I study the history of slavery and abolition, with a special focus on the United States, West Africa, and the wider world during the nineteenth century. I began this site as a graduate student in the Department of History at Yale University. I have participated in discussions around the burgeoning field of Digital Humanities, and I use technology to enhance my research and teaching. I have also served as manager and lead developer for a few projects, such as the Yale Slavery and Abolition Portal and RunawayCT.
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I recently served as commentator for a roundtable on “Digital History’s Relationship to Human Rights Archives and Data Analysis.” Part of the Spring Spotlights series organized by the Digital History working group at HASTAC, the roundtable brought together five accomplished scholar-practitioners working at the intersection of archives, human rights, and new media. The projects represented a truly impressive sample of regions and themes, and the responses were pragmatic and interesting. Readers can check out the full panel at the link above. I’ve also posted my commentary in full below.
Human rights archives, like almost everything else, have exploded online over the past decade. This unprecedented effusion of information is a boon for researchers and activists alike. It also creates new theoretical and methodological challenges unknown to previous generations. Perhaps appropriately, this roundtable exhibits a careful mix of enthusiasm and skepticism.
A common thread across all of these responses is the need to step back from “big data” and pay closer attention to context and contingency. Although many of their projects rely on extremely large data sets, the respondents were nearly unanimous on this point. Lu Xiao warns of the temptation “to favor quantitative analysis (e.g., statistical modeling) because aggregation is possible, and because it can be very time consuming to conduct qualitative analysis.” Trudy Peterson calls for greater humility in the face our “Promethean ambitions.” Patrick Stawski suggests closer attention to the political economy of “record making systems.” Pamela Graham asks researchers to remember all of the material “generated outside the reach of the digital.” And Ben Miller seeks to combine “the engagement of personal narrative” with “the precision of big data.” The latter is a worthy standard, I think, and all too rare in digital history projects, which tend to vacillate between these two poles.
Another theme that emerges from these replies is the need for effective outreach. The archival projects on display here are tremendously diverse, ranging from East Asia to Europe to Africa, from the Holocaust to the Khmer Rouge to modern NGOs. Yet, as Graham argues, even the most well-preserved records “can be silent if they are not easily found or used.” One way of managing this wealth of material, as Stawski points out, is to improve collaboration between archivists and record-creators. Certainly advances in file sharing technologies, such as cloud storage, will make this task easier in the future.
Both Peterson and Miller call for closer dialog between archivists and historians. This is not a luxury, they argue, but a baseline necessity. Peterson would mandate that archivists earn a graduate degree in history. Miller requires what he calls “a transdisciplinary background,” with a special focus on topic modeling and computer science. Yet the amount of time required to master a single discipline, never mind three or four disparate fields, can be enormous. So an even greater degree of communication between specialists is desperately needed.
One question I would pose to the respondents is how they envision the relationship between human rights archives and human rights. Or to put it another way – how do human rights activists factor into this discussion?
The issues raised here led me to reflect on my own experience helping to launch and grow the Culture of Peace News Network (CPNN). Initiated by UNESCO over a decade ago and continued with the support of the UN General Assembly, CPNN offers a platform for reports and discussion on the global progress of human rights. Public participation, transparency, and interactivity are core values of the network. Long before the rise of Wikipedia, Facebook, or Google, in the heady early days of PHP and MySQL, CPNN was open for user submissions, peer review, and debate. It was arguably among the very first websites to crowdsource its content, many years before that term was invented. Although somewhat dated now, it continues to generate new data. Submissions cover local and regional events and experiences and are especially strong for Africa and Latin America. As of 2012, the site attracts around 100,000 unique visits every year. It is a living, breathing archive. Recent digital history projects, such as the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, History Harvest, and Legacies of British Slave-ownership, also place special emphasis on public participation and interactivity. This model invites everyone to contribute as an archivist, a curator, or an historian.
How will human rights archives of the future engage both human rights activists and the broader public?
This Wednesday, the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University released a new study showing that the wealth gap between white and black households has nearly tripled over the past 25 years. From 1984 to 2009, the median net worth of white families rose to $265,000, while that of black families remained at just $28,500. This widening disparity is not due to individual choices, the authors discovered, but to the cumulative effect of “historical wealth advantages” as well as past and ongoing discrimination. It does not take a rocket scientist to realize that wealth generates more wealth and that centuries of unpaid labor – from chattel slavery to the chain gang – have given white families a greater reserve of inherited equity.
