Digital Humanities Approaches to Visualizing America in Africa during the Age of Empire

Jeannette Jones, University of Nebraska–Lincoln

gif of a map of Africa, with the changing locations of the US consular service from 1862-1919

U.S. consular service in Africa (1862-1919)

This session will take place at the 2020 OAH Annual Meeting | Conference on American History in Washington, D.C. Read the full abstract and speaker information here. 

We are excited to present our work in progress at the OAH 2020 Annual Meeting. This roundtable will feature the co-collaborators on the NEH-funded digital project “To Enter Africa from America”: The United States, Africa, and the New Imperialism, 1862−1919. Jeannette Eileen Jones, Nadia Nurhussein, Nemata Blyden, and John Gruesser have been working on a collaborative research project that seeks to explore the history of U.S. engagement with Africa during the so-called “age of empire” (c. 1870−1919). From the United States’ diplomatic recognition of Liberia in 1862 to the end of the Paris Peace Conference, which led to the redistribution of the German African colonies, Americans engaged with Africa and Africans in varied roles—as emigrants, missionaries, plenipotentiaries, travelers, and merchants. Some Americans who traveled to Africa recorded their impressions in travel narratives, diaries, and letters to editors of various newspapers. These Americans and others who did not travel to Africa, imagined Africa and Africans in poems, novels, short stories, and drama. In analyzing this range of primary sources, the collaborators employ historical and literary approaches to answer questions about human actions, events, and cultural production as framed by the project.

The goal of our digital project “To Enter Africa from America”: The United States, Africa, and the New Imperialism, 1862−1919 (hereafter TEAA) is to reveal little known patterns of American movement across Africa in the context of broader American ideas about the continent that emerged during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Specifically, TEAA places those actions in dialogue with the “African Question,” which was a body of political discourses that emerged during the mid-nineteenth century that sought to articulate the meaning and relevance of Africa in an increasingly Eurocentric interconnected world. This encompassed political thought that focused primarily on the relationship between Africa and Europe, but held implications for broader formulations of empire, race, and national identities. We argue that scholars have overlooked, underestimated, and understudied this relationship particularly in the historical context of U.S. expansion and empire. TEAA analyzes this relationship by engaging in close reading of selected printed and archival primary sources (which constitute the corpus) and through a network analysis of those documents designed to expose explicit social, diplomatic, political, cultural, and literary relationships within them. TEAA explores the formation of these connections through American diplomatic, social, religious, and leisure activities in Africa. In short, TEAA collaborators closely read texts and images, identify their rhetorical features, historical context, and cultural references, and analyze them to draw conclusions about their meaning.

In terms of digital humanities technologies and approaches, we plan to use Voyant and other open source technologies to produce visualizations of relationships between Americans in Africa. Currently, we are working on a dynamic map that will visualize the American presence in Africa. We have begun with mapping the partition of Africa and U.S. consular service posts on the continent during the period under examination. The map has a time gliding feature, so that the viewer can see change over time and the historical movement of Americans in Africa.

In addition to the map, we are working on three other components of the project. First, we are using TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) to mark-up printed primary sources and archival materials that we will analyze and feature on the website. Second, we are amassing a literary corpus of U.S. writings about Africa during the period. We will use the corpus to visualize themes about Africa running across and within genres, with the goal of visualizing change over time in visualizations, such as word clouds. Last, we are compiling an annotated image gallery that will include interpretive text.

We hope that people attending our panel will engage in a lively discussion about how we can use digital technologies and digital humanities approaches to further our knowledge of U.S. expansion and imperialism, and the significance of Africa to that enterprise. We also hope to engender conversations about how we as scholars can better capture how Africans perceived the United States and Americans residing in Africa during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

Posted: March 19, 2020
Tagged: Conference, Previews, Digital Humanities