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On the State of Digital Humanities and Black Literature

[By Will Cunningham]
As part of an ongoing project here at HBW, in the coming months I will be reviewing a large swath of publications related to the field of Digital Humanities. While I hope to delve into many of the more technical aspects of this field, I think beginning with a broader survey of the state of the field is an appropriate start. Alan Liu’s article, “The State of the Digital Humanities: A Report and a Critique” serves just that purpose. Liu’s article surveys the historical, technological, and social rise of the field of DH, focusing on the ongoing development of the varying analytic tools used in the field.
Liu argues that the state of DH is at a tipping point – a field poised to “not just facilitate the work of the humanities but to represent the state of the humanities at large in its changing relation to higher education” and that the field of DH “serves as an allegory of the social, economic, political and cultural self-image of institutions.” It cannot be stated enough: DH is the future of the humanities. It represents a broad space of expansion with exciting opportunities. But I cannot help but think of Liu’s last statement with skepticism. If the field of DH does stand proxy for the “social, economic, political and cultural self-image of an institution,” then where is the representation of African American Literature? Surely it is somewhere to be found?
Simply put, it is not; or rather, if it does exist, it exists on the periphery of the field. Liu constantly references the “high points” of the field of DH: The William Blake Archive, Romantic Circles, Rossetti Archive, The Valley of the Shadow, Walk Whitman Archive, and Women Writers Project. While these archives represent both the germinal roots and the embodiment of the potential of the field, the representation of African American Literature is notably absent.
This is where HBW steps in. As a part of our ongoing commitment to the recovery, preservation, and study of African American Literature, we are gearing up to fill this void. Again, if DH does truly stand as a watermark for the institution, then African American Lit can and should be represented in this growing field. It should be an integral part of the image of the institution at large.