The Connecting Communities Digital Initiative (CCDI) Advisory Board advises CCDI staff on program administration, supports initiative outreach activities, and helps the Library imagine ways that it can deepen connections with Black, Indigenous, Hispanic or Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and other communities of color. Its members include nine professionals ranging from senior scholars to leading librarians, archivists, and early-career professionals in Libraries, Archives, and Museums.
Dr. Jewon Woo teaches African American, American, and women’s literatures, and humanities at Lorain County Community College, Ohio.
In this interview post, Dr. Woo shares her perspectives on libraries as radical spaces, talks about her work on “The Ohio Black Press” project, and discusses the significance of Black Digital Humanities.
You’re a member of our first Advisory Board for CCDI. What made you want to get involved in this effort?
I have always loved libraries since my childhood because it allows us to imagine beyond boundaries set by reality. At a library, our “dangerous” imagination is permissible, “differences” among us are embraced, and we are connected through books that tell universal truths of human experience. It is not coincidental that numerous fictions including Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel” and Celeste Ng’s Our Missing Heart portray a library as a radical place with unlimited possibilities, and librarians and archivists as revolutionaries. A library serves as a community of knowledge, ultimately wisdom that teaches us how to live together for a common good. When I learned about the Library’s Of the People program and its amazing community under Dr. Carla Hayden’s leadership, I did not hesitate to join the CCDI Board at all. I hope that my experience of teaching underrepresented students at a public institution in the Midwest can be useful to strengthen the agenda of CCDI.
Your digital project, “The Ohio Black Press,” provides access to 19th century Black-owned newspapers in Ohio. Why is it important that these newspapers be made accessible to researchers?
Actually, I started to collect digitized newspapers to read with my students at a community college because they do not have an access to expensive databases that offer historical newspapers online. The paywall created by a few companies with technology and infrastructure limits people’s access to these historical documents in the public domain, especially those that teach us about the rich history of Black print culture. Therefore, although my project may be useful to academic researchers, the primary audiences in my mind are the learning public who, like my students, need open-access resources outside of the high fence of academia to learn about lesser-known aspects of Black Ohio history.
Then, once I began to search Black newspapers in 19thcentury Ohio, I found that so many of them were yet to be located and digitized as they were scattered at various historical societies and libraries. Black-authored documents have been neglected because of racially discriminatory practices embedded in any U.S. institutions. Black newspapers are the products of African Americans’ fights to voice themselves against these practices. Imagine the determination of the Pullman porters who delivered Black newspapers despite the barriers to Black mobility in the early 20th century. This project’s effort for open access corresponds to the historical struggle to outreach to marginalized audiences.
Much of your work centers on the Black Digital Humanities and, in fact, you’re developing a course on Black DH in the Spring. Could you tell us more about what the Black Digital Humanities encompasses and how it differs from Digital Humanities? Why is it significant to name “Black Digital Humanities” as an area of study?
The distinction between Black Digital Humanities (Black DH) and Digital Humanities is crucial to our reckoning of racial disparity in the digital space. Digital technology has been built upon the same ground where people with access to resources generate more accessibility for themselves. In other words, what digital technology makes possible does not necessarily benefit those who are affected by that technology. Black DH challenges the presumed objectivity, neutrality, and universality of digital technology that has marginalized people with less resources.
Furthermore, Black DH focuses on humanity rather than data that may simplify the depth and complexity of human experience as numbers and charts. Black DH is designed to “bring forth the full humanity of marginalized peoples through the use of digital platforms and tools,” which Dr. Kim Gallon defines as the “technology of recovery” in her pioneering essay, “Making a Case for the Black Digital Humanities.” Likewise, Black DH is not only a digital approach to Black Studies but also a form of an intellectual activism through digital tools. I call my project on 19th century Black-owned newspapers in Ohio a product of Black DH studies not only because it is about Black Americans but also because it attempts to highlight the significance of their achievements. My students of the inaugural course, Introduction to Black Digital Humanities, began this semester by discussing this distinction.
