#HistoricalWellness: Black Women’s Self-Care in the Digital Age

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Courtesy Creative Commons

Self-care is in vogue right now. Think pieces, Instagram posts, and Facebook soliloquies abound urging people to prioritize pampering, relaxation, and stress-reducing activities. Often, however, the deeper, more intentional and frightening work of self-care is avoided in popular discussion. Increasingly, though, Black communities are engaging in conversations about self-care as identifying personal and inter-generational traumas, embracing the healing possibilities of therapy, and eschewing toxic and racist stereotypes like the strong Black woman and the hypermasculine and oversexualized Buck. Storytelling can also be a form of self-care. At Africanamemoirs.net, a database of Black Women’s Autobiography, Dr. Stephanie Evans avows that when Black women share and consume their life stories they are engaging in a form of radical self-care that she calls “historical wellness.”

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

— Dr. Maya Angelou

The introduction on the homepage of Africanamemoirs.net (also known as the Sesheta Network) reads, “AfricanaMemoirs.net enhances narrative research: reading and writing life stories for empowerment.  Every woman has an epic story and through humanistic life history research, we narrate our backgrounds, battles, and lessons.” Self-described as a database, curricular guide, and online resource the website culls together the personal accounts of Black women’s lives for the general public. Normally I refrain from using the term “general public” as do most practitioners in the field. It is limiting and does not acknowledge how certain spaces, public or not, privilege visitors of certain demographics while disenfranchising others. However, in this context the general public that the site is curated for is Black women throughout the Diaspora—a specific yet broad and, grossly underserved, category of public.

Throughout this piece I refer to Africanamemoirs.net in various ways but I mostly liken the website to a digital annotated bibliography. The works are organized alphabetically as well as thematically and if you click on a thumbnail of a book cover that piques your interest you are taken to its corresponding Amazon.com book page. The six thematic pages begin with a short introductory paragraph to explain the connections between the selected works and concludes with a supplementary resource created by Evans. These resources range from PowerPoint presentations to published articles and even an interactive map to locate narratives of Black women’s use of meditative yoga throughout the Diaspora (thought this resource is no longer publicly accessible.) The fact that the additional resources were created by the site’s proprietor, Dr. Evans, gives the site a dual purpose as a participatory digital portfolio of her scholarly endeavors. This furthers Evans’ goal of foregrounding the experiences and contributions of Black women. The website is a clear embodiment of “A Black Feminist Statement” written by the Combahee River Collective. The site is rife with examples of the idea that the “personal is political” as espoused by the Collective’s late-1970s piece. The entire second section of their piece entitled “What We Believe” that speaks to the value of Black women and their independent autonomy is materialized in Africanamemoirs.net’s presentation of a “kaleidoscope of experience, meaning, and opportunity.”

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Screenshot of the website’s homepage.

So, how well does Africanamemoirs.net synthesize the technological capabilities offered by the internet with thoughtful consideration of the human condition in its myriad forms? In my estimation, well enough! The most advanced feature of the site is its inclusion (and undeniable reliance) of hyperlink functionality. But the purpose of this site/database/bibliography is not to wow users with sweeping data visualizations or dynamic graphics. It is simply to bring a resource to a wider, underserved, and underrepresented public. In this sense then, the site is perfectly aligned with William G. Thomas III’s  description of digital history in “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,”

Digital history is an approach to examining and representing the past that works with the new communication technologies of the computer, the Internet network, and software systems. On one level, digital history is an open arena of scholarly production and communication, encompassing the development of new course materials and scholarly data collections. On another, it is a methodological approach framed by the hypertextual power of these technologies to make, define, query, and annotate associations in the human record of the past. To do digital history, then, is to create a framework, an ontology, through the technology for people to experience, read, and follow an argument about a historical problem. (1)

Perhaps I am too harsh, but I was initially skeptical proclaiming Africanamemoirs.net a viable representation of digital history/digital humanities. I even wondered why it was included on the list of possible projects to analyze. My first reaction was that the site appeared too low function and plain to embody the tenets of transformative digital humanities work. But after dissecting the above definition it’s clear that the website in question epitomizes Thomas’ definition of digital history. First, while the web bibliography covers a wide breadth of topics it is undeniably a work of public history by virtue of memoirs being historical accounts of a person’s life or simply a collection of memories.  Second, the site allows Black women to freely access scholarly and popular works then make subsequent meaning out of these resources via hypertextuality. Finally, the site offers tools for Black women to immerse themselves in relatable content in order to make the necessary connections that will advance personal well-being and self-care. Ultimately, though the features of Africanamemoirs.net may appear generic or basic upon first glance, they synthesize to advance the creator’s argument that historical texts by and about Black women are works of intellectual history. As such they should be actively employed by the Black womanist community to advance empowerment, regeneration, and what she defines as “historical wellness.”

