree. It's

spotlit. And in front of the tree, there is a Black woman reading a book, or

maybe she's flipping through pa

ges and you don't really know what it is.

But the lights come up slowly, and then you see more lights come up and you

see more women and men and kids reading these books. And there's no words,

there's no words. It's just this West African orchestral music

in the background.

It's very soft, but it's very pointed. And the lights come up very slowly and

they're all a little farther apart. But as the lights come up, you see hundreds of

them and then thousands of them, and then millions of Black people connected

in these ways. And then the lights go out and it says, we believe in Black

storytelling.

My name is Dominique Luster. I am the founder and principal archivist of The

Luster Company and I'm an archivist, a historian. Let's just say if Indiana Jones

and Ha

rriet Tubman were squished together, that's basically what I do.

The Luster Company is about a need that I felt in the world. It is about a desire

to uplift and just outpour from my spirit what I felt around my own family story

and what I felt around the s

tory of Black Pittsburghers. I try to help Black

families find their Black families find their own stories, connect to their

ancestors, to their heritage and honestly connect anyone who has an invested

interest in Black storytelling to those narratives. It

's pretty multifaceted. As long

as you believe in Black storytelling as much as I do, we can pretty much figure

it out.

I had this thing that needed to come out of me of helping people tell stories and

finding out what my own story was. And when I realized

that I needed help

doing this, and I found that other people needed help doing this and more

people needed help doing this, The Luster Company kind of burst itself out of

this idea of, Hey, our stories matter. And they can often be under recorded or

under

documented or under preserved. It's common right now to discuss and to

talk about the preservation of marginalized stories. That is something that we

think very intentionally about now.

However, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. So where ar

e the stories

of Black families, Brown families, religious minorities, families, LGBTQ AI

families? Where are those stories from their grandparents? What happened to

those old family Bibles? What happened to those family traditions? While we

can't always n

ecessarily go back and save them, The Luster Company kind of

comes from this idea of well, the second best time to plant a tree is now.

You'll see from my website thelustercompany.com, my own family's story

deeply inspires me. I list out the maternal linea

ge right there on my website. I

named their names cause these women really matter to me. So my mother, my

grandmother, her mother, her mother, and her mother, they matter. They are

instrumental to the story of who I am. I would not be able to be in this wo

rk

without them. They are deeply inspirational and motivational to me.

I was brought into the field and mentored by Black woman. So I understand the

importance of Black female mentorship, and the impact that Black female

mentorship has had in my life. Ther

e are Black women archivists from Stacy

Williams to Patrina Jackson, to Holly Smith to Dorothy Berry, the numbers are

really endless. Women who have been inspirational to me and who have poured

into me and to them, I'm very thankful.

An archivist is a pers

on who genuinely believes in their heart that information

matters. And that people have a right, a human right to information. And that

information can be and is a source of power, that can be used wielded

manipulated or treated as a currency for any numbe

r of given reasons or

outcomes. An archivist is a person who believes that information has power and

wishes to share that power with as many people as possible. To give access to

that power, to as many people as possible. It's not just about Dusty boxes in

the

back of basements.

The spirit of it really comes from a belief of sharing, of providing access.

Whether that is in an institution such as a university, a government archive, A

museum, a library, whatever it is, or individually in a community archive,

a

tribal nation archive. An archivist believes in sharing information as a tool, as a

currency of power and having access to that power and that there shouldn't be

barriers to entry or barriers to power that are privileged to certain people.

Charles Teenie

Harris is one of my main inspirations. As I was coming up

through the field I had the incredible honor and privilege of serving his legacy

for a few years before beginning The Luster Company, and he taught me so

much about what it means to be Black in Ame

rica.

He was a photographer in Pittsburgh, in mid 20th century, and he taught me so

much about what it means to celebrate Blackness and to celebrate community

around Blackness, and to tell stories through imagery, through family church

albums. As his mediu

m was photography, there's certain modes that he could

teach through visual looks and acuity and analysis and light and shadow. There

are a lot of things that you can learn through the visual record. And as an

archivist, I kind of was able to blend my trai

ning, my education, my

understanding of records as places of power, through his understanding of

photographs as visions and windows into places.

And when you merge those two things together, you can kind of see, okay well

who is historically left out of th

e record? Who was historically left out of the

photograph? How are these photographs positioned to present a certain

narrative? And is that narrative skewed in a certain way or provided to a certain

person in a certain way.

And how do we tell that story fo

r ourselves. The lesson that I learned about

from Teenie was about how do you tell your own story in the way that you want

to tell it? How do you make sure that the story of your life, the story of your

family, the story of your legacy is told from your ow

n words? From your own

heart? And in whatever modality that may be. In his modality, that was

photography. In my modality it's in archival records. In another person's

modality, it could be in visual art or music or in banking. It doesn't matter.

