Editors' note on the May 2022 issue of Reviews in Digital Humanities, guest edited by Aleia Brown, Marisa Parham, and Trevor Muñoz
Welcome to the May 2022 issue of Reviews in Digital Humanities. We’re delighted to bring you the second part of our two-part special issue on Black DH. This special issue continues to draw attention to the urgent and power interventions born at the intersections of Black studies and digital humanities, thanks to the careful work of guest editors Aleia Brown, Marisa Parham, and Trevor Muñoz.
We’re also happy to share that we have taken on a second partnership. In addition to partnering with the Recovery Hub for American Women Writers, we are now partnering with the Advanced Research Consortium (ARC), which is housed at the Center of Digital Humanities Research (CoDHR), at Texas A&M University. As a hub of humanities research nodes, ARC contains resources spanning the bulk of existing Western written documents, from medieval times to the early 20th century. Each ARC node contains data about existing documents, scanned page images (with text transcriptions), scholarly research related to the node’s documents, and teaching and research tools, including open-source software, that help humanities researchers to work with digital text and images. ARC coordinates the various resources of the nodes, combining them into a single catalog of metadata, images, and texts, and the ARC nodes provide peer-review for research projects derived from the ARC resources. Through our partnership, we will publish an issue a year of projects and reviews drawn from ARC’s peer review process. Welcome to Reviews, ARC!
If you are interested in editing a special issue of Reviews or exploring the possibility of a partnership, drop us a note! You can also submit a project for review, nominate a project you admire, volunteer for our reviewer pool, and tell your colleagues and students about the journal.
Aleia Brown, Marisa Parham, and Trevor Muñoz
For this issue of Reviews in Digital Humanities, we have collected a small sampling of projects that reflect the rich conceptual diversity of work broadly known as Black digital humanities, or Black DH. At AADHum, the African-American Digital and Experimental Humanities Initiative at the University of Maryland, we focus both on digital studies—producing scholarship that evaluates and extends investigations into the histories and impacts of digital technologies on Black lifeworlds—and also on the ideation and production of projects that actively name blackness in the production and implementation of digital technologies.
Our hybrid practices continually center the many kinds of inquiry arisen at the intersection between digital technologies and Black intellectual and expressive traditions, thus highlighting how the work of contemporary Black thinker-makers can indeed, as the early Black digital humanist Abdul Alkalimat (channeling Amílcar Cabral) describes, “create the ontological and epistemological basis for who we are and what we can know about ourselves.”1 Thinking about how we come to know ourselves, thinking itself as a kind of making, and “making” more generally as historically a strategy for opening spaces of inquiry in intellectually inadequate, inhospitable environments: when it came time to plan a Reviews issue on digital projects grounded in the explication or expression of Black American lifeworlds, we were struck by the sheer range and number of possible approaches. No embarrassment, but a whole lot of riches.
From physical installations and pop-up libraries, databases and actuarial tables to community book sculpting, from recombinant computational poetry to close reading supported by GIS (geographical information systems) and material culture studies, to the mapping of an urban space in order to find and preserve traces of Black life, or the digital performance of Black hair arts—the digital humanities and experimental media projects collected in this issue glimpse some of the work happening today under the rubric of Black DH, much work which has already been displayed in previous issues of Reviews. Such diversity has historically characterized Black intellectual life in general, which carries its own histories of identifying what is useful in a given (or withheld) tradition while also traversing genre, discourse, and audience in search of what cannot be well-accounted for without new tools, emergent grammars, or imaginative approaches. We are working with this expanded sense of what constitutes Black digital humanities because we, like many of the practitioners gathered here, are equally concerned with materiality and digitality, flight and fugitivity, with imagination and implementation. In this collection we are excited by how varying genres of Black digital and experimental work offer wildly different paths to nevertheless similar insights. Though by no means capturing the full range of work in implementational Black DH—we are as much beholden to what we are able to include in this particular issue as to what we were not—the different projects on display here are nonetheless linked in their commitment to using or interrogating digital methods to intervene in larger narratives, to telling new kinds of stories.
To carry out their ambitious inquiries, the project directors included in this issue call on multiple modalities, built and found softwares, and a range of audience development and engagement strategies. We have also tried to include projects in different stages of iteration, to offer a peek into how projects can change in concept, functionality, and aesthetic over time, thus reflecting the often long timelines of project development. As well, the range in funding and types of institutional and team support across projects invites readers to consider the possibilities and limitations of implementing and scaling digital projects, both in terms of what is necessary, and also in terms of what is at any moment possible to materially accomplish.
