Let’s be brutally honest for a second: I was exhausted leading up to the Race, Memory and the Digital Humanities Conference (#RMDHatWM). Just last week, I spent three days conferencing at my alma mater, UVA; I went to Hampton Comicon; and I had two papers and presentations due (one of which I only found out about one week in advance, but I digress). All I wanted Thursday after class was my dog, a cup of tea and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill on repeat. But after hearing about the conference through the Equality Lab last fall, after my teacher moved our class time to accommodate the opening roundtable, and after remembering that I had volunteered to help–I went anyway.
I’m so glad I did.
Liz Losh, my professor, the director of the Equality Lab, and William & Mary’s first official digital humanist, put together an amazing series of roundtables, talks and events featuring some of the coolest scholars I’ve ever met. I was first struck by the fact that the opening and closing keynote speakers were both Black women and they were the epitome of #BlackGirlMagic. Thanks to Liz’s prodding, I ended up with a semi-working relationship with the closing keynote, P. Gabrielle Foreman, whom I came to deeply admire. Situated at the intersections of Literature, History and Black Studies, I was in awe of the way she seamlessly utilized Langston Hughes poetry and historical archive as a lens through which we might understanding her work digital archiving, organizing and activist work through the Colored Conventions Project. As a baby grad student working at the intersections of similar scholarship, it was amazing to have a Black woman model a methodology based not on limitations of the Academy but on the truth she was seeking to tell.
The same can be said for Jessica Marie Johnson. Her work transcended space and time as if those principles never existed anyway. In her talk, she moved us from Puerto Rico to New Orleans, cited Black Code Studies and New Orleans folklore, utilized audio to contextualize the sound of Black screams and pain as well as animated videos featuring everyone’s favorite song, “Formation.” I’ve never seen how someone’s mind can move so fast, folding together layers into a cohesive and extensively cited project.
Overall, this conference was valuable because I got to see diverse scholars address issues I’ve been grappling with the whole semester. They asked: How does this lead to transformative action? Where is our scholarship situated? What tools can DH offer us in our goals to dismantle systems of oppression?
The answers I got, for the first time, were satisfying. There is no one way to do DH, therefore there is no one solution. The goal should not necessarily be to find a solution, but to engage in a process with your work that is ethical, intentional, and empathetic. This will lead to transformative work because if you are engaging in such a way and constantly returning to questions of power, privilege and access, you will cite ethically (CITE BLACK WOMEN. GIVE US CREDIT FOR OUR WORK!), you will have reciprocally beneficial relationships with community partners, and you will build infrastructures to encourage this kind of work.
The time that I was able to spend with incredibly brilliant scholars was equally valuable. From advancing Professor Foreman’s slides for her keynote to getting hugs from Jessica Marie Johnson and Marcia Chatelain–I even got to spend a few priceless moments with Jessica, Marcia and Tacuma Peters at the end of the conference. I was so excited to meet them: Black scholars thriving in their fields, and they were also happy to meet me–another face in the crowd, a baby scholar on the come up. They fueled me with stories about how grad school was great (or not), how being a professor was great (or… not), and how to value each phase in my journey through the Academy. They told me not to downplay my work: finishing my Master’s is a big deal. They told me to take advantage of my freedom as a graduate student. And they also gave me cards and contact information, which was stunning and so appreciated. I left the conference feeling loved, supported and newly secure in my roles as scholar, activist and creator.
We hack the system by writing ourselves in, creating archives for ourselves and citing POC, WOC, queer authors, indigenous scholars. We do it by working together, valuing the work of everybody–and I mean everybody–involved, and creating communities and infrastructure both digitally and physically. We hack the system by caring for each other and lifting as we climb.
This is how we hack the system. This is how we hack ourselves into the system.
This conference was just what I needed. I needed a model for how to be a caring participant of society as I move through the Academy and thankfully I got an entire room full.
This is how we hack the system.
In honor of modeling the amazing citation practices I saw at #RMDHatWM, I want to take a moment to shout out people that I learned from this conference, and whose ideas greatly inspired this synthesization of three days worth of rigorous intellectual work: