Kelly Baker Josephs and Roopika Risam
For the digital Black Atlantic—the body of interdisciplinary scholarship that examines connections between African diasporic communities and technology—there are no distinguished starting points; there are only many beginnings that reflect the roots and routes of the African diaspora over many centuries. When Paul Gilroy published The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness in 1993, he effected a seismological shift in Black Studies, creating space—and language—for conceptualizing Blackness across the Americas, the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa. The concept of the “Black Atlantic” augurs a move beyond the national borders that so often define knowledge production toward an emphasis on Black diasporic connections. Moreover, it delinks African diasporic knowledge production from “the intellectual heritage of the West since the Enlightenment” in favor of connections among African diasporic communities of practice.1 As many scholars of the African diaspora in the humanities and social sciences have noted, Black people have always been intimately familiar with technologies, both repressive and emancipatory—whether the ship, musical instruments, games, social media, or algorithms.2 The most frequently told stories are those of technologies being used against Black peoples globally, but there are also histories of African diasporic communities building on their familiarity with technology to appropriate and use it to their advantage. In the context of digital and computational technologies, for example, Anna Everett’s work on Black technophilia makes the case for a digital African diaspora that has emerged online.3 Although the interstices of Blackness and technology are not new, we do not yet have a recognizable language and vocabulary for them that spans the breadth of interdisciplinary scholarship in digital studies and digital humanities—including disciplines as varied as literary studies, history, library and information science, musicology, and communications. As a result, discussions—academic discussions, at least—become awkward and additive rather than articulated.
Building on these challenges, we propose that the digital Black Atlantic is, in fact, a product of juxtaposition—of disciplines, cultures, and methods—within the African diaspora. But as W. E. B. Du Bois’s work reminds us, juxtaposition is never mere addition but rather a transformative, alchemical move, where the sum of the parts is much greater than the whole, where analytical possibilities are opened up in the act of juxtaposition.4 Our goal in this edited collection is to shed light on these possibilities that define digital inquiry in African diasporic cultures and, in doing so, to offer one entry point, an initial set of terms, for digital Black Atlantic scholarship, discourse, and citation. As the included chapters indicate, various terms exist to articulate the myriad ways that Black Studies and digital studies intersect—eBlack Studies, Black code studies, Black digital humanities, as well as terms for related areas of study including postcolonial digital humanities, Caribbean Digital, African digital humanities, digital diasporas, and more.5 When thinking about the discussions we wished to foster in this volume for the Debates in Digital Humanities series, we elected to invoke the arguably more inclusive term “digital Black Atlantic” to gesture toward the complex relations within and among these terms and geographic positionalities, as well as to emphasize the necessary interdisciplinarity of this work. We begin, therefore, with Gilroy’s Black Atlantic as both the theoretical core and the articulating principle for this volume.
Since Gilroy’s initial work, scholars have bolstered and expanded the utility of “the Black Atlantic” as both a methodological approach and an object of study. Of special interest to us as we constructed this volume was the critique of the Anglo-American centeredness of Gilroy’s initial use of the concept. As Natasha Barnes writes in a brief early critique, “Reading Gilroy, one gets the unsettling feeling that America is the Diaspora, and that black modernity cannot take place without it.”6 Given the bias toward the Global North and Anglo-American monolingualism that already exists in digital humanities scholarship and in academic knowledge production more generally, we wished to avoid repeating Gilroy’s positioning of the Black Atlantic as an Anglo-American phenomenon.7 Although our own positions as scholars located in the United States means some emphasis does remain on U.S.-based scholarship, we have worked to ensure that this volume incorporates perspectives on digital humanities and digital studies from a variety of people and places. As a whole, the chapters demonstrate the different ways that location affects the digital. Thus, we do not take the frame of the Black Atlantic to be hegemonic or homogeneous. To the contrary, we adopt the frame in its most heterogeneous sense, including not only Gilroy’s original propositions but also the later expansions on his work.
Of course, adopting a theoretical framework is all well and good at the outset of a project, but the test is how well it fares (or adapts) as the work evolves. What we have found in preparing this volume is both confirmation of and challenge to our initial framing. For example, the citations within the project indicate that we do not have a common body of scholarship for Black-centered digital studies that we can turn to in building this field. The interdisciplinary and transnational nature of this work means that our writers draw on vast and varied scholarly communities and voices. This is not necessarily a bad thing; the conversations are greatly enriched by many interlocutors, from different disciplines and different countries. And we are thus in little danger of becoming an echo chamber.
