Review: My Nola, My Story
My Nola, My Story
Shearon Roberts, Xavier University of New Orleans
Jim McGrath, Brown University
My Nola, My Story is a digital humanities project, created in August 2017, that is a multimedia platform for gathering, documenting, classifying, contextualizing, and sharing the experiences and legacies of communities of color who have called New Orleans home. When New Orleans turned 300 this year, historians, the city, institutions and media organizations celebrated the lives and legacies of well-known New Orleanians, but told fewer stories of people of color.1 While the lives of prominent African Americans like Homer Plessy and Ernest “Dutch” Morial are acknowledged in Tricenntennial events, fewer programs and projects looked at the lives of New Orleanians of color. What was also missing from this Tricentennial exercise were the stories and social histories of ordinary New Orleans. This digital humanities project first began as an extension of a partnership created by the project director and three African American newspapers in New Orleans. It supports the role of Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically-Black university, that holds as its mission and role to create a more just and humane society. After Hurricane Katrina, Americans in general responded that they believed the city of New Orleans should not be rebuilt.2 To not rebuild a historic city, and a historically-Black one at that, is an erasure of the contributions of African Americans to the history and culture of the United States. This project has two goals: the first is to contribute to the exercise of leaving a record of the social histories of communities (the stories from below); and secondly to fill gaps in presenting the legacies of people of color, where in other public spaces these stories go ignored. This project collects and shares stories that are often one natural disaster away from being flooded into the forgotten footnotes of contributions to community from mainly African American, and also Asian and Hispanic groups who make up the dynamic DNA of this city. My Nola, My Story was created to enhance knowledge about ordinary people of color in this unique diverse Southern space.
My Nola, My Story is a platform for social histories and stories, told through the technologies of today, by content creators of today (millennials), and shared on the places where they drive conversation and discourse: social media. More importantly, these are stories created by young African Americans, and empowers them to curate their spaces, told from their vantage points. The collection of stories in My Nola, My Story ranges from one of the final interviews with New Orleans Chef Leah Chase giving her final words to young people of her community. Another interview allows a young African American male to reflect with his classmates about what it was like to attend the last middle school in the French Quarter that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Another interview allows a young African American woman to drive with her father, a New Orleans police department officer, to revisit Hurricane Katrina through his eyes. Other stories tell how millennials in New Orleans are keeping Black masking traditions alive from older generations to the traditions of marching bands in New Orleans and second lining.
Adopting Roopika Risam’s theorizing of what postcolonial digital humanities3 offers creators of knowledge today—who gets to frame that knowledge and how they do that— allows for the upending of hegemonic ways of archiving knowledge. My Nola, My Story allows African American students to lend their voices in the curating of knowledge about their own peoples, communities, and cultures, and to create and design the framing and packaging of their voices that render such stories authentic and counter-hegemonic. This is the model for My Nola, My Story that taps into the potential of digital humanities as “a democratizing space for the proliferation of new communities and knowledges … for developing a digital cultural record.”4
My Nola, My Story was created and directed by Shearon Roberts, Ph.D. in Spring 2017. She serves as the project lead and director. Students at Xavier University of Louisiana are the creators of the stories on the My Nola, My Story platform. The project site on Omeka and its corresponding social media accounts have been maintained by three project assistants: Deja Dennis, Amyre Brandom-Skinner and Tyra Johnson. Students are trained in documentary field production, video editing, and interviewing by the project director, with support from the three project assistants. Students are also trained on how to use the Omeka platform for curating content after its initial dissemination through social media.
In Fall 2015, the project director launched a partnership with the three African American newspapers in New Orleans (The Louisiana Weekly, The New Orleans Data New Weekly and The New Orleans Tribune) where students at Xavier University covered the African American community in New Orleans, and their news reports were published in these historic newspapers. The partnership has resulted in hundreds of articles produced by the students. To expand this work, the project director created My Nola, My Story as a space to house “cutting room floor” stories that did not lend themselves to news articles on deadline. Students were able to take stories from interviews or reporting assignments and expand them into video shorts and other multimedia content for My Nola, My Story.
The project audience is primarily the New Orleans community. As an extension of the work of the Black Press in New Orleans to reflect its community to audiences within and outside, My Nola, My Story also serves as a public platform. Stories are first disseminated via social media: a designated Youtube channel, and Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts. To date, the individual projects have a total viewing of over 50,000 views on social media, combined. The Omeka platform serves as a central position to connect stories together. However, most audiences discover these stories first, individually, through social media sharing. Each year, the project adds 50 new video shorts to its collection, and will reach 200 video short stories by December 2019. The project is currently in a new phase of creating a secondary space through the institution’s repository to make these stories available for researchers.
