Monday, January 11, 2016

Blogging about Bibliographic Codes & Black World magazine [MLA presentation]

[Note: On January 9, in Austin, Texas, along with James Edward Smethurst, from the Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Margo Natalie Crawford, from Cornell University, I gave the following presentation as part of a panel "The Textual Production of the Black Arts Movement." The panel was arranged by the Society for Textual Scholarship, and moderated by John Young, from Marshall University.]


You know, Trane played “My Favorite Things” over and over again for years during the 1960s. He’d play different versions, trying to get it right, or maybe just enjoying the process of reworking the materials. I’m pulling a Coltrane on y’all today. So thanks to you who are new for coming out to today's presentation. And to those who've been around me before, I know what you're wondering, "is he going to say even more about Negro Digest/Black World?" The answer: "yeah, he is. Again."  For more than a decade now, I’ve been returning to Black World over and over again for years. I keep reading, thinking about it, writing, and now even blogging about the publication. Thanks for indulging me.

Now, the scholarship on Black Arts has grown in notable ways during the past decade in particular. [Provide a few different examples. See: “A partial list of Black Arts-related scholarship, 2004 – 2015.”]

Despite the growth of black arts scholarship and despite the focus on digital humanities in literary studies over the last several years, we have hardly produced adequate online projects related to the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. There are no extensive searchable databases devoted primarily to the movement; there are no major text-mining projects, no wide-ranging mapping projects. Maybe we have to wait for those things. Whatever the case, the lack of online or DH black arts projects are a problem 1.) because of how important digital projects are to the changing landscape of literary studies and humanities and 2.) because of the extents to which the Black arts era was such a remarkable moment for African American textual production, book history, and print culture studies. The textual production was so tremendous that online projects would be one of the most feasible ways to make the wide range of materials available and accessible to large numbers of people across time and space.

First, I want to first discuss, briefly, the extensive textual production associated with one black arts era publication, Black World magazine, which was initially known as Negro Digest. And second, I’ll describe Google’s digital project related to Black World and then my one of my own online projects related to the magazine and Google.

The earliest version of Negro Digest was published between 1942 – 1952 by John Johnson. It was based on Reader’s Digest, except Johnson’s publication for about and for black people. Negro Digest ceased publication in 1952 after becoming unprofitable, but before that Johnson had published Ebony magazine in 1945 and Jet magazine in 1951. Those two, especially Ebony were what helped the Johnson family build their fortune. Negro Digest was re-launched by Johnson in 1961, with Hoyt Fuller as the managing editor. Negro Digest, which was renamed Black World in 1970 was really the radical or militant older brother of Ebony and Jet. You know, you read Ebony to feel good about African Americans. You read Black World to think about black struggle and engagements with the arts.

Black World, and here’s the textual production part, Black World published hundreds of black writers, especially during its run between 1961 and 1976. Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Sarah Webster Fabio, Larry Neal, I’m just naming poets, and the list goes on and on. They published historians, literary scholars, short stories, short plays, reviews, editorial cartoons. (For an index, see Roots of Afrocentric Thought: A Reference Guide to Negro Digest/Black World, 1961-1976 by Clovis E. Semmes).

[Note: just as the panel was beginning, I recognized the scholar Mary Helen Washington walk in the room, so I added the following notes to the margin of my paper: discuss Washington's essays from Black World. Point out how her essay 1972 "The Black Woman's Search for Identity: Zora Neale Hurston's Work" anticipated Alice Walker's 1975 "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston." For more, see Zora Neale Hurston, Mary Helen Washington, and Black World]  

In 2008, Google announced that, among various other publications, it would showcase the entire print-run of Black World/Negro Digest from 1961 – 1976. That’s a really large scanning project. You can see all those issues on Google Books now. Well, it’s not every issue. For some reason, they did not scan the November 1970 and December 1970 issues, nor the January - October 1971 issues. But everything else is there. On the one hand, it’s really impressive. I wish I had access to such a rich online project featuring Black World when I was in graduate school. So that’s the positive.

The downside is that I doubt any of the many writers who contributed to Negro Digest/Black World received any compensation. That all went to the Johnson family. There’s that. Also, as a technical matter, the material is simply scanned in, and sometimes difficult to navigate. 

From September 1 - 30, 2015, I wrote a blog entry on Negro Digest/Black World each day. I spent time exploring various aspects of the publication and presenting what I viewed as useful and interesting findings to the people who read my blog. Here’s the thing, I’m not necessarily planning to publish an article or chapter or book on Black World. Yet, I was utilizing technology to nonetheless browse, produce, and most notably share ideas about African American literary history. I’m sure we could identify a wide range of possibilities for technology, but what I discovered or rediscovered working with Black World on my blog was how important it can be to display some of our thinking in process, something that happens too rarely, concerning African American literary studies.

Moving forward, I plan to continue delving into these online collections concerning Black World and really African American literary art in general. And in the process, I want to continue thinking about the benefits, shortcomings, and possibilities of producing online or digital work related to African American literary studies. Hopefully, we can convince others to join us on this journey.

Blogging about Black World magazine
Extending Houston Baker’s “Generational Shifts” [MLA presentation]

No comments: