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'Know Your History': An Austin Archivist Calls On Her City To Confront Its Racial Past

A protester holds a sign that says "Stop killing us" outside Austin police headquarters.
Michael Minasi
Protesters hold signs against police violence outside Austin police headquarters Sunday.

kYmberly Keeton is tired. 

“I’m one of the go-to people for black history now in Austin. [I] get phone calls all the time: ‘We want you to talk about the history of blackness,'" Keeton says. "But even I get tired of telling the same story over and over and over. Even I get tired.”


Keeton is a librarian and archivist of African American history at the Austin History Center.

KUT reached out to her to get some context about Austin’s racial past, amid protests against police violence and systemic racism. Even though she's tired, she took the time to speak with KUT because Keeton says if we don’t confront our past, we can’t deal with our present. 

"From the beginnings of black history in Austin, it's never been a history about the progression of black people," she says. "It's always been about holding people of color back." 

Listen to the conversation below:


This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

Archivist of African American History at the Austin History Center kYmberly Keeton : When is America going to come to a place in which it understands? Because if you don't understand history, if you can't deal with your history, then you can't deal with what is taking place today. And that is the issue that I see as a leader, librarian, historian and an archivist.

You know, we can go all the way back to the Boston Tea Party. We can go back to the Temperance Movement. We can go back to the Tulsa race riots. No one wants to look at those moments in time. They want to go straight to Dr. Martin Luther King and "I Have a Dream." But before he had a dream, he had to understand that there's a process to that dream in America. It's not just given to black people. It's not just given to Hispanic people. It's not just given to people who are of a darker hue. And if you can't deal with history, then you are not going to be able to deal with what is taking place right now from an individual perspective.

I'm one of the go-to people for black history now in Austin. But even I get tired of telling the same story over and over and over and over. Even I get tired.

KUT: The president of the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce came out this week and in response to the protests she was saying she believes the disparities in education, economic opportunity and health outcomes are "the parents of deadly police force." Based on what I'm hearing from you, it sounds like you would agree with that statement. This focus of the protests, obviously, on the issues with police violence in this country. But at the same time, that's a symptom of a larger problem.

Keeton: Right. I think what happened to George Floyd just broke people. And I believe that what's taking place is not just about police brutality, it's about history. From the beginning of black history in Austin, it's never been a history about the progression of black people. It's always been about holding people of color back. You look at that era of UT Austin being built - it wiped out an entire community we built. Then you look at where black people were placed in regards to East Austin. You look at the different plans that were set in place and none of it was for the progression of black people.

During the recent protests these past few days, there were times when crowds of people climbed onto the I-35 highway, shutting it down to traffic. And on social media, you'd see many people talk about the symbolism of those moments given the fact that I-35 acted as this physical divide between white and black populations in the city. As an archivist - somebody who studies the history of this city - did you make that connection? What was your reaction to seeing so many protesters on that highway?

For Austin, it will always be the underlining factor that you can never forget what has happened in Austin, Texas, as far as the racial divide. And for that highway to still be standing, it will always be a symbol of what happened in the past. Which brings us to the present, which will take us through the future if things do not change. It will always be a symbol of what happened and what has happened and what is continuing to happen. And I think that goes for every state, capital, city, county in the United States. There is something that is always going to remind you of what has happened to African-American people, specifically, because we're the only group of people who have been marginalized since 1619. I want to share a quote by Ella Baker, who was an organizer during the civil rights movement. She says, "In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system." And I think that is so relevant to the times that we're living in right now. 

 Knowing the history of racism in Austin, how would you characterize this moment? How would you describe this moment to someone like me asking about it 100 years from now?

I wouldn't describe it to you. I don't think I would be able to describe it to you. I would hope that I would be able to tell you what changed.

It's hard not to hear the emotion in your voice. I want to just talk to you as an individual right now. You know, not as an archivist, not as a historian. As a black woman in Austin and in America, how are you feeling watching what's happening?

You know, my eyes are swelling up right now. Because far too long, African-American people have had to hold our race on our backs. And when you, day in and day out, watch black people being murdered in a real time, like I've never seen anything like this ever in my life. It broke my spirit in so many different ways.

And I'm on this high of realizing that I was just named one of the top African American movers and shakers by the American Library Association and Library Journal. I received a letter stating that I have been accepted into a PhD program. In the midst of me receiving these accolades for the hard work that I've done, I have to look at what is taking place in America. I'm able to celebrate but then I have to cry. It's an unbelievable feeling. 

For those interested in learning more about African American history, Keeton recommends these 20 books on race:

● Black Is The Body, by Emily Bernard

● An American Summer, by Alex Kotlowitz

● Biased, by Jennifer L. Eberhardt, PhD

● Democracy in Black, by Eddie S. Claude Jr.

● I’m Still Here, by Austin Channing Brown

● Forty Million Dollar Slaves, by William C. Rhoden

● Stony the Road, by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

● Nigger, by Dick Gregory

● The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead

● White Girls, by Hilton Als

● Between The World And Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

● White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, by Carol Anderson

● The Isis Paper: The Keys to the Colors, by Francis Cress Welsing

● White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, by Robin DiAngelo

● So You Want to Talk about Race, by Ijeoma Olu

● Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, by Patricia Hill Collins

● CITIZEN An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine

● Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement, by Angela Davis

● The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

● Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, by Brittney Cooper

Nadia Hamdan is a local news anchor and host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT.
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