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Review: Women of the Early Harlem Renaissance

A review of Women of the Early Harlem Renaissance, a collection of poetry, drama, and fiction by African American women writers from 1900-1922, directed by Amardeep Singh

Published onNov 02, 2020
Review: Women of the Early Harlem Renaissance
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Project
Women of the Early Harlem Renaissance

Project Director
Amardeep Singh, Lehigh University

Project URL
https://scalar.lehigh.edu/harlemwomen/index

Project Reviewer
Amy E. Earhart, Texas A&M University


Project Overview

Amardeep Singh

Description

This site aims to collect poetry, drama, and fiction by African American women between 1900 and 1922. I envision the project as aligning with what Kim Gallon (2016) has referred to as a “technology of recovery,” which is one of the core principles bridging African American literary studies and digital humanities. The project is also very much in the tradition of what Amy Earhart (2012) has called “digital recovery projects,” which have aimed to use the affordances of digital publishing to both hear and amplify voices previously excluded from the Anglo-American canon. The aim is to use Scalar’s visualization and tagging structures to explore stylistic, thematic, and social relationships among a small group of writers, as well as to explore the conversations these writers were having with more widely known writers and editors like W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, and William Stanley Braithwaite. 

The existing digital archive infrastructure for women writers from the Harlem Renaissance is minimal at best. This unfortunately replicates and perpetuates a male-dominated narrative of that period in African American writing that the Black feminist tradition has aimed to challenge (particularly important to my project is the literary historical work of Cheryl A. Wall, whose 1995 book Women of the Harlem Renaissance remains the gold standard in this area). Digital recovery can facilitate a reshaping of the canon and a new way of thinking about the thematics and aesthetics of the period in line with what critics like Wall and Maureen Honey have encouraged. Of the writers I have been working with, some — Georgia Douglas Johnson, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and Jessie Fauset — were well known at the time and were included in at least some anthologies of the 1920s. Meanwhile, Carrie Williams Clifford, Clara Ann Thompson, and Carrie Law Morgan Figgs appear to have been prolific writers whose works were generally not reviewed or anthologized. They are essentially unknown today; according to the Open Syllabus Project, none of the names mentioned above (other than Carrie Williams Clifford) have been included on any college literature syllabi in the project’s corpus in recent years. 

Some of the works of these writers can be accessed online via repositories like Archive.org and HathiTrust, but these collections are of limited utility to readers. They tend to present their collections as PDF page images that lack useful metadata (i.e. semantic tags, publication information, historical annotations, or glossaries) or contextual or biographical information that might help a user know what they might be looking at. Also, since many Harlem Renaissance poets published their works in The Crisis, a limited number of poems by these writers can be accessed via the digital page images of The Crisis that are available at the Modernist Journals Project, but searchability is limited, and again, there is little by way of biographical or contextual information to help a novice reader navigate the wealth of material available. Researchers aiming to dig deeper, as well as teachers and students aiming for different thematic areas or particular historical topics (i.e. lynching), could benefit from access to an archive designed to present these writers’ collections of poetry in full-text format. 

Process

This archive aims to both recover texts by Black women writers that might be inaccessible to interested readers and remap the way we understand their writing. The process has entailed doing research into writing in the period via the work of established scholars like Wall and Honey, and then combing through both print archives and online repositories to discover relevant materials. 

The site uses the Scalar platform to present the work digitally because of its ability to organize information in several different ways. Individual books of poetry by authors are constructed as digital editions using Scalar’s path architecture. At the same time, individual poems and short stories have been annotated with carefully considered thematic tags aimed to show relationships between texts at a highly granular level. Users can access poems by themes such as “racism,” “lynching,” “motherhood,” “Christianity,” and “war.” This feature might be especially valuable for classroom deployments of the archive and for users previously unfamiliar with these writers. 

In terms of other basic standards, the project features a bibliography. Some accessibility features, such as an exportable text file version of the entire project, are planned. As of the present moment, plans for larger grants to support expanding this project (especially with an eye to improving accessibility and machine-readability) are being developed. I do intend to apply for an internal grant at my institution to support hiring a graduate research assistant to help develop the project in 2021. My institution is committed to maintaining and upgrading our Scalar install indefinitely. If, for some reason, the group that develops Scalar decides to discontinue updating it or the platform itself is shut down, the version of Scalar installed on Lehigh’s servers will continue to operate. 