Yet this diversity also presents a monumental challenge to any attempt to frame these discussions under one rubric. The vast variety of topics represented in the volume made it difficult for us, as editors, to ensure a strong politics of citation and representation of Black scholarship within those citations. In scholarship, particularly on marginalized communities, the practice of citation is key to building and reinforcing a recognized (and recognizable) canon that confers status on an area of study. Thus, the process of editing this book was simultaneously the process of claiming space for a digital Black Atlantic. While we needed to honor the work that has already been done in this arena, we chose not to define or be prescriptive about borders; rather, our objective was to create a provisional space and framework for academic conversation that could emerge by virtue of acts of citational and conceptual juxtaposition.
Juxtapositions: Digital + Black + Atlantic
A primary goal of this volume is to consider what “Black Atlantic” as a formulation offers the study of Blackness and digital cultures, while articulating the challenges that approach offers to digital humanities. The primary affordances of the Black Atlantic in this vein are many and include the following: a method for incorporating and foregrounding transnationality and cross-temporality; a framework for addressing these concerns in relation to race, enslavement, and colonialism; a challenge to the European periodization of history and culture; a decentering of whiteness; a critique of a fictive “universal” epistemology for digital humanities; and an articulation of the necessity of interdisciplinarity. The digital Black Atlantic, along the lines of Gilroy’s theorization of the “Black Atlantic,” connects the circum-Atlantic geographically and identifies links between African diasporic people and communities spanning Europe, the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, and Africa. Without sacrificing the specificities of geographically disparate communities, the digital Black Atlantic recognizes their connections across space as well as time. Through this transnational and cross-temporal frame, the digital Black Atlantic insists on the import of race and racism, enslavement, and colonialism in the experiences of African-descended people and in their engagement with technology. In turn, it offers a challenge to a Eurocentric periodization of history by connecting past, present, and future through the legacies and ongoing conditions of racism, enslavement, and colonialism. Through this emphasis on the material effects of racism across time, the digital Black Atlantic decenters whiteness by putting African diasporic communities and cultural production at the heart of inquiry. In doing so, it challenges the tendency within digital humanities to assume that the epistemology of white, dominant, English-speaking cultures of the Global North is “universal,” while ignoring that there are, in fact, multiple epistemologies influencing digital humanities scholarship—particularly in the case of African diasporic peoples—by virtue of the transnational and multilingual dimensions of this work. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of these many factors influencing the digital Black Atlantic articulates the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to the intersections of Blackness and technology.
Our articulation of the digital Black Atlantic—rather than Black Atlantic digital humanities or another formulation—responds both to the interdisciplinary nature of scholarship on Blackness and technology and to the challenge of juxtaposing a range of digital and computational methods for scholarship on the African diaspora. Currently, “digital studies” is the frame for interdisciplinary scholarship that includes digital humanities, digital history, digital sociology, and other approaches. However, the term is an amorphous catchall that reflects a broader lack of vocabulary for understanding technology as a subject and tool of academic scholarship. Therefore, our use of “digital Black Atlantic” is intended to facilitate broader inquiry at the nexus of digital methods and cultures and African diasporic peoples and cultures.
