Creating Digital Space for Black Scholarship

Toni Morrison Lecture at West Point, Photo by Mike Strasser (Flickr: West Point)

This year, within a week, we lost two geniuses: Toni Morrison and Paule Marshall. But at least their words circulate, their ideas strenuous and unrelenting in the broadness of their questions and their undoing of the racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, and ableist mindsets that divide and spiritually exhaust us. Morrison and Marshall gave us music. What happens when other oppressed voices no longer hum or murmur but are allowed to sing in all their fullness?

As we mourn, Maryemma Graham, the Founder and Director of the Project on the History of Black Writing [HBW] and University Distinguished Professor in English at the University of Kansas, asks us to consider this and poses a different question: what do we gain from studying Black texts and from preserving and archiving Black writers’ voices? How does this kind of research clarify our songs? If we could digitize and search these texts — which Hoyt Long, an Associate Professor of East African Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, notes have been much less represented in online archives — would that transform the ways people read and engage with writing?1 Digitizing these books — and subsequently making more texts accessible for scholars — is what HBW and its collaborator, the Chicago Text Lab (now Textual Optics Lab) hope to accomplish. Kenton Rambsy, Assistant Professor of African American literature and Digital Humanities at the University of Texas at Arlington and project advisor, calls the archive “unique,” citing the rarity of a digital humanities project focusing on Black texts and directed by an African American scholar; Arnab Chakraborty, a fourth-year doctoral student at KU and BBIP project manager, describes the archive as “revolutionary,” an innovative tool for examining complex and intersecting data about race and culture. And Jerry Ward, a poet, critic and Professor Emeritus at Tougaloo College and HBW board member, argues that this work has potential for releasing obscured information and generating new discoveries about Black cultural production.

I agree. Looking through the database, I’ve found rare texts: one of the first Black novels written in the West (Thomas Detter’s Nellie Brown, or The Jealous Wife, 1871); another novel, written in 1957 (Samuel Warner’s Madam President-Elect) imagines a Black woman president a decade before Shirley Chisholm ran for president. The fourteen scholars who are the first class working with HBW’s Black Book Interactive Book Project demonstrate the value of professional development programs that allow one to engage with the archives and to develop research projects that reflect the diversity of a lengthy writing tradition within the Diaspora: Seretha Williams, professor of English at Augusta State University, is focusing on the way these texts explore the midwestern United States and Midwestern cities while Marina del Sol and Elisio Jacob, Howard University lecturers, are exploring “the intersection between African-American writers and Afro-Latinx/Caribbean writers (including others in the diaspora).” A great deal of the BBIP scholars’ work focuses on languageSerena Simpson, an MFA Candidate at Northwestern University, says she hopes to “center on patterns of storytelling, specifically on usage of idioms, invented, repurposed, and redacted (what is said in unwritten subtext) in language in novels written by black women in the 1970s through early 1990s.” Tyechia Thompson, who completed her PhD at Howard University, now a fellow with the Institute of Creativity, Arts, and Technology at Virginia Tech, is working with Sarah Mease, a Digital Humanities Assistant Librarian at Virginia Tech. They are the creators and hosts of the first digital humanities summer program for students from historically Black colleges and universities. The “Digital Humanities Undergraduate Summer Institute: Virginia and Vernacular” gave these students an opportunity to search the BBIP database for Virginia authors, whose use of vernacular traditions they wanted to examine closely. Khirsten Scott, an Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh, and Zanice Bond, an Assistant Professor at Tuskegee University, are “using text mining software to analyze the different word types like verbs, nouns, adjectives across the corpus.” Simpson, focusing on the post-Black Arts Movement, and Bond, focusing on the Harlem Renaissance, both ask what could studying these texts written in different time periods tell us about how language has been interrupted or changed. And what does that teach us about the currents, the patterns, and the process of a language’s development?