The very same day, 3,000 miles to the east, a team of researchers at University College London launched a major new database entitled Legacies of British Slave-ownership. At its heart is an encyclopedia “containing information about every slave-owner in the British Caribbean, Mauritius or the Cape at the moment of abolition in 1833.” Not only this, the database includes information about how much individual slaveholders received as compensation for their human property and hints as to what they did with their money. The results illustrate the tremendous significance of slave-generated wealth for the British economic and political elite. The families of former Prime Minister William Gladstone and current Prime Minister David Cameron, for example, were direct beneficiaries. At the same time, the site makes it possible to trace many of the smaller-scale slaveholders scattered throughout the empire and to speculate about the impact of all that capital accumulation. Although still in its early stages, the site promises to be an outstanding resource for digital research and teaching.
In part because it is so new, the level of detail in the database can be uneven. Some individuals have elaborate biographies and reams of supporting material. Others have an outline sketch or a placeholder. To help correct this, the authors welcome new information from the public. All of the biographies must have taken a tremendous amount of time and effort to compile, and all claims are meticulously documented with links to both traditional and online sources. While there are few images and maps at this stage, the site features an excellent short essay that helps to place the project and its raw data in historical context. The focus is almost entirely on metropolitan Britain, and there is good reason for this. Nearly half of the £20 million paid to former slaveholders went directly to absentee planters residing in the homeland. Still, it might be useful to place this information in wider perspective.
A significant number of nineteenth-century emancipations involved some sort of compensation to erstwhile slaveholders or their agents. Throughout the Atlantic World, abolitionists occasionally raised funds to liberate individual slaves. This was how celebrity authors, such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Juan Francisco Manzano, acquired their free papers. In some cases, enslaved families were required to pay slaveholders directly. Under Connecticut’s gradual emancipation law, for example, male slaves born after a certain date were mandated to work for free until their 25th birthday (unless, of course, their enslavers attempted to smuggle them to the South beforehand). Even Haiti, which successfully abolished slavery while fighting off multiple European invasions, was extorted into a massive reparations payment to its former colonial masters, helping to generate a cycle of debt and poverty that continues to this day.
The United States Civil War is somewhat unique in this regard. Although slaveholders in Washington D.C. received government compensation when the District eliminated slavery in 1862, thanks to the logic of the war, the actions of abolitionists, and above all the determination of the enslaved, rebel slaveholders received little in exchange for the loss of their human property. According to recent estimates, that property was among the most valuable investments in the nation. By 1860, the aggregate value of all slaves was in the neighborhood of $10 trillion (in 2011 dollars), or 70% of current GDP. The sudden loss of this wealth represents what is very likely the most radical and widespread seizure of private capital until the Russian Revolution of 1917. But even in this case, emancipated slaves were left to fend for themselves, their pleas for land largely unanswered.
Although there have been a number of successful attempts to trace the influence of slavery within American institutions, especially universities and financial firms, the haphazard and piecemeal nature of emancipation left no comprehensive record. And this is what makes the compensation windfall included in the British Abolition Act of 1833 so fascinating. By scouring government records, researchers have been able to construct a fairly accurate picture of slavery beneficiaries and to trace their influence across a range of activities – commercial, cultural, historical, imperial, physical, and political. A cursory glance at the data reveals 222 politicians and 459 commercial firms among the recipients. A targeted search for railway investments yields over 500 individual entries totaling hundreds of thousands of pounds. According to the database, over 150 history books and pamphlets were made possible, at least in part, by slavery profits. That a sizable chunk of nineteenth-century historiography, as well as its modern heirs, owes its existence to the blood, sweat, and tears of millions of slaves is extremely consequential. And this fact alone deserves careful attention by every practicing historian.
