A Black Data Architecture: An Exploration Data, Ethics, and Community in the Black Experience

A Black Data Architecture

Jada Similton

To me, data ethics is the concept that data—what we consider valuable enough to label ‘data’ and the process of gathering and handling it—is not objective. Beyond this, data ethics is about the why, how, and to what purpose that people gather and process data. Data ethics and community are two separate, but interconnected, themes when it comes to the projects discussed here. Each project relates in some way to the Black experience, enabling critical conversations about blackness in their own unique ways in a digital format. When it comes to Black Digital Humanities projects, data and community ethics seem to be indispensable aspects of the work. Kim Gallon in her article “Making a Case for the Black Digital Humanities” defines Black DH as a deeply political enterprise that…troubles the very core of what we have come to know as the humanities by recovering alternate constructions of humanity that have been historically excluded from that concept. Challenging the tendency of white DH to treat white cultural experiences as standard or universal, Black DH acknowledges dimensions of race and, therefore, practices a data ethic of recovery that bring[s] forth the full humanity of marginalized peoples through the use of digital platforms and tools. (Gallon)


As projects that use digital tools to recover Black people’s humanity and cultural contributions, the data ethic enacted dismisses pretensions of objectivity and intentionally commits to highlighting dimensions of race, and at times, other identity markers like gender and sexuality. Such a data ethic makes room for community-oriented work that addresses the gaps in conversation that proliferate mainstream discourse in regards to Black people. Being digital tools, many of the Black DH projects here are interactive and therefore extends the opportunity for community to audience participants as well. By this, I mean community is at the center of both the creation of the work and the presentation of it. Creating the work illuminates the existence of an oft-overlooked community and restores them within larger academic and national discourses; presenting the work in an interactive format gives ‘outsiders’ an opportunity to be drawn into the community being built—the community of the recovered Black subjects and the community of Black digital humanists who are unified through a data ethic of recovery that challenges mainstream (i.e. white) DH values. Interactors are ultimately given an opportunity to create meaning in collaboration with the creators and potentially with other audience members.


Thus, this annotated bibliography stands as my own interaction and meaning-making with Black DH projects. In my discussion of the ten projects, I contemplate critical factors like key topics/subjects, intended audience, foundational theoretical questions to the projects, and methods used to discuss how the projects relate to the themes of data ethics and community. I will also discuss my more personal responses to the projects, like how they relate to my own interests, how they’ve enhanced my understandings of DH, and whether I can adopt similar methods in my own work. The entries will appear in alphabetical order by project name.


The 1619 Project

The 1619 Project is very multifaceted from a Digital Humanities perspective. The project has various iterations/dimensions. For instance, the 1619 project as presented on the Pulitzer Center website looks differently from The New York Times’ expression of it. The way the project manifest digitally is interesting in just how expansive it is. In a way, the 1619 Project has become its own framework for conceptualizing the contemporary American experience. The New York Times’ presentation of the project manifests as a digital anthology that opens with Nikole Hannah-Jones’ essay, follows up with a photo essay by Dannielle Bowman and Anne C. Davis, then branches off into various essays written about the ongoing legacy of 1619—the year that a ship brought 20 enslaved Africans to an English colony near a coastal port in Virginia. The New York Times anthology ultimately accumulates various media—books, essays, photographs—under the project that Hannah-Jones created. The Pulitzer Center’s site offers an array of teaching resources on the topic. It is an archival database in its own right, in that educators and students interested in the project now have a reliable, non-profit, website to visit to gather materials on the topic. Since the project’s founder is a Black woman and the project is geared toward recovery of an important Black historical moment, I position it within the framework of the Black digital humanities. I am nevertheless confounded by the project being largely backed by a historically white progressive organization because it arouses issues of accessibility and voice when it comes to which types of audiences will be targeted for the project’s viewership. Accessibility and recovery are important aspects of the Digital Humanities. I therefore find myself questioning how the 1619 Project fares when I was directed to a paywall just to read the essays that the New York Times published.


#ADPHD Project

This project originally started off as a Tumblr page before it developed into a blog. It uses basic digital functions to create a database of prominent works emerging in the field of History. Specifically, the project keeps track of works that discuss the afro-diasporic experience, especially as it relates to African enslavement and it’s aftermath. The project’s latest news is that it is retiring it’s website/blog page. The project director, Dr. Jessica Marie Johnson, has decided that she will keep the project alive via Twitter. It’s Twitter page has a little over 4,000 followers and remains heavily active. The page runners extend the data ethic of recovery beyond simply looking to the past to retrieve forgotten works. The ADPhD Project leaves a live record of the contemporary productions of Black scholars and does major legwork in offering publicity to already marginalized authors.