What role do you think technology can play in CCDI’s efforts to highlight the stories of Black folks through its collections?
While I believe that technology is essential to CCDI’s efforts to invite a broader group of audiences to the collections, it is also important that we ask who uses technology for whom. Indeed, it sounds ironic that, although I see so much potential in the field of digital humanities, I intentionally avoid giving too much attention to technology itself. Useful technology is affordable to a small institution and available to users without background knowledge of digital technology.
DH is occasionally misunderstood as a product of DH practice with more advanced (and fancier) technology. In addition, when it comes to the efficiency and convenience of technology, we tend to be blind to what is already available. Of course, technology itself should not determine the quality of a DH project. In fact, I believe that technology is meaningful only when it empowers its users who have been marginalized in the digital space due to the lack of resources. We need that kind of technology to highlight the stories of Black people through projects born out of CCDI.
Since much of your research focuses on access to materials relating to Black Print Culture: what is a favorite story you’ve discovered in a newspaper?
Reading a newspaper is like a treasure hunt in history and an exploration into a lesser-known world that resonates with our experience today. In that way, it allows us to reexamine critically the history that we were taught as the “representative” narrative. What I am particularly fascinated by in studying Black newspapers in the 19th century is the presence of Black women who appeared as community organizers, activists, mothers of the community, business owners, and artists in everyday practice.
For example, an article published on June 26, 1844, in the Liberty announced that the Female Union Sewing Society would hold a fundraising fair at the state convention of Black Ohioans. Not only does it suggest that the women’s group helped a local church through their domestic skill (sewing), but it also shows their humor at any misogynic attitude toward their public work (“Don’t be afraid friends. . . the ladies won’t hurt you”).
For another example, a divorce announcement, published on November 10, 1883, in the Cleveland Gazette demonstrates a strong, independent Black woman’s story. “Julia Jones” in the city advertised her divorce notice to her husband, “Joseph Jones,” whose present location was unknown. Informing the vanished husband of her intention to divorce must be impossible without this kind of public announcement in a newspaper. However, this notice sounds more like her manifesto for independence than a notification to the husband. It was unusual that a woman in the 19th century U.S. publicly shared her personal and private life because a divorce was considered her failure to be a “good wife.” Nevertheless, “Julia Jones” disclaims that the divorce resulted from her husband’s neglect, and, more importantly, that she wanted to restore her maiden name, which is not mentioned here. With the recovered name, the publicly known divorcée “Julia Jones” would become a private and self-possessed person again. I can spend all day just imagining these women coming alive out of the historical newspapers.
Which collection or service at the Library of Congress really resonates with you? Is there anything you’d like to explore more?
I use the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America for my research and teaching. Its ethnic periodical section has significantly grown for the last couple of years along with supplementary resources like visual data and terms. They are useful to learn how to do both close and distant reading of a text while expanding the realm of literary genres and definitions. In particular, my students of African American Literature explore the topics of African American Studies in Chronicling America to work on DH projects that require them to delve into historical documents like newspapers and produce their discoveries digitally. While my primary research field is Black Print Culture in the 19th century, I would like to explore further 20th century ethnic newspapers in Chronicling America to understand African American history in Northeast Ohio where my institution is located.
I also frequently use the Frederick Douglass Papers. The collection consists of approximately 7,400 items including 38,000 images, although many of his early writings were destroyed because of his Rochester house fire in 1872. I recently read his essay, “Slavery,” written during his final days in 1894, and found his radical demand for reparations for slavery relevant even to our present day. These writings by Douglass collected in the Library show the 19th century African American experience much more than his 1845 autobiography, which is the most popular and canonical text of slave narratives.
CCDI is part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path program with support from the Mellon Foundation. This program provides fellowships and grants to individuals and institutions for projects that innovate, imagine, and remix Library materials to highlight the stories and perspectives of Black, Indigenous, Hispanic/Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and other communities of color from any of the 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and its territories and commonwealths (Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands). Learn more about CCDI here.