Black Networks, Visualization, and Mapping Tools

*This post is part of our roundtable “Digital Black Atlantics.”

A crowd of African American Women’s Army Corps members waving at the camera, Staten Island Terminal, New York Port of Embarkation, 1946 (Courtesy of the Schomburg Center)

The use of software and visualizations has never been so prominent in historical studies as it is now. More and more often, historians are turning to SQL software in order to show connections between people, groups, institutions, events, and other geographically grounded features through the exchange of letters, book citations, or travel. Large networks can be built using this data tracking that spreads geographically and chronologically over maps or graphs. When well-paired with traditional historical methodologies, this type of data modeling is especially useful in intellectual history, as it does a marvelous job displaying the movement of ideas through book citations and letters. Thus, it seemed an obvious choice to better understand the spatial dimensions of the Black Atlantic intellectual and musical network.  

This project is a visual representation of a limited intellectual and musical network built out of Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic. In order to build out an even more robust network, I  used supplementary materials in order to include more marginalized groups. For example, I  used Keisha N. Blain and TIffany M. Gill’s  To Turn the Whole World Over, and “Blackness and Its (Queer)  Discontents,” by Fatima El-Tayeb, to add an appropriate amount of women and LGBTQ  activists to the network. For each of these works, I combed through and noted each author,  written work, and musician cited within the text. I felt the musicians were an important group to include, as roles of musician, activist, and author are often intertwined in the Black Atlantic. However, for the purpose of this post, I will focus on the author’s network. I then created a map plotting where the people had been born and died, and where their books had been published. Below is a photo of the entire network.  

Figure 1: The total intellectual network of the Black Atlantic Intellectual Network Project. This includes written works, authors, musicians, citation locations, and the birth/death of authors and musicians

This network is quite large and messy, but when we zoom in on certain features it shows aspects of the Black Atlantic with an immediacy that is sometimes lost in text. The first is obvious, yet striking, and that is how amazingly transatlantic this network is. Very few individuals remained in their original continent for their whole life. The image of the author’s birth and death locations show this even more clearly. Curiously, this particular network shows how few individuals came from or traveled to South America despite the many African individuals who were transported to South American plantations.1 It invites us to think about the limits of “canonic” Black Atlantic texts and the opportunities to explore this further. 


Figure 2: Graphic showing the geographical location of the birth and death places of authors. The blue dots are birthplaces, the red dots are death locations.
Figure 3: Graphic showing birth and death locations of authors in western Europe

When looking at this map, the mobility of the African diaspora and the role of  Africa in the Black Atlantic becomes more evident than it is in Gilroy’s text. Africa has many blue dots (birthplaces) but far fewer red dots (death places). This map also demonstrates how many of these Black Atlantic scholars are based in America or Europe,  rather than Africa. When zooming into Europe, it also becomes evident how metropolis-driven this movement is. Scholars are born all around the world, often in smaller cities, to come and finish out their lives in London or Paris. 

This domination of  American and European scholars is most dramatically shown when the publishing company locations for this network of Black Atlantic scholarship was plotted. On this map, it is very obvious to see that there is only one Nairobi,  compared to the large number of works published from New York, Boston, Paris, and London.  The last map that I would like to display further demonstrates the points made by the previous maps. This map shows the author’s birth and death place, but it also shows where they have been cited.  For example, Adolphe Sylvestre Félix Éboué was born in Cayenne, GF in 1884, and died in Cairo, EG in 1944. However, he was cited by Blain, et. al. in To Turn the Whole World Over in Guadeloupe in 1936.

Figure 4: Graphic showing the geographical location of published written works

This map shows the cited location as a part of Félix Éboué’s life. Furthermore, this map shows the frequent visitation to Africa by Black Atlantic intellectuals, as well as demonstrating again,  how widely everyone traveled in general. While it is no surprise that Europe is the central point of this network, this map reveals some aspects that aren’t always as obvious when we read, rather than see, the networks that shaped the Black Atlantic. This is particularly true when we read historiographically and focus on intellectuals alone. The influence of African authors and musicians should not be understated, and that this is a widely international subject of study that influences scholars around the globe. Therefore, this project demonstrates the importance of the Black Atlantic as a whole, and the power of visualizing networks. By tracing publishing houses we literally visually bring the history of the book into connection with Black Atlantic intellectual history. We reveal the extent of Afro-diasporic exchange and mobility in a way that doesn’t always come across in text. And it has the power to reveal new connections and associations. 

Figure 5: Graphic showing citation, birth, and death, location of authors
  1. Herbert S. Klein and Ben Vinson III, African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean (Oxford University  Press, 2007).
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Maiah Akkerman Letsch

Maiah is a research masters student at Utrecht University. She is currently living in London, though she is originally from Wisconsin in the United States. Maiah focuses her research on the intersection between colonial history and the history of the body. She has most recently been working as a research assistant for the Database of Indigenous Slavery project based at Brown University alongside her studies at Utrecht. She tweets @MaiahAkkerman.