Team

The editor of this project is Amardeep Singh, with some editorial contributions from Joanna Grim, a Ph.D. student at Lehigh University.

Audience 

This project is aimed to be useful in the classroom at both the high school and college levels. It could be relevant in courses on African American writers, the Harlem Renaissance, and Women Writers. Some of the subthemes and tags might also link the project with historical conversations related to lynching, the rise of African American civil rights activism in the 1910s and 1920s, and the role of African American soldiers in World War I. Work on this project has been documented in my 2018 peer-reviewed essay, “Visualizing the Uplift: Digitizing Poetry by African American Women 1900-1922,”  in Feminist Modernist Studies. The project has also been used in a class taught by Danica Savonick at SUNY Cortland in Fall 2019. 

References

Earhart, Amy E. 2012. “Can Information Be Unfettered? Race and the New Digital Humanities Canon.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/read/untitled-88c11800-9446-469b-a3be-3fdb36bfbd1e/section/cf0af04d-73e3-4738-98d9-74c1ae3534e5

Gallon, Kim. 2016. “Making a Case for the Black Digital Humanities.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/read/untitled/section/fa10e2e1-0c3d-4519-a958-d823aac989eb.

Open Syllabus Project. 2020. “Syllabi Author Search.” Last modified 2017. https://opensyllabus.org/


Project Review

Amy E. Earhart

Women of the Early Harlem Renaissance (WEHR), edited by Amardeep Singh, with some editorial contributions from Joanna Grim, is an in-progress digital archive that has, as its goal, the collection of “poetry, drama, and fiction by African American women between 1900 and 1922.” Initial authors included in WEHR are Georgia Douglas Johnson, Carrie Williams Clifford, Jesse Redmon Fauset, and Anne Spencer. Johnson and Fauset are often anthologized authors, but the others are relatively unknown and certainly understudied, something the archive hopes to change. Future additions to the archive include Pauline Hopkins, Angela Grimke, Mazie Earhart Clark, and Carrie Law Morgan Figgs. Singh situates the project in the tradition of Kim Gallon’s “technology of recovery,” offering a digital archive designed to expand our understanding of the role of women writers in the Harlem Renaissance. WEHR includes short introductions for each author, and textual transcriptions are edited for accuracy. Some texts include original images, a helpful practice that could be expanded throughout the project, where possible. In addition to the project introduction, Singh includes detailed contextual essays on the “‘Harlem Renaissance’: Definition and Periodization” and “Texts, Themes, Visualizations.” 

The project is built within Scalar, which allows for multiple points of entry and exploration of the texts through a timeline; map of poetry locations; and a visualization of thematic relationships built from tags, including “desire,” “Christianity,” “Motherhood,” and “passing,” attached to individual texts. Tags such as “lynching” and “racism” reveal that the notion that Black women writers of this period ignored racism in their work is unfounded. Carrie Williams Cliffords’ poem “Little Mother (Upon the Lynching of Mary Turner),” for example, is one that deserves study in relationship to other, more often examined poems of the period, such as Claude McKay’s “The Lynching.”

WEHR also demonstrates awareness of the multiple ways that the archive might be used, with particular attention to pedagogy and algorithmic interpretation. The project’s growth out of a graduate classroom and its potential use in high school and undergraduate classrooms places the archive in the long tradition of recovery work that intertwines pedagogy and research. WEHR further demonstrates best practices for research and use by including a single text-based document of all primary and secondary texts in the hopes that it “might be useful to readers in environments with limited access to the internet” and users who are visually impaired. The document also allows the corpora to be easily used in quantitative analysis under a Creative Commons-Attribution license. This best practice will expand limited available corpora, diversifying big data projects.

WEHR is an important and well-constructed archive. It is my hope that Singh will continue to add texts by Black women writers, which will expand our understanding of literary production of the period.

References

Gallon, Kim. 2016. “Making a Case for the Black Digital Humanities.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/read/untitled/section/fa10e2e1-0c3d-4519-a958-d823aac989eb.

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