To me, the beauty of this project is in its simplicity. It relies on digital tools that everyday people use and, thus, bridges conversations between academia and the general public. By operating via Twitter, it is not unlikely that someone without strong ties to academia could come across the page and be introduced to a world of Black scholarly productions. The page runners encourage community dialogue by sparking conversations about social justice issues and works that solicit feedback from its followers.


In terms of my own projects, I envision something a bit more complex. I still believe that creating such a page might be useful while completing my comprehensive exams. I could use it similarly to how Dr. [insert name] proposed using social media to aid in the production of research. I would tweet about the driving questions of my work and about create a space to engage with other thinkers about certain works. It would serve as a sort of archival notepad for my thinking.


The African Burial Ground 

The National Park Service offers a digital site for topics related to the African Burial Ground discovered in New York City when the General Service Administration (GSA) conducted a preliminary archaeological investigation for a company that sought to begin construction on the site. After a 6-acre burial ground with over 15,000 skeletal remains was found, the African American community became concerned with preservation of the cemetery and with the process of excavating the bodies found. As a result of this, the chairman of the House of Representatives on Buildings and Grounds informed GSA that they would no longer be allocated funds until they addressed the community’s concerns. Howard University’s Department of Anthropology took over the remains and overtook the skeletal analysis process from Lehman College. President George H. W. Bush eventually approved a $3 million fund that aided in the process of turning the burial ground into a memorial.


This meta history of the burial ground is important to the construction of the digital project around the memorial. As characteristic of Black DH Projects, the African Burial Ground project is shaped around a real-life example of recovery. The online preservation of the African burial ground aligns with the data ethic of recovery as practiced in Black DH projects. The site is a hybrid project as it directs viewers to online resources like an archival library that notes important dates in the excavation process and to physical events constructed around the memorial site in NY. Due to NY being such a large city with multiple intersecting histories, I’m aware that this project might also be highly appealing to non-Black and non-academic audiences (like tourists or history buffs). Still, slavery is a topic heavily explored by Black academics and digital creators and the African Burial Ground project is, therefore, a solid example of a Black DH ethic of recovering a lost peoplehood.

Black Beyond Data

This project is an interesting blend of old projects that will converge to form a sort of conglomerate Black DH Project. In July 2021, John Hopkins University announced that “A team of researchers…has received a $300,000 planning grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for their project Black Beyond Data: Computational Humanities and Social Sciences Laboratory for Black Digital Humanities.” Connecting digital humanities, Black studies, and computation, Black Beyond Data aims to address racial injustice in the world and in the DH world in general. Dr. Jessica Marie Johnson of John Hopkins University is the project’s principal investigator, but two other prominent scholars, Kim Gallon and Alexandre White, are also heavily involved in the project. It is Dr. Gallon’s and Dr. White’s projects that merges with Dr. Johnson’s to create the larger Black Beyond Data project.


Ultimately, Black Beyond Data is a three-way project between Dr. Johnson’s LifeCodeX project, Dr. Gallon’s the Black Press Research Collective Project, and Dr. White’s Risk and Racism Data Project. This a remarkable example of the collaborative aspects that are so central to DH projects. Each DH project requires a whole team of collaborators and Black Beyond Data is an example of what happens when three established scholars work together to publicize and secure funding for their separate projects. The expansiveness of the three projects bridges together a wide audience of people seeking digital data on racism in the U.S. Since the project is in it’s early phases, I lack solid understanding of how the three projects will come together as one unified project. Rachel Wallech, writer for the John Hopkins University hub states: “A central objective of Black Beyond Data is to use innovative methods and technologies to visualize narratives about Black life and create communities of scholars, teachers, students, and community members who share common interests and collaborate to deepen their understanding of how data can be mined and analyzed to center Black humanity.”

Black Women’s Suffrage—A Digital Collection

This digital collection recovers the history of Black women in the suffrage movement, which has been has been heavily whitewashed as a white woman’s movement. The current collection features Ida B. Wells papers, Charlotta Bass’s papers, and an exhibit on Mary Church Terrell. The papers of each political figure offers glimpses into their lives that only could be discovered through the archival material itself. This is one of the most useful parts about recovery: it fills gaps in our knowledge; it gives us access to worlds not otherwise known. Ida B. Wells’ diary has been preserved by this digital collection and this, to me, is archiving done right. The preservation of Black women’s work is necessarily a decolonial data ethic that does not buy into the Eurocentricity of the Archive.


