It might seem strange to be talking about “beginnings” just as the semester is winding down, but that’s exactly where I’m at: taking my very first step toward setting up the Black Gotham Digital Archive.

I had my first training session with Seth Denbo and Amanda Visconti last week, with Kirsten Keister joining us at the end. MITH is using Omeka as the platform on which to build my archive. Seth started off by explaining that Omeka relies on a “vocabulary” known as the Dublin Core through which I’m to enter my “data” and “metadata.” Huh? To me, these were entirely new, and quite daunting, terms until I realized how easily I could translate them into more familiar words. For you Humanities types out there, data is the written text (print or manuscript) to be displayed, and metadata is its footnote. Or if the data is an image, then the metadata is the credit line. So far, so good!

I had only one horrifying moment. We selected an image of the Colored Orphan Asylum as a test case, entered the metadata, and then uploaded the image. It worked beautifully! Buoyed by my success, I decided to upload a second image. Inexplicably, my laptop started to shake and groan. I was convinced it was about to explode, and so of course I started to shake and groan as well. Seth and Amanda thought it was pretty funny but when they admitted that they had never seen (or heard) this happen before, I was close to a meltdown. Sensing my pain, they fetched Kirsten, the Omeka guru, but she too was baffled. A conversation ensued in a language I found utterly incomprehensible and untranslatable, so I tuned out and relaxed for a few minutes. The upshot is that they’re going to investigate the problem and then let me know what I should do.

Despite this little contretemps, the session did succeed in teaching me the mechanics of entering data and metadata. But as I left, I returned to the question of what I’m trying to accomplish and why. I needed to start thinking again.

At my talk at the Massachusetts Historical Society, staff member Jayne Gordon asked why I had chosen to structure my book around the geography of New York City, suggesting that I could surely have chosen other ways of narrating my story. My first response was to reiterate a point I’ve made many times: that in contrast to the Harlem model of the first half of the twentieth-century, where neighborhood and community were co-extensive, nineteenth-century black New Yorkers lived throughout the entire city, in different wards and neighborhoods. The result was that they came into contact with a wide range of the city’s white inhabitants in a variety of interactions, some predictable, some not. I then added that I thought geography mattered because place also seemed to offer black New Yorkers a profound sense of identity. They insisted over and over again that they were citizens of Gotham—a term coined for New York by Washington Irving in 1807—and repeatedly proclaimed their identity as Gothamites.

As I continued talking, it struck me that I might have had a more personal motivation for grounding my story in place, that I might have been drawn subconsciously to the striking differences between my ancestors’ sense of place and my own. In an autobiographical essay titled “Notes of a Native Daughter: Reflections on Identity and Writing” (in Autobiographical Writing across the Disciplines, Duke University Press, 2003), I described how my father’s work with international public health organizations took my family abroad from 1950 through the early 1960s; I lived outside the United States from about age five to eighteen, first in Beirut, Lebanon for almost three years and then in Geneva, Switzerland for almost ten. As a result, I knew very little about my own country. My parents made sure to tell my sisters and me about the many accomplishments of African American men and women—from George Washington Carver and Charles Drew to Jackie Robinson and Althea Gibson—and used Time magazine articles featuring the students who integrated the Little Rock High School and lunch counters throughout southern towns as well as Martin Luther King Jr.’s emergence as a race leader as lessons to teach us about U.S. race relations. I listened carefully to these stories of amazing courage, but knew that these experiences were not mine.

Compounding this problem was the fact that my parents said little about their own family past. As I detail in the Prologue of Black Gotham, my father never told us that his ancestors had come from England and Haiti in the first decades of the nineteenth century to settle in New York and become part of the city’s black cultural elite. And my mother never told us how her mother had left her family and native island of Jamaica in the early twentieth century to come to the United States with her daughter in search of a better life.

Instead, my parents tried to impart to my sisters and me their deep ecumenical conviction—so prevalent in the United Nations and its international agencies in those postwar years—that all nations and races constitute one universal family. That might have been fine in theory, but it didn’t work in practice since I was well aware of the gulf that separated me from the Swiss: I was African descended, not European; English, not French, was my first language; my friends ate cheese and marmite while I devoured hamburgers and peanut jelly sandwiches.

I can best capture my sense of unbelonging through a visit James Baldwin made unannounced to our home in Geneva in the fall of 1953. He was not yet the famous writer he would eventually become and my family had no idea who he was. It was only years later when I returned to the States for college that I realized that our visitor had been the now famous writer and that at the time he was on his way back to visit the Swiss village in the mountains depicted in “Stranger in the Village.” I remember reading the essay with intense interest, focusing in particular on Baldwin’s comments about the extent to which the Swiss villagers felt so firmly rooted in place, secure in their belief that they belonged to the village (or perhaps that the village belonged to them), and his awareness of how this rootedness reflected their sense of shared nationality, culture, and race. Baldwin, the villagers made clear, did not belong; they regarded him “not only as a stranger in their village but as a suspect latecomer, bearing no credentials, to everything they have—however unconsciously—inherited.”

In Baldwin I had finally found a writer who summarized with uncanny accuracy my own uneasy sense of not belonging to a village, of not being rooted in place. I felt that I belonged neither to Switzerland nor to the United States, and that neither Switzerland nor the United States (at least in the early years of my return) claimed me as one of their own. No wonder that in writing Black Gotham I found myself drawn to my ancestors’ conviction that they were Gothamites despite the fact that the city (and the nation) had done their utmost to reject them as “strangers in their village” and “suspect latecomers,” unfit to vote, to attend their schools and churches, and even to walk down their streets. Through them I found my sense of belonging. Now I can wander through the streets of New York City and think triumphantly to myself: “I belong!”

In retrospect, I’m convinced that I wrote Black Gotham to capture this sense of rootedness in place. I now wonder whether the methodological shift I’m performing in the Black Gotham Digital Archive won’t offer me an even more compelling way of achieving my goal. My training session last week made me realize just how my digital archive inverts the relationship between word and image (consisting in large part of place—maps, streets, and buildings). In my book, word was the primary vehicle for telling my story and image functioned as supporting illustration; in the digital archive, image is the primary vehicle and word supporting document. Maybe I’m on my way to answering my question: “What’s the Virtue of Virtuality?”


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