“To be a black person working to document black histories is to occupy 3 different worlds, in 3 different roles: as a spokesperson for your erased past, an activist in your contested present, [and] an architect of an alternative future.” Chao Tayiana Maina aka The Headstrong Historian
Click on the logo above (which is owned by the organization) to access African Digital Heritage

This week we are attending the Global Digital Humanities Symposium sponsored by DH@MSU . The first talk of the conference was by Kenyan historian Chao Tayiana Maina whose interview by the People’s Stories Project was one of the readings chosen for this week. It was a wonderful talk, even within the confines of the Zoom-world. Maina’s work on centering the archive on local knowledge and truly putting “public history into the public domain” through the African Digital Heritage Project (Click the logo above and it will take you there. It’s great. Check it out.) which houses the Museum of British Colonialism answers the call by the two readings we looked at this week to conceptualize a digital world that is not dominated by the Global North’s perspectives on truth and knowledge. Decolonization involves historical work on digital humanities itself to uncover its role in neocolonialism. We don’t need just more access. We need more empathetic participation in archives which leads to what Maina called in her talk “restorative excavation” where survival and resistance are predominant, not domination and acquiescence to “civilization.”

Digitizing a book or, as Maina mentioned, a movie like Roosevelt’s trip to Kenya provided here by the library of Congress, without any contextualization perpetuates the idea that, for example in the movie, all Kenyans are exotic and “Zulu” no matter their ethnicity. Maini said that for a decade she had a “gnawing sense of discomfort” when she was researching the British Railway in the Kenyan National Archives. Whose stories are these? she asked herself. Kenyans were frozen in time in a cabinet of curiosities where the camera was a tool of colonial violence. Roopika Risam, drawing off the work of Frantz Fonan, claims that colonialism not only causes physical violence, but also figurative violence which is perpetuated in digital archives which do not confront the domination of the Global North and whiteness. To fix this violence, he argues, necessitates violence, not just diversification. The system needs to be upset. As Risam argues, it is not an “add and stir” process.

Maini showed in her talk how this violence manifests itself as an internalization. When she was a schoolchild in Kenya she was taught to list the advantages of colonialism. The teachers instructed them to include “civilization” and “Christianity.” History, she claimed was told “to us” and not ” about us.” Technology perpetuates this. Technology, she argued, is not abstract but is an extension of ourselves. Like I wrote last week, we exist in the digital world, and the violence of the colonial archive is real. Maini is making real connections with real people through the dissemination and empathetic interpretation of historical sources. For example, the interactive archive of Mau Mau freedom fighter detention camps is upsetting the archive by building a new archive. Relatives are commenting on the primary sources and interactive maps, giving voice to these fighters of black liberation who were considered terrorists up until the early sixties, and more important, telling the story from a Kenyan perspective, or “about us” and not “to us.”

As I fiddled around with the interpretation button today at the symposium and finally decided to take a break when I realized that I was stuck with listening to French, which my extent of speaking is embarrassingly American, I gained an understanding of how most of the world feels when it comes to digital humanities. I was brought up to speak the nearly universal language of digital humanities. And this is a problem. Alex Gil and Élica Ortega point out the obvious which people like me don’t usually think about. Digital humanities is dominated by English. The excuse that it makes more sense to have a universal language because then “we” don’t have to relearn everything is so ridiculously ethnocentric that it is almost silly that it needs to be pointed out. The second point they make, was not so obvious

DH is extremely wasteful. This latter observation was strange to me. We were always taught to “go paperless” but never think about the infrastructure needed to keep materials online indefinitely. 2% of the energy used in the US, for example, is for server hosts. Invariably, this affects the most vulnerable people in the world. Gil and Ortega suggest a “print it and delete it” course of action which would free up valuable server space that we all just unwittingly fill up with ten copies of a picture we took on our summer vacation. Digital neocolonialism is not always readily apparent.

The most important thing I took away from the readings this week and the talk this morning is summed up in a question Maini asked: “what do I learn from the archive and what do I add to the archive?” Everything we add to the archive, be it digital or analog, has power. We all need to be empathetic as we add to the materials which construct our shared historical truth. We need to decolonize our minds first, whether we are the colonized or the colonizer, if we are to decolonize digital humanities. It is not an easy task and involves being mindful of how others will interpret what we contribute.

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