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‘Speaking the unspeakable’: Mapping Marronage fills archival silences with digital humanities

By Raena Doty

Asst. Arts & Features Editor


The digital humanities center represents a growing field of study, and on April 27, they welcomed Annette Joseph-Gabriel, a professor at Duke University, to lead a talk called “Mapping Marronage: Toward a Transatlantic Visualization of Freedom.”


Mapping Marronage is an interactive map that shows not only the physical movements of enslaved people across the Atlantic Ocean, but also social connections.


Joseph-Gabriel said the project is meant to help modern audiences understand enslaved people as more complicated than their preconceived notions.


“We think a lot about movement from slavery as being primarily about freedom. But … I'm working on a letter by an enslaved boy who wrote this letter to Benjamin Franklin,” she said. “And he said he ran away because he wanted to be happy.”


She said Mapping Marronage is a research and pedagogical tool.


“Or, rather, it is a tool that shows the deep implication of research and pedagogy,” she said, and added the map was primarily created by her students for a class called “Mapping the French Atlantic.”


She said she thought the class was very popular the two times she taught it because the final project for the class is only a paragraph long.


“But everything leading up to that is to work through the weight of that one paragraph - the stakes of holding an enslaved person's life story in one paragraph,” she said.


She showed two videos made by students who contributed to the map through their schoolwork. The first video was made by a student named Chloe, who discussed her group’s final project on an unnamed enslaved person.


She said the man, born in Senegal, was brought to Martinique “fraudulently,” and several letters written by members of the French government in their archive discussed whether this man would continue to be enslaved after he made it back to France as a fugitive on a ship called The Neptune.


Chloe said she and her group focused on the enslaved man himself in an attempt to remove the “archival silence” around him, but they didn’t know why he didn’t have a name, and they didn’t know what the most appropriate course of action for naming him in the “Mapping Marronage” project would be.


Joseph-Gabriel added they needed at least one name for the website to function properly, and said the group considered several possible names including naming him after The Neptune or using “anonymous” in place of his name, but they eventually decided to name him after a statue in Haiti called “Le Marron Inconnu,” or “The Unknown Maroon.”


The second video was made by Delaney. Her group studied a man called John Trim, a free Black man in Montreal. Unlike the first group, which struggled with a lack of information, Delaney said her group had problems because there was too much information about John Trim, including legal documents and contemporary testimonials about him.


Joseph-Gabriel said they decided to center the story on John Trim’s wife, Charlotte Trim, and this gave them the ability to see a wider view of the project.


“What I find fascinating about this group's project is that by shifting the focal lens and placing Charlotte Trim rather than John at the center of the network, we actually got a larger network that connects Charlotte to other enslaved women,” she said.


She ended her talk by saying there are significant challenges in any type of mapping, and though she wants “Mapping Marronage” to represent a new way of seeing things, it too is imperfect.


“I hope that as you navigate the map as users, it becomes clear that this project does not see the lives of enslaved people as mere data points. However, spatial renderings as we know can only do so much,” she said. “Telling stories about slavery requires us to grapple with the ethics of speaking the unspeakable, and of recounting often unimaginable horrors.


“And the ethics of commemoration continue to haunt this project as it evolves,” she said.


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