2.1 Open Access to U.S. Slavery: the Antislavery Literature Project

Joe Lockard


Slavery is inseparable from the history of the United States. It is a history that produced massive libraries of texts that remain little-read today. The literature of slavery and emancipation is one of the great unexplored areas of American literature, represented in the canon by no more than two or three representative texts. Yet some of the defining traits of U.S. culture arose in this literature where one encounters continual arguments on the nature of freedom versus slavery. Contemporary discussions of freedom borrow heavily, too often unknowingly, on this discussion. The Antislavery Literature Project is a public scholarship venture to provide free online access to a wide range of the literature of U.S. slavery. It includes religious tracts and sermons, poetry, novels, short stories, historical and philosophical prose works, documents, travel accounts and a selected variety of the texts that constitute this literature. We not only provide digitized texts in different formats, but also emphasize the introduction and annotation that accompanies these texts. In this manner, we provide both a high-quality scholarly edition of the text and notes that make a text more useful to public readers in search of information. 

The project came online in 2006, using a Plone content management system. To date, we have served over three million unique visitors, and we currently average 35-40,000 unique visits per month. The leading countries for visitors are the US, France, China and Canada. Course syllabi in the U.S. and elsewhere commonly include project digital materials. ALP resides on the EServer at Iowa State University; the EServer is the largest online arts and humanities publisher in the world, with over two million unique visits per month.                          

ALP faces continuing challenges for its development. The online availability of lesser-known nineteenth-century American literature has changed dramatically in recent years with the growth of Google Books. The strategy of publishing large works, little-known texts or obscure antislavery authors has been rendered redundant. There was always a question of the extent to which such a digitization strategy might prove viable in any case, given the presence of excellent online resources such as Documenting the American South and the Samuel G. May Anti-Slavery Collection at Cornell University. Any online publishing initiative needs to be attentive to the shifting dynamics of resource availability and Internet technologies. 

Since ALP cannot compete with large corporations (Google) or major institutions (University of North Carolina, University of Virginia), that leaves open the question of how a small, independent digital humanities project can respond and remain viable. We were forced to change our goals and work methods.

First, we now emphasize interpretive work rather than digitization. We search for new opportunities to conceptualize and present the literature of U.S. slavery and emancipation. At the initiative of Zoe Trodd (Columbia University) and with assistance from Holly Kent (Lehigh University), we developed the Legacies collection that presents and interprets a series of post-Civil War and early twentieth-century texts that represent the rhetorical inheritance of the antislavery movement. We are beginning to create ‘case studies’ of abolitionist orators to trace their public careers. Research and digital humanities work benefit through mutually-supportive planning and advancement.

Second, we contextualize the U.S. literature of slavery within the global literature of slavery and antislavery. In so doing, we research, publish and teach antislavery literature from a conceptual position that emphasizes common human demands for freedom while exploring cultural differences in the pursuit or achievement of freedom. One recent collection, co-edited by Kevin Bales and Zoe Trodd, assembles contemporary slave narratives from around the world. In another direction, ALP has pursued a line of cross-cultural work aided by synergies with Project Yao, its more recent China-U.S. sister initiative. This work has included creation of the first Chinese translation of Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, a bilingual and cross-cultural Chinese-English teaching guide for Jacobs, and a series of Frederick Douglass podcasts in French, Spanish, Hebrew, Chinese, etc. However, this cross-cultural publishing remains unidirectional English-to-other-language and is only a beginning. Extending the Antislavery Literature Project to include the literature of slavery from other languages remains a goal.

Third, we have and will continue to emphasize a do-it-yourself approach to digital humanities. Current hiring initiatives in digital humanities, evinced by recent growth in such faculty positions on the MLA job list, represent recognition that literacy is changing rapidly and scholarship needs to adapt. Digital humanities are nearly the sole growth area in humanities funding, which has been in historic decline. Institutional determination to pursue such funding, however, is a chase after fools’ gold. If one needs a grant to create a digital humanities project and cannot do so with available scholarly labor, freeware and native computing resources found on a university campus, then one simply cannot do digital humanities. 

