Of the Meaning of Progress: Digital Studies as Radical Praxis

Recently much of my heart, energy, and time have been consumed by the madness unleashed by white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August, protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee Statue. I felt the same way the month before when a national news story broke about the discovery of Sally Hemings slave quarters at Monticello, which unfortunately, though not surprisingly, circulated with this description: “Thomas Jefferson’s mistress Sally Hemings’ secret living quarters finally discovered.” Black Twitter immediately challenged the author for misrepresenting Hemings as a “mistress”, and by proxy those enslaved at Monticello at large, as complicit in her own rape and exploitation.

As a scholar of social movements, Black Studies, and race, the creative and collaborative focus of Digital Humanities speaks well to my training in critical praxis. What I find most compelling is its capacity to leverage different digital tools for reclaiming Black humanity. 

The way Black folks online are course-correcting the media not only impressed me, but it also raised lingering questions about the academy. In what ways do the academy and the knowledge production process contribute to the current political climate? Specifically, what opportunities do current racial conversations present to the Digital Humanities (DH)?  Can academics hold ourselves accountable the way the Black Twitter holds news media accountable?

In early June, I traveled to the University of Texas at Austin to get an introduction to working with the command line, Git, GitHub, and Python at the Humanities Intensive Learning and Teaching (HILT). In the keynote address, Maurie McInnis, Executive Vice President and Provost of the University of Texas at Austin, spoke about her ongoing work rediscovering the history of enslavement at the University of Virginia (UVA) through the Jefferson’s University—the Early Life Project (JUEL), which explores the everyday life of those living, working, and studying at UVA during its formative years.

McInnis, an art historian, used 3D visualizations of UVA’s Academical Village circa 1827 to reveal the most recorded parts of enslaved people’s everyday lives, drawing attention to everything from their labor cooking, cleaning, and laundering at university hotels and pavilions, to the acts of sanctioned violence they endured, evidenced in accounts of students beating slaves. By comparing these 3D visualizations to UVA’s current landscape, we see how the university landscape obscured how slavery played a role in constructing the university. McInnis notes, “[Jefferson] designed it architecturally to enable the enslavement and to separate the students and faculty from the enslaved people who would be doing all the work.”

The JUEL project didn’t just examine the lives of documented slaves, it also revealed the presence of unnamed enslaved people, often represented by headcount or for whom they worked. McInnis says, ‘We knew the history was there but it’s needles in a very long and deep and wide and broad haystack. The history is not written down that is focused on enslavement it’s just people show up in little hints here and there.”

Digitizing the archive enabled McInnis to read against the archive and rediscover the undocumented enslaved. Still, much of their everyday life goes unrecognized due to their unique freedom of movement, autonomous work, and seemingly several masters with varied ownership claims from students, faculty, and administrators. Failing to dive deeper to tease out their everyday experiences, however, robs us of the opportunity to see their full humanity. Leaving the record incomplete, in fact, may leave an open space for the type of misrepresentations that would cast Ms. Hemings as “mistress” instead of a rape victim.

 

In the past decade, several universities including Yale, Georgetown, and the Maryland have publicly announced initiatives to unearth, institutionalize, and make amends for their exploitative pasts. JUEL, for instance, was a precursor to the founding of UVA’s President’s Commission on Slavery and the University — one of the first to initiate an institutional project to reclaim the university’s history of slavery using DH tools. Despite these effort, universities’ reflections on their racist pasts, from my view, cannot be disconnected from civic reflections on their shrines to those who protected the system of slavery. I can’t help but wonder if including more Black Studies scholarship could help to fill in lingering gaps in the scholarship, while pushing us to reckon with problematic pasts.

The intersection of McInnis’s keynote address and the Hemings article raised questions about how I construct my own research, particularly around  the political decision to be very intentional in including Black Studies scholars in my collaborative work. I wonder, do we as Digital Humanists, contribute to the violence done to the enslaved when we fail to include Black Studies/Black Digital Humanists in designing of our DH projects? Similarly, how far we are willing to go in our discursive efforts of restorative justice?

While DH is often a collaborative space, one that lends itself to public engagement, Black DH challenges us to recognize how the work of restorative justice starts not at the finished product, but from the beginning, in both the questions we ask and the scholars we collaborate with. As such, the reclaiming of Black bodies of the past requires us to ask about Black bodies of the present by inviting Black scholars and Black methodologies into our work.

Everyday Black Americans continue to challenge how the news media distort history and contemporary events in ways that cloud the ugly truth of white supremacy. Academics have the opportunity to do the same in our research. By centering Black Studies and Black Digital Humanists more specifically in the reclamation of history, the academy could take a more active lead in the public conversation about racism.

Kevin Winstead, Doctoral Candidate and Graduate Assistant to the AADHum Initiative

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