This summer took me to so many places, metaphorical and otherwise. After arriving a few weeks late from choir tour, I jumped straight back into thinking about mapping and spent a fair amount of time trying to re-immerse myself in texts that could tell me more about the world H.T. Burleigh lived in. One of these texts was James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography Along This Way, which gave me more insight into the life of a black writer and performer living in at the start of the 20th century. Race and racism, as it turns out really became central to every single map or project that we worked on this summer. In many ways coming back to this question was frustrating – since we are researching black composer why does everything have to be about his race? In many other ways to avoid this question felt like lying about the time we were reading about, painting over Burleigh’s life with a giant white paintbrush. We wanted to get past accumulation and move on to visualizing intricacy. All signs towards that shiny imagined moment when everything would come together felt like they would have to be constructed on race, money, and ultimately power.
One of the first things I did after starting research was to watch a Musical Mapping Conference in Wales over Skype that Professor Epstein presented at. I was fascinated by the world of music visualization and all of the types of ways people have thought about presenting and transforming music. I was most captivated by Andy McGraw’s presentation on ‘Mapping Sonic and Affective Geographies in Richmond Virginia,’ a project that dissects noise ordinances in Richmond and what direct impact they have on the racial framework of a city. I had never seen digital maps, based in music and culture, be designed to effect political change. There is a whole world out there of possibilities for this type of map, and I plan to follow what happens next in this project.
Unexpected use of my time ended up being putting together a continually updating map for the H.T. Burleigh Society. The goal of this map was to create a tool that would show recent performances and events that directly reference Burleigh’s life. My plan was that I could hand off the map to the H.T. Burleigh Society and that they could continue to add to it. My priority in choosing the software for this purpose was a sense of ease, the people at the H.T. Burleigh Society are certainly busy enough to not have to get bogged down in the intricacies of ArcGIS Online. I set up a Google Form that submits each performance to a Google Sheet, then ArcGIS takes the information from that sheet and maps it. The trickiest part was figuring out how to make it continually updating. I won’t get into the details but the software available for this purpose is lacking right now, something that I hope will be resolved with the upcoming unveiling of Google’s new Maps suite later this year.
Something completely new for me this summer was archival research! We got our feet wet by starting at the Y.M.C.A. Archives that happen to be at the University of Minnesota. Burleigh performed at several Y.M.C.A.s and their positioning as social gathering spaces in the early 20th century really interests me. Although this research goal wasn’t as fruitful as we anticipated it was great to get a little practice before starting at THE Library of Congress. An important takeaway I got was to always have a reliable pencil (no pens allowed) and to bring a sweater (turns out old documents like to be kept cold).
Some of my advice for Archival Research is as follows. Archival research presents its own challenges. On one hand, it’s easy to get carried away with the research possibilities or to spend too much time on a folder that sounded promising but actually isn’t providing anything relevant to the project. The primary issue is that time is limited in the archives. At a certain point, they close, or shockingly your plane ticket demands that you return to Minnesota where there isn’t an astounding collection of every Paul Robeson tour itinerary. For this reason, I highly recommend establishing a consistent and efficient way to collect data, especially if you someday want to come back and find the exact file you looked at years ago. Another thing is not to beat yourself up if you didn’t get far enough, or forgot to write something down. There will always always always be more out there that you didn’t catch and that is ok!
This summer I did so much that I do feel proud of. I went from being absolutely stymied by Divi, the WordPress Builder, to be able to know precisely how I wanted something to look and then I achieved that look. I learned so much about racism in the 1920s in America, and how that infiltrated (and continues to infiltrate) every aspect of American life, including at the theatre. I gained a huge newfound appreciation for my research partner and learned how to get better at accepting constructive criticism. At other times I got very frustrated with ArcGIS, and Google Drive, and WordPress and felt like I was wandering around in the dark on what I should be doing.
My hope for the next iteration of this project is an exploration of all mapping tools that are out there. To spend too much time bogged down in software isn’t what research should be about. In the next year or so, I can’t even fathom the types of tools that will be out there, especially the kind that works well with humanities projects. We did a little of looking outside of ArcGIS with making census maps on SocialExplorer. It can be tempting to get accustomed to a certain mapping program, but software can make the difference between a compelling map and a mess of data points. I don’t think the Digital Humanities are going anywhere, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. Hopefully, I’ll be a part of it.