We live in an era where preserving more recent history is challenging. With fewer resources, digital publications that serve the Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities are subject to digital decay, while in the last twenty-five years, traditional print magazines, such as Ebony (1945), Jet (1951), Vixen (2004), and Emerge (1989) have folded. Some BBIP scholars, like Clark Atlanta University doctoral candidates Joyce White and Ebony Perro and University of Oregon post-doctoral fellow Susan Weeber, are focusing on building the archive’s connection with other databases and publications. Jacinta R. Saffold, former Mellon ACLS Public Fellow and now Assistant Professor at the University of New Orleans, is researching books that form Essence magazine’s bestseller list, as part of a “coordinated celebration of Essence Magazine’s 50th Anniversary.” Conrad Pegues, an Assistant Professor at Tennessee State University, is building an archive of Black speculative fiction from earlier writers Sutton Griggs, Pauline Hopkins, and W.E.B. Du Bois to more established writers today, including Octavia Butler, Samuel Delaney, and Tananarive Due.

Sarah Arbuthnot Lendt, HBW scholar program coordinator, tells me BBIP encourages collaboration with faculty from other institutions by seeking a wide pool of applicants and reaching out to digital humanities experts such as Kim Gallon, Assistant Professor of History at Purdue University, and Julian C. Chambliss, Professor of English and History at Michigan State University and AAIHS contributing editor, to offer webinars and seminars. Lendt describes BBIP as one way HBW invests in outreach and helps to make the archive more accessible. Other ways include potential collaboration with other databases, including Hathi Trust, Guttenberg, and Digital Public Library of America [DPLA]. Graham says HBW, which was created in 1983, has accumulated — and continues to accumulate — a range of hard-to-find Black-authored texts that should be more available.

Hamza Rehman, a KU MFA student and a BBIP Coordinator, and Erin Wolfe, KU metadata library and BBIP consultant, have explained that the process of preparing metadata can be time-consuming and often tedious, repetitive, and expensive work. Rehman says currently the database consists of a digital archive of more than 3,000 books, a metadata schema that pulls data from the books, and the philologic interface, created by the Chicago Text Lab, which allows users to perform keyword searches on the novels. Wolfe adds that BBIP is continuously improving the database, which already includes “over 54 categories.”

Participating in the BBIP program has made me more aware of conversations I didn’t know existed. Long says being able to search for keywords can make scholars aware of how language and thought shifts over time and changes of place. Rambsy’s passion for this work, which grew out of his recognition that there were few “online records” for Black writers, says he’s interested in how technology complicates the ways scholars can archive and investigate texts.2 Ward helps us to realize that HBW is a project that “opens doors” and becomes a model for studying other literatures as previously undiscovered texts become available and enrich our conversations about literature and human connection.

In the essay “All the Digital Humanists Are White, All the Nerds Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave,” Moya Bailey, Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Northwestern University, posed the question, “How do those outside the categories white and male navigate this burgeoning disciplinary terrain?” Bailey’s question offers no clear answers or easy solutions. But as Graham puts it, BBIP’s archive demonstrates the influence these texts have held on more well-known literary traditions; they show how ideas permeate, and how, even when unacknowledged, they transform the way we interact with the world. They are part of our intellectual heritage. With BBIP, we no longer have to speculate. We have the data as proof. While we recognize the exceptional gift of being able to read a Morrison or a Marshall novel, and knowing few writers will write with their vigor, maybe close examination of the texts included in BBIP archive can also extend our thought.

  1.  Long explains that as he and Richard So began building a corpus of digitally available twentieth-century writing, that of the 9,000 novels they found, “only 110 were by Black writers.” Visit here for more information about Long and So’s research.
  2.  For more information about Kenton Rambsy’s work with the digital humanities, visit Lost in the City: An Exploration of Edward P. Jones’ short fiction.
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Black Book Interactive Project Scholars

Written by the 2019 scholars from the Black Book Interactive Project.