Access Stunts Digital Studies in Black Literature

[By Kenton Rambsy]

Last month, I attended THAT Camp (The Humanities and
Technology Camp) hosted by the University of Kansas’s Institute for Digital
Research in the Humanities. The three-day institute’s goal was geared towards
equipping scholars/researchers with online resources to enhance how we study
literature by building online databases, using text mining software, and the
Not surprising, I was only one of about 4 other black people
in attendance at the conference. It was not a surprise because among emerging
literary scholars, I often hear a version of the comment that “black scholars
just aren’t that sold on the benefits of digital research.” While I think that
view has some merit, I started to focus more on the structural issues that may
even prevent younger scholars from becoming engaged in using new technologies
to participate in knowledge production in black literary and cultural study.

For instance, take the free online text mining software
Voyeur which is described as a “text analysis tool,” where among its many
functions, you can learn how to “perform lexical analysis including the study
of frequency and distribution data.” The first step to using this tool is to
have a digital text. When working with this software in THAT Camp, I was
excited about the wide range of possibilities of the software. On the other
hand, I was somewhat underwhelmed in learning how to thoroughly use the
software because I did not have access to many of the African American texts
that I have grown accustomed to working with in my own research.
My other literary colleagues in the institute were able to
find writers pertinent to their discipline with ease accessing digital texts by
Shakespeare, Twain, and Faulkner on Project Gutenberg and other sites. My
search, though, was not as successful. After a quick search, I could not find
novels by seemingly canonical writers such Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright,
and James Baldwin. And certainly, searching for more contemporary writers like
Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Colson Whitehead was out of the question.
That’s when it hit me. Access to digital texts by black
writers on online archives is a problem for scholars wanting to engage in
Digital Humanities and African American literature. Now, I am aware copyright
laws come into play in these conversations of “access.” For instance, the way
my research interests are shaped concerning 20th and 21st century African
American writing, I am left at a disadvantage.
Thinking beyond myself, the limited access to digitally
preserved texts can certainly have some bearing on the interest in digital
scholarship. I mean, why would a person want to take a keen interest in Voyeur
if the software could not be used to enhance your own research? One of the
possible answers to the question of how to begin to have conversations about
how we produce new knowledge in the digital realm should start around how we
preserve black texts and build viable digital archives for literary scholars to

One thought on “Access Stunts Digital Studies in Black Literature

  1. Having attended the same THAT Camp,I second your call for conversations which focus on a possible future for the study of African American texts within the realm of digital humanities. The array of problems that need to be address is enormous and daunting.

    Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

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