Expanding the Digital Black Atlantic

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

Nana Nketsia IV hooding W.E.B. Du Bois as he is conferred the University of Ghana’s first honorary degree, 1963 (NYPL)

The essays published in the Digital Black Atlantics forum this week mark a watershed moment for digital humanities scholarship, taking a critical look at the role that data visualization methodologies play in uncovering the histories and voices of the African diaspora that have for too long gone unheard. As a digital humanist and one of the editors of The Digital Black Atlantic (with Kelly Baker Josephs) for the Debates in the Digital Humanities series at the University of Minnesota Press, my work has been preoccupied by concerns that as digital humanities has grown in size and scope, it has both reproduced and amplified the hallmarks of colonialism that shape the cultural record — archives, book history, cultures of the text — as we create the digital cultural record — digital archives, digital editions, and methodologically rich digital scholarship. As I argued in my book New Digital Worlds: Postcolonial Digital Humanities in Theory, Praxis, and Pedagogy, unless practitioners are attending to the methodological choices and design practices that shape digital humanities scholarship and reimagining them to address the needs of communities that have been silenced, digital scholarship perpetuates these gaps and omissions. Therefore, it is particularly crucial for scholars to create interventions like those featured in this forum, which demonstrate how data visualization can begin redressing absences of the African diaspora. 

When Dr. Josephs and I sketched out the concept behind The Digital Black Atlantic, we sought a way to bring together scholarship from countries in Africa and the diaspora to facilitate conversation on both transnational approaches to literature, history, and culture and on local approaches that situate digital humanities practices in their cultural contexts. We found ourselves drawn to Paul Gilroy’s articulation of “The Black Atlantic ” as an organizing principle that mediated between the local and global as it articulated the profound cultural hybridity incipient in African diaspora cultural production. Critiques of The Black Atlantic, such as Natasha Barnes’ concern over its centering of the United States and Brent Hayes Edwards’s articulation of the Anglo-American monolingualism in diaspora studies further influenced our articulation of an expansive digital Black Atlantic that incorporates perspectives on digital humanities from a variety of people, places, and languages. As we examined the breadth of scholarship covered in the collection — e.g., sound studies, game studies, literary studies, history, and library and information studies — we saw crucial resonances between the theoretical model that Gilroy proposed and the histories — and presents — of technology in the African diaspora. Far from the dominant narratives that emphasize how technologies — e.g., the slave ship, the gun, algorithms — have been used to oppress Black people, we saw, instead, the inventive ways that they have appropriated technologies and used them to their advantage in emancipatory ways, such as Anna Everett’s uncovering of Black digital diasporas and Kim Gallon’s articulation of Black digital humanities as a technology of recovery. We further recognized the expertise and insight that the African diaspora has yielded in critiques of technology, such as Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression and Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology: The New Jim Code.   

Therefore, as we articulate it, the digital Black Atlantic posits links between the socio-technical practices adopted by people of the African diaspora and communities in Africa, Europe, the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Recognizing the specificities of digital practices within these geographical areas, we also emphasize their connections across space and time to insist on the roles that racism, enslavement, and colonialism have played in the engagement of African-descended people with technology but, more critically, to emphasize their resistance through technology. As we note in our introduction, “In the space between ‘digital’ and ‘humanities’ where Blackness and technology meet, the digital Black Atlantic pushes back against the ways that technologies have historically been and continue to disempower Black communities (and also against the dominance of such narratives) to instead emphasize how Black communities have taken advantage of the affordances of technology to assert their humanity, histories, knowledges, and expertise.” The growth of scholarship in the digital Black Atlantic depends on sustained attention to the methodological interventions that it makes possible. This forum is an essential example of such work, focusing on the role of visualization in realizing the aims of the digital Black Atlantic.

