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The Digital Black Atlantic Event Recap: Panelists Discuss An Exciting and Growing Field

Pictured here is the movement of several figures found in Mapping Marronage, a digital project tracking the movement of particular enslaved people at different points in history.

By Javier Rosario

A rising field of study has found academics from across the world reach beyond the national borders which so often define knowledge production. More specifically, communities of scholarship and practice in the African diaspora are engaging in an interdisciplinary effort to understand how racism, enslavement, and colonialism have shaped the use of technology among African descendants, and how those descendants have in turn shaped that technology.

This is the Digital Black Atlantic, and some of its practitioners spoke with the Northeastern community in a virtual panel on February 10 to share its progress. Moderated by professors Elizabeth Maddock Dillon and Nicole Aljoe, the panel featured professors Roopika Risam and Kelly Baker Josephs, co-editors of The Digital Black Atlantic, as well as a pre-recorded presentation by Annette Joseph-Gabriel, author and associate professor of Romance Studies at Duke University. These scholars provided insight into the goals and methods of the Digital Black Atlantic, as well as their own particular contributions within it and the digital humanities more generally.

Risam and Josephs stressed the importance of making the Digital Black Atlantic as international an effort as possible, a principle which focused their efforts during the creation of their appropriately named essay collection.

“We wanted to juxtapose the parts of the Black Atlantic that don’t necessarily get put next to each other and the parts of the digital humanities that don’t get put next to each other,” Josephs said.

For The Digital Black Atlantic collection, that meant amassing a broad range of work from various scholars, some of whom didn’t even work in the digital humanities but could nevertheless provide valuable contributions.

“If we’re going to build up the Digital Black Atlantic, this isn’t going to be done by a particular method or person, but by multiple methods and multiple people,” Risam said. “It also means working together and thinking very strategically about how our work can lift up the work of others, and vice versa.”

Risam and Josephs hope that this open-access collection incites continued research in the field, and provides a group of scholars and reviewers who can be turned to for collaboration. Still, Risam and Josephs stressed that the base they helped build is incomplete.

“In having this breaking of ground we also want to recognize the projects and ideas that are not included in this first volume,” Josephs said. “One of the areas of growth that remain is in the location of these scholars and the language of these scholars.”

The Digital Black Atlantic is, according to them, currently too anglophone-centric, and too centered on the global north. But this can change; Josephs is, for her part, collaborating with the Caribbean Digital Scholarship Collective, and hopes that the field at large similarly delves into languages and cultures that have not yet been included.

In her presentation, Joseph-Gabriel shared her digital project, Mapping Marronage, which visualizes the movement of enslaved people away from the power of slave holders. The project portrays this movement, as well as the networks built by the people in movement, by referencing records of their presence and travel.

“We’re asking, what was the reach of a person’s life?” Joseph-Gabriel said.

She added that this tool was created for both research and pedagogy, stating that much of the data on the site is added by students. To reinforce this point, she had some of her students share their own research with the tool, in one case going over the trail of an unnamed slave in the early 19th century.

The event closed out with a Q&A led by Professor Aljoe, where panelists Risam and Josephs restated their focus on including historically unheard voices within the field of the digital humanities. Risam in particular shared her experience in the field, and the promising signs of improvement that she’s seen throughout her career.

“I was deeply concerned that what was happening was simply reproducing and amplifying the voices who were already of canonical value,” Risam says of her early forays. “It’s been really amazing to see how much things have changed, how much scholarship is being written, how many different projects are being created devoted to this work, because it’s a monumental task to try and ensure representation in this landscape.”

Everyone is invited to NULab’s next panel event, “Digital Archives, Anti-Racism, and Critical Metadata Practices,” featuring Dorothy Berry, Zakiya Collier, Valencia Johnson, and Jessica Tai. These guests will discuss antiracist metadata practices, and engage in dialogue about the Early Caribbean Digital Archive, the Digital Transgender Archive, and the Women Writers Project, all Northeastern projects. This event is free and open to the public, but registration is required—please RSVP here.

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