By Kenton Rambsy
How can digital technologies enhance African American literary studies? That’s the question I’ve been posing by utilizing text-mining to investigate word usage and patterns in short stories by black writers. Over the last 10 years, African American Review (AAR), the leading journal in our field, has published roughly 400 articles. None of those 400 articles foreground the use of digital technologies and software to project research findings about black literature. But just as black literary scholarship can inform technology, DH has something to offer black literary studies.
[Related: Edward P. Jones and Literary Geo-Tagging]
As Project Digital Initiative Coordinator for the Project on the History of Black Writing, I am managing the development of an interactive database called “The Black Book Interactive Project.” This project focuses on African American novels published from the mid-19th through the early 20th century novels, creating a tool that allows a comparison of thematic and stylistic elements utilized by authors.
[Related: Text-Mining, Geography, and Canonical African American Short Stories]
And speaking of tools, text-mining software has really drawn my attention while working on this larger project. Text-mining software can illuminate and quantify what writers are doing with language. Such accurate accounting of word usage in short stories is far more difficult and time-consuming without text-mining software.
One of the challenges for graduate students in African American literature with text-mining and really with other digital software is that we do not yet have many formal class experiences using these technological tools. For some reason, African American literature curriculum is often devoid of lessons on the latest technological developments. There is little to no discussion of digital humanities in African American literature journals. Hopefully that will change moving forward.
Scholars of African American literature typically focus on geography and migration in fiction, but using text mining allows us to really consider to what extent black writers “tag” their stories with actual cities and use landmarks and neighborhoods to construct environments. Text-mining software, then, does not take the place of literary scholarship. Instead, digital tools invite scholars to ask new questions and take different approaches to assessing prominent themes in black writing.