Slaveholder compensation, which equals about £16.5 billion or $25 billion in present terms, was seen as a necessary measure for social stability. The British planter class was deemed, in short, too big to fail. The funds, as Nicholas Draper explains, were provided by a government loan. And it is worth noting that this loan was paid in large part by sugar duties – protectionist tariffs that drove up the price of imported goods. Since the poorest Britons relied on the cheap calories provided by sugar, they bore a disproportionate share of the cost. Meanwhile, former slaves were coerced into an “apprenticeship” system for a limited number of years, during which they would provide additional free labor for their erstwhile owners. So the wealth generated by this event, if you’ll pardon the dry economic jargon, was concentrated and regressive, taking from the poor and the enslaved and giving to the rich.
As its authors point out, the encyclopedia of British slaveholders carries interesting implications for the reparations debate. Although it does not dwell on this aspect, the site also carries significance for the ongoing historical debate about the relationship between capitalism and slavery. Recent work by Dale Tomich, Anthony Kaye, and Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman has placed nineteenth-century slavery squarely at the center of modern capitalism. While historians may quibble about the specifics, it is clear that the profits of slavery fueled large swaths of what we now call the Industrial Revolution and helped propel Great Britain and the United States into the forefront of global economic development. The database makes it possible to glimpse the full extent of that impact, really, for the first time.
Legacies of British Slave-ownership is refreshingly honest about the limitations of its data. Unlike most digital history projects of which I am aware, the authors have engaged their critics directly. One critique is that the project team is white and focused largely on the identities of white slaveholders. Yet, as the authors point out, it is difficult to relate the experience of the enslaved in a vacuum, hermetically sealed and separate from the actions and reactions of their oppressors. If I have learned anything from my study of the subject, it is that it is impossible to understand the history of slavery apart from the history of abolition, and it is impossible to understand the history of abolition apart from the history of slavery. The two are fundamentally intertwined.
So what about the other side to this story? What about all the slaves and abolitionists who called for immediate, uncompensated emancipation? What about the alternative visions they called into being through their actions and their imaginations? What about the different models they offered, however flawed or fleeting, for a world without slaveholders?
Writing to his “Old Master” in the summer of 1865, in one of the great masterworks of world literature, Jordan Anderson gave his thoughts on the matter:
I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio.
Anderson’s descendants, in Ohio and elsewhere, are still waiting.
Over a decade ago, the world began to hear about the “digital native” – a new breed of young person reared on computers for whom Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, and Twitter are second nature. Digital natives thrive in an online universe where knowledge is democratized, authority is decentralized, and media is everywhere. And they are most comfortable in an environment that is fast-paced, interactive, and immediate. It reminds me of a line from Hedwig and the Angry Inch:
all our feelings and thoughts
expressed in ones and in oughts
in endless spiraling chains
you can’t decode or explain
cause you are so analog
There is a large and growing body of excellent material on the use of technology to engage digital natives in the classroom. But one thing I have learned over the past few years is that a student who is very comfortable with digital technology is not necessarily digitally literate. A student can spend twelve hours a day online but still not know how to run a sophisticated Google search or post a video, not to mention build a website or script an algorithm. A student who knows how to update her Facebook status does not necessarily know how to navigate the back end of a blog or find an article on JSTOR.
This does not mean that the high-tech classroom is a misguided endeavor – exactly the opposite. It means that educators have to work especially hard to guide students through the digital realm. We have an obligation to teach digital literacy. And since the best way to learn is by doing, I’ve been experimenting with new technologies for a while. I’d like to share the results of some recent tinkering. This is the story of my runaway class.
Last year I taught a course entitled “Slavery and Freedom in Early America.” The course is designed to be both chronological and accumulative. Beginning with Pre-Columbian slavery, it dwells on the wide spectrum of captivity and servitude under colonialism, the transition to African chattel slavery, the rise of antislavery movements, and revolutionary politics. It ends in 1830 with the third edition of David Walker’s Appeal…to the Coloured Citizens of the World. It is not so much a supplement to the traditional early American survey as an attempt to re-narrate the entire period from a substantially different perspective. Each week students are exposed to original documents coupled with the work of a professional historian. And each reading highlights different themes and interpretive strategies. The goal is to be able to marshal these different modes of interpretation to build a multifaceted view of a particular topic, culminating in a final research project.
