When a White Scholar’s Work is Not Cited: 1619

I don’t need an excuse to talk about the 1619 project. It’s so exciting! Synthetic works like this, which center groups that colonizer-history has marginalized, are notoriously difficult to create, and therefore are deeply impressive. They are also fundamentally exciting and threaten established power structures.

So it wasn’t a huge surprise that some establishment historians felt the need to attack the 1619 project of Nikole Hannah-Jones. Though I’ll admit, I was surprised that Sean Wilentz had to go in for a second attack last week, veiled as a concern, of course. He accuses Hannah-Jones of factual inaccuracy, when many of us historians agree that her claims are plausible and grounded in evidence and existing scholarship…just not the scholarship of Wilentz or his contemporaries. This is because for the story she is telling, he and his contemporaries are largely irrelevant.

The product of these public articles has been really robust conversations among historians, on social media, elsewhere online, and offline, about the stakes of this public debate. There’s one thing I often find missing in these conversations.

Let me quickly drop my own relevant details, since this discussion is all about identity, and none of this is neutral or objective: I’m both a German and US citizen, white, who received my PhD in Atlantic History at an elite Research 1 institution. I also grew up working class, first-gen, a woman, and I read as queer, but none of those things erase my privilege.  My research is in the slave trade, and slavery. At the moment, most (but not all) of the older established scholars of this field at the most prestigious universities are white men, and most of the younger, up and coming thinkers are largely not.

I’ve been going to conferences and publishing in my field for over a decade now. This means I have more than ten years of experience hearing from peers, and seeing how similar arguments at conferences play out.

There is a thing that happens at every academic history conference, regardless of which panels I choose, and which conference it is: without fail, a (usually) older white male scholar from an elite institution will stand up and call out a younger scholar from one or more visibly marginalized groups during their talk, to mention that the younger scholar had not incorporated the suggestions, article, book, or website of the older scholar and/or his peers.

If the younger scholar responds with an apology, or intention to do so, all is well.

If the younger scholar indicates (as politely as possible for such an impolite public call-out) that they will not be doing so because it is at best tangentially relevant to their scholarly interests, a shitstorm occurs.

Many of the older professors want us to believe it is because the younger scholars don’t see the bigger picture, and could be doing harm to the field. Occasionally they are right, but more often than not, there’s something else going on:  the more established professor conflates their contributions to the field with their self-worth, and this means that new takes on the topic that pivot away from theirs make them feel less significant than they are prepared to feel or know how to deal with.

In other words, they are being irrational.

Often these established scholars will make a plea for objectivity.

How can a white male scholar in a white supremacist first-world nation with an entire history built on the enslavement of people with dark skin claim any sort of objectivity?

Objectivity in history is not a thing. Many white men pretend it is, but what they are saying is that they think their lens should be the default lens that all other lenses should emulate. How can a white male scholar in a white supremacist first-world nation with an entire history built on the enslavement of people with dark skin claim any sort of objectivity? We are all part of the living, breathing ramifications of the injustices of the slave trade and of enslavement in the US.

There is no value-neutral position any historian in the US can take.

I have made a career looking at history that is painful to a marginalized population. It is a privilege to be able to read these accounts detailing the objectification of humans of African descent while knowing that it didn’t happen to any of my ancestors. I also don’t suffer the daily indignities and microagressions that come with being a black scholar in the US. It means that I spend less time processing emotions like rage and pain, issues around identity and self, etc. than a scholar who has a more direct connection to this history. It also means that I am questioned less by the public and by students when I outline the extent of racial injustice and terror in this country. My teaching evaluations will often be better than those of my black colleagues will, not because I am a better teacher, but because this reality is easier for white people to hear from another white person (while our demographics are shifting, white people are still the majority in most higher ed classrooms). The comments on teaching evaluations some of my black colleagues have shared with me echo the criticisms levied against 1619.

Your feelings about history are always going to be dependent on your personal relationship to the history. Many white people’s relationships to the history of enslavement are complex, yet incomplete. Most are unexamined, twisted up with guilt, denial, and gaps in knowledge, and in some cases, false narratives that have appeared in textbooks, websites, and spread through memes. It takes a lot of reading, discussion, reflection, and self-work to understand that while the guilt isn’t mine, the responsibility to help illuminate and correct the persisting injustices from that time period is.

