Digital Archives and Community Outreach: Opportunities in the 21st Century

When 12 Years a Slave won the Academy Award for best picture in 2014, it was described in the popular media by a list of “firsts.”  The British director Steve McQueen was the first black director whose film went on to win best picture. John Ridley was the first African American to write the screen play for the film that won this award. It also may have been the first time that the public response to the win was markedly divided along political party lines. The Guardian newspaper reported on a Public Policy Polling survey that claimed only 15% of Republicans polled agreed that the film should have won the Academy Award, compared to 53% of Democrats. To be fair, the poll didn’t ask for the reasons why those responding felt the film fell short, yet these “firsts” set the stage for our current historical moment, when the harsh truths about the brutality of chattel slavery are widely available, but a stubborn resistance to these truths continues to divide our country. As teachers and scholars, how do we use art and the digital humanities to bridge this divide?

As a popular film, 12 Years a Slave can reach a wide audience with its account of the cruelties of chattel slavery, but it isn’t the first time this story has been told. In 1853, when Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave was published, it was a popular and widely read account of a free African-American man’s illegal enslavement. Northup, with the help of an amanuensis, wrote about his experiences as a slave on a cotton plantation in the Red River valley of Louisiana the very same year that he won his freedom. The trial of the men who sold him into slavery was covered in the January 20, 1853 edition of The New York Times. (All those involved were acquitted.) Autobiographical accounts of slavery, called slave narratives, were consistent best sellers, and many of their authors became famous public speakers.  Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Henry Bibb, and Solomon Northup all wrote and spoke publicly about their experiences in slavery. These were not obscure scholarly works. They were popular books, pamphlets, speeches, and newspaper articles that were widely circulated in the popular press throughout the United States. In the mid-nineteenth century, first-person accounts of the realities of chattel slavery were readily available, but formerly-enslaved African Americans faced an indifferent and hostile audience. More than one-hundred years later, we have a unique opportunity to reintroduce these stories, as both narratives and visual documents, into our popular culture.

One striking opportunity to bring the realities of chattel slavery to a contemporary audience lies in the digital archives that now make a staggering amount of primary source material available to anyone with internet access.  Sources that scholars used to find only by traveling to historical societies and university libraries are now gathered together in digital archives that are open access resources, available to anyone online. The slave narratives written in antebellum America, for example, are at the archive Documenting the American South. Another database, Voyages: The Transatlantic Slave Trade, has complied newspaper articles and other published and unpublished sources to gather information about those brought to the United States and sold into slavery. The Black Abolitionist Papers archive has more than a thousand of the speeches and editorials produced by African Americans who fought for the abolition of slavery.

How can we best use these digital archives to communicate the realities of chattel slavery to a general audience?  I use the primary sources available in digital archives in a course that I teach, “That Slow Poison: Slavery in Antebellum America.” Over the past five years, the students and I have analyzed the slave narratives written by Solomon Northup, William Wells Brown, Henry Bibb, and Harriet Jacobs, and we’ve replaced the traditional research paper with a visual project – the creation of digital maps that illustrate the lives of enslaved African Americans both during their enslavement and after they reached the nominal freedom of the Northern states.  As a class, we’ve discussed ways in which the digital story maps (that we create using the ArcGIS platform) are visual documents designed to reach a popular audience unfamiliar with chattel slavery in the antebellum United States. To create these visual documents, we first focus on one location or series of events that we want to “put on the map.” This phrase, “putting X on the map,” when used in our classroom, has come to signify giving something or someone a visible presence and a new importance. While escape routes are geographically interesting because they involve movement across geographical regions, we also focus on specific places, like the towns or regions we’ve studied, to illustrate the regional specificity of chattel slavery in the United States. As a final step, one that we’re still working toward, we hope to include our maps on an open-access digital commons, so that those who may never read the primary sources we study, can still see a story map that illustrates the realities of enslavement and tells the story of one enslaved African American. 

While our story maps will never have the impact of a popular film like 12 Years a Slave, digital archives and digital mapping platforms have given us an opportunity to put enslaved African Americans on the map. They give us both the stories to tell and the tools to make those stories visible. It's our hope that these visual documents, based on careful primary-source research and literary analysis, will reach an audience outside of our classroom.

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