This fall, I attended the Digital Humanities Forum at the University of Kansas (KU). At the conference, I was inspired by KU Professor Dave Tell’s presentation about his work in the digital humanities preserving the legacy of Emmett Till. Professor Tell has worked as part of a team to create an online memorial which educates the public about Till’s life and death. Recently, I spoke with Professor Tell in his office. He said that upon learning about the Emmett Till case, it “never left him.”
When memorials finally went up nearly fifty years after Till’s death, they were almost immediately vandalized. Professor Tell works with other schools and an organization called the Emmett Till Memorial Center located in Mississippi to create digital tools to memorialize Emmett Till. One of the advantages of an online memorial is that they cannot be vandalized. (Check out the project here: http://tillmemoryproject.com/.)
Professor Tell’s work is reminiscent of the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) project to draw attention to civil rights and the enduring impact that slavery in the US has on our country. In April of this year, EJI will open a new museum in Alabama - https://eji.org/enslavement-to-mass-incarceration-museum
I especially appreciated what Tell had to say about memory studies; “the conceit with memory is if you package it up nice and tidy, people themselves don’t think they have to deal with it. The current thinking in memory studies is to provoke people to deal with it themselves.” Thus, the burden is on the viewer to make sense of the past and to make connections between the past, present and future.
When asked what advice he might have for aspiring digital humanities scholars, Tell says that “in the long run, good stories will win the day.” Let the stories speak for themselves! For example, with the Emmett Till story, he says “what makes the Emmett Till project good is that we have good stories. We can tell you ten different stories that are all different and will all surprise you.”