The juxtaposition of the digital with the Black Atlantic, therefore, evokes a synthesis of the two in which the sum of the whole is greater than its parts. In this way, it draws on a similar trend within digital humanities scholarship. The juxtaposition of digital and humanities has long been a topic of discussion. The first edition of Debates in the Digital Humanities (2012) tackled this robustly in its opening section, “Defining the Digital Humanities.” The section included eight articles and at least as many definitions of the term; perhaps the only common ground across the section was the acknowledgment that this thing we have come to call digital humanities is not divisible into separate parts comprised of the digital and the humanities. We are not aiming to repeat or return to that debate on definition; we raise it, however, as an example of the ways an approach using juxtaposition might create new questions, insights, and spaces for thought that do not exist within the separate fields. The digital Black Atlantic further draws on existing debates within digital humanities as a way of challenging the limits of humanities scholarship and emphasizing the necessary interdisciplinarity of African diasporic scholarship, whether digital or analog. In the first Debates in the Digital Humanities volume, Patrik Svensson proposes that digital humanities can be understood as a “trading zone” that allows scholars to “maximize points of interaction, tackle large research and methodology challenges, and facilitate deep integration between thinking and making.”8 Later, in Between the Humanities and the Digital, Svensson and David Theo Goldberg argue for the transformative possibilities in the spaces where the digital and the humanities meet:
It is in the “between” that the most interesting, creative, and provocative work of the digital and the humanistic is today being done. In this, the digital has not only prompted the humanities to open up to their own beyond, their own horizons of possibility; the humanities have likewise pushed the digital to become more than techne, more than a narrowly technological application. This liminal position is simultaneously precious, productive, and precarious.9
But such encounters are encumbered by power dynamics that shape the relationship between “digital” and “humanities.” Certainly, this is the case in the context of the digital Black Atlantic, where the interplay of digital + humanities is influenced by a number of factors, from the role of the humanities and cultural hegemony in the project of empire, to the founding of colonial universities within colonies, to the overwhelming influence of the Global North on digital humanities practices around the world.10
Scholarship on the African diaspora is inextricably linked to connections between literary and cultural texts, history, economics, sociology, and other disciplines by virtue of the influence of enslavement and colonialism on African diasporic communities. There is a similar dynamic at work in digital and computational approaches to the African diaspora. 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 be used 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. As such, the chapters in this volume contribute to vibrant discourses and ongoing conversations about and within global digital humanities; they also raise the need to question the epistemologies and ontologies subtending digital humanities scholarship and thus decenter the Global North/“West” in digital knowledge production. Such emergent discourses emphasize the need for attention to local practices and to what digital humanities looks like in particular African diasporic contexts, histories, communities, and languages. A Black Atlantic perspective on the digital opens up the possibilities of a model for incorporating underrepresented voices and histories within a framework of digital humanities while resisting colonizing them, as digital humanities has a tendency to do.11 Juxtaposing the chapters in this collection is not meant to elide the local contexts that shape the practices articulated in each but, rather, to decenter the practices of the Global North and give voices to these situated knowledges, connecting them to each other through their interventions at the nexus of Blackness and technology. In doing so, we lay bare assumptions about race, gender, and cultural hegemony not only in digital humanities but also in the humanities and in academic study more broadly.
The Challenge of the Digital Black Atlantic
This volume assembles multiple perspectives on the intersections of global Black Studies and digital studies. Since the Digital Diasporas conference that was held at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities in 2008, digital projects and research related to African diasporic writers, histories, artists, and communities have gained momentum. We have seen an increasing number of conference panels on these topics at the annual meetings of Modern Language Association, the American Historical Association, HASTAC, the Association for Computers and the Humanities, the Canadian Society of Digital Humanities, and the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations; there have also been entire conferences devoted to exploring digital humanities and the African diaspora, including the annual Caribbean Digital conference (2014 to present) and the 2018 “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black” conference at the University of Maryland. A growing number of scholars in multiple disciplines are exploring the affordances of digital technologies for preserving cultural memory, connecting communities, and analyzing the literary, historical, and cultural production of the African diaspora.
Yet, there is currently a significant gap in scholarship that theorizes, analyzes, and describes this work. While Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016 marked a watershed moment for representing the diversity of digital humanities practices, more work remains to be done not only to ensure publication of robust scholarship on digital humanities and the African diaspora but also, as we argue here, to recognize the work already being done in different disciplines under different names. Such scholarship is essential to further development of the tools, methods, and knowledge infrastructures necessary for sustaining and building on existing African diasporic digital practices. This collection, then, represents one beginning of a consciously built corpus of the digital Black Atlantic. By assembling these chapters, we position this special volume of Debates in the Digital Humanities as a transnational one that centers both digital humanities approaches to the African diaspora and African diasporic approaches to digital humanities. Through the process of editing this collection, we have found that scholarship steeped in the study of Blackness poses a direct challenge to foundational assumptions of digital humanities: assumptions about the “universality” of language, the parameters of access, and the epistemology of privilege. Disparate though they may be, together these chapters foreground the singularity of Black methodologies and what might be called methodologies of Blackness, raising the question of what the tradition of Black Studies demands of digital humanities and its methods.