Drawing on various active learning techniques, I attempted to make the course as dynamic as possible. We had a group blog for weekly reading responses, research prospectuses, and commentary. The blog also served as a centralized space for announcements, follow-ups, and detailed instructions for assignments (at the end of the semester I used the Anthologize plugin for WordPress to compile the entire course proceedings in book form). There were a plethora of digital images and videos, student presentations, peer instruction, and peer editing. We had a really fun, if somewhat chaotic, writing workshop speed date. We used Skype to video conference with the author of one of the required textbooks. We dug through various digital databases and related sites. We even grappled with present-day slavery through Slavery Footprint (an abolitionist social network not unlike the Quaker networks of the eighteenth century). Almost every week I asked the class about their definitions of slavery, and it was fascinating to see how they changed over time. Things really got interesting one day when I surprised them by asking them to define “freedom.” Their answers gave me a lot to think about long after the course had ended. I’ve posted the full syllabus here.
Aware of all of the discussions brewing around digital pedagogy, I gave special attention to the role of technology in the classroom. This culminated in an activity where students used their database skills to find runaway ads in colonial newspapers. Runaway wives, runaway servants, runaway children, runaway slaves – it was all fair game. I was more than a little nervous about giving the students such free reign. But the results were spectacular. The ads they unearthed were wide-ranging and rich, and no two students focused on the same thing. The sheer diversity of the material reminded me of Cathy Davidson’s musings on the brain science of attention. There is much benefit, Davidson argues, in harnessing myriad perspectives on a single topic. It is, in essence, a controlled form of crowdsourcing. Edward Ayers, the doyen of digital history, calls it “generative scholarship.”
One student found an ad for an escaped slave named Romeo, “about twenty-four years old, five feet six inches high, and well proportioned; his complexion a little of the yellowish cast.” Romeo was literate and “exercised his talents in giving passes and certificates of freedom to run-away slaves.” He ran off with a woman from a different county, “a small black girl named Juliet.” Another student found a convict with “a great many Letters and Figures on his Breast and Left Arm, some in red and some in black.” He was imprisoned in England, shipped to Virginia as a bond slave, escaped, traveled back to London, was recaptured, convicted, sent back to Virginia, and escaped again. Some students found notices of hapless travelers who had been captured and deposited in prison on suspicion of being a runaway, such as Thomas Perry, a Welshman, who could provide “no certificate of his freedom.” I also shared one of my personal favorites, a servant who eloped with his master’s wife on a pair of horses.
The students posted their ads to the course blog, and when they arrived for the following class I divided them into small groups. After some preliminary remarks, I asked them to choose an ad among the ones they had found and to write that person’s biography. This was an experiment in generative scholarship, not unlike Visualizing Emancipation or the super-neat History Harvests at the University of Nebraska. But my class was much more narrowly defined in time and scope. The students had to use their wits, their laptops, and all of the contextual information they had accrued from the readings and discussions in previous weeks. They had to build a plausible narrative for their runaway on demand, with no warning, no excuses, and no template. I circulated among the groups to monitor progress and occasionally offered questions or assistance.
The questions we asked were the typical ones employed by historians. What can you find out about Romeo and Juliet’s purported owners? What does the date tell you? What was going on in that location at that time? How many women ran away from their husbands in New York City in 1757? Was it unusual for servants to escape in groups of three or more? Did the time of year matter? How does the price offered for one runaway compare to others? What can you learn from their detailed physical descriptions? What about their profession? What about the lists of items they took with them on their journey? Is this information reliable? What governed decisions to escape or to stay? What, if anything, does this tell you about the relationship between petit marronage and grand marronage? How does this information comport with what we know about slavery in a particular place and time?
It’s shocking how much information you can glean about a person’s life after just a few minutes online, even persons who have been dead and gone for hundreds of years. The various newspaper databases – Readex, Accessible Archives, Proquest – and specialized projects, such as The Geography of Slavery in Virginia, proved invaluable. I directed students to the large collection of external databases featured on the Slavery Portal. Genealogy sites and historical map collections also came in handy. One student discovered that his subject had escaped from the same slaveholder multiple times at different points in his life. Using the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, we were able to locate the name of the ship that had carried an individual and their likely point of origin in Africa.
