- Black History, State History, and Problems of Claiming Digital Middle Ground
In the years since Tara McPherson asked the uncomfortable question in her essay "Why Are the Digital Humanities So White?," some progress seems to have been made in addressing the most obvious inequities. Digital humanities projects headed by principal investigators of color depicting the complexities of Black America have received long-overdue accolades from professional organizations, much-needed support from philanthropic foundations, and a modicum of attention from scholarly journals such as this one. But questions about credit, consent, selective coverage, and community reciprocity remain vexed for digital humanities projects about race, as Moya Bailey, Amy Earhart, Toniesha Taylor, and many others have pointed out. 1Exemplary projects like Colored Conventions: Bringing Nineteenth-Century Black Organizing to Digital Life, headed by P. Gabrielle Foreman, might be very intentional in imagining the "us" in their "About Us" page, but often it can be difficult when examining other digital humanities projects to assess how questions of racial inclusion are negotiated by core constituents on a digital humanities project team and how histories of racial injustice might still be unsettled when imagining potential users of digital materials.
Trials, Triumphs, and Transformationsis at its best as a Black history site that explores the intersections of race, geography, mobility, and settlement in a region of the country that is often overlooked in the history of segregation. It offers a curated digital collection that features a sizable archive of hundreds of images documenting the everyday lives of African American Tennesseans and the civic spaces that defined their experiences of citizenship. The photo viewer allows users to zoom in on high-resolution details, which can be particularly useful for seeing facial expressions in group shots, such as in a 1945 shot of an [End Page 935]integrated WAC unit training in Georgia. Unfortunately, the interface is not designed well for downloading images, which can be important for display in offline educational environments with limited wireless access.
The images are undoubtedly the most compelling assets in the site. For example, "Claiming Space" shows photographs of African American small businesses (grocers, fruit stands, druggists, jewelers, bars, and other vibrant establishments) and sites of recreation (night clubs, swimming pools, expositions, and parades), along with advertisements geared to African American patrons. Images that perpetuate racial stereotypes and caricatures are also included in this section, including "Zip Coon: A Popular Negro Song" and "Maude Woodfork as 'Aunt Jemima.'" Given such abrupt juxtaposition, more commentary and context would be helpful for visitors to the site to differentiate such examples of racist visual culture from the other imagery in the project database more representative of African American aspirations for citizenship.
Trials, Triumphs, and Transformationsappears to use Drupal as its content management system, with a Google Custom Search bar available for a general search for materials by keyword. Without advanced search features, it is difficult to sort images by date or location, but browsing resources is aided by its navigational structure with major themes. The site is largely devoted to artifacts from Black visual culture, although the collection also includes some sound files, representing a highly selective sample of blues and spirituals from the region. Unfortunately, browser compatibility issues may interfere with some users being able to play these audio files easily in the player embedded in the page. The project website lists dozens of project partners, including those devoted to preserving auditory culture, such as the Bessie Smith Cultural Center and the Country Music Hall of Fame, as well as archives and museums from within and beyond the state.
Regrettably, much of the site's framing also sends mixed messages about the primary purpose of its digital collection. Specifically, its curatorial apparatus often caters to the more majoritarian agenda of state history rather than to Black history, where it makes the most original scholarly contributions. Certainly, making visually rich materials accessible to K-12 educators teaching required courses in state history can be laudable...