Tales from the Archive

Below please find session abstracts followed by discussion questions.

“Haiti at the Digital Crossroads: Archiving Black Sovereignty Together”
Marlene L. Daut (University of Virginia)

The dominant narrative of Haiti remains an under scrutinized story in which “the great powers,” have been required to intervene in Haiti on many different occasions in order to “save the country from itself.” Indeed, many writers (especially, journalists) have tended to focus on historically-based Atlantic World fears about Haiti because of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), and contemporary fears of Haitian migration to the U.S. in the form of “boat people.” However, the asymmetrical and often dialogic influence of Haiti on these world powers in the realms of art, literature, music, culture, religion, and politics, in particular, are rarely presented. In the spirit of Papa Legba (a Haitian lwa who acts as a crossroads between the human and non-human worlds), in this talk I examine the challenges and opportunities presented when using a digital humanities approach to archiving the creation of two independent “black” states in the early nineteenth century, a critical, but often forgotten, part of the story of the making of the modern world-system. Abdul JanMohamed and David Lloyd have written about “Archival work, as a form of counter-memory” that is “essential to the critical articulation of minority discourse.” However, because archives, like other kinds of texts, reflect the worldview of their creators, the archivist working to articulate “minority discourse” must be careful not to reproduce patterns of domination or cultural exploitation. For Haiti, this means that we must work against the idea that the abundant historical resources now made readily (and often freely) available by various digitization projects, represent a “new frontier” for research, an idea which encourages the notion that the country is “open for business” on a variety of levels. Instead, by using the metaphor of the crossroads, in this paper, I demonstrate how a multi-modal approach—involving, content, context, collaboration, and access—can allow for alternative ways of (humanely) archiving black sovereignty, thus, contributing to “new narratives” of Haiti.

“Innovating research and heritage on small islands: Dominica’s model for Preservation and Education”
Schuyler Esprit (Dominica State College)

In the small island developing state of the Commonwealth of Dominica, the push towards Information and Communications Technology (ICT) development has risen rapidly on the national agenda. This is true for several sectors, including entrepreneurship and education. However, national efforts to understand the impact of expanding technologies, particularly through the use of digital humanities or humanities computing, has been much slower despite collective enthusiasm among library and museum experts, academics and other intellectuals workers about developing the technological scope and reach of their work. For the most part, efforts and resources to encourage ICT use have minimized these very knowledge and culture nerve centers that inform the content of entrepreneurship through technology. Create Caribbean Inc. is a research institute located in Dominica, designed on the principles and values of digital scholarship and practicing digital humanities methodologies, and is one of the first of its kind in the English-speaking Caribbean to formalize the confluence of archival studies, heritage preservation, academic research, higher education curriculum development and the wave of technological advancement. Founded in 2014, the Institute has entered into a partnership with the Dominica State College to institutionalize and create national conversation and impact on innovative knowledge acquisition and sharing amidst economic and geographic constraints that create large social gaps in access to libraries, research, cultural activities and technological experimentation. This presentation will explore the best practices of Create Caribbean Inc., the Research Institute at Dominica State College to consider its goals and objectives, growth process, challenges and plans for enhancement and expansion beyond Dominica and into the wider Caribbean. The presentation will outline the role of each of the institute’s core areas – heritage preservation, academic research, higher education curriculum development, college teaching and community outreach – through the lens of the digital humanities and its impact on the Caribbean space. I will also include a discussion of the benefits of adopting digital humanities vocabulary, theory and praxis within the region, adapting those elements to considerations of economic, social and political peculiarities of the Caribbean.

“Abundance And Scarcity: Cuban Food Writing In Digital Archives, 1857-2016”
Keja Valens (Salem State University)

This paper traces the circulation of Cuban food writing through its circulation in digital archives. The digital archives contain and produce the alternating tropes of abundance and scarcity that have characterized Cuban cookbooks over the past 150 years, from the 1857 Cocinero Cubano and the 1910 Manual del Cocinero archived in the Cuban Heritage Collection, the first two GITMO cookbooks archived in the Digital Library of the Caribbean, and the more contemporary Cuban cookbooks and cooking shows produced in Spain, Cuba, and the United States during Fidel Castro’s rule. While Cuban cookbooks from the colonial and Independence periods emphasize the tropical abundance of the island’s plants along with the fruitful crossing of culinary traditions and the rise of national food culture, in the years following the Revolution, Nitza Villapol made a virtue of limitation with her array of cookbooks and cooking shows even as Cuban Diasporic cookbooks combined abundant nostalgia with an embrace of the productivity U.S. and European free markets. Untangling the tropes of abundance and scarcity in the digital archives—including the emergence of YouTube and social media as digital archives—reveals a map of the colonial, anticolonial, and neocolonial foodways that produced and granted access to the tastes of Cuba, and establishes surprising links between the impact of the Cuban Revolution, the unique region of Guantanamo Bay, the contours of the U.S. embargo of Cuba, the borderlines of Revolutionary Cuban food and publication policies, and the interstices of the digital archive.