There's

this really beautiful quote that says if there are 44 million Black

Americans, which is not any more, but this is a historic quote, if there were 44

million Black Americans, there are 44 million ways to be Black and every

single one of those ways is corre

ct. And so however you express yourself, then

it's correct. And that's what I learned and that's why I actually felt like I had to

start this company, because when you know better, you must do better. When

you feel charged to do something, when you underst

and, when you seen the

page, you can't unsee it. And once I really understood this concept of this is how

I express my Blackness. This is how I give to the world. I couldn't unsee it.

What is the past, honestly? It's such a complicated question, but I wil

l start by

trying to illustrate the fact that the past is essentially the idea of a chronology of

things in a certain order. So February 2nd and then February 5th and then

February 14th last year. Those dates are in the past. And even those things are

subj

ective. If you've ever asked say, your aunt, uncle, or your grandparents

about a very memorable or particular day and they have slightly similar, but

slightly separate memories of that exact same event, say their wedding from 40

years ago, they're going to

remember it differently.

But it happened on the same day in the past, right? Those differences, the fact

that it happened on the same day, the fact that they are trying to recall the exact

same event is the chronology of the past. Whereas they're processi

ng their

memory of that time, of that event, is history. The difference being that the cake

was ordered from this company as a receipt, like fact can be pointed to as in the

past.

Whereas the story of grandma and grandpa's wedding, thei r storytelling of i

t is

the history. History is one, a phenomenon of power truly. Because it is

controlled, dictated and shared through influences of power. There's this saying

that history is written by the Victor, it's very true because it's about controlling

the flow of i

nfluence.

So if an influential person decides that this is what happened as a historic event,

and that is told at enough scale that it's broad spread shared either through

narrative history books, when one version of a story get shared at scale, it

become

s history. It becomes historic. And given some education systems, we

may not challenge it all the time. It depends on when or how or why something

might be introduced, but for certain individual events like your great

-

grandparents wedding, we don't necessa

rily think about it as a phenomenon of

power.

But when we think about the transatlantic slave trade or a narrative about the

Jim Crow South, it is. It is absolutely a phenomenon of power. And it's a

phenomenon in which information is used as a currency, as

a weapon, for either

driving a certain narrative forward, or information can be used to shape a certain

narrative in a different direction.

Records can be left out or destroyed. Humans can be left out or destroyed.

Power takes the shape, and it uses infor

mation as the tool, as a principle melder,

for what that history is going to be. And it's our job when we know better to

question it, to criticize it. It's not as if I'm looking for different history. It's that I

truly believe we need to have more history.

So I personally, in The Luster

Company, I'm not advocating for one version of an event over another. I think

it's okay to have both. I think it's okay to have multiple narratives of any given

time in American history and world history. It's okay to have m

ore stories. We

need to have more narratives, more histories. Histories can be plural.

And that gives us a fuller and more complete understanding because we are

living through history and how this time in our lives and American history and

world history wi

ll be recorded and shared will dramatically impact those 20

years from now or 50 years from now in a myriad of ways.

Something that I am excited to work on is these ideas around community

archiving as independent places of power and influence. And what I m

ean by

that is, like I mentioned earlier about the community archives, if you live in a

neighborhood or if you have a specific community or profession in a specific

geographic location. There's a ton of communities out there, they have things

happening. Th

ey have records, they have movement, they have people, they

have power. They have a shift that is occurring. And there are some projects

coming down the road that would really allow us to support communities in the

most authentic and genuine ways by giving

infrastructural support. By

providing those information and documentary services. By going into their

attics and closets and actually helping them do the archival work. Helping them

do those preservation pages, helping them get those photo albums out of t

hose

old boxes and into some sleeves.

There is work to be done. And it's a really amazing opportunity to be invited

into, essentially a community's home, to help them tell their stories. It's such a

powerful thing. And to be able to help people do that onc

e they've decided it is

an honor and a privilege. And so I'm really, really excited about it. I can't

necessarily express how much I think it will change the way that we think about

information and breaking down those silos between what is formal and what

is

informal, what is important or not important? What is privileged or not

privileged? By really investing in informal community archiving, just as much

as we invest in formalized institutional archives.

It's not just about getting family photographs out o

f the old dusty boxes and out

of the old scrap albums and digitizing them. Digitizing is actually a multi

-

step

process. And it is expensive, but that's actually why and not always advocating

or pushing for the digitization of records because I want to be u

niquely present

and aware of the needs of the families that I'm working with and the clients that

I'm working with.