Central to these demands is that we question the ways that traditional methods silence, stifle, and neglect Black histories, Black presents, and Black futures. (Given its reliance on older models, we can, in fact, use the term “traditional” with such a young field of study as digital humanities.) We cannot, for example, invoke the Black Atlantic without invoking a history of enslavement and involuntary migration; yet where in current methods and discourses of digital academic practice is there space for this recognition? Scholars of the African diaspora have long recognized that we need to bend, and sometimes break, given methodologies to circumvent overt and insidious modalities of academic downpression. In 1974, Kamau Brathwaite argued for the development of a “multi-dimensional model,” in which “Caribbean culture can be seen in terms of a dialectic of development taking place within a seamless guise or continuum of space and time; a model which allows for blood flow, fluctuations, the half-look, the look both/several ways; which allows for and contains the ambiguous, and rounds the sharp edges off the dichotomy.”12 In this case, Brathwaite identified the “influence of European empirical scholarship” and the lack of locally based research institutions as limiting research on Caribbean cultures to an underlying “perception of wholes” that allowed only models that could not accommodate the fragmented nature of the New World and the aftereffects of enslavement and plantation life.13 Calling on scholarship from the four decades between Brathwaite’s demands and her own, Christina Sharpe similarly argues that scholars need to “become undisciplined”:
Despite knowing otherwise, we are often disciplined into thinking through and along lines that reinscribe our own annihilation, reinforcing and reproducing what Sylvia Wynter (1994, 70) has called our “narratively condemned status.” We must become undisciplined. The work we do requires new modes and methods of research and teaching; new ways of entering and leaving the archives of slavery, of undoing the “racial calculus and . . . political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago” (Hartman 2008, 6) and that live into the present.14
Whether positioned as new digital methodologies within Black Studies or as Black Atlantic methodologies shaping digital humanities, the attempts to represent and transform Black life via the digital technologies described herein must push against the limits of given traditions. In the breaking and claiming of this ground—this interstitial space between recognized academic disciplines—work in the digital arena requires mindful integration with the hard-won canons of Black and postcolonial studies, as well as linking to a white dominant perception of digital humanities. The structure of current academic systems means that our ability to publish this volume is dependent on its legibility to these traditions. At the same time, however, we aim to lay bare the emergence of scholarly and activist approaches where digital praxes arise organically from their local cultural, scholarly, and historical contexts, beholden to the white dominant conceptualization of digital humanities for institutional recognition but existing independently of it.
We also want to highlight a number of structural issues that may be both obstacles and barriers to participation in the work of the digital Black Atlantic. It is critical to note, for example, that white men comprise the demographic far more likely to have been encouraged to code.15 Recent initiatives such as Black Girls Code, Hack the Hood, and the Hidden Genius Project intend to remedy such biases, but there remains an active cultural force that yields disparities in STEM and related fields and, in turn, affects the development of digital scholarship for the digital Black Atlantic. As the expansive nature of the digital Black Atlantic demonstrates, however, there is room for a broad range of approaches that include, but are not limited to, the building of digital projects, infrastructures, and tools for analyzing and interpreting literary, historical, and cultural production of the African diaspora. Such approaches regularly create points of entry for those who come to the digital Black Atlantic as a site of scholarly inquiry with a range of skill sets and disciplinary backgrounds.
Yet another challenge is assembling peer reviewers for an area of study that is nascent. Despite the longer history of scholarly engagements at the interstices of Black Studies and technology, the range of scholarship that constitutes our initial articulation of a digital Black Atlantic varies significantly in approach, methodology, texts under consideration, linguistic background, discipline, and more. Because the scholars doing this work are tasked with the challenge of balancing two (if not more) areas of studies—African diaspora studies and digital studies—trying to find reviewers who understand the intersections of the two also presents a significant barrier to effective evaluation. Although white dominant cultural approaches to scholarship, whether in digital humanities or not, are often about situating scholarly work in a field or tradition, the digital Black Atlantic presents the challenge of negotiating at least two such fields. This raises the question of how scholars can best situate themselves in a field that is still in the process of becoming a more fully constituted site of scholarly inquiry. By insisting on the digital Black Atlantic as a viable organizing concept for scholars working in these areas, this volume is intended to facilitate that process of grounding and location within a scholarly tradition for current and future researchers and digital practitioners. Moreover, the constituent practices of the Debates in the Digital Humanities series itself—the element of open peer review facilitated among scholars in the volume, which allows them to share their expertise with each other and promotes cohesion among chapters within the volume—play an important role in this field-building work that will, along with other important initiatives like Caribbean Digital, Black Digital Humanities, and African American Digital Humanities (AADHUM), build a recognizable scholarly community around this work.
