Roopika Risam on Digital Humanities and Social Justice


On October 24 and 25 noted digital humanities scholar Roopika Risam of Salem State University came to William and Mary to lead a workshop on Omeka for social justice and to give a lecture on “The (Digital) Souls of Black Folk: Race, Memory, and the Digital Humanities.”  Risam has a long track record of innovative work with digital collections, beginning with her graduate career at Emory, which houses the born digital materials of Salman Rushdie, and extending to social media interventions in current events with the Brexit Syllabus.

In her talk she began by contextualizing Jerome McGann‘s call for a “new republic of letters,” which would be constituted by an interdisciplinary and international network of humanities scholars. She also showed Mapping the Republic of Letters, a Stanford digital humanities project on 17th and 18th century letter exchanges  Risam observed that this old republic of letters, which the Stanford digital humanities project sought to map, denoted “an Enlightenment era intellectual community of scholars and writers in Europe and the United States who sought connections across national boundaries that also preserved both linguistic and cultural differences.” However, Risam expressed concerns that today many types of historical actors weren’t “legible in the new republic of letters” and that “those who care about race and culture of the African diaspora” might not benefit from existing intersections of “cultural objects, cultural memory, and digitization” that “produce cultural power” and create “value for particular voices and stories.”

After providing an overview of current scholarship on “cultural memory,” Risam argueed that “intervention is particularly important for the African diaspora, which is heavily underrepresented in digital cultural memory.” To demonstrate her point about canonical whiteness, she tabbed through digital humanities projects on William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. “Literary and cultural canons have determined whose stories are worth preserving, and they have, in turn, provided self-evident value for the representation of particular canonical authors, traditions, and voices in the digital cultural record.” For Risam, digital literacy practices that privilege the results of a Google search further reinforce existing biases and omissions.

Risam asserted that “the imperative of digital humanities scholarship is to seize control over the means of production of digital cultural memory, taking advantage of what Henry Jenkins has called ‘convergence culture,’ the digital spaces where ‘old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways.'” Describing the present moment as “a juncture in contemporary history where public discourse is paying attention to the fact that racism exists.” She noted that in The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, at the dawning of the 20th century, that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line,” and pointed out that “the problem of the 21st century is the problem of the color line too.”

Risam emphasized that “technologies have been imperative to the rise of the new civil rights movement,” particularly with the use of social media and hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter. “Hashtag memorials naming those who have died at the hands of police are disseminating their stories and, in some cases, put pressure on law enforcement and the justice system. Many of the same technologies are fueling the growth of digital humanities as well.” At the same time, as Risam argued, earlier digital archives of the experiences of the African diaspora have already been lost, such as The Charles Chestnutt Archive and Voices from the Gap. (She cited the work of Amy Earhart on digital loss.) Instead, “the most substantial material on the African diaspora is produced as pay-walled digital archives or databases provided by corporations for hefty fees.” She showed the Adam Matthew database to illustrate this disturbing trend.

However, Risam also reassured the audience that “all hope is not lost, because funding bodies like the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Office of Digital Humanities and Institute of Museum and Library Services “seem to have realized that, indeed, there is a problem, and have expressed interest and given grants to fund projects related to African diasporic cultures.” Model projects include Kim Gallon’s Black Press Research Collective, Angel David Nieves’ work on Soweto 76, and the work on the Maryemma Graham and others on the history of black writing.

Risam also championed the value of “tiny DH” where “every ONE of us can make a difference,” because we “can do this work ourselves, on a small scale, — embracing the affordances of digital humanities tools and methods to enrich the digital cultural memory of humanity.” Her own projects “have been accomplished on a shoestring budget, often in collaboration with students, and funded by less than $10,000 in grants” by leveraging “existing archives and freely available technologies to make an intervention in representation for the African diaspora.” Examples include the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases, a project at Emory University that Risam worked on as a graduate student with Hank Klibanoff, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. She also co-directed a project with Chris Forster at Syracuse University to provide a critical digital edition of the work of Claude McKay, a Harlem Renaissance poet who was also an immigrant from Jamaica, whose work was now in the public domain and largely disseminated through cheap inferior editions “with no quality control or assurance.” She explained that the Harlem Shadows project was born “as an exploration of the feasibility of creating lightweight critical digital editions of public domain texts.” This project inspired Amardeep Singh to produce Harlem Echoes with Lehigh University, which reimagines and offers contextual material.

Risam’s signature project — soon to be public — Mapping the Global Du Bois looks at how Du Bois wrote “about the mutual relationship between colonial subjects and African Americans since the beginning of his career.” She used Omeka with the Neatline plugin and Simile timeline plugin to create a map and time line containing approximately 1500 records from Du Bois’ correspondence, mapped over place and time.

A central concept in Risam’s work is that digital humanities methods can be used to actively challenge existing narratives written about the African diaspora. “The other core idea behind my work is how we can use our own institutional histories as sites of knowledge and intervention. This is the motivation behind Digital Salem, which is still under construction but is designed as a landing pad where audiences are offered multiple ports of entry into the culture, history, and literature of Salem, Massachusetts.”

In closing she reminded her audience that “it’s worth remembering, as Jerome McGann argues, that ‘to be absent form the archive is yet to participate in the record.'” She encouraged William and Mary faculty and graduate students to apply these principles to “materials of LGBTQI Virginians, and the university’s historical relationship to slavery.”

“Absolutely – absences can speak volumes,” Risam insisted. “But its not enough for us to stop there, to rely on a presence defined by its absence. If we want to be sure that communities who have typically been marginalized in knowledge production are part of the digital cultural memory of humanity, we have to do the work to put them there. And we can do it – with our knowledge in the humanities, with attention to the ethics of curation, digitization and display. We can create usable digital projects that expand representation and that are contextual, pedagogical, and informed.”