Agency in the Historical Record: Reflections on the Irene and Bill Irby scrapbook of the Philippines
Earlier this month I visited a friend in Washington, D.C. for a brief vacation. We spent much of one afternoon at the National Museum of African American History & Culture. One placard in particular from the “Slavery and Freedom 1400-1877” exhibit struck me in a way that sparked a connection with a scrapbook that I cataloged for Stanford this past summer.
I can’t recall now the exact wording of the placard, or the exact item it was referring to, but I believe it was an item from the Rouzee Family papers. The Rouzees had a plantation in Virginia, and the document on display was some type of financial document related to persons they enslaved. (Something like this "Lists of enslaved persons hired out by the Rouzee family in 1811" or this "List of enslaved persons and yards of cloth ordered for Rouzee family plantation.") The placard accompanying the document said something about needing to use such records to learn about the enslaved men and women who lived on that plantation, as we have no other written record of these people. We have no documents written by the Peggy listed on the “List of enslaved persons and yards of cloth ordered for Rouzee family plantation,” for example. The only information we have about her comes from her enslaver rather than anything in her own voice. It made me think of the Irene and Bill Irby scrapbook of the Philippines, 1936-1937, and the idea of agency in one’s own historical record. I found myself having trouble crystallizing my thoughts around this, so I hope you’ll tolerate my somewhat scattered reflections.
Last July the Irene and Bill Irby scrapbook came across my desk. Apparently assembled by Irene, it essentially captures the Irbys’ time living in the Philippines while Bill was working as a mine surveyor there. The scrapbook includes what I would call evidence of their lives, including: their ticket for the SS Saparoea, which they took from San Francisco to Manila in 1936; a prize they received on board for winning “best dancers;” a telegram received from members of Bill’s company in Manila; news clippings about Bill and his work; photographs of Bill and Irene and their homes while living in the Philippines.
But it’s not only Irene and Bill who are documented in the scrapbook. There are of course photographs of Filipino men and women that the Irbys encountered - people Bill worked with at the surveying site, people the Irbys employed, or people they just happened to see at the market – but it goes beyond that. One page of the scrapbook has the following two documents:
In the case of the first document, we still have evidence of Irene’s life, but it’s also evidence of the housegirl’s life (whether the housegirl in question is Posita or Polly I don’t know). Something this young girl thought and felt and wrote down in her own voice. I can easily imagine how this scrap of paper ended up in Irene’s scrapbook. It’s likely the housegirl wrote it and forgot about it rather than sending it to the intended recipient “Maming.” Irene found it and held on to it since it’s about her. It’s also possible that the housegirl had every intention of sending the note, but Irene took it kept it. In either case, it’s not surprising that Irene included it in her scrapbook. The second item is more confusing, though. Irene has labeled it “Love letter written to Posita, housegirl at Surigao Suyoc.” Why would Irene have this love letter? Unlike the brief note, it has nothing to do with her. I wondered what Posita thought of this letter, and its sender. Did she reciprocate his feelings? Did she think him silly? Did she find him repulsive? We can’t know. Because Irene kept this letter and put it in her scrapbook, we have this sliver of knowledge about Posita. Did Posita want to keep the letter, but her employer took it from her? Or did she find the sender frivolous and Irene was able to keep it because Posita discarded it?
Some of us have agency in our own historical record. We keep journals, we make photo albums of trips we took, we curate a version of ourselves to show to the world on social media. Posita, whether she would have minded her “lover’s” letter ending up in Stanford’s Special Collections or not, didn’t have the same agency in what information she left behind her as Irene Irby did. I’m thankful to know at least a little something about Posita, but I wonder what she would have told us herself if given the chance.
"Polly and Poestta, our house girls at Suyoc" Photo of Posita (or Posetta) taken by the Irbys. Whether Posita is on the left or the right I don't know.