The project follows the use of “digital methodologies or media for research, pedagogy or communication.”5 Students are trained in using digital platforms for curation and communication (Omeka and Social Media) and digital content creation (digital cameras and digital editing) for research (interviewing, documenting) as part of pedagogy and communication. My Nola, My Story empowers students in and out of courses taught by the project director to use digital tools to create and curate knowledge. The project is also service to their community. Students are empowered through the project to decide and determine what stories and knowledge deserve a record and how to frame that record in ways that challenge how their own community is studied and archived. My Nola, My Story therefore reflects how a digital humanities project can both teach and train students of color in the work of the humanities, equipping them with digital tools, to engage in both research and service.
On the homepage of the digital project My Nola, My Story, Dr. Shearon Roberts and her student collaborators at Xavier University of Louisiana vow that communities of color in New Orleans “won’t be overlooked, disregarded, or forgotten.” In 2015, Dr. Roberts and her students began working with regional African American newspapers to ensure that a wider and more representative range of the city’s lived experiences would be amplified and present in the records of historical newspapers. My Nola, My Story, a digital public humanities initiative that came out of this initial collaboration, is a collection of short videos created and edited by students, distributed online via a project site created in Omeka as well as a YouTube channel. In the 50+ videos on the project’s YouTube channel we see students interviewing local artists, chefs, civil rights activists, athletes, barbers, friends, and relatives, among other city residents.
Some interview subjects are national figures, like chef and civil rights activist Leah Chase, while others, like Detective Louis Martinez, saw the national tragedy that was the devastation of the Ninth Ward unfold firsthand. We learn how the integration of the city’s high schools impacted particular families and their experiences with racism. We see generations of Second Line paraders reflect on the ways their participation solidified familial ties. We hear a barber discuss how constantly moving to different neighborhoods in and around New Orleans after Katrina impacted his world view and his approach to art. Some students choose to interview relatives and family acquaintances with long ties to New Orleans; others focus on younger or newer residents or expats.
My Nola, My Story makes use of Omeka in part to argue that these videos document people and perspectives worthy of long-term preservation and inclusion in historical records of New Orleans. The interest in hyperlocal and highly personal stories of the city echoes earlier crowdsourced digital initiatives like the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, which similarly collected firsthand accounts from a variety of New Orleans residents. The decision to create multimodal narratives and videos emphasize social dimensions of cultural memory that are not always present or visible in text-centric projects, enabling students to juxtapose interviews with images, sounds, music, and other materials and textures. Rather than insist on formal, rigid approaches taken by trained oral historians, Dr. Roberts has clearly encouraged students to adopt storytelling methods that resonate more immediately with the lives of their subjects and their intended local audiences in New Orleans. We learn about these student documentarians in addition to their subjects via their questions, editing decisions, and voiceover narrations. Dr. Roberts has also encouraged the creation of short-form episodes, acknowledging the conventions of video journalism and resulting in material that can be easily disseminated across social media.
The pedagogical dimensions of My Nola, My Story encourage students to not just analyze but to participate directly in the production of cultural memory, to leave the classroom and the campus to learn more about overlooked or underrepresented histories, to evaluate video recording and editing tools that might effectively document their subjects, to consider how their work will be contextualized and organized by metadata and other forms of archival methodologies. Beyond their immediate contributions to the still-growing collection of My Nola, My Story, students are learning storytelling and communication tools and techniques that will no doubt aid their later professional endeavors.
Many participants in video interviews seem to value sharing their lived experiences and knowledge of regional and cultural histories with the younger generations represented by the students at Xavier University of Louisiana, but it would be useful to learn more about how and where these participants and their communities access, utilize, and respond to this collection of digital stories. There may be opportunities for on-site programming that presents completed work in spaces valued by particular communities, or opportunities for further dialogue or the creation of additional digital resources beyond these initial exchanges. Digital public humanities initiatives develop community partnerships between organizations or collectives that create and document shared aims and motivations over time, and it would be interesting to see if longer and sustained collaborations and formal partnerships might develop from a particularly compelling one-on-one exchange between a student and an interview subject (or perhaps a more specialized and modified assignment asking students to create a series of stories focused on a particular neighborhood, topic, or time period, prompted by consultation with community stakeholders before the course). The work of establishing and maintaining connections with participants and their communities would take significant time and effort, so this direction may be beyond the current scope of My Nola, My Story, its available resources, or its perspectives on what is possible within the temporal constraints of a single semester.
It’s not immediately clear where the materials in My Nola, My Story will be archived and preserved in the long term beyond its current Omeka site and YouTube channel. Given the project’s emphasis on expanded and preserving social histories of African American life in New Orleans, information on long-term preservation efforts (whether in collaboration with a particular institution, archive, or repository or through independent and self-governing measures) would be useful to document on the site. That being said, it’s clear that My Nola, My Story is an active endeavor and a work-in-progress; the desire to know the answers to these and other questions demonstrates the value of the project’s efforts to document and save the stories of its subjects and contributors.