Black Scholars and Disciplinary Gatekeeping

Black Scholars and Disciplinary Gatekeeping

Christy Hyman

Afrofuturism is here defined as responsible storytelling, a challenge to remember a past that instructs the present and can build a future.

—De Witt Douglas Kilgore[1]


(I think of this as a kind of provocation as I imagine Black Futurities alongside the material realities of Black Scholarship within the Digital Humanities.)


Scholars enrolled in graduate programs go through a process where faculty supervisors decide if thesis/dissertation topics are rigorous enough for effective completion.[2]  If a topic is compelling, but lacks the available sources to respond to the historical questions posed, then the student is advised to seek a topic that has a trail of sources from which the student can draw on for historical interpretation. The central tenet of the historical profession requires a critical engagement with records from the past. However, Black scholars engaged in recovery projects whose central questions relate to silenced legacies are forced to abandon those projects that reveal a dearth of archival sources.[3] In this way, digital recovery can act as a prescriptive, allowing the scholar to build projects that are based on different methods of verifying information that may not be recognized as rigorous by the discipline.

Accessing the traces of Black life in archival sources—noticing the silences—is a key method in historical recovery work. Humanist scholars are the long-recognized monitors of cultural memory and exposing the richness of the Black past is the office of the Black scholar engaged in recovery work.”[4] The results from these technologies of recovery represent artifacts of digital cultural memory, creating avenues for the survival of cultural narratives for future generations to access.[5]

So the hope is to recover the stories of Black folks past and present whose experiences have been rendered invisible—but when the discipline confers legitimacy only on those stories with a trail of print sources, that puts the Black scholar in a position where they must make a fateful choice:

Abandon the compelling story that honors Black historical agents dishonored by a colonialist, hegemonic archive?


Engage in a project of subversion, disrupting the methodological traditions that the discipline holds so dear.

And when the scholar goes rogue and chooses to recover these stories that appear often as traces, an unyielding commitment to the story is essential. Every step of the way, the importance of telling the story takes precedence over everything. This sort of disruption destabilizes all those things naturalized by the discipline that recognizes only certain historical actors, events, or forms of knowledge as rigorous scholarly research agendas. These stories that Black scholars are telling are those that Christina Sharpe has recognized as having been swept up and animated by the afterlives of slavery, these are the stories that must be told, as they have survived despite an insistent violence and negation.[6] This is the inheritance of Black scholars with a view to future-oriented diasporic histories that animate a culture of survival.


This chapter was originally published in Alternative Historiographies of the Digital Humanities and was published by Punctum Books. It is republished here under a Creative Commons BY-NCSA 4.0 International license.



Colored Conventions Project.

Foreman, P. Gabrielle. Twitter, January 4, 2020, https://twitter. com/profgabrielle/status/1213268486258135041?s=20.

Gallon, Kim. “Making a Case for the Black Digital Humanities.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matt Gold and Lauren Klein, 42–49. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016. d823aac989eb.

Howell, Martha C., and Walter Prevenier. From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Johnson, Jessica Marie. “Markup Bodies: Black [life] Studies and Slavery [death] Studies at the Digital Crossroads.” Social Text 36, no. 4 (2018): 57–79. doi: 10.1215/01642472-7145658.

Kilgore, Douglas. “Afrofuturism.” In The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction, edited by Rob Latham, 561–72. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

McGann, Jerome. A New Republic of Letters: Memory and Scholarship in the Age of Digital Reproduction. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014.

Sharpe, Christina Elizabeth. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

  1. Douglas Kilgore, “Afrofuturism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction, ed. Rob Latham (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 563.
  2. P. Gabrielle Foreman, Twitter, January 4, 2020, profgabrielle/status/1213268486258135041?s=20: “Barbara Christian Was Told by Her English Dept Colleagues She Couldn’t Write a 1st Book on Black Women Writers. Don’t These Folks Get Tired of Having Us Prove Them so Dramatically Wrong over and Again. @viet_t_nguyen. #MLA2020” In this tweet Foreman points out how scholars who have gone on to do groundbreaking work were initially discouraged by their programs to pursue their research agendas because they were rooted in hidden and obscured histories of people historically marginalized.
  3. Martha C. Howell and Walter Prevenier, From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001). Howell and Prevenier assert that the central paradox of the historical profession is that historians are prisoners of sources that are not always reliable but skilled readings of those sources can yield meaningful stories about the past and the human relationship to the past. However, it still remains that sources documenting the Black lives in history are often very problematic—Jessica Marie Johnson reminds us of the violence of the past and that the brutality of black codes […] created a devastating archive. See Jessica Marie Johnson, “Markup Bodies: Black [life] Studies and Slavery [death] Studies at the Digital Crossroads,” Social Text 36, no. 4 (2018): 58.
  4. See Jerome McGann, A New Republic of Letters: Memory and Scholarship in the Age of Digital Reproduction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), 1, 21.
  5. Gallon rightfully asserts that Black digital humanities projects represent technologies of recovery. See Kim Gallon, “Making a Case for the Black Digital Humanities,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, eds. Matt Goland Lauren Klein (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 42–49, 4519-a958-d823aac989eb. A fine example of this important digital recovery work is the Colored Conventions Project which brings to digital life the buried history of collective Black mobilization in the nineteenth century for undergraduate and graduate students, researchers across disciplines, high school teachers, and community members interested in the history of church, educational and entrepreneurial engagement. See Colored Conventions Project,
  6. See Christina Elizabeth Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 12–15.


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