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Expanding the Digital Black Atlantic

Note: the introduction to the AAIHS roundtable on the Digital Black Atlantic can be found here

The essays published in the Digital Black Atlantics forum this week mark a watershed moment for digital humanities scholarship, taking a critical look at the role that data visualization methodologies play in uncovering the histories and voices of the African diaspora that have for too long gone unheard. As a digital humanist and one of the editors of The Digital Black Atlantic (with Kelly Baker Josephs) for the Debates in the Digital Humanities series at the University of Minnesota Press, my work has been preoccupied by concerns that as digital humanities has grown in size and scope, it has both reproduced and amplified the hallmarks of colonialism that shape the cultural record — archives, book history, cultures of the text — as we create the digital cultural record — digital archives, digital editions, and methodologically rich digital scholarship. As I argued in my book New Digital Worlds: Postcolonial Digital Humanities in Theory, Praxis, and Pedagogy, unless practitioners are attending to the methodological choices and design practices that shape digital humanities scholarship and reimagining them to address the needs of communities that have been silenced, digital scholarship perpetuates these gaps and omissions. Therefore, it is particularly crucial for scholars to create interventions like those featured in this forum, which demonstrate how data visualization can begin redressing absences of the African diaspora. 

When Dr. Josephs and I sketched out the concept behind The Digital Black Atlantic, we sought a way to bring together scholarship from countries in Africa and the diaspora to facilitate conversation on both transnational approaches to literature, history, and culture and on local approaches that situate digital humanities practices in their cultural contexts. We found ourselves drawn to Paul Gilroy’s articulation of “The Black Atlantic ” as an organizing principle that mediated between the local and global as it articulated the profound cultural hybridity incipient in African diaspora cultural production. Critiques of The Black Atlantic, such as Natasha Barnes’ concern over its centering of the United States and Brent Hayes Edwards’s articulation of the Anglo-American monolingualism in diaspora studies further influenced our articulation of an expansive digital Black Atlantic that incorporates perspectives on digital humanities from a variety of people, places, and languages. As we examined the breadth of scholarship covered in the collection — e.g., sound studies, game studies, literary studies, history, and library and information studies — we saw crucial resonances between the theoretical model that Gilroy proposed and the histories — and presents — of technology in the African diaspora. Far from the dominant narratives that emphasize how technologies — e.g., the slave ship, the gun, algorithms — have been used to oppress Black people, we saw, instead, the inventive ways that they have appropriated technologies and used them to their advantage in emancipatory ways, such as Anna Everett’s uncovering of Black digital diasporas and Kim Gallon’s articulation of Black digital humanities as a technology of recovery. We further recognized the expertise and insight that the African diaspora has yielded in critiques of technology, such as Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression and Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology: The New Jim Code  

Therefore, as we articulate it, the digital Black Atlantic posits links between the socio-technical practices adopted by people of the African diaspora and communities in Africa, Europe, the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Recognizing the specificities of digital practices within these geographical areas, we also emphasize their connections across space and time to insist on the roles that racism, enslavement, and colonialism have played in the engagement of African-descended people with technology but, more critically, to emphasize their resistance through technology. As we note in our introduction, “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 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.” The growth of scholarship in the digital Black Atlantic depends on sustained attention to the methodological interventions that it makes possible. This forum is an essential example of such work, focusing on the role of visualization in realizing the aims of the digital Black Atlantic.

Read entire article at Black Perspectives