Questions for Reflection
Jessica Marie Johnson (John Hopkins University)

Keja Valens gives us an opportunity to explore the sensorium according to the digital–or the digital the sensorium has created. These tropes create a kind of binary tension–between abundance and scarcity–that is worth exploring further. This binary can, of course, be pursued in relation to food, foodways, food access, migration, archives, and the formation of diasporic Caribbean communities through cooking, culinary practices, gastronomic art, as well as cookbooks, YouTube, and social media as technologies in and of themselves. To take this further, however, and bring in work by Marlene Daut and Schuyler Esprit, what of the space between abundance and scarcity? In this space, the Caribbean, seen as lacking, also appears in print media (Daut) from the 15th century to the 21st as rich, exotic, spicy, and sweet–and, further, addictive, untamed, and unfree. In intimate, problematic, and exploitative ways, a European or Western “sense” of the Caribbean has held power and authority–has even created “Cultures of Taste” that could only be curated by other Europeans/Westerners. Who, in a world of digital media and digital archives, of YouTube and social media, of travel blogs and #travelnoire, is now curating cultures of taste (little c)? How do present-day digital archives cut across past analog authorial and authoritative claims? Can disrupting this claim happen without reconstructing the rich, exotic, and sweet sensorium that often stands in for unfree labor of slaves or the invisible labor of women, children, domestics, etc.? If yes, how? If not, what kind of detangling does the digital give us an opportunity to do? Finally, to me, all of this is very gendered, potentially pitting European/Western sense/taste against the abundance Caribbean women, children, kinships hold and keep (in the face of scarcity?) for each other. Is it gendered? If so, how do genders (plural) appear in the digital archives? Can the digital make invisible labor visible? Who besides food is being consumed via video and tweet, even if that consumption now occurs within diaspora communities, even if it is now consensual, perhaps even sacrificial in the name of diasporic longing?

Marlene Daut poses a direct and provocative challenge to any praxis of the Caribbean Digital. What does it mean to utilize, center, and protect “minority” discourses and ways of knowledge production indigenous to the region? What is “minority discourse” in a region where African and Native once comprised the dominant population and where streams, waves, and circuits of migration continue to infuse coast, hinterland, island, and archipelago with new infusions of people, cultures, and ideas? Can the digital, i.e. networked knowledge, offer a different architecture for unpacking these streams–a non-linear architecture that creates and transgresses national boundaries, chronological time, and the limits of the human body? If networked knowledge or the digital can manage this, what do Caribbean Digital scholars need to be attuned to if they are to avoid reproducing “patterns of domination or cultural exploitation”? How do we account for histories of slavery, colonialism, genocide-via-Conquest, neocolonial debt and divestment? Do we make new archives? Do we design new interfaces? Do we upload different documents? Who is still missing in this conversation (there is always someone)?

It is not unheard of, in discussions of digital humanities and the Caribbean, to turn to questions of infrastructure and Internet access. These questions often center around who has access, where the broadband is located, who pays for hardware, service, servers, and who gets the grants. While these are important questions and often inevitable, these questions also often appear on a binary. Access and more of it becomes positioned as good and necessary. Less access and infrastructure positioned as hindering or truncating (radical?) possibility. These papers, rooted in the Caribbean basin, turn these questions on their head. This is a region where more access has not necessarily meant equal access, and neoliberal infrastructure (particularly in the wake of disaster) can and has occurred at the expense of the region’s inhabitants. If questions of access and infrastructure continue to be serious, necessary questions to ask, how does doing the digital from a Caribbean center change what we need for access and where we look for infrastructure? This question looks especially to Esprit’s work with Create Caribbean and wonders what “best practices” looks like and means in our theories, work practices (including workplace politics), research methodologies, and design principles. For instance, if we start from the proposition that youth creating the Caribbean on mobile devices and in conversations with community members are the only infrastructure and access we need, how does that force us to think of both infrastructure and access differently?