- New World:The Impact of Digitization on the Study of Slavery
Last year, an interactive animation of the Atlantic slave trade went viral.1 Provocatively titled "The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes," the interactive map first appeared as part of Slate's online course "The History of American Slavery," relying on the voyages cataloged in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database to visualize the crossing of 15,790 slave ships from Africa to the New World from 1545 to 1860. The visualization is a powerful one. Slate reported that it was the fourth most shared story on its site in 2015 (Hassler). It's teachable; it travels easily. But beyond the consensus regarding the power and pedagogical usefulness of this animated map, "The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes" raises important questions about the place of such digital projects in the study of slavery itself.
Animated maps like "The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes," alongside a growing number of digital archives, databases, and other digitization projects focused on slavery, are transforming how scholars study both the history and literature of enslavement. For literary scholars, the digitization of this archive offers unprecedented access to new texts whose forms may even change how we understand the literary archive of enslavement itself. Furthermore, while literary studies has historically stuck close to the slave narrative tradition, scholars are finding themselves inundated with new records and documentation that are changing the disciplinary boundaries between literary and historical approaches. [End Page 267] This abundance has resulted in more conversation between historians and literary scholars as well as a return to more historicist approaches to African American writing. But it also raises questions about what, precisely, now characterizes the literary history of slavery. In considering the impact of the digitization of slavery in literary studies, this essay reflects on conversations about slavery and the archive in light of the digital turn. It engages in a reading of "The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes" to consider what this particular visualization makes possible and what it obscures, and it argues that the forms of ephemerality worrying scholars in the digital age have actually proved central to the forms, politics, and transmissions of black writing since the early nineteenth century.
While the perspective of those designing and building digital archives and projects is crucial, literary scholars should be also thinking about how access to digital resources is changing literary historiography. Digital humanists, for example, have become increasingly reflexive about the significance and effect of digitization on how scholars read, interpret, and write.2 Since research across fields and specializations increasingly relies on digital content, it behooves all scholars to be more explicit about the use of such resources in their work. Scholars might further think more carefully about how digitization transforms slavery's status as a particular—even peculiar—object of knowledge within and beyond literary studies.
1. Rethinking Slavery's Archive
A growing number of digital sources on slavery are becoming available to scholars, a heterogeneous and largely decentralized set of digital texts, maps, exhibits, and projects dispersed across different platforms and different intellectual and institutional networks.3 Mapping and data visualization projects help users envision hidden regimes of violence and power, as well as obscured patterns of movement, migration, and escape in slavery and postslavery contexts.4 Libraries are making collections on slavery and slave resistance accessible to a broader academic and public audience through various online archives and databases.5 Documenting the American South (DocSouth) remains a tried-and-true resource for electronic editions of slave narratives, as well as proslavery and antislavery literature across the US South. At the same time, a growing number of digital archives focus on the transnational dimensions of slavery.6 Activist-minded projects are making important connections between histories of antislavery organizing and on-the-ground social justice [End Page 268] work today, while working on the integration of such digital projects into both high school and college curriculums.7
Digital archives are also making new additions to the corpus of available slave narratives, while transforming the very definition of the slave narrative. For example, while DocSouth's "North American Slave Narratives" catalogs actual narratives...