Digital Scholarship Spotlight: A Brief History of the African American Press

Graduate students in English Literature must fulfill a Book and Media History course requirement for their degree program. In Winter 2018, this course took on a new aspect by combining book history with digital humanities. Associate Dean and Associate Professor of English John Shanahan partnered with Dr. Ana Lucic, Digital Scholarship Librarian, to teach the new hybrid course, not only sparking interest in the digital humanities, but also engaging students in conversations about the future of books.

Gathered in the newly renovated teaching and learning space in the John T. Richardson Library, Idea Lab 2, students participated in lively discussions about printing history and the evolution of publishing. Topics covered print variants in Shakespeare, contemporary bibliographic issues such as self-publishing and print-on-demand, and computational methods for analyzing text using the Python programming language. For the final assignment, students had an option to write a traditional research paper, create a digital project – website or multimedia, or to analyze text/s using computational methods.

“I give students an opportunity to create work in different media because I want their research to be creative. It also reflects the multi-media content of the class, which stretches from quartos of Shakespeare to e-readers. Learning various digital tools and presentation forms is important for the course, and for the work world after the class,” according to Professor Shanahan.

One student took on the challenge of creating a digital representation of her final paper and focused on the History of the African American Press. Master of Arts candidate Bintou Sy built a website using WordPress, an open source online publishing platform that can be customized or used “out of the box”, to show the trajectory of the African American press since its inception in the early 1800s. She was able to convey quite dramatically the impact of the press on the lives of Africans sold –as seen in advertisements for slave auctions – and on the lives of slaves and freed Blacks as authors and journalists. The abolition movement was gaining traction and many freed Blacks believed it was important for them to not only tell their story, but to also be the author and distributor of their story. In essence, printing provided African Americans the freedom and power to shape their own narrative, thereby shaping the narrative of American history.

“As I was researching, it became very apparent to me that the press was not only a tool used to strengthen the anti-slavery movement, but a symbol of citizenship that allowed Blacks to fully participate in America,” says Bintou.

Ms. Sy created a timeline of the history of the African American press using Canva, a tool that allows the creation of beautiful designs with the use of professionally-designed layouts. The timeline moved from the founding of the first Black- owned, edited, and operated newspaper in New York in 1827 to the massive decrease in the number of Black newspapers and presses beginning in the early 20th century. Using a visually engaging platform to represent ideas traditionally delivered on paper speaks to a central issue in the digital humanities: how we recover, access, and preserve texts to discuss and represent ideas for the future. The interdisciplinary nature of the course allowed Bintou the freedom to emphasize her research in such a way that would appeal to scholars and printing enthusiast in and out of the academy.

“I consider myself an old-school bibliophile rather than a technical person and this is why working on this project was fun and exciting. The resources at the University Library and open source options provided an opportunity to offer a compelling and visual argument for documenting and archiving the publishing contributions of African Americans when our country was in its infancy.”

We highlight here a few University Library provided resources that Ms. Sy used while she was working on the creation of her blog:

Many thanks to Bintou Sy for her contributions to this blog.

Bintou Sy is a Master of Arts in English candidate at DePaul who hopes to pursue a PhD specializing in 18th and 19th century French and British literature. She has been writing for nearly 20 years and has worked in various sectors including publishing and marketing and communications.


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