The magnitude of this DH project is possible through the partnership the collective has with the Digital Public Library of America, the Amistad Research Center, Atlanta University Robert W. Woodruff Library, Tuskegee University, and more. These are the partnerships that help provide the public with access to information about Black women’s roles in movements beyond the Suffrage movement. For instance, the Suffrage Collection also features archived materials on other prominent movements of the 19th century and early 20th century. These historical moments include anti-lynching movements, anti-slavery movements, education reform, civil rights, and racism within the Suffrage movement itself. This is a project so well developed that it feels far out of reach at this particular moment of my graduate career. I wouldn’t even know where to begin, but in the future, it would be quite rewarding to be involved in a project of this caliber. It is a major win for Black women scholars interested in thwarting the androcentric and Eurocentric focus of 19th century history.


.break  .dance Interactive Essay Project

.break  .dance is an interactive essay created by Marisa Parham, a professor of English at Amherst College. Playing on the pun of dance, Parham defines her work as a “choreo-essay.” From my experience with it, parts of the essay are paced by the algorithm—meaning that the viewer is steered along in the experience and does not have the authority to speed up the process. The essay is thus experienced according to the expectations and commands of the creator. This project in particular says interesting things about community and the data ethic of recovery. It immerses us into its own digital world and constructs a communal space that is not egalitarian. The content creator knows something more than the audience member, something that she wants to share in her own engineered way. The viewer thus has to trust the creator’s vision and mission for their learning experience; they have to accept and be open to the creator’s leadership.


The project bridges together Black thinkers from both the present and distant past (and maybe even the future, considering the audience member’s own role in creating meaning in a collaborate, digital space). At the front gate of the interactive essay, Parham introduces viewers to the Congolese concept of direction that is central to the project, and instantly my mind thinks of Sankofa as a theoretical framework.


My personal experience with the project was a beautiful one. This interactive essay is right up my alley in terms of the literary, discursive, and digital experiences I’d like to create. Parham mixes poetry and prose to create a deeply moving experience for the reader. The interactive aspect of it makes them more highly aware of their positionality as viewer and experiencer and compels us to imagine the worlds we wish to create.


The Colored Conventions Project

This project has digitized information about colored conventions that took place between the 1830s and the 1890s. The formatting of the site is simple and easy to navigate, offering viewers opportunities to search for both national and state conventions. Their latest additions to the site include the Convention of Colored Iowa Soldiers and the Convention of Colored Citizens that took place in New York in July of 1849. A quick search through the convention reveals just how varied topics and attendees of the conferences were. The conferences are, of course, unified by the fact that they were crafted for the purpose of discussing issues related to the African American experience, but are otherwise quite diverse. This makes the intended audience for this project quite wide. People interested in particular Black political figures could search them by name and discover whether they attended certain conferences. There are also conventions that are titled by the specific issues they address. So, someone interested in lynching or black code laws could see how thinkers and speakers were theorizing Black existence at that time.


My own personal response is that the project is deceptively simple on its face—especially since the website is so easy to navigate. Yet, I’d imagine that it takes a good deal of time and money to digitize the historical documents so easily accessed on the web. This brings me to the most notable aspect of the site: the fact that it’s open access. Improving accessibility is a key goal of DH projects. Open accessibility and the project’s focus on a movement that has been so heavily obscured by the abolitionist movement makes the project truly one of recovery and community.


While creating such a database is not one of my DH goals, I do believe that I will find open access databases useful to my research and writing.


Land-Grab Universities

The Land Grab Universities digital project is an interactive website filled with maps, stories, and regular publications from their magazine. The project’s premise seeks to recover the story of how the U.S. government dispossessed land from Indigenous nations and then sold the land to states to build Universities on it. It highlights how the very core of the American academy is colonialist and anti-Indigenous. It specifically highlights the Universities built through the Morrill Act of 1862 which sought to expand access to higher education in the U.S. and ultimately sanctioned land seizures to do so. The site tells viewers how the United States dispossessed some 250 tribal nations from their land through 162 land seizures. This was ultimately a wide scaled dispossession that undoubtedly leads to generational disenfranchisement as Universities occupy the land for hundreds of years and continues to grow their presence in the surrounding area.