Intellectual possibility is also a labor question. Even as our selection of projects for this issue often surface experimental, historical, or interpretive/analytic stakes in the reading or deployment of cultural heritage collections, it is important to note that the work of collection building and maintenance in and for itself holds a long-established and important place in digital humanities. Working at the intersection of theory and practice, Dorothy J. Berry’s “The House that Archives Built,” gives precise and compelling articulation to traditions of labor and scholarship in Black digital archives. “Academics,” Berry notes, “continuously loosen the concept of the archives in vigorous debate and flowery speech, while hundreds of linear feet of Black history are stacked in secure shelving, unbeknownst and inaccessible to implicated communities. ‘Why do we even have this?’”2 Although Berry is speaking specifically of gaps between doing the work and talking about the work—and the kinds of harm reproduced when we don’t perceive that distance—at AADHum, we work to take Berry’s insight as a useful articulation of what is at stake in pursuing the difference between Black DH’s ontologically generative mandate and other kinds of (still important) scholarship about Black people.3
Many of the projects we have included here began as labors of love, work pursued despite numerous financial, structural, and time-allotment barriers. With this issue, therefore, we are also thinking about where Black DH work comes from, where it’s coming from. We might not always know how or where our work begins but, to riff toward the futures suggested by Berry, in the end Black DH proffers a sense of why we are here, what we bring, and why, even, we have this. So doing, however, requires a radical shift in perspective, a revaluation of institutional priorities, and new structures for enabling and recognizing the many hands and minds that produce the material conditions for digital work.
Part 1 (April 2022)
Legacy Russell’s BLACK MEME, a video essay reviewed by Kola Heyward-Rotimi, is a critical arts intervention that takes up the difficult matter of what is at stake when social media images of Black people are circulated and transacted upon in ways that reproduce historical structures of representational violence. Russell presents her project in an interactive digital space, which highlights the numerous ways digital technologies can reproduce anti-blackness in both form and content.
Sheila Chukwulozie reviews Braiding Braiding / “Morning 0,” a collaborative digital storytelling project by Zimbabwean artist Nontsikelelo Mutiti and American designer/ programmer Julia Novitch. Recreated from actual conversations in an African hair salon, the project immerses the viewer in a unique experience that concretizes what Chukwulozie describes as separate lives weav[ing] into “one big moment of braiding.”
Mimi Ọnụọha’s The Library of Missing Datasets, reviewed by Zakiya Collier, is an object-based installation project that centers contemporary data saturation while also highlighting how numerous kinds of data about Black American life are suppressed or ignored. Ọnụọha’s project especially highlights how Black lives and deaths are transformed into data, and how frequently Black people are excluded from agency or ownership over that capture.
Reviewed by Zanice Bond, the Solidarity Book Project—produced by Sonya Clark, Andrew Smith, Amir Hall, and their collaborators—is a multi-modal project that combines a physical installation, digital archive, social media driven community outreach initiative, and fundraising campaign. Taken together, the project’s various nodes explore what it means to express or enact solidarity across dispersed or virtualized Black and Indigenous communities.
George Derek Musgrove and team’s Black Power in Washington, D.C., 1961–1998, reviewed by Joshua Crutchfield, maps local expressions of Black Power over three decades, marking and memorializing a proliferation of political and cultural nationalist activity that is often no longer easily visible in D.C.’s contemporary built environment. The project highlights why histories of Black Power in D.C. are as critical as those of Detroit, Newark, New York, and Oakland.
Part 2 (May 2022)
Recently moved back into redevelopment by Michael Ralph and a number of data and design collaborators, Treasury of Weary Souls is an expansive project in data capture and pivot analysis, reviewed by Caitlin Pollock. As it develops the largest corpus of slave insurance policy records currently available, the project highlights how craftsmanship and other kinds of expertise developed by enslaved peoples underwrote the insurance-based financialization of British and U.S.-based economies. This analysis adds a new site of inquiry toward understanding the actuarial registration of slave labor, and how we understand the deployment of what was stolen.
As another data project focused on the value (and undervaluing) of Black craft and techne, Torren Gatson and Tiffany Momon’s Black Craftspeople Digital Archive discursively overlaps with Treasury of Weary Souls. Reviewed by Julian Chambliss, this project pulls away, however, from political economy to focus on relationships between free and enslaved crafters, highlighting the creative work and labor communities of Black crafters from the 17th century onward.
Reviewed by Marisa Parham, and approaching matters of data and the work of corpus-building from an entirely different direction, Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s Forever Gwen Brooks transforms Gwendolyn Brooks’ chapbook RIOT into a dataset that can be computationally recombined into new permutations of that book’s closing poem. In the interplay of ghost and remix, the project sparks renewed appreciation for the infinite spirit and erudite formal workings of Brooks’ art.
Finally, J.T. Roane reviews Christy Hyman’s historical geography project, The Oak of Jerusalem. Hyman’s project uses a rich mixed-methodology approach to sketch an example of U.S. mainland marronage. Her method uses field-work, Black ecological epistemologies, literary close reading, and GIS mapping to surface hidden histories in the Great Dismal Swamp of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina.