Introduction to “Digital Black Atlantics” Roundtable

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

Celebration of the abolition of slavery in Washington, DC, by the colored people, April 19, 1866 / sketched by F. Dielman (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

In recent years the rise of digital humanities has become an established field and one that cross-cuts a number of disciplines. In history, as in other disciplines, it has great promise and significant limitations. This forum emerged from an experimental assignment in a graduate level research seminar in which I gave students the option of using digital humanities techniques in their final assignment. The RMA history program at Utrecht University specializes in digital humanities, and specifically in “network analysis” and visualization – how we can see the webs of networks that connect individuals, groups, and ideas across space and over time. When it was founded, the digital humanities program at Utrecht, it is fair to say, had a strong focus on Europe with a dash of transatlantic work (this is changing). This reflected larger silences in digital humanities and limitations in the field. That history was part of the inspiration for us to apply digital humanities approaches to the Black Atlantic in our tutorial work. This not only addressed some of the opportunities and untapped areas opened up by Paul Gilroy in his formative work, The Black Atlantic, but also contributed to a growing movement to create more inclusive digital humanities projects.

From a humanities standpoint, there is a risk that a big data approach, like world history and systems analysis approaches, loses sight of individual humans, humanity, and individual and collective struggles. That these approaches abstract human experiences into big numbers and generalizations. Another risk of digital humanities, or the digital more broadly, is that internet and surveillance algorithms and data analysis have proven racial bias. They frequently reflect the assumptions of their (often white, often male) creators and designers. So, entering Utrecht University in 2016, I was both optimistic and cautious about its championship of the digital humanities. In the last three years, however, the work of pioneering scholars such as Roopika Risam, Kaiama Glover, Annette Joseph-Gabriel (also featured in this forum), and Kim Gallon (COVIDBlack) have illustrated how digital humanities approaches can add to our knowledge of Black experiences, communities, and intellectual networks.

That growth in the field intersected with COVID and the increasing globality of digital humanities work at Utrecht to produce this forum. In Spring of 2020, as educators and students scrambled to adapt to the online environment some pedagogical space was unexpectedly opened. Lecturers were encouraged to be flexible with final assignments. Students in my graduate seminar instantly saw the potential to map, data enter, visualize and analyze the Black Atlantic intellectual networks Gilroy traces. They embraced this opportunity to apply digital humanities network analysis they had learned while embedded in a project on Early Modern European intellectual networks, led by Dirk van Miert, who supported this innovation.

This forum showcases the potential – and limitations – we revealed in that process. The insights and visualizations produced by students are set against contributions and reflections from established scholars, Annette Joseph-Gabriel and Roopika Risam. Collectively they visualize Black intellectual work. That makes its own contribution to historical and scholarly fields that have not always acknowledged the participation of Black thinkers – namely Intellectual history and Digital Humanities. 

The blogs in this forum record how students painstakingly tracked references, cross-referencing, and using classic historical and intellectual research approaches alongside coding and visualization technologies. They identified hundreds of people mentioned in Gilroy’s work and literally visualized gaps and absences, both gendered and regional, in it. They addressed them by incorporating more scholarly work into their visualizations. Hannah de Korte used Keisha Blain and Tiffany Gill’s edited collection To Turn the Whole World Over and documented the women who appear in that work, in ways that complicate and complement Gilroy’s Black Atlantic vision. Maiah Letch’s work drew on book history as well as intellectual history and digital humanities to show the role of institutions and industry – who was published where and by whom. This is a key facet of getting one’s work into the world. Lo and behold, the options available to black intellectuals are visibly few and far between.

The visualizations, limited as they are, transcend text and they do exactly as their name suggests – they make visible and blatantly obvious the patterns of how Black intellectuals moved. They show the importance of colonial metropoles as centers of knowledge transmission and anti-racist anti-colonial action. They also reveal a “brain drain” from rural to urban, and from African countries to America and Europe. This is not new, but it is striking to see the extent of it.

This forum, then, showcases how network visualizations can enliven and expand and replace a “state-of-the-field” conventional essay in graduate seminars while still generating the connections and reflections educators hope to achieve with such assignments. 

Following the contributions of the graduate students, Annette Joseph-Gabriel illustrates and comments on her Black Atlantic digital humanities work and how it complicates and supplements text-based research. Roopika Risam, drawing on her edited collection on the Black Digital Atlantic, concludes by connecting these contributions with broader trends in the field.

This forum links to larger conversations on racialization and prejudice in computational methods and in the digital humanities. Through its inclusion of graduate student contributors, its focus on “non-traditional” assignments, and visualizing specifically black intellectual networks, it intersects with decolonizing/decolonial approaches to history teaching in graduate programs. And in engaging with Paul Gilroy, a foundational black theorist and historian, it doesn’t simply honor his work but expands on it and shows how it continues to generate new insights and disruptions. 

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Rachel Anne Gillett

Rachel Anne Gillett's research focuses on race in France, on popular culture, and on the black Atlantic from a French perspective. She currently teaches cultural history at Utrecht University. She has brought together this forum which reflects her longterm engagement with Paul Gilroy’s work, her exposure to the strengths and limits of how methods in digital humanities are taught at the graduate level, and her commitment to co-creating research with her students and bringing their/our collaborative work out of the classroom and into public engagement. She tweets @redgillett.