Part of the challenge of writing Caribbean histories is the tyranny of text, and the way in which our dependence on textual materials often ends up distorting our sense of where and how debate, exchange, conversation, world-building and – sometimes – revolution happened in various times and places. Speech and sound and music and dance can all be captured, in some ways, in words. But the Caribbean Digital offers us a new archipelago of ways of telling and interpreting the history of the region. We have more freedom now, thanks to these formats, to tell history with and through moving images, through sound, through the layers of the visual, through maps and geography, through experiences of the environment and landscape themselves, alongside new ways of navigating interpretive landscapes.
This also allows us to move through the complex interplay between history and History, between Histoire and histoires in all their multiplicity. So does History/histories/stories live within these virtual spaces? I have brought together here three different kinds of digital objects to help think through the different invitations and possibilities the Caribbean digital offers us. I offer these as a partial, and personal, map of this ever-expanding digital archipelago. Many of these sites have been presented at, and shaped by, the conversations at The Caribbean Digital conferences over the years and the issues of the journal archipelagos, so this is also a way of recognizing the deep and widening impact these intertwined projects have had over the years.
Curatorial Note: This one seems like the right place to start: a brief selection of footage from a much larger archive held at the Library of Congress, taken by Katherine Dunham during her generative, indeed life-changing, journey to Haiti (which she wrote about decades later in Island Possessed). The video is a kind of crossroads, an object that tells multiple histories: a glimpse of a particular moment in Haiti’s religious history and practice, but also capturing a moment in the history of art and performance, since these dances (and the films themselves) become central to Dunham’s transformative, global practice as she crafted a style and choreography based on these and other dances from the Caribbean in the following years.
Curatorial Note: This terrific map-as-narrative from Vincent Brown, now accompanied by the book Tacky’s Revolt that it helped to create, is now a touchstone for historians thinking about the interpretive possibilities of the digital in the Caribbean and beyond. Together, these works push us to think about differently about how histories are enacted within and through particular geographical landscapes, but also to think about how geography itself is produced through social and political imagination.
Curatorial Note: A beautiful project about a fascinating story, also linked to a fundamental book in Caribbean History, Ada Ferrer’s Freedom’s Mirror. The site works as documentation but also invitation into the visual world and imaginary of Aponte, and served as the foundation for the Visionary Aponte art project. Together, these projects allow us to think through how art shapes history, both by representing the past and by opening up spaces for imagining alternative futures. And they are an invitation to think about how collaborations between historians and visual artists might enable us to transform our practice of engaging with the past.
Curatorial Note: This project, which has been deeply intertwined with The Caribbean Digital and archipelagos from the beginning (an early version presented at the conference and the site reviewed in the first issue of archipelagos, and then part of a first experiment in digital annotation by the journal), is a collective attempt to create a focused experience of reading and listening within the often centripetal energies of the digital. As with Digital Aponte, it has been part of artistic re-interpretations, in this case a workshop in Jamaica featuring musicians responding to and interpreting the music. We found that different kinds of musical interpretations of these seventeenth century songs open up new avenues for historical understanding and interpretation, suggesting the possibility of a fuller dialogue between musicians and historians seeking to reconstitute the soundscapes of the past.
Title: Le Marronage dans le monde atlantique: Sources et trajectoires de vie
Creators: Jean-Pierre Le Galunec and Léon Robichaud
Steward: Université de Sherbrooke
Curatorial Note: This is an updated version of an earlier project focused on Saint-Domingue, and a wonderful resource for research and teaching. Because these advertisements are each a kind of remarkable capsule of a particular person and a particular moment, they invite complex readings, and the searchability allows for research into names, clothes, musical instruments, ethnic designations, and much more, but also force complicated questions about using an archive of repression and capture to tell the history of the enslaved.
Curatorial Note: Part of Schuyler Esprit’s vital Create Caribbean project, this collection of 400 objects shares the history of the Small Projects Assistance Team, a non-profit community organization in Dominica during the 1980s. It was constituted out of a family archive, one that could easily have disappeared without this effort, which in this form now enables users to explore the links between Dominica and other parts of the Caribbean. These kinds materials can enable the writing of different kinds of histories of political struggle and imagination in the region.
Curatorial Note: I learned about this project through one of The Caribbean Digital conferences, and I really like the way it creates a space for the creation of new archives, and encouraging the preservation of materials linked to family, movement, and personal histories. In addition to being a valuable gathering of materials, it is also a reminder for us to think differently about what constitutes archives, and how archives can be constituted.
Curatorial Note: This is just one example of the depth and richness of the Digital Library of the Caribbean’s collections: a near complete run of Haiti’s major newspaper from 1899 to 1977, with an almost infinite number of storylines and research questions that could be explored and posed here. The pages are full of political news from different historical periods and of essays and some literary writings by a wide range of writers. And there are also all kinds of fascinating, small details about daily occurrences in towns throughout the country. Having this material archived and accessible in this way is truly a blessing for anyone doing research in Haitian history, and it is easy to go down any number of fascinating rabbit holes within this collection.
Curatorial Note: This project, years in the making and led with deep commitment and knowledge by Laura Wagner, involved a series of challenges and experiments: digitizing a massive archive of reel-to-reel and cassette tapes, listening to all of them in order to create a tri-lingual catalogue, and figuring out a way to make sure that they would be as accessible in Haiti as possible. Collectively, this represents a massive archive that is sonic, and to a large extent in Haitian Creole, and therefore has the capacity to journey and travel in ways different from textual materials.
Curatorial Note: These two objects, one in Duke Special Collections and one at the John Carter Brown Library, are a fantastic example both of the archival riches that remain out there in private hands (both were purchased recently), and of the ways that digitization can make such remarkable materials available for interpretation and teaching. The drawing at the John Carter Brown Library, collected first, was a study for a (seemingly never completed) engraving that was to be made from the original watercolor, recently acquired by Duke, and taken together they offer a remarkably rich, eyewitness portrait of one of the turning points in global history: the abolition of slavery in Saint-Domingue in 1793.
Image used under a Pixabay license
Laurent Dubois is Professor of Romance Studies and History and the Faculty Director of the Forum for Scholars & Publics at Duke University. He is the author of seven books, including Avengers of the New World, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, The Banjo: America’s African Instrument, and most recently (with Richard Turits) Freedom Roots: Histories from the Caribbean. He is the co-creator of the site Musical Passage.