The Digital Black Atlantic

edited by Roopika Risam and Kelly Baker Josephs, University of Minnesota Press, 2021, 272 pp.
Paperback, $35.00 ISBN 978-1-5179-1080-8 

In The Digital Black Atlantic, editors Roopika Risam and Kelly Baker Josephs offer the first volume of literature centering Black digital studies. This collection asserts the importance of Black digital humanities by putting into conversation the work of practitioners and thought leaders in the field. The editors affirm that their vision of a digital Black Atlantic “insists on the import of race and racism, enslavement, and colonialism in the experiences of African-descended people and their engagement with technology” (xi). Through nineteen contributions representing a wide range of Black digital and physical geographies, The Digital Black Atlantic examines approaches, successes, and challenges encountered in digital humanities work expressed through the worldview of the African diaspora. The book is organized into four thematic sections with interdisciplinary reach but of particular significance to Black Atlantic scholarship: “Memory,” “Crossings,” “Relations,” and “Becomings.”

The publication opens with “Memory,” pulling together reflections on how reimagining the past is not only an integral part of a diasporic digital praxis but also a link between the present and the future. Abdul Alkalimat champions eBlack studies as an arm of the movement for Black liberation and considers how digital technology can be used to open archives, memory, and discussion, as well as bridge the gap between the academy and the community. Sonya Donaldson outlines challenges in working with vulnerable digital histories made available for Black consumer digital publics and suggests reconceiving the archival labor that supports ephemeral archives in the digital space. Amy E. Earhart documents how Black studies texts have been treated as second-class textual citizens and calls for greater analysis of editing histories, bibliographic study, and material production in the digital space. Janneken Smucker details a cross-institutional collaboration engaging oral history interviews with open source digital technology to access and understand the past. Angel David Nieves focuses on 3D worlds that combine texts, objects, architecture, and maps with primary and secondary sources in order to make space for digital queer witnessing to occur.

“Crossings” then considers movement and exchange across the Black Atlantic and how they manifest in the digital realm. Alexandrina Agloro demonstrates how sites of local community building can engage digital tools to foster an international network of support. Sayan Bhattacharyya examines the limitations of textual analysis tools when using a corpus of diasporic texts rooted in Caribbean political thought. Paul Barrett details the difficulty in using topic modeling for a creolized literary corpus. Hélène Huet, Suzan Alteri, and Laurie N. Taylor trace the origins of collaborations that underpin collection development and digital library efforts for Caribbean collections. Jamila Moore Pewu introduces “digital reconnaissance” as a method of recovery that uses digital tools to expand data sets for sites of historical importance to the African Diaspora.

Next, “Relations” highlights examples of local thinking from across the Black Atlantic on digital practice. Schuyler Esprit considers the power of engaging students with digital tools in the work of resistance and the history, discovery, and storytelling process in Dominica. Toniesha L. Taylor looks at the Black grammar of signifying in the Twittersphere and how open source digital tools can illuminate shared attitudes across populations. Agata Błoch, Demival Vasques Filho, and Michał Bojanowski apply social network analysis and natural language processing to the archives of the Portuguese Empire to locate marginalized voices and illustrate patterns in colonial relationships. Tunde Opeibi details new developments in digital humanities activity in Nigeria, including a summer school program and a digital repository designed to better understand the impact of local new media. Anne Donlon interrogates how digital humanities and network graphs may be used to interrupt hierarchical relationships between cultural materials and the impact of descriptive practices imposed on African American archival collections.

The book concludes with “Becomings,” which includes reflections on the future of Black digital humanities and outlines projects and processes that have championed the digital Black Atlantic. D. Fox Harrell, Sercan Şengün, and Danielle Olson examine avatar dreams, visualized maps of Africa, depictions of African characters, and online discussion forums in video games to outline the need for diverse representations to be included in the future of gaming. Laurent Dubois, David Kirkland Garner, and Mary Caton Lingold show how digital humanities can be used to breathe new life into musical performance, facilitate digital repatriation, and generate new interpretations of musical documentation and, in so doing, act as performance itself. Anne Rice chronicles efforts to assemble an open education resource (OER) curriculum in African American literature courses at a public university, private college, and correctional facility, articulating the need for Africana studies to be fully represented in the burgeoning OER movement. Kaiama L. Glover and Alex Gil provide a thoughtful reflection on their roles in past collaborations, highlighting the dynamic, yet often imbalanced and exploitative, relationship dynamics that underpin many project teams in the digital humanities and charge the field to improve these shortcomings by inviting more voices into conversation.

The variety of topics and perspectives presented in this volume makes it accessible to a wide audience, ranging from those who may be coming to this topic for the first time to the experienced digital humanities scholar. Collectively, these contributions demonstrate how digital tools can be used for connection, reimagination, and asserting the humanity of communities from across the African diaspora that have historically been excluded from both the documentary record and digital scholarship discourse. The Digital Black Atlantic is a critical text that is sure to shape the future of Black digital humanities.

Rachel E. Winston, The University of Texas at Austin