This article explores the role slavery’s eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Atlantic archive plays alongside the digital humanities’ drive for data. It situates critiques of the digital humanities in relation to decades-old debates about slavery that have reemerged with efforts to enumerate and digitize early modern black diasporic life. The article engages those critiques in light of black diasporic communities’ battles for justice and redress and the forms these have taken online, such as Afrofuturism, eBlack Studies, and Digital Alchemy. It argues that, while digitizing the study of slavery threatens to replicate the death work of the slave ship register, black digital practice offers a way of thinking through black life by invoking what the #transformDH collective has described as the digital humanities’ potential for “social justice, accessibility, and inclusion.” It suggests that black digital practice is the interface by which slavery’s archive belies the presumed neutrality of the digital. Black digital practice is the revelation that black subjects have themselves taken up science, data, and coding, in other words, have commodified themselves and digitized and mediated their own black freedom dreams in order to hack their way into the system (modernity, science, the West), take root, and live where they were “never meant to survive.”
Markup Bodies: Black [Life] Studies and Slavery [Death] Studies at the Digital Crossroads
Jessica Marie Johnson is an assistant professor of history and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Practicing Freedom: Black Women, Intimacy, and Kinship in New Orleans Atlantic World (forthcoming) and coeditor with Mark Anthony Neal of “Black Code,” a special issue of Black Scholar (2017). Her work has appeared in Slavery & Abolition, The Black Scholar, Meridians: Feminism, Race and Transnationalism, Debates in the Digital Humanities, American Quarterly, Forum Magazine, Bitch, Black Perspectives, and Postcolonial Digital Humanities, as well as in edited volumes. She tweets as @jmjafrx.