Digital Maroonage in the Caribbean

Below is the text of a presentation I gave in December 2016 at the Caribbean Digital III Conference held in New York City.

Dominica is a maroon country. Its topography and social geography reveal a complex network of resistance to slavery and imperial oppression and authority. People are resistant to everything that remotely resembles newness or change, or anything simply because someone a. I say this with great generalization only to emphasize the level of skepticism with which I enter a small island society. Like many of the other small islands of the archipelago, Dominica’s economic landscape further textures the maroon ethos of the nation. It is against the backdrop of this national history of Maroon Chiefs Jacko and Bala and the overwhelming and contradictory Roman Catholic Church that I grew up.

After my first year in a tenure track position, I travelled to Dominica for research on Caribbean reading publics for my manuscript, a long-range project that keeps morphing as I learn more about this place and my own personal history. As an assistant professor at a small liberal arts college with no research funds, this project had to be low budget. So I did what I’ve seen few scholars admit to doing: the lowest possible budget DH experiment. That summer, I hired one high school student, one recently graduated high school student and a recent graduate from Dominica State College where I now work. I used my own money and spent a lot of time teaching these young women what to look for and how to properly scan, annotate and catalog all the content I needed for my West Indian Readers project.

The bureaucratic starts and stops that I experienced in attempting to bring together a digitization project highlighted a few of the common struggles that face small island contexts:

  • There is limited technology and little-to-no money for technology
  • Who are your people? If you want to build a team down here, you must bring everything you need – the vocabulary, equipment
  • What exactly do you want to do? You have to be specific about your research and action goals as there will be many distractions – politically, intellectually, socially, historically.

My research experience that summer highlighted the wealth of resources available in Dominica and I encouraged and then officially proposed a project for digitization to the National Archives, a division of the Ministry of Education. This was my first attempt to structure a digitization project, include collaborators like DLOC and to seek grant or alternate funding so I invested the time and resources to research and lobby the Ministry. This was a failed project.  As far as I know, this has not happened yet. Attitudes about how to preserve and who should control this process were primary roadblocks to making this project happen.

The infrastructure of the archive in Dominica tells its own story of colonial occupation and the unrest required to move past this narrative of trauma. The island suffered two major losses to its public records as a result of fires during the tumultuous 1970s. The National Registry was burned to the point that hundreds of people would lose access to their birth records. People who were illiterate and not baptized in the Catholic Church would now have no documentation of their age, parentage or other significant genealogical data. Families would end up in battles over property ownership as land titles and deeds, particularly for inherited property had now vanished.

Now the rich collection of manuscripts, slave registers, and newspapers dating back to the 1700s is now housed at the Documentation Centre and National Archives of Dominica. With a fund from the Organization of American States, the Dominica Library and Information Service was able to preserve much of this data after moving to a new location in the Government Complex, where it continues. Even with the threats that it has faced in the past, the archive is quite sturdy. However, the librarians continue to be most concerned with keeping them safe rather than making them accessible. The option of digitization is well received, however the process for making that happen is filled

In order to escape the overwhelming bureaucracy and gatekeeping that came with the structure of the repeating colonial archive, I had to get creative. What did I have that required “no help, no permission, no understanding” (to quote filmmaker Ava Duvernay) in order to do the work I wanted to do in that space. I had to start with what I had and become an intellectual maroon and resist a system that was preemptively resistant to the very idea of transforming the medium and therefore the messages of our national history. I became that maroon girl (literally, on social media as well)

What I did have was a bunch of boxes that my uncle brought to my house when he announce that summer of 2012 that he had some work for me. The first Caribbean DH project I would try, The SPAT Memory Project, was conceived of conversations with my uncle about documenting our family history, the history of maroons in Dominica  (one of the most iconic historical sites of the maroons can be found our family estate)   . I knew of my uncle’s work as a progressive intellectual, engaged with the likes of Maurice Bishop, Fidel Castro, George Lamming, Hilary Beckles and others who would deeply shape Caribbean intellectual history. This conversation in 2012 would be the foundation of a methodology of the small island archive that I would come to engage for the next four years under the brand Create Caribbean Inc.

SPAT or the Small Projects Assistance Team was a non-profit development organization that evolved from the work of leftist political activists in Dominica in the 1960s and 1970s. According to its own publication, “SPAT worked steadily to promote a vision and practice of people-centered development.” And for thirty years, they worked according to this mission through – community animation projects, women and gender development programs, public theatre for social change,

Most of the members of SPAT began their work in politics as very young people, straight out of high school or university, forming the Dominica Liberation Movement. Two prime ministers of Dominica emerged from that group, both unfortunately facing untimely deaths while in office.

  • The Alliance collection: collective authorship; critical arm putting pressure on the Government
  • The Youth Activist Collection – the tumultuous 1970s
  • The photo collections – Some of them not added to the site yet but have all been digitized.

