vol. 26 no. 3, September, 2021

Book Reviews

Risam, Roopika and Josephs, Kelly Baker, (Eds.). The digital Black Atlantic. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minneapolis Press, 2021. xxiv, 248 p. $35.00. ISBN 978-1-5179-1080-8

The field of Black Atlantic studies has been growing since the boom in transatlantic and transnational humanistic studies during the 1990s. This volume is an attempt to expand the borders of this growing field by challenging the weighted importance of the United States within transnational studies (see Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s 2004 address to the American Studies Association for a good sense of this nationally centered understanding of transnationality) while linking a transnational focus with the equally booming scholarship within the digital humanities. If anything, the volume has arrived surprisingly late – Black Atlantic studies was the source of several of the first and most successful digital historical projects. As a history major in the early 2000s, the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database was the first digital tool to which I was exposed, and it remains a key teaching tool for me as a digital humanist and historian.

The Digital Black Atlantic builds consciously on the work of Paul Gilroy, whose conceptualization of the Black Atlantic in the 1990s laid the foundation for contemporary scholarship on “‘the Black Atlantic’ as both a methodological approach and an object of study” (p. x). It is a good choice to explicitly name starting points, in order to establish a basis for the field that is not too fuzzy yet also remains open and generative of new, exciting research. What counts as “the Black Atlantic” continues to develop and diversify, as scholarly research on race, ethnicity, gender, and diasporic peoples and cultures expands. In keeping with this scholarship, the contributors to this volume most often combine methodological questions based in a Black Atlantic perspective with a focus on Black Atlantic empirical material, be this material digitized books, music, video games, or data.

The book is divided into four sections: memory, crossings, relations, and becomings. The volume’s editors note that keyword-based division has become a common digital humanities scholarship practice (p. xvii), though this particular approach to keywords is grounded in Black Atlantic scholarly themes, with its focus on elaborating and challenging the politics of borders, be they chronological, geographical, national, or disciplinary. There is a fairly even balance between scholarship analyzing the deployment of digital tools within Black Atlantic and scholarship that uses these tools to investigate the Black Atlantic’s contours and history. A leitmotif in the volume is the presence of Black Atlantic subject matter within a broadly defined field of cultural production, spanning the physical and the digital, despite narratives about the absence or hiddenness of these diasporic voices. Numerous chapters attempt to tease out Black agency in the construction of an Atlantic world, focusing specifically on the use of technology in this creative project. This nuance is a necessary corrective to both old arguments about the digital, which posit digital spaces and tools as neutral, democratic, and universal, and newer arguments about the oppression of minority and female voices by new technologies.

The chapters themselves work as stand-alone articles that can be read out of order of assigned to students on a piecemeal basis. The section “Memory” deals not simply with documentation of the past but the structures for and limitations of historical recovery, a major question for cultural heritage institutions as they struggle with colonial histories and new digital possibilities and limitations. Sonya Donaldson’s treatment of ephemerality and digital material and Amy Earhart’s chapter on critical digital text editing both challenge traditional institutional and academic assumptions nor just about the greater truthfulness of the “original” but about the existence of an original at all, given the twisty paths ideas take on their way to becoming documents. This undermining of the notion of more or less truthful texts is important for documents like oral histories – covered in Janneken Smucker’s chapter on Black Philadelphia migration stories – to be accepted as equal historical sources; these kinds of materials are historically much better at representing underprivileged groups that would otherwise only appear in police and court records. The section is bookended by a chapter on the establishment of eBlack Studies and a chapter on oral history and “queer witnessing” within the digital humanities, elaborating methods of praxis for challenging and reshaping approaches the relationship between the humanities and the digital.

The chapters on “Crossings” addresses movement of ideas and documents across the space of the Black Atlantic, looking at pathways and closed routes. Digital spaces are hardly immune from these histories of transmission, often reproducing, altering, or further ingraining pre-established patterns. The importance of the local is a theme throughout the volume and is particularly visible in Alexandra Agloro’s chapter on the Philippi Music Project, a case study of “digital ubuntu” in local music production in Cape Town, Paul Barrett’s chapter on using digital text analysis to investigate the local, national, and transnational geographies of author Austin Clarke’s work, and Jamila Moore Pewu’s text on “digital reconnaissance” to recover and digitally preserve spaces of Black history in danger of being forgotten as these spaces are reshaped or destroyed. Historically, library classification systems have worked to hide the interdependence of the local, national, and transnational through strict nation-based categorization. A chapter on library collaboration in the Caribbean using digital tools addresses how to counteract these historical barriers to seeing and representing complex patterns of literary and historical interaction through “radical collaboration” – a collaboration that is active and requires new ways of working across national barriers.

