Toward A Deeper Understanding of Digital Humanities Research in Black Studies

Fresh off the completion of a bachelor’s degree in African American Studies, I was introduced to the intersection of Black Studies and the digital humanities through AADHum. Hearing about the initiative at the start of my doctoral coursework triggered immense curiosity. Digital humanities has its own wow factor; there are shiny new applications and ultra-modern interfaces that seem so elaborate, neat, fanciful and functional. This curiosity prompted the inevitable question: why had I never heard of this kind of academic work before? Then, after being exposed to projects like Vincent Brown’s work on Jamaica and the Green Book Map, I wondered: how did they make that? Having resources and community committed to exploring Black digital humanities work on campus inspired a revolution in my understanding of Black Studies. As a community member and AADHum Scholar, I am exploring how Black digital humanities approaches can transform my research, teaching, and overall conceptualization of Black Studies.

In my research, I engage African American cultural production, such as film and literature, through close reading. For example, when I had questions about sexuality and intimacy in Barry Jenkins’s 2016 film Moonlight, I resolved them by carefully observing the dialogue, on-screen elements like lighting and performance, and off-screen elements like the score and soundtrack. I sought to understand how these elements helped develop themes of sexuality and intimacy in the overall narrative. Moreover, I relied on theories of African American sexual cultures to inform my analysis of the film.

However, AADHum programming exposed me to myriad different tools—like digital mapping and network analysis—that have prompted me to reconceptualize my research questions in multi-dimensional ways. Last year’s “Surveying the Terrain” incubator session explored examples of digital mapping projects that documented African American lived experiences, affirming that everyone can use digital tools to produce and interrogate maps. This inspired me to think about the new knowledges that may come about from representing space and place in African American cultural production. I am now analyzing how Moonlight uses space, place and travel to communicate themes of masculinity, intimacy and affect. By geocoding locations mentioned in the screenplay, I am coming to an enhanced understanding of Moonlight and moving beyond my initial impressions from close reading alone.

Moreover, I have begun to cast a wider net in my approach to teaching and seminar discussions, drawing on the different tools and methods that AADHum has contributed to my academic toolbelt. A Spring 2017 incubator, entitled “Representing Movement,” explored soundscapes by using Google Fusion Tables and Cytoscape to analyze the connections between music artists and producers in Atlanta. In my teaching and coursework, I have learned from this example and employed similar exercises in network analysis. For instance, I was able to initiate robust discussion in a seminar with a network chart I created that mapped connections between characters in plays by Georgia Douglas Johnson. Additionally, digital humanities approaches have changed how I consider and select relevant content for undergraduate students. AADHum introduced me to scholars working at the intersections of Black Studies and the digital humanities, like Moya Bailey and Safiya Noble. Their work enriches my understanding of how Black Studies work can be done, especially in ways that transcend my undergraduate perceptions of interdisciplinarity. As a graduate student and instructor in American Studies, I am in a position to amplify this type of work as exemplars of intentionally digital, intentionally Black scholarship.

Overall, the conversations AADHum initiates have propelled a continuing evolution and extension of my experience with Black Studies, given its commitment to remaining both “intentionally Black and intentionally digital.” I understand AADHum’s effort to support and centralize Black digital humanities as part of a larger struggle to create and defend physical and intellectual space for Black Studies. While the pressing questions of transforming academia and the corporate university remain, I am reminded that Black Studies is, in many ways, a community endeavor. As an AADHum Scholar, I see the demands of many scholars invested in the intersections of Black culture and the digital being met through scholarly community building, challenging conversations, and a commitment to collecting and distributing resources. My experience thus far affirms that advancing strong connections between Black Studies and digital humanities will require us to remain eager and open to new possibilities in terms of method, research questions, and community and pedagogical engagement.


Hazim Abdullah-Smith, AADHum Scholar and PhD Student in American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park

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