Curating the Digital Black Atlantic
The Digital Black Atlantic is the first volume to put into conversation a cross section of Black Studies and digital studies often siloed by disciplinary and regional divisions—particularly those between African American digital humanities, African digital humanities, and Caribbean digital humanities. While recognizing the importance of nurturing and continuing to grow these individual areas of scholarship, The Digital Black Atlantic asks this salient question: What kinds of possibilities are opened up by putting these approaches in conversation with each other, especially given the relevant debates about Black digital studies that are emerging via the local practices in each of these areas? Together, the contributions presented in this volume identify what a diaspora-based approach to digital humanities can look like. Through this work of curation and collation, the collection articulates the range of African diaspora approaches to digital humanities spanning a broad geographical scope: from Nigeria to Canada to Dominica to South Africa to the United States to Jamaica. In doing so, the collection reveals the interdisciplinary breadth of digital studies in the African diaspora, including scholarship from musicology, game studies, history, literature, and library and information studies. This interdisciplinary range is complemented and complicated by the variety of digital issues and practices presented by scholars in the volume, including community archives, library collection development, textual analysis, social network analysis, archive management, critical digital editing, videogames, social media, and pedagogy. Thus, The Digital Black Atlantic demonstrates the importance of cultivating local digital humanities practices grounded in the history, present, and potential futures of the African diaspora.
As such, we have organized the volume’s chapters into four parts that reflect these conceptual Black Atlantic concerns: “Memory,” “Crossings,” “Relations,” and “Becomings.” Because this is the first edited volume on this topic, we believe that its form and structure participate in the work of defining and creating space for scholarly interventions in the Black Atlantic. Therefore, we selected thematic divisions that resonate in Black Atlantic studies, rather than the more traditional theory/praxis/pedagogy framing often used in digital humanities. Such categorical divisions are, in the case of much of the research presented in the volume, artificial ones, given the way that the theoretical, practical, and pedagogical are often intertwined. Our opening section, “Memory,” situates the histories of and contemporary archival impulses toward African diasporic experiences. “Crossings” encompasses the fluid and flexible ways that Black Atlantic digital humanities negotiates movement across time and space, forging varied spatial and temporal relationships. Derived from Édouard Glissant’s complex conception of networked creolized cultures, the section on “Relations” reveals the rhizomatic connections created via exchanges across Black Atlantic spaces, both digital and analog. Finally, “Becomings” outlines the dreams and aspirations of the digital Black Atlantic, as scholars continue to create and imagine new configurations for the African diaspora in the digital cultural record. These sections align with the move toward “keywords” in the digital humanities, exemplified by publications like the Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities project, edited by Rebecca Frost Davis, Matthew K. Gold, Katherine D. Harris, and Jentery Sayers, as well as the approaches of recent volumes in the Debates in the Digital Humanities series. Each concept—memory, crossings, relations, and becomings—is interdisciplinary, grounded in specific histories in Black Atlantic studies while also transcending traditional disciplines by spanning a variety of academic fields such as literature, history, ethnomusicology, library studies, and game studies.
