African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

About This Site: Origins and a Mission Statement

Background: From Digital Archives to Public Access

The editor and author of the present study is an Indian-American scholar originally trained in modernism and postcolonial literature. I became interested in the idea of digital collections related to African American literature as far back as 2011, when I wanted to assign Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows to students in a transatlantic modernism course, only to learn that there was no good digital edition of it available. Later, Roopika Risam and Chris Forster put together their digital edition of Harlem Shadows (now defunct); as a class assignment in a Digital Humanities class, I encourage students to create their own digital edition (admittedly somewhat duplicating the Risam/Forster project), this time focusing on thematic tags, contextual information, and accessibility to a broad public, rather than the creation of a ‘diplomatic’ digital edition. The students in the 2015 class were particularly inspired: one wrote a contextual essay on Black Lives Matter and “If We Must Die”; another wrote about Claude McKay’s use of the sonnet form; a third tracked all of the McKay poems that dealt with birds (a surprising number!). That collaborative student-driven project is stil visible here.

The focus on accessibility, pedagogical usefulness, and public/community access the students wanted for their own site has stayed with me, and continued to guide projects that have followed, including the present project. I do have scholarly interests in this material, and have at times published scholarly articles related to what I have learned from working in the archives. But my main interest is really in helping support this historically important body of literature in ways that take it out of 'the archives' -- and into the public sphere. 

I invited students to continue the project after that 2015 class ended, as I had been encouraged by Chris Forster at Syracuse to consider working on McKay’s early Jamaican poetry, and I did in fact create a digital collection of all of McKay's early poetry between 2015 and 2017 in the Scalar platform (this project is Claude McKay's Early Poetry). A student in that class, Jo Grim, suggested they were interested in participating in the expanded project but in fact would be more drawn to a project that involved poets who were Black women. This struck me as an important parallel project and a great idea, which led to the creation of a second digital project, Women of the Early Harlem Renaissance (Jo Grim is credited for generating the idea for this project). 

However, I soon realized that simply building digital resources for poets most readers had never heard of would be of limited value. Of potentially greater importance was the prospect of developing a larger, combined resource, which would figure poets from the African American tradition who were well-known (i.e., writers like McKay, Hughes, and Cullen) with lesser-known poets. I started building an open-access corpus of African American literature in the summer of 2020, and was surprised by the amount of interest in that project. (See the announcement of the Corpus here.) From the corpus project, a collection of poetry and prose in plain text format, I decided to focus on making a more publicly accessible and user-friendly site devoted to just poetry. In this new site, thematic tagging would become an essential way of connecting the dots and drawing a roadmap that would lead to something much bigger, African American Poetry: a Digital Anthology. This project went live in the summer of 2022, and quickly found a substantial readership, averaging 3000-4000 readers a month during the academic year, with a predictable spike (above 6000) during February 2023 (Black History month). 

The Landscape for Digital Access to Primary Texts: Finding Sources 

By the early 2020s, the landscape for accessing early African American texts online had improved dramatically from where it was a decade earlier. 

Project Gutenberg (PG), which early on had been focused largely on a ‘Great Books’ approach, began to include a broader range of materials starting in the 2010s, and now has a rapidly expanding array of materials by African American authors -- though they are not always findable as such. PG does have a 'bookshelf' for African American writers, but the list is dominated by non-fiction, and is in any case highly incomplete. PG texts do not have any metadata or formal structure related to race or national origin of its writers. So for instance, when PG did finally upload a digital edition of McKay's Harlem Shadows (in 2021!), that text was not automatically included on the African American 'bookshelf'. This lack only reinforced my sense that a dedicated site that would collect African American poetry and include background information (including publisher information -- which PG also does not consistently include) was important. 

HathiTrust, which imposes a scholarly architecture over the massive Google Books scanned collections, is far and away the most useful source for locating scanned versions of African American texts. These are in OCRed PDF format, but the OCRs typically need considerable correcting and editing. Many of the full-length books of poetry included on the present site originate as HathiTrust materials, though they have been edited, corrected, and substantially transformed. HathiTrust is an academic resource, not widely known outside of limited circles, and as with PG, has limited metadata with respect to authorial identity and background. (As with PG, there is a 'Collections' feature where individual power users of HathiTrust can create collections related to African American literature -- such as this collection of Black Fiction), but this is a secondary feature and not one that pops up using search. 

Another important resource we have referenced, the Modernist Journals Project (MJP) was one of the first large-scale digitization projects for early 20th century materials, and it has been a particularly helpful resource for looking at issues of The Crisis between 1910-1922, as well as ‘mainstream’ (predominantly white) journals like Poetry and Seven Arts, which occasionally published poems by African American writers. Unfortunately, the MJP has not been expanding its collection as the copyright window has evolved in recent years. To access journals like The Crisis, Opportunity, and The Messenger from 1923-1927, has been a helpful resource. 

Periodically, we have come across citations to texts that do not appear to have been scanned by Google Books. Some texts may exist in special collections libraries in one or two locations; a few were reprinted subsequently. Others do not show up on WorldCat at all. Accordingly, we’re beginning to keep a running tally of “Materials We’re Trying To Track Down.” 

Finally, I should say that alongside digital resources like the ones named above, we have made extensive reference to formal published scholarship and anthologies. Some of those are listed on our Works Cited page. 

--Amardeep Singh, June 2023