So if I'm working with a family whose grandmother has photo albums from the

1940s, Granny has no idea how to log into a secure cloud storage

and view her

photographs on the computer. It's of no use to her. And what we prioritize over

everything is use. It's about using the things and seeing the things and sharing

the things. There is a physiological response that the brain and the body and the

soul has to touching old things and to having your family's photographs or

newspaper clippings where your great

-

grandparents were listed on the front

page of the newspaper, there is something about having that in your hands that

can never be replaced.

Now

, that is not to say that if the elements have taken the family photographs

and digitization is the best way to preserve them so that they can be seen for

years to come, then absolutely. But I firmly believe that technology should be

used in the service of

solving a problem. If solving the problem is access to

family recipes or their family Bibles. If the answer is use and the family has no

need to use digitization as a technology, there are other things that we can do,

then I'm not necessarily going to int

roduce it because I want to encourage the

thinglyness of things. And not necessarily as a overwhelming of things kind of

way, but as a point of peace, as a point of yours, as a point of not dealing with

who owns the cloud storage.

There's too many things t

hat get caught up in digitization, especially at the

community archiving level, when really people want to see the mother's day

photo from:

The Luster Company is a community of anyone who cares about Black history

and storytelling and negativity, as much as I do point blank. Period. And that

can be of any walk of life, of any background, but you come to this table and

you definitively a certai

n stand on the ground that Black stories, Black people,

Black ancestry matters. From that table, then we can talk about whatever

projects or opportunities there are to dive into that for your unique expression.

But our community is anyone who definitively

believes as we believe. Period.

Now, that has looked like individuals looking to trace their families as far back

as possible. So that could be something in the genealogy kind of realm of work.

It can also be individuals looking to break through his very

specific brick wall.

So that could be a very specific question or interests that they may have in

either their family or something that they are working on. A research interest, a

book, a film, whatever it is that might involve Black stories, Black individ

uals,

those who have gone before us.

So maybe you're working on a project about someone who there's not a lot well

known about that individual, but you know how important they were to your

work in the arts or your work in Black financing and America, if yo

u know, and

you just need help getting there, then we do that kind of work.

This community can look like collectives or cohorts who are looking to do good

in the realm of supporting and uplifting Black collections. There is a notorious

under

-

representation

of Black and Brown stories that are formally recorded and

preserved in libraries, archives, universities across the country. If there is

already a little bit of a lack of support in major institutions, you can only

imagine how much there is a lack of infr

astructure and support in community

archives or informal institutions. So maybe you are a local community in

Pittsburgh, or you are a local community in New York or local community in

Virginia.

And you live in a predominantly Black community that has a ric

h history, but

no one is collecting and no one's preserving and no one is making sure that

those records are kept and available. That is also our community. We believe in

Black storytelling. So if you believe as we believe, we can find a way to work

togeth

er.

Those who need to hear about The Luster Company's mission most, are really

two groups. There's a generation who do not know their grandparents or great

grandparents names. There is a generation who do not know what their great

grandparents did or wher

e they came from or anything about their lives. There

is a generation who has no idea how valuable and how powerful they are, cause

it's never been made of interest to them in a way that is captivating.

Regardless of what happened in your high school, his

tory is cool. They lied.

History is awesome. It's very cool. It just depends on how it's framed, I swear.

It's so fascinating when it is relatable to you and it connects to you and what's

important and matters to you. So there's that, there's that generati

on, there's that

group of individuals who I would love to hear this message and to be more in

connection with.

But on the flip side of that, there is a generation of people who have the

knowledge. Who don't think it is a value to be shared. They are our pa

rents or

our grandparents generation who were around and they may actually know their

parents' or grandparents' names. So now all of a sudden you have access to you

and I's maybe second or third generation great

-

grandparents, but our

grandparents have no i

dea that that information is valuable.

They have no idea. They don't write it down. You grow up at the kitchen table

and then you find out, oh yeah, My mother went to so

-

and

-

so's college. She was

like the first Black woman who went to that college. You nev

er thought to tell

anybody? Things like that happened and families all the time and that

information gets lost. It can't necessarily be recaptured in the same way.

There are things that I can do as an archivist to go find historic records or

census record

s, or school records. There are empirical primary source records

that I can go find as receipts or evidence to your family, but it is very different

from actually having your own family story shared with you by those who know

it. It's incredible what our p

arents, our grandparents know about their own

families that they just don't think is important or matters to share, or it doesn't

occur to them that anybody would be interested in where their grandma moved

from.