The first section, “Memory,” begins our volume with the acknowledgment that remembering and reconstructing the past are integral dimensions of African diasporic praxis. Furthermore, it is the work that Toni Morrison named “rememory”—the practice of remembering a memory and, in doing so, actively reconstructing the realities of the past. As such, memory is not simply about invoking the past but also about linking it vitally to the present and the future. Abdul Alkalimat’s chapter, “The Sankofa Principle: From the Drum to the Digital,” begins the volume powerfully, invoking memory as he links the drum, a foundational Black technology, to the transformations that digital technologies facilitate. The work of rememory within the chapter further lays out the history of eBlack Studies, a body of scholarship that explores how information technology has changed Black Studies itself. Alkalimat’s dialectical approach, which juxtaposes old and new, proposes that the Sankofa Principle—the vital connection between past and present—opens up possibilities of a future where that which has been lost and forgotten for the African diaspora can be reclaimed. Complicating the nature of memory for the digital Black Atlantic, Sonya Donaldson’s chapter, “The Ephemeral Archive: Unstable Terrain in Times and Sites of Discord,” examines the act of collecting fragments to recover lost voices. For Donaldson, the ephemerality of digital media created within the African diaspora and posted on social media sites like YouTube and Vimeo speaks to the transient nature of modern memory. At the same time, she finds the possibilities of rememory and recovery embedded within these mash-ups and remixes of audio and video. Donaldson complicates the possibilities of recovery, challenging us to think beyond the lure of the “original” artifact and to embrace traces of the ephemeral archive as a strategy of memory. Amy Earhart’s chapter, “An Editorial Turn: Reviving Print and Digital Editing of Black-Authored Literary Texts,” takes up both memory and recovery through renewed attention to critical digital editing. She argues that as attention has shifted away from earlier interest in textual recovery within digital humanities, there has been a compounding of already existing gaps in the history of Black texts. Returning to the work of digital editing is an important intervention in memory for the African diaspora, Earhart proposes, not only in the reproduction of lost texts but also in the remaking of the history of Black textuality itself.
A further dimension of preserving memory and cultivating interest in such work for a new generation is bringing students into the task. Janneken Smucker addresses this issue in her chapter, “Access and Empowerment: Rediscovering Moments in the Lives of African American Migrant Women.” Smucker discusses the process and challenges of engaging students in oral histories of Southern Black women who moved to Philadelphia through the students’ participation in the project, Goin’ North: Stories from the First Great Migration to Philadelphia. She emphasizes not only the skills and knowledges gained by students from working with this material but also how work on these oral histories changes narratives of Black experience in the United States. The final chapter in this section, “Digital Queer Witnessing: Testimony, Contested Virtual Heritage, and the Apartheid Archive in Soweto, Johannesburg,” by Angel David Nieves articulates the importance of integrating what he terms “queer witnessing” into the practices of digital humanities. He attends to the messiness of digital scholarship that engages in race, identity, and memory to shed light on the erasure of queer and activist histories from South African apartheid and liberation histories. Imagining a multilayered spatial history of queer witnessing through digital technologies, Nieves argues for a radical change to both digital scholarship and humanities research practices.
The chapters in the second part of the volume, “Crossings,” offer perspectives on the movement (and lack thereof) of ideas across the Black Atlantic, as Gilroy describes.16 They also consider the gains and losses involved in such intellectual exchanges as they increasingly apply (and are being applied) to the virtual world. Alexandrina Agloro’s “Digital Ubuntu: Sharing Township Music with the World” provides a case study of digital ubuntu in action in a township in Cape Town; that is, she examines “collective well-being” as an objective of the digital practices of the Philippi Music Project. In “Text Analysis for Thought in the Black Atlantic,” Sayan Bhattacharyya asks that we more rigorously consider the anachronistic and anatopic crossings characteristic of the Black Atlantic when using digital tools for textual analysis. Words, he argues, not only hold different meanings across space and time but are also used differently by thinkers such as C. L. R. James in a range of contexts; this does not mean textual analysis tools are useless in Black Atlantic studies, but that their use requires care and attention to the “proper alignment of the epistemological commitments of tools with the epistemological commitments of the discursive field that we use the tools to explore.” Paul Barrett’s discussion of textual analysis in “Austin Clarke’s Digital Crossings” offers a concrete example of negotiating the “proper alignment” between digital textual analysis and a Caribbean diasporic body of work. Barrett discusses the obstacles and unexpected conclusions he encountered in digitally reading and remapping Clarke’s writings. The following chapter, “Radical Collaboration to Improve Library Collections” by Hélène Huet, Suzan Alteri, and Laurie N. Taylor, wrestles with the need to free Caribbean sources from sedimented library practices of categorization while keeping them detectable within the new worlds of access offered by digital technologies. The final chapter in this section, Jamila Moore Pewu’s “Digital Reconnaissance: Re(Locating) Dark Spots on a Map,” argues for the use of digital reconnaissance, a method for recovery that blends Black Studies, spatial analysis, and digital humanities. Drawing on her work to recover histories of the Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses and the Little Liberia community in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Pewu argues that digital reconnaissance holds the possibility of making African diasporic geographical sites in danger of erasure available in digital form for future generations.
