Harlem Echoes: A Reflection

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One large assignment in my Digital Humanities class had the entire class work cooperatively to create an online version of Claude McKay’s poetry collection Harlem Shadows and then write some criticism or biographical information or analysis of his style, with each participant writing a roughly equal amount about the poems. This is a reflection on that process and a discussion of how great it was to participate in.

Harlem Echoes is a site the entire class can be proud of. From Heather’s excellent design work and careful use of period appropriate pictures to Jenna’s outstanding color coded analysis of Claude McKay’s use of the sonnet form, everybody contributed above and beyond the parameters of the assignment and created a fantastic resource for anybody looking to learn more about a wonderful poet.

We met in person around five times, often at great length in order to decide exactly what we were doing and how we should do it. One of our first major decisions to make was who our audience was. We needed to decide if we were writing to graduate students such as ourselves or high school students encountering the Harlem Renaissance for the first time or even a more public audience which might not have any background in the time period or poetry at all. In the end, we decided on a late-high school to early-college audience with an eye to an even broader base of eventual users. This allowed us to engage in some higher level ideas but not go so heavy on the theory that only academics would be interested beyond the first sentence or two.

The next step was to decide what the website would look like. We knew we wanted to foreground the poems themselves as the most important element of the site, so they would come first in our top menu (this actually changed later as we realized that the poems would be stronger if a reader had bibliographic knowledge of McKay’s life and our own process of creating the website, so those two bits come first in the final menu). We also wanted to present some alternate ways of reading the poem, by category as well as in the traditional print order. This was accomplished through the use of tags on the poems and some clever HTML. The tags were assigned by each of us as we went through and corrected the OCR text we originally had to work with and cleaned up the formatting. After we all assigned our own tags, we had yet another meeting to vote on each tag. We had to decide if two tags meant the same thing, or if we were missing any important categories that we should have covered. It was a long but fun process, and I was the one in charge of updating our shared list of tags with the revisions.

Next we struggled with the formatting of the poems as we tried to upload them to our WordPress site. Although WordPress is a WYSIWYG platform, it’s not super open to classical poetry formatting, and so we had to figure out how to (and whether to) include the indents from the original text in our versions of the poems. I’m still not sure that we actually achieved parity across the entire class’s efforts, but we tried for it, at least!

After we had the poems on the site, we began to work on our own additions. The end of this project would have a kind of digital critical edition of the Harlem Shadows text combined with our insights into the text. I was intrigued by “If We Must Die” as I cleaned it up, and since it is McKay’s most famous poem, I decided to do a version of Peter Middleton’s “long biography” of the poem in three parts and trace both its origins and its legacy (23). The legacy would be divided into two parts itself, one in which I tried to track down the story of Winston Churchill quoting the poem during World War II and the other in which I examined the way the poem has touched the Civil Rights movement in the United States and its role in the Attica prison riot. These were extremely satisfying short essays to write, as I was able to first discover just how powerful the poem is and its intriguing origin story. I was also able to bring in some textual analysis in order to demonstrate where that power comes from and how McKay wields it. It was especially fruitful in the case of the Churchill example because it turns out that there is no record of Churchill ever quoting the poem nor that he had any knowledge of it. In that case, I decided to look instead at one of England’s most famous war poems, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and see what connections there might be to McKay’s own war poem. That unexpected connection really sparked my interest, and I think even more could be said about the two poems and how McKay’s education means that there’s very little doubt about whether he was aware of the poem when he wrote his own call to arms. I was equally excited about finding Vernon Jordan’s account of reading the poem after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death.

I think I was able to ride that line between academic writing and public writing, though I struggled with going to one side or the other too much and it took some drafting in order to find the right path. I also had a tendency to over-claim  some things in my initial versions of the essays in an effort to exaggerate how important the poem was. It was enthusiasm mixed with an unsure sense of how to approach the audience question which led to those few cases of exaggeration, but I have since tamped them down and restored the poem to its proper place in history. I also remembered that this was still an academic endeavor and went back to properly cite all of my information, so users can know where to find more information if they want to. I also added links to things like the archives of the two newspapers McKay was published in and the PBS documentary about Attica from which I drew some helpful information. The power of the INTERNET!

My final contribution was to click a button. Ok, perhaps it is a bit bigger than that, but I knew from my own blog (this one that you’re reading right now!) that there was a tag cloud widget which could be easily placed in our sidebar and would provide yet another way of exploring McKay’s poems. We had already done all the tagging and it was the work of two minutes to get the widget in the right spot and customized to show only the top 75 tags. Though I downplay the effort involved, it is a truly useful bit of the site, as it allows for the hypertext enabled reading that digital archives can do what paper versions can’t. If a person new to the site wants to read all of the poems that have the “nature” tag assigned to them, it’s as easy as clicking the biggest word in the cloud. It is just a different way into the text, but it is a cool example of what is possible in the digital realm.

In the end, I’m glad that we were forced to do this project on a work by a man with whom I had no prior experience. It was fun to learn about him and his work alongside my fellow classmates, and it was even more fun and rewarding to create this really great website with them. The project highlighted the extensive behind the scenes effort that it takes to create something presentable, and it showcased just how important teamwork is in the DIgital Humanities. One person alone would take months to do what we did in three weeks. I am proud of what we accomplished, and I am proud of our class for doing it all without a fuss.

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