What’s the Virtue of Virtuality?

As is generally the case with things intellectual, progress on my digital archive has been quite slow.

I have several “handlers” (as I call them) at MITH and they are all terrific. Kirsten Keister is responsible for the design of this website which I think is truly elegant—and she did it in record time. Emma Millon is going to teach me how to post my blog entries in a couple of hours so hopefully I will be posting this one myself! Seth Denbo is my number one handler and we have had great conversations about content. He set up a detailed timetable for me a couple of weeks ago, made up of four stages and thirteen items to get through. The problem is I’ve only gotten through one item even though it’s already November 17! The main sticking point seems to be in getting permissions for the images and manuscript material I want to use. Here’s hoping that that gets sorted out soon!

So this waiting period has given me a lot of time to brood. It’s in my nature to be a worry wart, and in particular to revisit decisions I’ve already made and can’t go back on. Except that in my mind I can. So I repeatedly fret over whether I should have written an article on X topic rather than Y, whether I should have opened my chapter with this vignette rather than that one, whether I should have placed my qualifying phrase at the beginning or end of the sentence. For me, the possibilities are endless. So it is with my decision to go digital. Should I have applied for a MITH fellowship? Do I really want to create a digital archive? What am I losing in do so? What am I gaining?  In other words, what’s the virtue of virtuality?

I have to confess that right now I worry most about what I think the virtual world of digital media cannot give me. After the publication of Black Gotham this past February I went on book tour throughout the spring and, after a summer hiatus, started up again in September. Of course, I’ve loved talking about my book and teaching my audiences about New York’s pre-Harlem world. But the best part has been making new friends. I’ll meet somebody at one event, only to see them show up a few weeks later someplace else. This leads to many “Oh my goshes, it’s you again,” hugs, chatter, and laughter.

Sometimes these meetings occur by happenstance. I was introduced to Celesti Colds Fechter at a talk I gave at the New School. She’s writing a biography of a black woman, Amanda Foster, who worked for Washington Irving in his home, became close to him, and is buried near him in the Sleepy Hollow cemetery. I then bumped into Celesti at the ASLH annual meeting where I was giving a paper on black New Yorkers during the Civil War. At other times these encounters are deliberate. Jaime Estrada, a senior at Smith College, heard me talk at the Harlem Book Fair in July and made a point of coming to my presentation at the Museum of African American History in Boston this fall. In one of these truly small world moments, that event allowed me to reconnect with a former Radcliffe classmate, Chandra Harrington who is the current head of MAAH.

Some folks come bearing gifts. At the New School Michelle Materre gave me a CD of a film, That’s My Face, by Thomas Allen Harris, who I had met some weeks earlier at his own event showcasing his new project, Digital Diaspora TV Family Reunion. After we appeared on a panel together at the Congressional Black Caucus Convention, Booker T. Mattison gave me a copy of his latest novel Snitch, which I’m half way through and really enjoying. Others offer dinner. Michael Henry Adams, author of Harlem: Lost and Found and blogger for the Huffington Post, came to my talk at Columbia University and then came to listen to me again at the Schomburg, sweeping me off to dinner afterwards with his friend Tom Wirth. Jasmin Williams has given me friendship. She photographed me when I spoke from the pulpit at St. Philip’s Church last February and then did a lengthy interview with me that was published in the Amsterdam News a couple of months later. Now you can find the two of us having drinks in any one of Harlem’s numerous watering holes. Finally, book talks have led to more invitations. After I spoke at the Reginald Lewis Museum, Donna Hollie emailed me to ask me to speak at the Baltimore chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.

All of these encounters have reminded me of Benedict Anderson’s contention in Imagined Communities that in the “primordial village” people were able to relate to one another based on the fact that they all lived right next to each other, saw and talked to one another all the time. But, Anderson argued, once a social group becomes larger than the primordial village, its members need to find other ways of maintaining this sense of common belonging. In his words, “all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/ genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.” According to Anderson, in the early modern period they did so by inventing the new technology of print, and imagining one another through the newspaper and the novel. Now, it seems, that new media has become old and we have taken to imagining community through the new digital media.

That’s what’s got me so worried. Will my Black Gotham Digital Archive replace the wonderful face-to-face contacts I’ve had throughout my book tour? Is there a way in which I can think of these two different forms of media not in terms of an either/or proposition but a both/and? Can I find a way to mesh the two together? Can I encounter people through my digital archive and then meet in person to exchange ideas, gifts, and maybe even get together for dinner? I certainly hope so!


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