My hesitancy to assign Africanamemoirs.net the moniker of being a true digital humanities project speaks to my indoctrination regarding the inherent Eurocentricity of digital spaces as normative. After analyzing the cite and reflecting inward I was ashamed of my reaction, particularly as a Black woman and a historian of Black women’s social activism. But then I understood—my reticence in typifying the site in the traditional digital humanities sense spoke directly to Kim Gallon’s insistence on the necessity of Black Digital Humanities as a separate field. Gallon’s concept of a “technology of recovery” is the very essence of Africanamemoirs.net. She explains that the act of recovery is at the core the core of Black studies, as “a scholarly tradition that seeks to restore the humanity of black people lost and stolen through systemic global racialization.” Evans and Gallon are clearly in conversation with one another. Gallon’s “technology of recovery” which is characterized by efforts to bring forth the full humanity of marginalized peoples through the use of digital platforms and tools” is realized by Evans’ site. (2) The homepage declares, “Black women are human beings. While mainstream information often flattens race and gender into a one-dimensional sketch, the 500 voices in The Sesheta Network reveal a kaleidoscope of experience, meaning, and opportunity.” (3) Both scholars make the assertion that Black [women’s] lives matter and that uncovering narratives of this truism can bolster contemporary assertions of humanity and existence.

Speaking as a part of the site’s target audience, Africanamemoirs.net seems to be tailored to the wants and needs of its key demographic. However, I am not quite sure it is reaching them. Through the various links that the site provides I learned that I have five Facebook friends (all women of color in the academy) who follow the website’s creator. Yet I was oblivious to the site’s existence before this assignment. It could be an issue of funding—which I am unclear if the site actually received based upon the creator’s public CV—or simply marketing. To make the site more participatory and community-centric the inclusion of Reddit-style up and down voting could be considered. Allowing site users to see which books other women are browsing, selecting, and perhaps even the reasoning behind it, could foster community formation and prompt the sharing of the site beyond personal circles.

While Africanamemoirs.net may not take full advantage of the affordances that the digital sphere offers it is impactful nonetheless. The site’s magic and power are not rooted in its functionality but rather in its mere existence. As a Black woman Doctoral student my experience with the site from introduction through interaction and immersion was transformative. Africanamemoirs.net provides space for exploration and discovery. But more importantly, it allows for the connecting of dots that one may not have known existed. I am actively trying to identify my scholarly aims—how can I make a historical intervention that will not only impact the cannon but also inspire Black communities? After only a few hours of engagement with this site I feel closer to answering essential questions about my personal life and professional practice. Dr. Evans used an online space to argue for a deep reading of Black women’s memoirs via a social justice and wellness focused lens—a concept that I never considered.#MindBlown

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Her work, specifically Africanamemoirs.net, is quintessentially American Studies and exemplary of the type of contribution I plan to make in the future.

 

Notes:

  1. Cohen et. al, “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,” The Journal of American History, September 2008, 453.
  2. Kim Gallon, “Making a Case for the Black Digital Humanities,” http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/55, 2016.
  3. Stephanie Evans, “Homepage,” Africanamemoirs.net.

About Sydney Johnson

Sydney. Storyteller. Thinker. Creator. Black Feminist Historian. Welcome to my blog! I am a first year American Studies Doctoral student at Rutgers-Newark. I hope you enjoy my blog as much as I’m enjoying my journey.
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2 Responses to #HistoricalWellness: Black Women’s Self-Care in the Digital Age

  1. veronicavesnaver says:

    Hi Sydney,

    I think this entry is just lovely. It was wonderful to kind of follow the evolution of your relationship to and understanding of the site in your writing. It is indeed miraculous to me that Dr. Evans could achieve the ends she did simply by creating a site that more or less digitized a bibliography of sources.

    As a teacher, I know I thought about how helpful a tool like this would be in attempting to build a curriculum. In seeing the potential for this resource, I began thinking a lot about how someone might happen upon this site. This is not actually a question I considered when I did my own analysis , but I actually think its one we should be thinking about when it comes to building our projects. How do we know that our project will be something that our audience will actually be able to find? I wonder in this case specifically about the name of the site. Should its IP address be a name that makes it more clear as to what content is on the site? I also wondered, once a person lands on this site, is there a way for Dr. Evans to make it easier for an individual to find what they are looking for? Could she list books under different themes? Time frames?

    Yet, as all of these critical questions come to mind, I am being brought back to something in your post that I think you make a brilliant point about. Given the constant advancement of technology, it is hard not to critique something that doesn’t look bright and shiny. I appreciated that you were able to step back and actually evaluate this project based on the criteria laid out by Thomas. In the age of thrills, maybe a bibliography is enough in making #blackdigitalhumanities.

    Like

  2. andrewguglielmo says:

    Mind blown indeed! I loved reading through this and following your thought process of understanding the sites purpose and recognition of a true digital humanities project. I also really liked how you tied the use of the website as a form of self care. You mentioned that you knew people in the academy who know the creator or the website, but I’m curious how people outside of the academy would use and react to this site. I think it could be more useful with a modern redesign of the site with a good search function. And instead of just links to Amazon, maybe a brief description on their site so you wouldn’t have to leave the site to see if it would be something you would be interested in. I think you’re right though, this does go along the lines of Kim Gallon’s idea of a need for Black Digital Humanities because otherwise, a site/database like this might not ever exist. Great post!

    Like

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