It's incredibly important, even if it just k

eeps the information in the back of

someone's mind. Because maybe it isn't as important to you, but it might be

important to your kids. You never know. So just having that information,

talking about it, is vitally important. Those are the two groups those

who need

to hear, and those who have to tell.

As a small business, our most ambitious goal was to be of service. And was to

prove the value of this service was to create something and prove that it was

needed and wanted. That people were wanting these idea

s around narrativity

and storytelling. So, I feel like we have accomplished that and I'm very proud

and sending big hugs to all of our partners, y'all know who you are. And so, the

goal right now would be to just have more people want to do it. To expand i

nto

these community archiving projects that are coming into play to be able to be of

service to more families. That is a huge goal right now.

Genealogy, as you can imagine, African

-

American genealogy is quite difficult.

There are gaps in the records that

other families may not necessarily experience,

and it requires a different lens kind of reading between the lines. Even if you're

looking at the exact same census record. There's also a brick wall in Black

ily genealogy sometime around:

s very difficult to trace back

families through the Civil War. And so one of my goals would be to figure out a

way that we can help more people unlock that brick wall in more efficient ways,

because there's such a powerful reckoning that happens on the oth

er side of that

through slavery.

Other goals would be to get the word out because I really want people to be

thinking about how they can do this work for themselves. How can they be

inspired to do what they can by themselves? And when they can't get any

f

urther, when you hit that brick wall, tap an archivist on the shoulder. I want to

have more conversations along the lines of this historic Black and brown

community out of Pittsburgh or out of Richmond or out of DC is looking to

memorialize its ancestors a

nd those that have come before those who have built

the community to be what it is, how can you help? So many ways. Let's talk. So

those are the goals. It's just really where can we be of service.

I think that we are all in doubt by an instinct to tell the

stories of our lives and to

see the stories of our lives and the stories of our families outlive us. There are

some innate human instincts around legacy and legacy building that are just

hard to really explain and define. I have often advised clients or f

amilies that

you do not need a professional archivist to save your family history. I am more

than happy to help you, but you did not need someone with a fancy degree to

help you save your own family's story, because what's important is to

understand that y

our family's story is yours.

The way that your family speaks to each other is yours. The way that your

family saves recipes and passes it down is yours. You are the only person that

can know truly how it should be saved and preserved. And there are a myria

d of

techniques to do that, whether that is recording family videos, whether that is

doing an actual oral history with your grandparents, whether that is being the

person who volunteers to keep grandma's family photo album. Those are things

that you can do

. There are some basic preservation techniques and tactics that

any of us can do in our everyday lives, that would help preserve our family

history and narratives. It's just being aware of it.

We've all been in some sort of circle or event, wedding, Thank

sgiving,

Christmas, birthday party, whether it be with friends or family, and you have

this moment where you look around and you say, wow this is cool. That's the

moments that you want to record. And so, taking a picture and making sure that

the photos on

your phone are uploaded into another place. Anytime we think of

history keeping, it doesn't need to be formal or structured or an active oral

history interview. You can simply make sure that those moments where you feel

it in your spirit, get captured or w

ritten down or journaled or have those

conversations with your family members.

Ask them questions about who their parents were because often with my work,

one of the hardest things to do with individuals who are looking to do their

family history now is because they don't even know their grandparents' names.

And not being able to get

to that second generation confidently, creates a whole

branch of problems later down the road. So even just knowing your

grandparents or great

-

grandparents names or where they were from or

something about them, even if you don't know all the details, that

's where I

come in. But what it really comes down to is being present and asking

questions, being curious. It really comes down to however makes sense for you

and your family to thrive.

What I hope is that at some point in the future, we'll see a world whe

re Black

people know who their great grandparents were. They know where they come

from, they know who they are and whose they are. That the idea around Black

history and Black narrativity and Black storytelling isn't crazy or reserved for

one month a year.

I don't know about y'all, but we should have a real good

conversation about Black history month. This is something that I've always

thought, but at any rate, one day I want to be able to look up and most Black

people that I know have a token or a photogra

ph or a family heirloom, because

there is a sense of pride and a sense of knowing a sense of peace and Ancestry

as a new form of power.

[:

Lynz:

You've been listening to Mission Megaphone, a Growth

Network Podcasts production. Follow this podcast f

or more incredible stories

from purpose driven organizations and individuals you'll want to meet.

To find out more about this show or The Luster Company, check out our show

notes. I'm Lynz Floren. Our producers are Sari Weinerman and Jeffrey Morris.

Produc

tion manager is Maura Murphy Bourasse. Original music by Nicholas

Fournier. Promotional support from Marsha Ord. Website by Nick Brodniki.

Thanks for listening until we meet again, keep searching for inspiration and

when you find it, make sure to pass it on.

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