How did I fund this first part? My uncle and I pooled our money to pay the “interns” who worked with me, hourly, to scan and upload data to Omeka. After making a presentation of my work already done to the founding members of SPAT, each of them donated $100 EC dollars to help me pay for web hosting, and to pay the staff. This limited budget led to a semi-organized digital library of tens of thousands of documents for which my uncle and I have the only existing copies. One immediate result was that the SPAT executive has recently submitted Alliance collection for consideration for the UNESCO Memory of the World Project.

The history of the development of a library and archive system in Dominica is one I find interestingly impacted by this very intellectual decolonization that is taking place in the realm of our development of higher education. (anecdote: we have a “national historian” who doesn’t actually officially get paid to do that work for a living) I see the parallels very clearly between our use and understanding of the role of a library in serving the community and the role of academics and intellectuals in shaping the national conversation, from politics to policy. The same conflicts or challenges exist in our local

The success of the archival work done for SPAT Memory Project led to The Government’s Division of Culture commissioning Create Caribbean to help change the way students learn and think about history, particularly the complex history of Dominica. The Dominica History project, first launched in 2015 with the theme “The Road to Independence” was launched as the signature event of History Week 2015. History Week is a cluster of activities, held annually in the weeks leading up to Dominica’s Independence celebrations, to highlight a particular aspect of Dominica’s rich history to primary and secondary school students around the country.

The site has interactive timelines of the various decades from 1950-1978, the formal timeline of the project, that illustrates major social and political events taking place in Dominica in the postcolonial times leading up to our national independence. Further, the archive is a repository of many primary source news clippings, newspaper and periodical issues, oral histories, private correspondences, photographs and videos with content applicable to this theme.

The most impressive work of the students appears in the Exhibits, short photo and text essays on various topics, broad and specific, that help outline important themes of that time period. Most of the essays were written and researched by the Create Caribbean interns and made available based on topics that would be relevant to primary and secondary school learning. The site also features some creative displays for primary school audiences, and a contribution page where adults who remember their lives in that time can share their own stories. Allowing the interns to have narrative control over their synthesis of their history in the exhibits and their experiences at the archive in the interns’ blog has certainly changed their sense of ownership of their history and their entitlement to national identity. At least in the Create Caribbean classroom, it has de-romanticized the obsession and consumption with African American popular culture, for example, by making clear the proximity of experiences in the Black Atlantic as a whole.

At Create Caribbean Research Institute, I have worked hard to cultivate in the students of our internship program, through their required digital humanities course, and through their active practice of skills on live digital research projects, that it is in the searching for the knowledge we find our gems. The fancy digital tools that help us make our research available to a wider public at little to no cost is merely the service we do for our privilege to participate in the search for various truths about our history and culture. But it isn’t that romantic all the time. The exercises of research that happen at Create Caribbean begin with trips to the Roseau Public Library and the National Archives and Documentation Centre, with the Digital Library of the Caribbean and Internet Archive. They do not begin with Google or Wikipedia. These young college students immediately have a forever-transformed relationship to the depth of their information access, rather than the vast expanse of surface knowledge that they have so far been trained to access. Moreover, acknowledging local knowledge is integral to the mission and values of the research institute.

For me, the potential and power of digital humanities lies in storytelling. The range of tools available to visualize storytelling and to make room for additional forms of analysis was a major appeal for me, especially because digital humanities provided me with ways to merge the theories and methodologies with the imaginative and psychic release of a well-structured story.  I want to discover all the alleys and crevices, the depths of people’s minds and the layers of their rage and solace in the face of life’s harshness and remedies as this nation continues to evolve, implode and regenerate as its nine active volcanoes.

So what does the archive look like? It is me going in search of the authors of the most popular satire column in the country by digitizing that collection in the 1990s, only to end up as the key witness in the only defamation case to date. It is me creating storytime where I introduce my students to the subjects of history before immersing them into the Archives. It is us making do with what we have – finding the best cell phone scanning apps, using all types of hand held devices, Googling “Open Source” everyday to see what’s new that we can actually afford. It is creating a connection to the primary and secondary school communities so that the content we’re creating actually makes it into their classrooms and their supplemental learning. It is me teaching the first Digital Humanities course that I know of, the Eastern Caribbean, having to change its name and format so students and faculty can even understand or find it valuable.

Where do Create Caribbean and I go from here? Well my personal mission is to restore Caribbean – Dominican – intellectual property and local knowledge to the local. This is in ownership of primary sources, labour, strategy and direction of our unearthing our histories and documenting our lived realities.

If you walk along Victoria Street that leads you out of the capital Roseau to the south of the island, you would begin at the traffic circle where a newly restored statue of Neg Mawon has been erected.

CC BY-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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