Students from different groups helped each other, which created a nice collaborative atmosphere. Sometimes there were dead ends, a common name or a paucity of leads. But even then the student could surmise, could use her imagination based on what she already knew about a particular time and place. And this was one of the goals of the exercise – to expose the central role of the imagination in historical practice. At the end of class, we shared what we had discovered and were able (briefly) to engage some big sociological questions about the lives and labors of colonial runaways. When I polled the students at the end of the semester about the most memorable moments of the course, the runaway class was their favorite by a wide margin. The final evaluations were among the best I have ever received.
There are aspects of this crowdsourcing experiment that I regret. I had hoped at least some students would take inspiration from the material for their final projects, and I’m sure some of the lessons from that day improved their papers. But because I scheduled the runaway class late in the semester, the students were reluctant, I think, to radically revise their project proposals. Of course, if I had run the class too early in the semester, the students would not have had the necessary background to make educated inferences about their subject. There were other snags. Because most students were not familiar or comfortable with the vast range of digital research tools out there, I had to do some hand-holding and gentle nudging. It was clear that my students needed more experience finding, using, and interpreting large online databases, not to mention Google Books, Wikipedia, Zotero, and other tools historians use every day. It might even make sense to run in-class tutorials on what researchers can do with a database like Colonial State Papers, Fold3, or Visualizing Emancipation. A large part of being an historian is just knowing what source materials are out there and how to turn them to your advantage.
I also regret not taking more detailed notes. In part because everything moved so fast, I was left without a finalized version of the students’ many fascinating discoveries. There was a lot of research and sharing going on, but not a lot of synthesis and reflection. I suppose asking the students to follow-through and actually write their speculative biographies would help. Maybe that would be a good midterm assignment? If I ran this course for years, I could easily see building a massive online database of runaways and their worlds, on a national or even international scale.
In the end, the runaway class was an object lesson in the raw energy and potential of digital history. It was interactive, immediate, and exciting. I would be interested to know if anyone has run a similar experiment or has suggestions for different ways to liven up the classroom.
On 9 January 2013, JSTOR, a bedrock resource for countless academic researchers around the globe, launched a new framework that will allow the unschooled masses limited access to a portion of its archive. The occasion marks the first time in the organization’s nearly twenty-year history that anyone with a web browser can view the full text of scholarly journal articles normally locked away behind an institutional paywall. Two days later, Aaron Swartz, facing criminal charges for allegedly exploiting the guest network at MIT to download millions of JSTOR articles, hanged himself in his apartment in Brooklyn.
Despite their close temporal proximity, there is probably not a direct correlation between these two events. JSTOR opened access to its entire collection of public domain articles in 2011 and had been working on a pilot of its new “Register & Read” program for some time. Swartz, who “faced millions of dollars in fines and decades in prison,” had a strong network of supporters, but a long history of depression. The eerie confluence of these two landmarks does, however, offer a chance to assess the current state of open access for professional academic work.
Swartz, who co-wrote the first iteration of the RSS protocol and was characterized as a “hacktivist” by the press, was indited in the summer of 2011 on multiple felonies. The indictment, as well as the alleged criminal activity, is complex and technical and best summarized elsewhere. But, in essence, Swartz was charged with infiltrating a wiring closet on the MIT campus and using a laptop and a script to download large swaths of JSTOR content. Or, as government agents put it, he used computers “to steal…millions of articles.” (An exact line between merely downloading a bunch of articles and stealing them was not established in the indictment.) Swartz had a penchant for scooping large data sets and making them freely available for algorithmic analysis, among other things. His role in liberating taxpayer-funded court documents several years ago resulted in an FBI investigation. It would be difficult to overestimate the significance of such data for scholars and researchers. Access to similarly massive data sets has fueled several high profile research initiatives, including the recent Culturomics project. These attempts at comprehensive, macroscopic interpretation, which stretch back to the Cliometrics fad of the 1960s, have benefits and limitations that I have discussed in other contexts. But Swartz’s intentions (so far as we can know them now) to expand access to critically important data seem laudable.
