Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

Scalar and Scholarly Communication

Black Quotidian is a born-digital project that uses Scalar, an open-access, multimedia web-authoring platform that enables authors to assemble images, videos, maps, and other media and to juxtapose these resources with text. I designed Black Quotidian to explore the capabilities of Scalar in two ways. First, as a media historian, I have long appreciated Scalar’s multimedia capabilities. Visitors to Black Quotidian can read news coverage from the black press while also watching or listening to contemporaneous musical performances, athletic events, or political speeches that are difficult to describe textually. Using Scalar, Black Quotidian conveys the sounds, sights, and movements that are so important to African-American history.  The March 30, 1942  post, for example, features an article from the Atlanta Daily World describing pianist Hazel Scott performing in a Broadway production called “Priorities of 1942,” alongside a video clip of Scott playing two pianos in the film The Heat’s On (1943). 

Similarly, the April 2, 1966 post focused on Texas Western Miners men’s basketball team, who upset Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats, and became the first team to win the college title with five African-American starters. After reading Bill Nunn’s column in the Pittsburgh Courier, visitors can link out to a brief video clip of the team being introduced. As Alexander Weheliye notes, these types of mixes and juxtapositions are particularly important to understanding black cultural history. “The ‘mix,’ as it appears in black cultural production throughout the twentieth century, highlights the amalgamation of its components, or rather the process of this (re)combination, as much as it accentuates the individual parts from which it springs,” Weheliye argues.17  Whether it is witnessing Hazel Scott’s virtuosity or imagining the thrill television viewers got in seeing five black starters take the court, Scalar’s multimedia capabilities create a richer portrait of everyday black history.

Second, Scalar offered new possibilities for structuring my research and writing, both in terms of the Black Quotidian’s development and its scope. This project developed gradually, without a predetermined plan for what each of the daily posts would cover. After each daily post was finished, I would share the link via Twitter. In this way, parts of the project were complete and were being read online, while the larger project was still under construction. What started as a handful of pages and media objects, soon grew to the hundreds, and eventually expanded to over 1,000 newspaper articles, images, and videos. My hope is that this accumulation of these daily posts conveys a sense of the breadth of African-American history and enables readers to explore the project in different ways. Readers do not need to visit every page, read every article, or click every link to learn more about black newspapers and how these newspapers recorded everyday life in black communities.

Through these multimedia capabilities and possibilities for structuring, Scalar enabled me to communicate my research differently. Black Quotidian could only exist digitally and was intentionally designed to be different from a monograph or journal article. As Lara Putnam noted in the April 2015 Perspectives on History, “handcuffing scholarly dissemination” to the academic monograph “imposes opportunity costs” in terms of “collective knowledge,” “individual careers,” and “historians’ place in public debate.”18  I have come to view scholarly communication, via Twitter and elsewhere, as an everyday process rather than something that happens intermittently, at conferences, or through articles and books.  Scalar’s open-access format makes it possible to share primary sources about events and people—such as basketball and tennis star Ora Washington, Ghana’s independence, and Cleveland businessman and hairdresser Wilbert Black—with popular audiences in ways that simply are not possible in traditional print forms.

Digital history represents a new way to continue traditions that have long been important for scholars of African-American history and culture. Early practitioners, such as Carter G. Woodson, who founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) in 1915 and initiated Negro History Week in 1926, viewed African-American history as a communal endeavor that required popular participation. For decades, teachers, preachers, and parents could write to Woodson and the ASNLH in Washington D.C. to request pamphlets and educational materials on black history. Scholars in the digital era have been similarly creative with regard to networking and circulating knowledge. Founded by Alondra Nelson in 1998, the Afrofuturism listserv and companion website brought together scholars, artists, and activists in both digital and analog spaces to explore how communities in the African diaspora engaged with science fiction, technology, and digital cultures.19  In 2000, Abdul Alkalimat called for eBlack Studies, arguing that “eBlack, the virtualization of the Black experience, is the basis for the next stage of our academic discipline.”  Drawing on decades of experience as a scholar-activist, Alkalimat led several digital initiatives, including the H-Afro-Am listserv (which shared daily information on black history and culture with subscribers) and the website, which includes open access curricular resources and e-books, such as Introduction to African-American Studies: A People's College Primer.  “For both Nelson and Alkalimat,” Jessica Marie Johnson writes, “digital blackness could not be removed from life beyond the screen and could not be divorced from the politics of everyday black life.”20

From these starting points, black digital studies and practices have flourished over the past two decades, including online blogs and journals like Black Perspectives (founded by Christopher Cameron and edited by Keisha N. Blain, J.T. Roane, and Sasha Turner) and Fire!!! (edited by Marilyn Miller Thomas-Houston and Daryl Michael Scott); large-scale digital history projects like Colored Conventions (co-founded and directed by P. Gabrielle Foreman and Jim Casey) and (founded by Quintard Taylor); and multimedia websites such as African Diaspora, Ph.D. (founded and curated by Jessica Marie Johnson), Marisa Parham’s digital essays and curation projects, and NewBlackMan (In Exile) (by Mark Anthony Neal). Drawing on deep traditions in African-American Studies, each of these projects are designed to use digital tools and methods to explore black history and cultures in new ways and to bring these materials to audiences within and beyond the academy. Black Quotidian aims to build on these important projects by using Scalar to reach new audiences in new ways.

The next path examines how African-American newspapers popularized black history and encouraged readers to see black history as something that is made, and should be studied, everyday.

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