For Édouard Glissant, relation rests on “a non-hierarchical principle of unity, a relation of equality with and respect for the Other as different from oneself.”17 Relation requires that, even when deeply engaging with the Other, we vigilantly maintain difference—the unity of the clichéd salad, rather than the mess of the more clichéd melting pot. In the chapters included in “Relations,” contributors depend on the specificity of the local in thinking about the digital and digitized Black Atlantic. Opening this section, Schuyler Esprit’s “Heterotopias of Resistance: Reframing Caribbean Narratives in Digital Spaces” argues for the importance of the specificity of place (integral to Glissantian relation) in founding the maroonage space of Create Caribbean, the first digital humanities center in the Eastern Caribbean. In Toniesha Taylor’s “Signifying Shade as We #RaceTogether Drinking Our #NewStarbucksDrink ‘White Privilege Americana Extra Whip,’” the “local” becomes Black Twitter, as Taylor reads the rhetorical strategies that are simultaneously unique to the platform and recognizable as Black diasporic relations with, and within, white-dominated spaces. In their chapter, “Slaves, Freedmen, Mulattos, Pardos, and Indigenous Peoples: The Early Modern Social Networks of the Population of Color in the Atlantic Portuguese Empire,” Agata Błoch, Demival Vasques Filho, and Michał Bojanowski discuss the use of social network analysis to distinguish the voices of marginalized peoples living in the early eighteenth-century Portuguese Empire who had the means to petition the Crown. Analyses of such archives can tell us much about the relations among Black Atlantic peoples and between them and other groups. Tunde Opeibi’s chapter, “Digitizing the Humanities in an Emerging Space: An Exploratory Study of Digital Humanities Initiatives in Nigeria,” speaks to the importance of building relationships to develop capacity in digital humanities in Nigeria and demonstrates how such initiatives change how we understand connectivity in Nigerian politics. He discusses the successes of the Lagos Summer School in Digital Humanities, as well as the CONNMDE project, which analyzes the influence of new media on political discourse and democracy in Nigeria. In the final chapter of this section, “Black Atlantic Networks in the Archives and the Limits of Finding Aids as Data,” Anne Donlon examines various models of cataloging archives and the ways that many of them diminish contributions from and connections within Black Atlantic networks. The inherent subjectivity of finding aids, Donlon argues, influences the extent to which they offer meaningful ways of articulating relationships.
The final part of the collection, “Becomings,” gestures toward the future of the digital Black Atlantic and the prospects that dreams make possible. In Freedom Dreams, Robin D. G. Kelley writes, “There are few contemporary political spaces where the energies of love and imagination are understood and respected as powerful social forces.”18 He speaks to the history and present of new futures imagined by the African diaspora—futures of freedom. Such futurity resonates with the work of Afrofuturism, with its emphasis on liberation made possible through technology, in response to a past and present that have been oppressive.19 In the spirit of freedom dreams and Afrofuturism, the chapters in this section imagine the future of digital Black Atlantic scholarship. Linking memory, crossings, and relation to the possibilities embodied in becomings, D. Fox Harrell, Sercan Şengün, and Danielle Olson’s chapter, “Africa and the Avatar Dream: Mapping the Impacts of Videogame Representations of Africa,” explores how colonial dreams of Africa have given rise to virtualized maps of Africa in videogames. In turn, the avatars of African characters within videogames are manifestations of the “avatar dream,” the belief that through interactions mediated by computing technologies, people are free to construct their identities as they please. The avatar dreams of Africa, they argue, rehearse colonialist fantasies of Africa that position power and violence as points of entry to African identities. In response, the authors imagine new possibilities for both analog and virtual worlds that reframe the African diaspora in creative and historically informed ways, promoting critical awareness of the stereotypes and biases promoted within videogames. In their chapter, “Musical Passage: Sound, Text, and the Promise of the Digital Black Atlantic,” Laurent Dubois, David K. Garner, and Mary Caton Lingold examine how multimodal archives of the Black Atlantic create possibilities for more collaborative and expansive modalities for knowledge production beyond the boundaries of scholarship of the Global North. They discuss how their project Musical Passage: A Voyage to 1688 Jamaica re-envisions digital scholarship that combines multiple modes of communication and knowledge, from text to image to sound. The result, they argue, is a link between past and future that demonstrates the importance of exchange and creation in cultural production. Also invested in cultural transmission for the next generation, Anne Rice discusses the pedagogical implications of digital technologies in her chapter, “What Price Freedom? The Implications and Challenges of OER for Africana Studies.” Rice discusses her work developing a course using open educational resources (OER) at CUNY, with an emphasis on how OER preserves particular African diasporic writers and texts for future readers while also risking the erasure of others. She raises concerns about how existing copyright regimes may be producing a new digital divide—in which underserved, minoritized students are deprived of access in comparison with their more privileged counterparts—and discusses their wider implications for the preservation and production of knowledge. Kaiama L. Glover and Alex Gil’s “On the Interpretation of Digital Caribbean Dreams” concludes the collection with a meditation on collaboration and labor. The chapter discusses their work with Kelly Baker Josephs to build a community of digital studies practitioners within Caribbean studies, as well as Glover and Gil’s collaborative project In the Same Boats: Toward an Intellectual Cartography of the Afro-Atlantic. They shed light on a number of practical considerations subtending collaboration, ending with a stirring call for a change in approaches to digital humanities labor necessary for sustaining the future of the digital Black Atlantic.
