Contributing editor Katie Randall reflects on her experiences as a person of color while researching in German archives for the semester.
I look forward to the beginning of every academic school year with the unbridled joy of a child set loose on a playground. My colleagues return from their summer holidays, classes are starting, and the aromatic fragrances of tea and coffee waft through the library. This year, however, my back to school enthusiasm was compounded by the adventure of studying abroad. After years of coursework and the daunting portfolio process, which functions as comps at the University of Colorado Boulder, I finally began my dissertation research in the archives. Until last spring, this point in my academic career seemed like a hazy mirage—like the Emerald City at the end of an absurdly long yellow brick road. But, after months of meticulous planning and packing, I finally set off on my whirlwind archival adventure.
I love the hustle and bustle of a major city—which, I probably lose points for calling it “hustle and bustle,” but nevertheless, I relish the feeling of being in the middle of a crowd, where no one pays me any attention. I love feeling like I belong—waiting for the U-Bahn, I look just as ordinary as everyone around me. This quotidian experience is a violent departure from life in Boulder—and I’m not just referring to the population, pollution, and lack of mountains. In Boulder, I’m one of the few people of color at CU. I’ve made my peace with the demographics of my department, and the student body at large. That being said, it would be wrong for me not to admit that part of the reason why I so anticipated my research trip is that I would be part of a diverse population. It isn’t noteworthy or even noticeable that there is another woman of color checking out the extensive flea markets or enjoying a latte in the cafe around the corner. In my enthusiasm, however, I forgot about the overwhelming demographics of academic institutions. But allow me to briefly depart from my ruminations on race and naïveté to regale you with stories of my archival experiences.
Before I even landed in Germany, I organized trips to several libraries based on what I could surmise from their labyrinthian online catalogs; I wanted to make the most of my limited time here. Since I’ve landed, and started exploring, I’ve discovered far more about German libraries than I intended, which seems to be the running theme of my dissertation research: surprises everywhere! From their superior vending machines to the incomprehensible online database reservation systems, the holdings of the collections at these institutions have me in rapture.
After receiving my library cards, the rare books study room at the Lipperheidesche Kostümbibliothek was my first visit into German archives. My initial impression of the building was resolutely German: Bauhaus meets Cold War. Echoing marble halls, encased in a concrete exterior, adorned with minimalist silver handles and guardrails. By comparison, the exterior of the Staatsbibliothek, Haus Unter den Linden conjures images of late-nineteenth-century grandeur with its Neo-Baroque and Haussmann-inspired architecture, while the inside is a curious blend of functionalist futurism and bright orange carpet. Both of my new libraries away from home remind me of the wonder and unlimited intellectual possibilities available at my disposal. While I am on a mission, I want to enjoy all the tangential adventures along the way, which includes in my opinion, stopping to admire the environment in which I now find myself. However, when I’m not pondering the carpeting choices at these institutions, I’m furiously flipping through century-old magazines, trying to unearth their secrets.
The sheer, unbridled joy of handling old and rare materials is one of the many reasons why I love my work. Leafing through magazines that are nearly a century old may seem innocuous or even dull to many other people, but to me it’s invigorating. As I peruse these old periodicals, my mind races with the possibilities of how the original readers understood and digested the information at hand. Were they reading enthusiastically like I am? Were they browsing the pictures and articles hoping to find something new or interesting, or had they simply picked up this magazine to pass the time? However, my initial queries are replaced by more substantive, targeted questions: how does this magazine compare to similar publications; what was its circulation; who was its target audience?
My research revolves around the presentation of masculinity in magazines, particularly those with an emphasis on leisure and lifestyle. While I’ve been hunting through the archives for the German equivalents of GQ and Esquire, I’ve been drawn to the way these magazines present men. How they’re dressed, what they’re doing, who they’re with—these are the kinds of performances I’m interested in. As any scholar of gender and sexuality can tell you, gender is an embodiment—the successful performance of masculinity depends on the way a man carries himself, how he busies himself, and with whom he associates. And, while that might sound like a line straight out of Downton Abbey, there is some truth behind it—a truth that I want to uncover.
All the skills I’ve learned from years of coursework are finally enjoying a moment in the limelight of my dissertation research. Going through these pages also reminds me of the nature of humanity, or rather, humanity in the age of capitalist consumerism. Advertisements for any and everything inform audiences of how they can buy happiness. From cars to clothes to cold cream, if you buy this product, proclaim articles and advertisements, you too can be modern, tasteful, and youthful—everything you want. While marketing has become a fine-tuned machine in the twenty-first century, it’s interesting tracing the development of this media institution through magazine publications. However, these printed idiosyncrasies aren’t the only ones I’ve noticed in Berlin.
As of now, I’ve been in Germany for a month and my research has proven quite fruitful, but I’ve also noticed some interesting parallels between Boulder and Berlin. I can count on one hand the number of graduate students of color in my program—including myself. Over the course of my academic career, I’ve come to terms with working at a predominantly white institution (PWI); studying a topic that has nothing to do with my race, but rather, my intellectual curiosity (much to the surprise of most passing acquaintances); and navigating the burden of emotional labor, micro-aggressions, and tokenism. My network of mentors, colleagues, and friends help navigate the anxiety that stems from my graduate experience, but they don’t change the fact that when I walk into a new academic institution, I’m one of a handful of people of color. I thought, in going to an international city, there would be more people of color in these libraries, but that was a naive assumption on my end. While the diversity of Berlin’s population overshadows Boulder’s, I have been the only person color in the reading room at the Lipperheidesche Kostümbibliothek. On one lucky occasion, I was one of five people of color in the reading room at the Staatsbibliothek, Haus Unter den Linden, but on every other occasion I am, again, the only person of color. While these demographics are not alien to me, nor is the isolation unusual, it does make me wonder if academic institutions will always be inordinately white. But for now, I’ll be nose-deep in German lifestyle and leisure magazines from the 1920s and 1930s, trying to ignore the vibrant carpet, and enjoying my semester abroad.