JSTOR, a modest non-profit organization, is acutely conscious of its public role as gatekeeper of valuable knowledge. It waives or reduces its access fees for certain territories, including all of Africa. Its alumni access program puts it miles ahead of other highly restricted scholarly databases. It also provides a special platform for running large-scale, algorithmic experiments on its entire corpus of academic material. The organization declined to prosecute Swartz for his shenanigans and discouraged the government from taking action against him (you can read JSTOR’s courteous memorial here). And it now offers limited access to a portion of its content for free. Although free access is restricted to three articles every two weeks and does not include material published within the last three to five years, anyone with a browser and a curious mind can peruse the complete back catalog of the American Historical Review, the William and Mary Quarterly, or any one of thousands of prestigious journals. This is an enormous step forward for democracy, the open web, and the diffusion of human wisdom. Ironically, Swartz’s actions tended, in the short term, to have the opposite effect. After he exploited public library access to the PACER system to liberate millions of court records, federal officials decided to close down their public library program. Likewise, his automated requests for journal content allegedly crashed JSTOR’s servers and resulted in prolonged outages on the MIT network, during which researchers were locked out of the material they needed.
Whatever his personal faults, Swartz and his ilk make a compelling case against the paywall model for the dissemination of scholarly material. Authors and editors contribute content to academic journals largely for free. They receive no payment in advance for their labor. Nor do they receive royalties or any other mode of compensation when their content is published and viewed. In many cases, and I include myself as the author of numerous journal articles and reviews, our research is funded either directly or indirectly by the public and we want our results to be distributed and read by as many people as possible. And yet, as Nick Shockey and Jonathan Eisen point out in the above video, the average subscription rate for a single academic journal (spread across fifteen different disciplines) is over $1,000 per year. Some journals range into quintuple digits for a yearly subscription. Those inflated charges do not go to the authors, editors, or even JSTOR, but accrue directly to the publisher. And exactly what added value the publishing house provides to the journal in exchange for this windfall is not entirely clear.
Most scholarly journals these days provide some form of copyright proviso for “self-archiving,” whereby authors can post an earlier, pre-copy-edited, pre-peer-reviewed, or pre-typeset iteration of their scholarship for free. But the process is not always straightforward. Although there have been some valiant attempts to clarify and centralize the procedures involved in self-archiving and open access (the SHERPA/RoMEO database is an excellent example), the details can be confusing or difficult to manage. And even after wading through a dizzying array of policies and procedures and reverse edits, there is not always a clear path to self-publication. While some colleges and universities provide a managed space for faculty publications, graduate students, adjuncts, and independent scholars do not always have the time or the skill to launch and maintain their own Apache server or to ferret out which of the many third-party digital repositories are best to deposit their academic work. And what happens when a hosting service goes down or you move to a new institution and have to begin the process all over again? What about all of the authors who are unable or unwilling to format, upload, and promote their material? Since scholarship (at its best) is accumulative and progressive, access to a single article without any of its references or antecedents can be like trying to make sense of a jigsaw puzzle using only one piece.
Organizations such as JSTOR that negotiate with publishers to collect, organize, and facilitate access to scholarly material perform a tremendous public service. They offer an imperfect solution to a thorny problem. And that problem, as even Swartz’s critics realize, is a dysfunctional publication model that does more to lock away knowledge than to enable access to it. Subscription costs have gotten so far out of control that last year Harvard took the unusually bold step of asking faculty “to make their research freely available through open access journals and to resign from publications that keep articles behind paywalls.” Moving beyond scholarly journal publishing to the world of digital primary source material, the problem becomes even more severe. Newspaper banks such as Readex and multi-modal databases such as Slavery and Anti-Slavery (to name just two that I use on a regular basis) charge libraries tens of thousands of dollars in annual subscription fees for ongoing access to collections that consist almost entirely of public domain documents. Most of these databases are too embarrassed to post their subscription fees on their websites, so I have to admit that my data in this regard was gleaned from anecdotal conversations with archivists and librarians.
The disarray and confusion over journal articles mirrors, to a small extent, the ongoing content wars being waged by major media conglomerates around the world. Until very recently, the principal tactics used by music and movie studios concerned by the proliferating amount of digital content were ham-fisted lawsuits against 9-year-old girls and draconian legislation. The response to Swartz, who faced a fine of $1 million and 35 years in prison for downloading scholarly articles, appears to fit this mold. Since there was little evidence of any malicious criminal behavior, the severity of the charges suggests that the government wanted to send a terrifying message to would-be hacktivists. Indeed Lawrence Lessig makes a compelling case that prosecutorial bullying contributed directly to Swartz’s death. At the same time, beginning with iTunes and Hulu, content producers have begun to shift from criminalizing consumers of their content to enticing them with free samples and affordable subscription plans. JSTOR’s bid to open up a segment of its archive in order to gather more information about its users and invite them to explore further seems to follow in this vein – making it perhaps the Hulu of digital scholarly content.