Data visualization presently occupies a fraught role in public discourse. Maps, graphs, and charts seduce viewers into believing that they are experiencing objective and neutral presentations of data. However, visualizations are inherently representations, a reflection of how a creator has chosen to use, sample, and slice a data set to tell a story. The visual output — the visualization — is only the result of data mediated in multiple forms, not an empirical image but an argument. 

We see this phenomenon at work in data visualizations of the so-called “European Refugee Crisis,” the marked influx of migrants from countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia to Europe beginning in the 2010s. While “refugee” in this context tends to conjure refugees from war-torn areas of the Middle East, like Syria and Iraq, Europe’s increased rate of migration is arguably one of the most sizeable instances of African diaspora migration in recent years. The sheer volume of data that migration to Europe has generated, captured by the United Nations Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration, has yielded many data visualizations taking advantage of the ready availability of data. A typical example is “The Flow towards Europe,” a data visualization by Finnish data visualization firm Lucify, which, in their words, seeks to “clarify the scope of the crisis.” The result is a mesmerizing array of dots, each representing 25 migrants, traversing a map from their countries of origin to countries in Europe. 

When viewers look at a data visualization like “The Flow towards Europe,” they are seeing the results of a series of choices about data itself: What data set was used? How was the data collected? For what purposes was the data collected? Who set the categories, terms, and controlled vocabularies through which the data was collected? In the case of this visualization, data was drawn from the United Nations Refugee Agency, collected in terms that best allow European countries to surveil and administer migrant populations. It represents the reduction of human beings to data points, stripping away their humanity to capture them not as people fleeing violence and danger born from the history of colonialism and the neocolonial present but positioning them, instead, as a problem for European countries to manage. 

These messages are reinforced by design choices in such data visualizations, which are rhetorical moves. In the “Flow towards Europe,” the choice to use maps with national boundaries but no topographical features reinforces the message that people, as dots, flowing across their borders are threats to the sanctity of that nation state. The centering of Europe and attendant decentering of the continent of Africa intimates that Europe is the victim of a crisis perpetuated by migrants. The unimpeded flows of migrants evenly across the visualization’s time-lapse, reverse engineered by the creators based on departure date, misrepresent the routes of migration, which are winding and circuitous in practice, further inflame the sentiment of “crisis” invoked in the visualization’s tagline. Indeed, for the African diaspora such visualizations ask W.E.B. Du Bois’s perennial question, “How does it feel to be a problem?”  

How can visualizations better represent the histories and voices of the African diaspora, opening up new research questions about the digital Black Atlantic? This is a question I have been exploring through my work on “The Global Du Bois,” a series of data visualizations that explore the transnational dimensions of W.E.B. Du Bois’s career. With the exception of recent work by Gerald Horne, biographies of Du Bois, like the work of David Levering Lewis, tend to draw a sharp distinction between an early career committed to African Americans and a later career dedicated to anti-colonialism and the global color line. Through data sets that I have developed and curated along with students, “The Global Du Bois” challenges this narrative, demonstrating that, in fact, Du Bois identified a mutual relationship between Black freedom struggles in the United States and those abroad throughout his career. In one visualization, for example, I map correspondence that specifically addresses colonialism and neocolonialism from the Du Bois papers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The data sources and the proof-of-concept visualization that I developed suggest that, in fact, Du Bois had a much longer history of engagement with anti-colonialism than the dominant narratives of Du Bois’s life might suggest. 

When we curate data sets as an approach to uncovering the untold stories of the African diaspora, we create remixable resources that can be used in myriad ways and continue to expand scholarly possibilities. For example, my data set of Du Bois’s exhaustive travels has a second life in Kaiama L. Glover and Alex Gil’s data visualization project “In the Same Boats,” which aggregates data of Afro-Atlantic intellectuals’ travels. Comprised of similar data sets on other writers and thinkers, such as Aimé Césaire, Eslanda Goode Robeson, and Katherine Dunham, “In the Same Boats” gestures towards locations and points in time where these intellectuals found themselves in proximity. While proximity may not necessarily indicate connections or engagement, the visualization prompts new questions that researchers might explore. Moreover, points of convergence often point to conferences, meetings, and other events that shed light on the history of the African diaspora. 