I say all this to make this point: Being aware of history causes feelings, because history has shaped the way we are now. While those feelings can hurt, they are ultimately good. They point to what lies unexamined within ourselves, and therefore within society, and to where justice was denied. Wise people lean into that inner guidance and make the discoveries. They pull away when it hurts too much, and come back to it as they can. Unpleasant feelings don’t have to consume or control us.

…unless we deny our feelings and pretend that we are objective. Then they cause us to say all kinds of embarrassing things that show the world that our greatest fear lies not in being blind to and therefore furthering the injustice our nation was built upon, but in becoming irrelevant.

Does your Digital Humanities Project Have a Mission?

Most of you know that among many of the hats I wear, one of my favorites is director of the Fort Negley Descendants Project, a digital humanities archive of oral histories from the descendants of the enslaved and free blacks who built and defended Nashville’s Civil War Fort Negley. My team of three films the interviews, researches their testimony to find additional resources, edits the footage, uploads it, creates content, and maintains/updates the website which gives you more information about the interviews, as well as information pertaining to the UNESCO Slave Route site of Fort Negley, and its unique role in shaping our nation’s history. We also occasionally put on events and screenings of the videos for the public.

It’s a ton of work, and I love doing this, and feel grateful to be able to do it alongside my job as postdoctoral fellow for Vanderbilt’s school of Arts & Sciences. It’s been humbling to be trusted with people’s family histories, and to hear their pain, share their triumphs, and help amplify their voices in a city whose demographics are rapidly shifting as gentrification pushes black people to its peripheries.

Analyzing the stakes others have in this project has been useful for keeping our team on track and developing its mission. For us, it is has always been most important to collect the histories of people who have gone digging for their own and are ready to share their findings with the world. We want to film and edit these videos in the highest quality, and offer the videos alongside supporting primary sources, secondary reading, and family histories. We want to create lesson plans that expand upon the important historical themes touched on in the videos. We want to preserve all this information, and keep it available for free to everyone.

Often our goals dovetail with the goals and stakes of others. For example, Fort Negley and the Friends of Fort Negley benefit from the project giving human faces and voices to a physical site. Vanderbilt University benefits from increased visibility and interaction with the wider community through my team and I. Some people have politically benefited from descendant voices being amplified in local politics, while others may have had their plans and aspirations thwarted by this same amplification.

To each of them, I would say the same thing: We are here to record, disseminate, and amplify the voices of a group of under-documented and under-heard people whose incredibly rich family histories have shaped our nation. Who do we work for? We work for history and its preservation. We work for a future in which everyone is equally heard, and in which everyone’s history holds equal value to this nation.

Nothing more, and nothing less.

How would you articulate the mission of your Digital Humanities project?

Double Your Digital Archive

Picture the scene: You’re one of the founders of an oral history digital archive. The archive, the Fort Negley Descendants Project (FNDP), finds and collects the voices of those who descended from the population of builders, both enslaved and free, and United States Colored Troops who defended a historic Civil War fortification in your city.

Destiny Hanks, Juliet Larkin-Gilmore, and I make up the current core members of the FNDP.

The project is time sensitive. A year ago, the land upon which the fort was built was sold to developers in what I’ll euphemistically describe as a shady deal. While the fort’s future was up in the air, the neighborhoods surrounding it rapidly gentrified. Each tall and skinny in these areas surrounding Fort Negley represents a family whose story left with them as they were priced out of the neighborhoods that had been theirs for generations.

Continue reading “Double Your Digital Archive”

Creation & Curation: The Fort Negley Oral History Archive

Drinking from the rooftops of certain honky tonks in downtown Nashville, you can spot one of the nation’s most important, yet underappreciated sites for African American history: Fort Negley, the Union Civil War fortification on St. Cloud Hill. Many tourists have no idea what it is they are looking at.

The fort was built in 1862, using a combination of forced labor of enslaved Africans which the Union army in Nashville had rounded up from nearby plantations, and free blacks of Nashville and the surrounding areas, who offered their services in exchange for payment (much of which never materialized). There were also contraband workers- people from all over the South who fled their enslavement and sought out the protection of the Union forces on St. Cloud Hill through volunteering their labor. Once built, the fortification was defended by various regiments of the United States Colored Troops against the Confederate forces. Both builders and defenders died in record numbers at Fort Negley in the defense of our union.  Recent ground-penetrating radar reports have indicated a high likelihood that their remains still lie on the grounds of Fort Negley Park.

After the war, those who survived settled the nearby historically black neighborhoods of

Reenactors2017
Reenactors Bill Radcliffe and Gary Burke, descendants of soldiers who fought with the United States Colored Troops in the Civil War, stand at the base of Fort Negley, December 2017.

