We Still Can’t See American Slavery for What It Was

Jamelle Bouie at the New York Times: “…It is thanks to decades of painstaking, difficult work that we know a great deal about the scale of human trafficking across the Atlantic Ocean and about the people aboard each ship. Much of that research is available to the public in the form of the SlaveVoyages database. A detailed repository of information on individual ships, individual voyages and even individual people, it is a groundbreaking tool for scholars of slavery, the slave trade and the Atlantic world. And it continues to grow. Last year, the team behind SlaveVoyages introduced a new data set with information on the domestic slave trade within the United States, titled “Oceans of Kinfolk.”

The systematic effort to quantify the slave trade goes back at least as far as the 19th century…

Because of its specificity with regard to individual enslaved people, this new information is as pathbreaking for lay researchers and genealogists as it is for scholars and historians. It is also, for me, an opportunity to think about the difficult ethical questions that surround this work: How exactly do we relate to data that allows someone — anyone — to identify a specific enslaved person? How do we wield these powerful tools for quantitative analysis without abstracting the human reality away from the story? And what does it mean to study something as wicked and monstrous as the slave trade using some of the tools of the trade itself?…

“The data that we have about those ships is also kind of caught in a stranglehold of ship captains who care about some things and don’t care about others,” Jennifer Morgan said. We know what was important to them. It is the task of the historian to bring other resources to bear on this knowledge, to shed light on what the documents, and the data, might obscure.

“By merely reproducing the metrics of slave traders,” Fuentes said, “you’re not actually providing us with information about the people, the humans, who actually bore the brunt of this violence. And that’s important. It is important to humanize this history, to understand that this happened to African human beings.”

It’s here that we must engage with the question of the public. Work like the SlaveVoyages database exists in the “digital humanities,” a frequently public-facing realm of scholarship and inquiry. And within that context, an important part of respecting the humanity of the enslaved is thinking about their descendants.

“If you’re doing a digital humanities project, it exists in the world,” said Jessica Marie Johnson, an assistant professor of history at Johns Hopkins and the author of “Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World.” “It exists among a public that is beyond the academy and beyond Silicon Valley. And that means that there should be certain other questions that we ask, a different kind of ethics of care and a different morality that we bring to things.”…(More)”.