African American Literary Studies and the Digital Humanities: Finding an Entrance


On my application for the NEH Summer Institute on Contemporary African American Literature I articulated my desire to think through and discover how African American literature could lend itself to a digital humanities project. I hoped to come away from the institute with a better understanding of what such a project would look like. I was anxious and excited to engage visiting lecturer Howard Ramsby on this very issue.  

I broached the subject with my fellow summer scholars, but as with other sessions we filled the time with phenomenal dialogue (on this particular day it was about Howard’s lecture on Afro-Futurism) that my inquiry did not receive much rotation. Maryemma Graham offered one response by extended an invitation to the group to attend the 2013 MLA Convention in Boston, at which three panels dedicated to this very topic will be on the program.  This was reassuring.  I’m glad to know that others in the profession have taken note of the absence of African American literature and culture among all of the hullabaloo over the digital humanities—more importantly, though, they are doing something about it.

I suppose I am invested in the answer to this question, not for my own research interests—though I certainly would like to delve into this new, sexy techno-savvy field—but more so for the sake of the tradition itself.  African American literature and culture as a field of study has endured its share of ambivalence among the more “traditional” academic disciplines.  It was not so long ago that it was considered unworthy of intellectual consideration.  I fear that if we—scholars who profess an expertise in African American literary studies—do not make our presence felt in digital scholarship then we will be left behind and perhaps even be placed in the position where we must, again, prove our worth.

As technology continues to advance and we are faced with virtual classrooms, interfacing with the cloud, and e-books, African American literature (and African American/Black/African Diaspora Studies for that matter) will have to fight our way across the digital divide.  I know that there are scholars out there doing the work, but across the board digital humanities is deficient in scholarly output that centers the history, literature, or cultural production of black folk. 

That is not to suggest that we are being denied access.  On the contrary, I believe there is ample opportunity and ample research funding to support projects that combine humanities scholarship with emerging technologies.  The question is why aren’t more of us doing this type of work? What are the obstacles standing in the way, if there are any? What type of projects can we conceive and feasibly see to completion? With whom should we be collaborating?

I am challenging myself to develop a digital humanities project.  I’m very unclear about what it will look like at this point, but I am committed to inserting African American literature into this trending discipline. Technology is the new frontier and its time for African American Literature to get on the bus. 

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