Chestnut Hill, Wedgewood Houston, historic Edgefield, and Edgehill. At the turn of the century, several prominent families from these neighborhoods founded North Nashville and all of the prestigious black institutions residing there- the historically black colleges, businesses, and churches. In the 1950s, these same institutions trained and supported some of the sharpest minds of the Civil Rights movement. There is a long and unbroken connection between the builders and defenders of Fort Negley, and Nashville’s current African-American population. Many members of this population see the fort as sacred, and they memorialize it with ceremonies, oral traditions, and historic reenactments.

Recently, Fort Negley has received national coverage due to a highly controversial development plan that would jeopardize the site and disturb the final resting place of the builders and defenders of the fort. Many take exception to the development for a wide variety of reasons beyond historic (questions concerning who was granted the development and why, the ethics of selling off city land to private developers who stand to profit from it,  how it exacerbates unfettered gentrification in a rapidly-expanding city, etc.) Continue reading “Creation & Curation: The Fort Negley Oral History Archive”

8 Things to Consider when Organizing Your Digital Humanities Writing Group

I do so much work with Digital Humanities for my position. So much. But do I ever write up any of that and submit it to publication? Ha, nope.

I write everything else of course, and this always falls to the back burner. And I’m willing to bet that sadly, I am not alone. How many of you do cutting-edge work in whatever field you happen to be in, and then put off the writing for summer, or for next year, or for when you get that research leave, or or or?

We all know this is a major missed opportunity for critical reflection, for peer feedback, and for collaboration. Fortunately, Rebecca Panter, another postdoctoral fellow, felt the same way. So we made 2016 the year we did something about it: we started the Digital Humanities Writing Group for faculty and grad students on campus who found themselves always doing and never writing it up. And as anything worth implementing is worth implementing well, we slapped an ambitious goal onto it: each of our members will have a complete journal article or manuscript chapter finished by the end of the Spring 2017 semester.  

It’s a lot, but it’s also doable, and I think that is one of the main draws of the group. Just like you eat an elephant one bite at a time (well, I don’t. I hope you don’t, either. We don’t have enough of them on this planet for you to be making them part of Taco Tuesdays.), you write an article one page at a time.

As you can imagine, there are specific considerations to keep in mind when the group is academic, interdisciplinary, DH-focused, and comprised of both grad students and faculty. And that’s without the normal struggles that come with forming a writing critique group. Here’s what we’re doing to increase our chances of success: Continue reading “8 Things to Consider when Organizing Your Digital Humanities Writing Group”

The (somewhat uncomfortable) Process of Digital Storytelling & Teachable Moments

This post is Part 2 of a series on the Mellon Institute of Public and Digital Humanities. A special thanks to Allison Myers, Ryan Trauman, and Marie Lovejoy at the Story Center. For part 1, please click here.

I didn’t know anything about digital storytelling  when I walked into the Story Center’s workshop as part of the Mellon Institute of Digital and Public Humanities. I thought it was maybe something like an audiobook, or a video of me, telling a story. No big deal, I thought. As a historian, I pretty much write and tell stories for a living.

But then the story specialists at the Story Center taught the other institute participants and I *how* to write a script for digital storytelling, and I began eyeing the door. Not because it was too big or difficult, but because it was so small and succinct. How was I going to tell a full story worth hearing in fewer than 250 words? I’ve probably written longer sentences than that!

The other Mellon Institute participants struggled with this concept too, which I found very  encouraging in its own way. While it’s good to provide context and delve into a subject fully, verbosity often has the effect of hiding, instead of revealing an emotional truth. No one at the institute was going to breeze through this workshop, and if they were going to be brave and bare their souls, then so could I.
Continue reading “The (somewhat uncomfortable) Process of Digital Storytelling & Teachable Moments”

When the Public meets the Digital Humanities

This blog entry is part 1 of a two-part post reflecting about my experiences with the Mellon Institute in Digital and Public Humanities.  Please click here for part 2.

This summer, I signed up for the Mellon Institute in Public and Digital Humanities at the Vanderbilt Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy. (#VandyPDH) While I’m usually very type-A, I was running on empty and didn’t have time to form any goals or expectations going in beyond learning all the things. This lack of specific goals for the workshop turned out to be a major lesson in being open to unexpected partnerships and projects that form organically. It would hold the seed of  creating an experimental class for Vanderbilt undergraduates interested in Digital History. More on that below. Continue reading “When the Public meets the Digital Humanities”