While this project does not readily seem to be about Black people, many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are land grant institutions—my alma mater of Alcorn State University included. My current work is evaluating the way that the settler colonial project requires the complicity of American citizens to be completed. Black emancipated people became complicit in the project through the Morrill Act, and had to be so in order to create futures for themselves and their descendants. My own ability to be educated traces back to the Morrill Act that provided 3300 acres of Natchez land to Black freedmen. Therefore, this project is inadvertently a recovery of the ways Black history intersects with Indigenous history. The editor of the project, Tristan Ashtone, considers the project one of “lost and found” and “is the result of a comprehensive investigation, one that reveals how land taken from tribal nations was turned into seed money for higher education in the United States.”


Life x Code: Against Enclosure

Dr. Jessica Marie Johnson is the principal investigator for Life x Code: Against Enclosure. This project name seems to house underneath it various other DH projects like Electric Marronage, Keywords for Black Louisiana, Metropolitan United Methodist Church History Project, The Creation of a Food Apartheid in Baltimore, and Microdatas carolineses. All of these projects are led by different principal investigators at various stages of their careers. For instance, the principal investigator of Microdatas carolineses is a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The large, collaborative scope of this project enables a recovery of the expansiveness of the Black experience as each project covers blackness in different parts of the map, including North Carolina, Puerto Rico, Baltimore, and Louisiana. The project’s ‘About’ page features an explicit note on community, collaboration, and refusal. Specifically, the site states: “We know that collaboration is key to our survival” and “We offer a grammar of refusal and a language of freedom for the humanities.”


As a scholar that shaped the criteria for Black DH projects as one of community and recovery, I am unsurprised that Dr. JMJ’s project would so openly represent these values. This is another example of a project that feels very doable to me, even as a graduate student. The project is essentially a website that leads to other visual presentations of other projects. It is a sort of mother site for other projects and gives them an elevated platform on which to show their work. I really enjoy the simplicity and depth of the project and its commitment to preserving the richness of the Black experience through cultural production such as blogs and digital archives of prose and poetry.


Taller Electric Marronage

Electric Marronage is a hybrid digital project founded by Dr. Yomaira Figueroa and Dr. Jessica Marie Johnson. It truly embodies the data ethic of recovery as it centers the stories that often go untold. It is, at its heart, a community project that keeps its collaborators and audiences always in mind. Project staff, often referred to as Electricians, are compensated for their participation. In fact, every artist in residence or guest scholar is compensated for their contributions. This is a community ethic that strives to remedy academia’s tendency to underpay BIPOC thinkers or expect free labor from them. Electric Marronage values its collaborators and spreads the wealth within the community. The Taller (which is Spanish for ‘workshop’) is truly public-facing in the ways that it offers free events to the general and academic public.


In the online space, the website is a wonderful mesh of artistic productions related to how Afro-diasporic peoples continue the legacy of African marronage and flight from subjugation. There is an archive/library that features annotated bibliographies of prominent Black literary productions. There is a mood board that offers hyperlink pathways to various cultural productions like music albums, photography, and film. Visually, the site is quite dynamic. At times, it will feature photography from small business photographers from Puerto Rico or the mainland and it currently has a more abstract collection of photos that offer a colorful invitation into the site.


Electric Marronage is truly a model for the work I wish to do—though I believe such a Taller would come much later in my academic career. It is a hybrid space in so many forms in that it is both creative and scholarly, academic and public-facing, digital and physical. My primary goal is to have a collaborative hybrid project of this caliber.



Taken together, these project highlight that there are so many ways to do DH. Moreover, Black scholars are paving their own directions toward a distinct way of handling data that is uniquely Black, community-oriented, and reflects the goals and visions of Sankofa as a method of recovering what has been lost or stolen. Each project was distinct in its presentation and preservation of Black data. Yet, their efforts of recovery bridge together all of these projects. Rather than using DH to maintain the status quo or the canon, Black scholars are bringing radical and exciting material to intervene in outworn literary conversations. These projects provide other Black scholars with a space where they can explore their own projects through new lenses.


These projects represent the expansiveness of Black culture, literature, and experiences as each one brings the audience into a unique viewing experience. .break .beat is a wonderful example of a unique viewing experience that is critical, exciting, and dynamic while projects like Life X Code represent the ways that DH work can be simple and effective. All of these projects exemplify the power of collaboration: what can be done when principal investigators come together and merge projects; what graduate students can produce when given the platform to do so by senior scholars; what can be created in community with other scholars. My understanding of DH work has been heightened by this annotated bibliography, which I intended to be a resource that I return to in the future to find my own path in the Digital Humanities.


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Making Sense of Digital Humanities Copyright © 2022 by Jada Similton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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