Independence cannot be over-emphasized within the digital humanities. Grant chasers distort imaginative work and typically deform it to meet the institutional criteria of granting agencies.  The Antislavery Literature Project met with such difficulties in its early stage. A story will illustrate: 

On our first grant application to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) an administrative officer told me that our proposal was questionable because our name – the Antislavery Literature Project – indicated a political orientation and NEH grant rules prohibited such. Somewhat dumbfounded, I asked what was ‘political’ about a digital humanities project that digitized the antebellum literature of the antislavery movement? “Well, there are ways and ways of treating political topics,” he replied. “We made a grant on the history of the civil rights movement but with care for neutrality.” 

When comments on our failed grant proposal returned, they emphasized an absence of opposing viewpoints in our approach. I sat with our department chair for a review. “So far as I am concerned, there is only one valid perspective,” I said, “the fight against slavery.” The chair replied, “Well, they have a point. What opposing viewpoints created the Civil War? Teach the conflict. How can you improve the grant proposal in this direction?” I accepted our chair’s advice for preparing the next grant proposal and went about digitizing and annotating a selection of proslavery literature. Thus, I became a major publisher of historic white supremacist literature: the NEH made me do it.

Next year we sent a revised grant proposal. However, when I made another proposal review telephone call to the same NEH officer and listened to the same complaint about the “political orientation” of our Project, I had a response. “You are a federal civil servant and sworn to uphold the U.S. constitution. Is that correct?” “Yes,” he replied cautiously, “What’s that got to do with it?” “The U.S. constitution contains the 13th amendment prohibiting slavery. The U.S. government is officially antislavery and the NEH remains part of the U.S. government. Why is there a problem here?” That did not help, but I could see rejection coming again with a capital R and did not much care.   

The problem obtaining a digital humanities grant in the U.S. is much deeper than the bureaucratic timidity of NEH grant administrators. Rather, there are a rising number of grant applications in a fiscal environment of declining U.S. humanities budgets, already miserly in the extreme compared to Canada and Europe. High competition for NEH grants results in a 5-8 percent success rate among quite high-quality applications. As a financing resource for digital humanities, one could do better investing in supermarket instant lottery tickets that have a 20 percent payout rate.

Those working in the digital humanities are not beggars and need not demean their scholarship. No less than their peers working in print culture, digital scholars require autonomy. Yet the market orientation of U.S. university culture treats digital humanities as a fungible product that can enable grants-poor humanities departments to emulate science departments that produce grants and intellectual property. In a corporate university, a database is a saleable product, whether in the sciences or humanities. I receive an annual sales visit from a well-known British database publisher whose slavery database bears a reasonable similarity to parts of the Antislavery Literature Project, except that they have much better graphics. The British firm charges over $100,000 for its product, whereas ALP provides its work free of charge. 

The problem is to remain within the commons, within the ethics of cooperation, and to resist conversion of the database to a proprietary model. There have been unfortunate instances of conversion from open-access digital projects into fee-based subscription services. In the instance of the Antislavery Literature Project, commoditization and sale of slave stories would represent continuing theft from those who already had their freedom stolen. Digital humanities reside too much in the world of middle-class, unobjectionable and grant fund-able work. In order to do interesting work, we need to leave behind that class-constricted idea of the polite humanities. Our capacity to create meaningful digital public scholarship will change for the better as we discard social pretense and accommodation.   




Joe Lockard is Associate Professor of English at Arizona State University, where he teaches early American and African American literatures. He directs the Antislavery Literature Project and co-directs Project Yao. His latest books are Iraq War Cultures (2011), co-edited with Cynthia Fuchs, and Watching Slavery: Witness Texts and Travel Reports (2008).



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