The projects explored in this forum thus represent a watershed moment, both for digital humanities and for studies of the Black diaspora. Hannah (J.A.H.) de Korte’s project uses both spatial and network visualization to explore the online resources BlackPast.org, a database of African American history. The visualizations suggest that while the database positions itself as a source on the African diaspora writ large, material within contains a decidedly U.S. bias. De Korte’s findings recall critiques of Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic that suggest he has privileged the role of the U.S in Black history and culture and points to the need for the creators of BlackPast.org to redress its biases. Anna Stibbe’s network visualizations uncover what Stibbe terms the “resistance discourse” by exploring the references and citations within the writing of 19th century Black intellectuals. Stibbe identifies 275 writers cited in more than two texts by the 15 authors examined, and the networks that result hint at a politics of citationality that decenters Western thought and instead foregrounds Black race theorists. While white abolitionists are often given much due for their editorial interventions in Black abolitionist writing, Stibbe’s analysis suggests that there is an identifiable discourse community of Black abolitionists that positions itself distinctly as the intellectual inheritors of the African diaspora — and distinct from white abolitionists — through its citationality. 

Both of Annette Joseph-Gabriel’s digital interventions in the Black Atlantic further speak to the utility of map-based visualizations for illuminating the intellectual contributions of the African diaspora. In “Digitizing Diaspora’s” first exhibit, “Congo Diary: Eslanda Robeson’s Second African Journey,” she draws attention to the oft-overlooked role of women, pointing to Robeson’s travel and mobility as a subversive act that links diaspora with decolonization. Her work on “Mapping Marronage” redefines contemporary understandings of marronage, positioning it as any act that seeks to elude slaveholders’ power. Both of Joseph-Gabriel’s projects demonstrate the value of drawing on distributed archival sources to construct new narratives and heuristics of the Black diaspora. Finally, Maiah Akkerman Letsch’s meta-examination of representation of Black intellectuals within Gilroy’s Black Atlantic articulates the importance of turning digital methods onto scholarship itself. She augments maps of intellectuals and musicians named in The Black Atlantic with figures from Keisha Blain’s and Tiffany Gill’s To Turn the Whole World Over, a ground-breaking book on Black internationalism that centers women, and Fatima El-Tayeb’s “Blackness and Its (Queer) Discontents,” an essay that stakes claim for LGBTQ activists of the African diaspora. In doing so, Letsch uncovers a rich, diverse, and geographically distributed network of resistance throughout the Black diaspora. 

Together, these projects signal the range of interventions possible for studies of the African diaspora using data visualization. They not only demand critical attention to global Black history but attend carefully to the ways that these histories can themselves be overdetermined, whether by centering the United States or by attending primarily to the contributions of men. Therefore, they speak to the promise of data visualization methodologies for more fully realizing the promise that Josephs and I identified in The Digital Black Atlantic for scholarship that asserts Black humanity, histories, knowledges, and expertise.

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Roopika Risam

Roopika Risam is Chair of Secondary and Higher Education and Associate Professor of Education and English at Salem State University. She also serves as the Faculty Fellow for Digital Library Initiatives, Coordinator of the Graduate Certificate in Digital Studies, and Coordinator of the Combined B.A./M.Ed. in English Education.

Comments on “Expanding the Digital Black Atlantic

  • The posts this week are so incredible; thanks to all the authors and the editors. I mean, I typically read all the daily posts and forward them to folks I know whose work is related. But this week I kind of want to shout from the rooftops. Rarely is digital work so carefully and thoughtfully curated; and it opens up so much for further discussion and research and for treatment through digital media. It will take me a while time to digest it all, and I look forward to more to come. You all are doing such important and amazing work with this site and I am truly grateful. It’s a great way to start the day, grounded in these histories, and it carries me through the weeks as well!
    Antoinette

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