Visualizing and Defining Brooklyn’s Freedom Fighters for the Community: In Pursuit of Freedom/Brooklyn Abolition

In Pursuit of Freedom/Brooklyn Abolition

Brooklyn Historical Society, Weeksville Heritage Center and Irondale Ensemble Project

http://pursuitoffreedom.org

2012-2014

White supremacy defanged the word abolitionist in our public history.

When most people think of abolitionists they do not think of radicals and usually, they do not think of Blacks.  Recent scholarship has reclaimed the fire and power of abolitionist work of the 19th century and also illuminated the work of an euphony of African-Americans.

The digital archive and narrative of abolitionists have expanded multifold as online archives and digital exhibits.  Even though many of the exhibitions state the location or place of birth of abolitionists they do not necessarily elucidate the context of placeIn Pursuit of Freedom/Brooklyn Abolition illuminates the power of place with its “multifaceted” project that stages the long and multi-dimensional history of radical abolitionist Brooklyn.

In Pursuit of Freedom/Brooklyn Abolition illuminates Brooklyn’s antislavery movement from the American Revolution until the Civil War.  It utilizes primary sources including maps, photographs, census records, anti-slavery and local newspapers and is a collaboration between Weeksville Heritage Center, Brooklyn Historical Society, and Irondale Ensemble Project. Funders reflect the ambitious breadth of the initiative, including exhibitions, a digital archive, walking tour, performances, and an interactive exhibit. Some of the funders include the New York City Economic Development Corporation, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the U.S. Department of Education Underground Railroad Educational and Cultural (URR) Program; the National Endowment for the Humanities, New York State Council on the Humanities and Verizon Foundation.

Why Brooklyn?

In one interview the project manager at Brooklyn Historical Society explains that the project was inspired by a similar one in Manhattan “The Brooklyn abolitionist movement was quite different from the abolitionist movement in Manhattan and the New York Historical Society several years ago told that story through two exhibitions and as people interested in history … going through those exhibitions we (http://www.nydivided.org/AboutExhibit/) didn’t see ourselves.”[1] This desire to “see ourselves” within this context seems to be the way in which place, in this case, Brooklyn as opposed to Manhattan,  is believed to impact the trajectory of the historical narrative during that period.  However, it is not just the story of economy and land that the site relates, it is also bringing to the foreground the work of Black abolitionist activists and intellectuals.

Black digital public history sites range in form and intention.

At one end of the spectrum are sites that merge a crowd-sourced vision with creating a digital archive. One notable example of this activist-minded project is the Colored Conventions Project (website http://coloredconventions.org/conventions ) where students, professors, and the general public can not only learn about the Colored Conventions movement but also work together in transcribing the searchable database from handwritten minutes about one of the most significant movements by 19th century African-Americans in the United States.  At the other end of the spectrum are profile pages that often provide a paragraph on the abolitionist and an image if available.

In Pursuit of Freedom/Brooklyn Abolition stands in between these two conceptions of a community-powered Black Digital Humanities, however, the whole spectrum is seen as inherently powerful since they provide an opportunity to learn about African-American agency and make it more visible.  This makes sense if we are to see the Black digital presence as an outgrowth of Black Studies as Kim Gallon does in her essay (http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/55)  by invoking Alexander Weheliye explaining “black studies as a mode of knowledge production” that “investigates processes of racialization with a particular emphasis on the shifting configurations of black life.”[2]  Therefore whether crowdsourced or serving as a one-paragraph bio both practices participate in the project of Black Studies.  Both of these actions are significant because as Gallon states they are acts of recovery.  She describes recovery as:

“Recovery rests at the heart of Black studies, as a scholarly tradition that seeks to restore the humanity of black people lost and stolen through systemic global racialization. It follows, then, that the project of recovering lost historical and literary texts should be foundational to the black digital humanities.”[3]

In this vein In Pursuit of Freedom/Brooklyn Abolition participates in a narrative of recovery. Through a digital project that is an online archive, digital exhibit, and a teaching resource.  The major themes include: “Gradual Emancipation,” “Abolitionist Brooklyn,” “Crisis Decade” and “Civil War Years.”  It also includes an interactive timeline and introduction that contextualizes abolitionist Brooklyn as beginning after the Revolutionary War.  There are twenty-four biographies some of them have photographs and others do not, the descriptions include information about the type of work that they did as well as where they were from.  The site also includes a glossary of words that are common to academic discussions of this period but may not be readily understood by others.

The glossary of words and other simple but useful strategies convey to us that In Pursuit of Freedom/Brooklyn Abolition was created to be used by non-academics, teachers of elementary, high school and even college appropriate.  For example, one can access information through the overarching themes or through the timeline.  Each of the themes has subheadings that are written as text but “listed” by using a graphic (see below).

Subheadings in major sections

This gives a playful style interaction with the site since you are not overburdened by what are often cold words that do not really describe the fire and radicalism of the movement.  The warmth of the images also conveys the courage and commitment to care in the community.  The user has the opportunity to see the soft kind face of W.C. Pennington writer and activist but also the graphic, violent, nature of advertisements that used stereotypical representations of African-Americans.

