- Memorable Days: The Emilie Davis Diaries by Judith Giesberg
The fact that few black-authored diaries survive from the era prior to the Civil War will come as no surprise. Most African Americans were denied literacy and leisure, the two conditions that are commonly considered prerequisites for life-writing practices such as keeping a diary. It is equally likely that extant black-authored diaries were devalued by institutional archives, leaving a gap in the historical record that is all the more notable given the abundance of nineteenth-century diaries written by white men and women that have been preserved and celebrated. Yet, diaries, journals, and other unpublished manuscript materials promise to deepen our understanding of the meaning of publicity, privacy, and identity for African American women in particular.
Memorable Days: The Emilie Davis Diaries provides access to just such a text. This digital critical edition reproduces the pocket diaries that Davis kept in 1863, 1864, and 1865. Davis was a free black woman who resided in Philadelphia, where she worked as a domestic servant; she wrote a daily account of her life during some of the most tumultuous years of the Civil War, documenting key historical events like the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln’s assassination. Even in the limited space provided by her palm-sized diaries, Davis conveys a sense of the vibrant intellectual, social, and religious life of Philadelphia’s African American community and their hopes and fears about the war and its outcome. The opening entry on 1 January 1863 commemorates the date the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect; Davis writes, “To day has bin a memorable day and i thank god i have been sperd to see it… we had quite a jubilee.” That Davis found the diary a meaningful literary form for documenting her life speaks volumes about her resilience, aspirations, and sense of self and is a powerful reminder of how recovery scholarship can challenge entrenched narratives about literary history. [End Page 387]
Memorable Days is a superlative digital edition. Given that Davis’s diaries are so spare and idiosyncratic, it would have been easy for an editor’s interpretation to overshadow the original text, but project director Judith Giesberg and her team of scholars and students have instead designed a site that foregrounds Davis’s voice. A transcription of the diary is front and center on the website, with a thumbnail picture of the corresponding handwritten page in the margin; with a click of the mouse, the diary can be enlarged and its material appearance examined. The pages of the diary are annotated with additional information about historical context or biographical details that may assist the reader, but these are not overabundant, so the edition allows Davis to speak for herself. The site has a few drawbacks: it does not provide a biography of the author or an introduction to the diary as a literary form, and the keyword search feature is not always reliable. But these are minor limitations given the overall quality of the site’s design.
It is worth mentioning that a print edition of Davis’s diaries (edited by Judith Giesberg) was published as a companion to the digital edition and that Karsonya Wise Whitehead’s excellent book about Davis includes reproductions of Davis’s diary pages. However, the online edition makes use of digital technology to provide readers access to page images of the original handwritten text, an invaluable component of manuscript analysis. Memorable Days is a model for other digital critical editions and an unparalleled resource for scholars and students interested in African American women’s autobiographical writing.