There are few models for articulating the intersection of Black Atlantic studies and digital humanities. As such—and given the goals of the Debates in the Digital Humanities series—we emphasize the openness of this moment; that is, we offer avenues of exploration and debate, rather than attempt to regulate or fix the discursive terrain. We are conscious, however, that as the first volume of its kind, this anthology will establish some of the terms of the debate even in simply initiating it. Therefore, our approach is deeply informed by the ethics and politics attendant in the fields of study implicated in the intersectional space we are broadly defining as the Black Atlantic. The use of the term “Black Atlantic” to collect these discussions of digital humanities necessarily closes off some avenues of debate; however, our focus here is on what it opens up. With this collection we ask, but also hope to begin to answer, whether and how the established tradition of interrogating the texture and borders of the Black Atlantic might be integrated with the negotiation of digital identities, tools, methods, and aspirations.
Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, 2.
See Gilroy, The Black Atlantic; Chude-Sokei, The Sound of Culture; Gray, Race, Gender, and Deviance in Xbox Live; Brock, “From the Blackhand Side”; Noble, Algorithms of Oppression.
Everett, Digital Diaspora.
Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro.
Alkalimat, chapter 1 in this volume; Johnson and Neal, “Introduction”; Gallon, “Making a Case for the Black Digital Humanities”; Risam, New Digital Worlds; Glover, Gil, and Josephs, “Editors’ Introduction”; Breckenridge and Mokoena, “African Digital Humanities”; Everett, Digital Diaspora.
Barnes, “Black Atlantic,” 106.
Risam, New Digital Worlds; Fiormonte, “Towards (Monocultural) Digital Humanities?”
Svensson, “Beyond the Big Tent,” 46.
Svensson and Goldberg, “Introduction,” 4.
See Said, Orientalism; Loomba, Colonialism/Postcolonialism; Kaul, Eighteenth Century British Literature and Postcolonial Studies; Pietsch, Empire of Scholars; Mentan, Africa in the Colonial Age of Empires; Ajayi, Gomi, and Johnson, The African Experience with Higher Education; Smit and Chetty, “Reimagining the Humanities in the Twenty-First Century”; Gil and Ortega, “Global Outlooks in Digital Humanities”; Risam, New Digital Worlds; Fiormonte, “Towards (Monocultural) Digital Humanities?”
Risam, New Digital Worlds.
Brathwaite, “Caribbean Man in Space and Time,” 7.
Brathwaite, “Caribbean Man in Space and Time,” 1–2.
Sharpe, In the Wake, 13.
Jackson et al., “Race, Gender, and Information Technology Use”; Posner, “Some Things to Think about Before You Exhort Everyone to Code.”
Gilroy, The Black Atlantic.
Murdoch, “Édouard Glissant’s Creolized World Vision,” 876.
Kelley, Freedom Dreams, 4.
Barber, “25 Years of Afrofuturism and Black Speculative Thought”; Nelson, “Afrofuturism”; Winchester, “Afrofuturism, Inclusion, and the Design Imagination.”
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