The user accessibility is increased by presenting a suite of information (the aforementioned bibliographies and primary sources) presented in multiple ways around the site.  For example, by clicking on some of the primary sources the teaching lesson plan is readily available, but the lesson plan is also in the “Resources” section of the site clearly labeled “For Educators” (see below).

For Educators

This makes it easier for educators to find the text but also provides an opportunity to share New York’s Alignment Standards which are guidelines for public schools for teaching in classrooms.

Finally, the site underscores its community-focused mission by including similar projects to it in the “Resources.” Admittedly, these are other projects supported by their funder the U.S. Department of Education Underground Railroad Educational and Cultural Program (URR) it still helps us to make connections and see what others are contributing to this discourse about this project.  An interactive “Games” section is also included in “Resources” is a strong reinforcement tool by caregivers, educators or community members.

Games

Merchant

 

Though In Pursuit of Freedom/Brooklyn Abolition features a list of researchers and a noteworthy advisory board which includes Dr. Manisha Sinha, 19th century historian and author of the groundbreaking book on abolitionism’s long history, “The Slave’s Cause” it does not link or profile any critical essays or videos in connection to the exhibition.  By keeping the information minimalist this maintains an accessible space since one cannot select any pages or information that may distract the reader from the core offerings and branding.  While this makes sense, it calls into question to what degree the project’s commitment is to presenting the written literature of nineteenth-century African-American intellectuals in Brooklyn.

For example, though African-American Pennington is pictured on the cover of one of his essays and is quoted in other places throughout the site In Pursuit of Freedom/Brooklyn Abolition misses an opportunity to actually link one of his essays or provide a section of text.

Pennington

Pennington divorced from the body of the text essentially becomes a ghost of who he is.  Lauren F. Klein in her essay “The Image of Absence” explains understanding enslaved and self-emancipated African-American figures as “ghosts” in her essay stating,

“For Best and Marcus, as for many scholars of slavery, the ghost functions as a figure of absence. In its liminal status, the ghost represents the condition of social death experienced by the enslaved. In its shadowy form, the ghost captures a sense of what is palpable, yet cannot be fully grasped. In its lingering presence, the ghost conjures a sense of the haunting of the present by the past.”[4]

Many important figures no matter how much research we do will remain ghosts, and without framing which forces a contemporary understanding and context which shapes our understanding, they are in fact ghosts.  However, it is important as we develop projects to maximize all opportunities when they do exist to engage the various ways that African-American actors defined a Black reality and civic place.

I enjoyed the material exhibition for In Pursuit of Freedom/Brooklyn Abolition and frequently visit this site and feel that it is a significant contribution to understand the ways that Americans and first-generation Africans responded to enslavement within the economic, social and topographical framework of Brooklyn.  I also believe it does an excellent job of presenting primary documents like maps and photographs in ways that mirror an actual archive.  I believe however that the project illuminates Kim Gallon’s assertion that Black Digital Humanities must always have central to its practice of recovery of “lost historical and literary texts” as a way to empower Black humanity when that information is readily available.

 

Noelle Lorraine Williams

Rutgers-University Newark

[1] BK Live 2/12/14: Brooklyn Historical Society Brooklyn Abolitionists segment from Brooklyn Independent Media on Vimeo.http://pursuitoffreedom.org/about/news/

[2] Gallon, Kim. “Making a Case for Black Digital Humanities,” Debates in the Digital Humanities.  http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/55

[3] Gallon, 2

[4] Lauren F. Klein, “The Image of Absence: Archival Silence, Data Visualization, and James Hemings,” American Literature. V 85 (4) December 2013

About Noelle Lorraine Williams

Noelle Lorraine Williams is an artist whose life's work exemplifies her continued interest in engaging people in conversations using art, history and contemporary culture about spirituality and American identity. Her website is www.noellelorrainewilliams.com
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2 Responses to Visualizing and Defining Brooklyn’s Freedom Fighters for the Community: In Pursuit of Freedom/Brooklyn Abolition

  1. jenansbach says:

    Noelle, I love that you tied this back to Gallon’s narrative of recovery idea–it helps contextualize the work the site is doing beyond just telling stories. The Brooklyn connection is intriguing–a lot of the young adult literature that celebrates Brooklyn as its own thriving community is from Jason Reynolds and Ibi Zoboi–two people who would probably love if students connected their works to this project and showed the depth of Brooklyn’s history.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. erivka says:

    I heard that the City of New York gave generous funding to this Abolitionist Brooklyn initiative as well as the Weeksville community center in order to persuade activists to stop their campaign to preserve an underground railroad stop in Brooklyn, (which was obstructing “development”). The timing of the beginning of funding and end of activism is I believe beyond dispute but the connection between them purely conjectural.

    Either way, doesn’t undermine the value of the work that was done, but interesting to think about De Meo’s point in “The Politics of Digitization” about how certain projects, particularly trendy digital ones, are funded perhaps to the detriment of other on-the-ground projects.

    Like

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