I am not persuaded that this model is the best for scholarship. What works well for Hollywood and TV producers will not necessarily work equally well for academics. Perhaps the latter group have something to learn from musicians who have eschewed top-down publication models for a more grassroots, social media approach to production and distribution, or those like Trent Reznor who combine the two. What is clear is that a variety of open access models need to be explored, innovated, and challenged. The future that Aaron Swartz stood, and eventually died, for is predicated on the free flow of information – especially when that information is funded by the public and is meant to serve the public good. It is a future where the partial unlocking of JSTOR can be celebrated as a crucial step forward and at the same time lambasted as radically incomplete.
UPDATE: Researchers have memorialized Swartz over the past few days by tweeting copies of their papers and by helping others locate open access repositories and upload pdfs. Others have started posting and sharing content from JSTOR. The folks at Archive Team have established a cheeky, and potentially legally dubious, Aaron Swartz Memorial JSTOR Liberator. While not a long-term solution, the energy and urgency behind these tributes demonstrates a real momentum for change. Jonathan Eisen provides further details.
Meanwhile, a group of sixty French academics have published a powerful open access manifesto covering humanistic as well as scientific research. The statement points to the critical role of open access in bridging the global digital divide. “Knowledge behind barriers, which only the happy few working in the richest universities can access,” the authors argue, “is barren knowledge.” An English translation is available here.
Longtime readers will remember that last year I pondered the connection between zombies and the slave trade. So it was pleasing to see the New York Times following a similar thread this week. As the author points out, though rooted in African tradition, zombies are a distinctly New World development, and the relationship between the undead and the enslaved is almost too obvious to mention. The evidence is ubiquitous, lurking just below the surface of our mass cultural consciousness. The wildly popular TV adaptation of The Walking Dead now stars Michonne, a ninja warrior who, among other things, sports her own zombie slave coffle. The two black men she pulls behind her are defanged and controlled by large metal collars and long metal chains that clank and clatter as they stumble along. Whether intentional or not, the echoes of racial slavery are conspicuous and searing – the show itself takes place in the Deep South. And the image of a powerful black woman dragging docile, neutered, and chained zombies across the southern landscape is stunningly poetic.
The living dead are more than just a metaphor for slavery and alienation. As I tried to suggest in my earlier post, they are an enduring artifact of the slave trade, a trade steeped in violence and death, whose legacies continue to haunt us to this day. Zombie folklore is complex and malleable. The ghostly return of the “Zombi” terrified New World slave societies as early as the eighteenth-century. As Francine Saillant and Ana Araujo show, the zombie myth can even serve as a form of empowerment. The seventeenth-century maroon warrior Zumbi is remembered in modern Brazil as a hero, a figure whose quest for autonomy transcends death itself. I’m still waiting for a long form treatment of this pressing and endlessly fascinating topic. In the meantime, the undead continue to beckon.
The 2012 blockbuster Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, based on the equally-popular mashup novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, does not attempt to present itself as serious history, which is probably a good thing. Like the forthcoming Tarantino flick Django Unchained, it eschews documentary realism in favor of highly stylized violence (Vampire Hunter director Timur Bekmambetov also directed the underrated minor masterpiece Night Watch). Still, there is something oddly compelling about the film’s portrayal of southern slaveholders as voracious vampires who literally drain the life force from their human property. As W. Scott Poole points out in his delightful review, there was “at least one case in Louisiana [in] which newly imported slaves became convinced that [their purported] masters were witches and vampires (after watching them drink red wine).” Although the real Lincoln was hardly a staunch egalitarian, the film offers up a more soothing alternate reality in which (SPOILER ALERT) Harriet Tubman rescues an axe-wielding Abe on the Underground Railroad and the two work together to save the entire Union cause. Despite her pivotal role in the story I would have liked to see more of Tubman, who was among the first American action heroes (just compare this sketch of her in battle fatigues to this image of Michonne). But I guess Harriet Tubman: Vampire Hunter would have been a little too transgressive.