The section “Relations” investigates issues of hierarchy, classification, difference, and power. The first chapter uses using Foucault’s understanding of heterotopias as a theoretical tool to understand the history and work of the first Eastern Caribbean digital humanities center as a space apart, a zone of resistance. Toniesha Taylor’s chapter then covers the rhetorical strategies of Black Twitter when it engages with Whites and institutions of power like Starbucks. Tunde Opeibi’s chapter discusses Nigerian digital humanities projects and the possibilities of digital humanities work for Nigerian politics. As a historian, I found the two chapters on network analysis most intriguing. A chapter on early modern social networks in the Portuguese Atlantic detailed social network analysis of thousands of petitions sent to the Portuguese Crown, offering a good example of the possibilities and limitations of this kind of text mining-based work. Furthering these strands, Anne Donlon’s account of her attempt to construct Black Atlantic networks from finding aids demonstrates that archivist subjectivity and institutional resources influence the extent to which archival ghosts can be made visible.

Last, the chapters on “Becomings” highlight the ways in which Digital Black Atlantic Studies has developed, in order to provide groundwork to stand on for future projects. These chapters point in a variety of directions, ranging from videogame studies to teaching the Digital Black Atlantic, to digital humanities project development. The first chapter “Africa and the Avatar Dream” investigates new forms of colonialism and avenues of resistance to these stereotypes and biases embedded in videogames. In a fascinating chapter on the project Musical Passage, authors Laurent Dubois, David K. Garner, and Mary Caton Lingold describe and analyze the development of their multimodal digital project, unsettling notions of the “original” or “authentic” and artistic authorship. Anne Rice’s text discusses the advantages and pitfalls of constructing an open digital textbook for her course on African diasporic literature, warning of digital divides that can spring up within and around the open source movement. And last, Kaiama L. Glover and Alex Gil discuss their collaboration, what it can teach us about learning to be digital humanities practitioners, and how hierarchies – between academics and librarians, between coders and non-coders – hamper innovation and require rethinking.

This call for a dismantling of hierarchies within the university runs through the book. In the introduction, Risam and Baker Josephs are unusually forthright about the difficulties inherent in building a field perceived to be on the margins of other academic disciplines. Their discussion of peer review and other issues fundamental to field formation is interesting and points to a need for more general transparency about how academic systems regulate the production of scholarship. The volume does an admirable job of collecting chapters from librarians, archivists, academics, and doctoral students, as well as blending descriptions of projects with more traditional scholarly research. Their points also focus the reader on the structure and citation patterns of the chapters. Here, I wished for a more expansive approach to citation, especially given that this volume is meant to identify a field broadly defined while challenging claims to a “universality” within the digital humanities (p. xiv). Further, the lack of an index hampers use of the book, obscuring some of the themes, names, and issues contained across the volume’s chapters.

However, the volume achieves what it sets out to do – start not one but multiple conversations about the boundaries of the Black Atlantic and the Digital Humanities. The chapters offer good entry points into a number of issues within the Digital Humanities, including linked data, text encoding and critical digital editing, and project design. Simultaneously, a Digital Humanities scholar will find lots of doors into the Black Atlantic as a field, including issues of the importance and instability of memory, the politics of inequality, the shadowy, shifting nature of borders, and the nature of historical ephemerality and loss. Much like the recent volume by Jacqueline Wernimont and Elizabeth Losh (2018) calling for an intersectional approach to the digital humanities, these perspectives are necessary correctives to oversimplified understandings of what “the digital” is, what hierarchies and systems of power sit underneath the creation of digital tools and information, and how historically disempower communities deploy digital tools and knowledge. More work in this area is critical, not just for equitability’s sake, but as a method of making the field of digital humanities more aware of the contours, nuances, and blind spots of digital technologies.


Rachel Pierce
Swedish School of Library and Information Science
University of Borås, Sweden
August, 2021

How to cite this review

Pierce, R. (2020). Review of: Risam, Roopika and Josephs, Kelly Baker, (Eds.). The digital black Atlantic. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minneapolis Press, 2021. Information Research, 26(3), review no. R723. http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs723.html

Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.