- Mapping Segregated Histories of Racial Violence
As a historian of state-sanctioned racial terror in the US–Mexico borderlands, I have worked to reckon with the long legacies of the past in the midst of ongoing violence by local, state, and federal law enforcement. The technologies are new, but the rhetoric, the methods, and the patterns are hauntingly familiar. The need to inform public understandings of the past, and its relation to our present, is urgent. To do this requires new methods of storytelling. Since 2014 I have been the primary investigator for a digital research project, Mapping Violence. The project takes the shape of a digital archive that documents cases of racial violence in Texas from 1900 to 1930. The research is stored in a database and will be displayed as an interactive map that helps make visible lost and obscured histories of racial violence. Working at the intersection of American studies, ethnic studies, public humanities, and digital humanities offers opportunities to rethink archival research, historical narrative, and methods for presenting findings to public audiences. Making use of digital tools has resulted in a more inclusive method of collecting and mapping histories of violence and new strategies for making this research accessible and useful for the public.
The project's recovery efforts shift longtime patterns followed by historians. Mapping Violence aims to expose interconnected histories of violence, the legacies of colonization, slavery, and genocide that intersect in Texas. Although often segregated in academic studies, these histories coalesced geographically and temporally, and in some cases the same agents of violence moved across the state targeting different racial and ethnic groups. Historians have also tended to segregate studies of vigilante violence from extralegal violence at the hands of police. But, if one holds the question of how did people navigate a world shaped by violence as central and urgent to critical studies of the past, one must consider the multiple forms of violence that shaped daily life for a range of residents. To be sure, cases of racial and ethnic minorities who died while in police custody or at the hands of mobs in Texas can reveal more when studied together than when separated by the artificial confines of African [End Page 657] American history, Asian American history, Native American history, and Mexican American history. A fuller understanding of racial violence requires studying cases of lynchings, police murder, intimidation, rape, mutilation, and physical assault in the same archive. For too long these histories of nation building and racial formation have been segregated in the fields of US history and in public memory.1
Rethinking American Studies Methods and Audiences
In addition to a more inclusive study of racial terror, Mapping Violence also explores the best methods for visually displaying a history of loss and violence. To keep questions of the victims, survivors, and descendants in the aftermath of violence central to the project, the first step was to move away from reducing acts of violence to mere dots on a map or statistics. Instead, each event is individually researched, a 250-word narrative history is drafted, and metadata are entered into a database. The metadata include information about the victims and known survivors, the agents of violence, coordinates for where the event will be mapped, a justification for the location, descriptions of the type of violence being recorded, and descriptions of any outcomes that followed. These efforts will make preliminary findings public and help jump-start future research.
While most scholars understand archival research and historical analysis as academic labor, they struggle to conceptualize the visualization of those findings as an intellectual contribution or an act of knowledge production. The historian Richard White invites humanists to embrace the spatial and cartographic turn in the humanities. Visualizations, he makes clear, should be seen as a research tool, not a finished project. They are, he continues, "not about producing illustrations or maps to communicate things that you have discovered by other means. It is a means of doing research and generates questions that might otherwise go unnoticed."2 For Mapping Violence, recovering histories and building an archive is only the first phase of research. Mapping will allow for...