There have been a spate of Lincoln-related movies lately, including The Conspirator, Saving Lincoln, and the forthcoming Spielberg epic Lincoln, which is based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. It will be interesting to see how the emotionally earnest realism of the Spielberg film compares with Django, a spaghetti-western-inspired revenge story with shades of the Murrell Conspiracy. Grahame-Smith’s interpretation of the Civil War era offers something different insofar as it openly parodies Lincoln’s heroic mythology. At the same time, it could be read as reinforcing the image of the sainted leader. Whether slaying vampires or emancipating slaves, Honest Abe is always at the center of the action.
“The Great Man,” wrote historian Thomas Carlyle, “is a Force of Nature.” Caryle probably hated Lincoln. The only thing he despised more than elective democracy was slave emancipation, and he was a Confederate partisan. Even so, the nature analogy may be apt. Abraham Lincoln is something like the black hole of nineteenth-century American history, an irresistible gravitational force pulling in anything and everything around it. Once you cross the event horizon of 1861, the beginning of the United States Civil War, it is nearly impossible to escape. Many of the giants in my field began their careers studying slaveholders or abolitionists and ended up writing Big Books on Lincoln and/or the Civil War. While these are certainly worthy topics, I have never found them particularly enthralling. The real war, I would argue, began in the 1770s and seethed for nearly a century, sometimes expressing itself culturally, sometimes politically, sometimes breaking out into open violence. The events of 1861-65 were important, but they were also the manifest symptom of a more extensive conflict, the final breaking out into the open of an ongoing, decades-long war over slavery.
The cult of Lincoln conceals the extent to which he was controlled by events running much deeper in the national and international political landscape and how his own deft strategizing intersected with those events to shape the outcome of the struggle. Although politicians and generals played a crucial role in the Civil War, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that grassroots developments were just as significant in determining the logic and pace of the radical changes sweeping the country. Data from the Visualizing Emancipation project, for example, clearly show that emancipation events – especially events classified as “African Americans Helping the Union” and “Fugitive Slaves/Runaways” – drastically increased in the ten months prior to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation cemented this momentum and allowed it to expand. Lincoln’s fictional alliance with Tubman in Vampire Hunter hints at this dynamic. Ultimately, however, the depiction of the sixteenth president as a flawless force of nature, almost single-handedly responsible for the Union victory, obscures a lot more than it reveals.
The larger-than-life image of Lincoln as a world-historical figure, as the “Great Emancipator,”as the free laboring “Rail Splitter,” which provides the grist for Grahame-Smith’s revision, did not just appear out of thin air following his martyrdom. It was actively disseminated during his lifetime by editors, politicians, and paramilitary organizations such as the Wide Awakes. The latter group, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands, saturated the northern and border states with Lincoln’s image and served as shock troops for the Union cause. In other words, Lincoln had a pretty efficient public relations machine. And this brings me to the digital humanities (how’s that for an overwrought segue?)
In a classic post on the Social Contract of Scholarly Publishing, Dan Cohen argues, among other things, that academic authors need to do a better job cultivating an audience for their work. This can be done in the digital realm, he suggests, by pioneering new curatorial frameworks, by developing new ways to disseminate, promote, and review scholarship online. Common-Place, Digital Humanities Now, and the American Historical Review prize for Best Digital Article represent promising steps in this direction. The last of these seems especially significant, since it will only accept work that is “impossible in print.” But offering up innovative work in a trusted and easily accessible format, carving out new spaces for the play of ideas, is only half the battle. As any Hollywood producer will tell you, films like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Lincoln, and Django Unchained are only as successful as their attempts to present a recognizable brand, stimulate public interest, and build an audience. Hollywood marketing is notoriously bloated and avaricious – sometimes far exceeding the size of a film’s actual budget. So I do not think academics would benefit from this model. But I wonder what would happen if professional historians had that kind of publicity? It might make the inevitable sequel, in which Frederick Douglass teams up with Frankenstein’s Monster to fight the Wolf Man, somewhat more palatable.