Statement of Context
The Black Book Interactive Project (BBIP) will develop a vocabulary for structuring texts that responds to the complexities of race and specificities within African American literature. BBIP addresses the lack of metadata designed to reveal the significance of African American cultural heritage materials through the use of data mining and visualization approaches. Doing so requires that we also analyze the durability, efficacy, and relevance of existing tools in order to develop a working model for data mining within African American literature collections.
The kinds of statistical queries that digital tools invite are virtually non-existent in African American discourse, queries that drive DH scholarship and provide deeper analytical insight into texts that we study. Having access, for example, to a text’s grammatical, linguistic, stylistic and narrative features, fictional geographies and topographies, author information, and what Gerard Genette calls the “paratextual apparatuses,” all materials inside and outside the book and related to its publication can tell us much about structure and meaning of African American literature as a body of work.
To fill this void BBIP seeks to
- create and model a metadata schema that identifies the centrality of race and reflects those discourses in which scholars working in African American literature are engaged; and
- give increased attention to the limitations of current experimental data mining tools that exclude significant groups of writers and relevant collections.
Ultimately BBIP will help us see the value of linking specialized archives with other open source data sets like linkedjazz.org to make our work more useful, complete, accurate and interoperable.
BBIP comes at a crucial moment in the evolution of DH and African American literature. We continue to uncover black texts and yet lack the ability to place them within a proper context. Neither are we able to provide the evidence to confirm or refute the conclusions like those drawn by Kenneth Warren in What Was African American Literature. For Warren the demise of Jim Crow segregation that gave coherence to the social world that created black literature as a post-emancipation phenomenon has eroded along with the accompanying literature. Without evidence about what black literature is and what it does in verifiable terms, his conclusions are based primarily on what circulates, is most frequently read, discussed and validated rather than what exists. Working with incomplete archives limits human knowledge and understanding. A positive outcome of the Warren debate is the renewed search for alternative meanings of African American writing as a racial project, including further investigation into contrasting meanings of race and blackness. Computational studies can help reveal the many views that responded to Jim Crow in a literature largely unknown. In computational models the what, who, and how converge as compelling research questions that push the study of African American literature in dynamic new directions, rather than allowing it to submit to stagnant interpretations.