I got involved with Race, Memory and the Digital Humanities Symposium (#RMDHatWM or RMDH) on accident. When I first arrived at William & Mary as a new graduate student in 2016, unsure of my label of “Digital Humanities scholar,” I fell into Liz Losh’s Equality Lab and the hot topic at the first few meetings was this far off symposium. As it turned out, attending this conference would address all the concerns I have about the Academy, the role of scholarship as activism, and how exactly is it that I fit into the Digital Humanities (DH) world.
I quickly learned DH was the tool that connected a huge number of people doing incredibly different work, though all of it was in some way an attempt toward social justice or transformative action. We continually asked “big questions” and returned to overarching themes: How do we (as digital humanists, as activists, as minorities, as scholars, as those excluded from the white heterosexual male narrative) “hack” ourselves into the system? How do we make space for ourselves in the Academy? How do we build institutions and infrastructure for our own benefit? How do we make ethical interventions in our fields and how do we respect the communities that we work in and on? And how do we do all of this and not burn out?
RMDH featured an all-star cast of Digital Humanities speakers, including opening and closing keynotes by Dr. Jessica Marie Johnson and Dr. P. Gabrielle Foreman respectively, remarks from Dr. Marcia Chatelain, and an artist talk with Pamela Z. Each of these amazing women left participants with remarkable insights. Professor Johnson incorporated music, videos, literature and mapping to take us to Puerto Rico and New Orleans, to make us consider digital Blackness and Black codes, and what would happen if we refuse Blackness as null. If Johnson’s talk asked us to organize with our digital work, Professor Foreman showed us how. Through a history of the Colored Conventions and Langston Hughes’ poetry, Foreman showcased the digital archiving and organizing work her team at Colored Conventions Project are doing. Pamela Z’s outstanding electronic and contemporary classical performance was only enhanced by her discussion of how our best work comes from mistakes and imperfection—so don’t be afraid of them. Similarly, Chatelain reminds us that failure happens in the academy, and when it does we must move onto the next thing. Her talk on the #FergusonSyllabus showcases how #syllabi are a way for academics to teach and lead the public, as well as show that academics are invested in our society and that we have tools which can be helpful.
Panels such as “Queer Digital Humanities,” discussed QueerOS (Queer studies as an operating system or a framework), the importance of ethical and reciprocal community partnerships and how the participatory culture we value in DH can go awry. “Colonial and Postcolonial Digital Humanities” showed participants how digital archives can offer us different perspectives but how they can reify colonialist practices, for example, by digitizing work without permission of the community one works in or expecting to be given information, when we should be prepared to hear and accept “no” as an answer. “American Studies and the Digital Humanities” offered us unique ways to think about American Studies’ position to lead the way in Digital Humanities. Panelists encouraged participants to accept messy thinking and writing as a process because the problems we are tackling often won’t fit neatly into a one-sized-fits-all solution, the ways in which digital resistance work will be harder but in the same vein of what has come before, and to never forget the ways in which Black women have always worked for the good of all and yet are still rendered invisible. Finally, “Race, Digitial Humanities and Region” synthesized much of the event’s work in deciding that DH is not a solution, but a tool that we may use to name and dismantle systems of oppression, as well as to create infrastructures that will lead to dismantling.
Highlights of the event aside from the fabulous panels and talks outlined above included Pamela Z’s concert, as well as a thirty-minute session of Lightning Talks by William & Mary’s Equality Lab fellows. The session included work by PhD students Travis Harris, Jennifer Ross, Lindsay Garcia and Ari Weinberg on topics ranging from #FergusonOctober to Feminist Pest Control. Yet, the most impressive factor was the wide range of diversity represented in this space. Our spaces were packed with women and people of color, a diverse range of research interests from computational digital humanities to King George III’s personal pedometer-- all people who came to DH from such different disciplines for similar reasons.
RMDH also offered valuable conversations about and suggestions for moving forward. The people who came together at William & Mary this weekend were concerned about collective action to move our society forward, because American Digital Humanities has the potential to do something special. Digital Humanities scholars have created these vibrant and flourishing communities online, but we can also create physical spaces as well. We need to practice and model good citation methods. We need to define DH as what DHers are doing. We need to constantly come back to questions of power, privilege and access. We need to be ethical, organized and mindful before we act—but we should act. The whole event wrapped up with a word from Janet Brown Strafer, a member of the class of 1971, and one of the three first African American students in residence at the College of William & Mary, whom we are celebrating in this year’s 50th Celebration. Mrs. Strafer told the crowd that she, Lynn Briley and Karen Ely, never imagined they were doing anything important other than going to school, but this action shows a commitment to a process of ethical work. Doing activist work, real transformative action, like what much of the scholars from RMDH are doing and doing well, is a commitment to action. The Digital Humanities give us tools to practice what we preach.
If you’re interested in seeing what you missed this weekend, check out the #RMDHatWM hashtag on twitter, as well as the live stream archive on the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture website and the Speaker Biography page for a “Who’s Who” of RMDHatWM panelists.