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Storytelling

I ended my last blog entry with the suggestion that one possible virtue of virtuality might be that a digital archive inverts the book’s relationship between word and image (in the case of Black Gotham, portraits of people as well as depictions of places—maps, streets, buildings, etc.).  “In my book,” I wrote, “word was the primary vehicle for telling my story and image functioned as supporting illustration; in the digital archive, image is the primary vehicle and word supporting document.”

I’m well aware, however, that much like a printed book a digital archive must create and sustain a narrative arc—consisting not only of a beginning, middle, and end, but also of a certain narrative tension that impels the viewer forward to look, search, discover.  But unlike a book (at least unlike the case of Black Gotham where Yale University Press was incredibly generous in the number of pages it allotted to me) a digital archive seems to demand greater concision and focus.  It seems to be a question of how to get more out of less.

How then does a person of the word like me create a narrative out of images?  At our last MITH meeting, Seth suggested that I might think in terms of organizing my archive by chapters.  But the very term chapter now strikes me as too bookish, so I’ve begun to think more in terms of stories, maybe even episodes, each of which forms what I’m calling a “cluster.”

So far, I’ve identified about eighteen clusters.  I envision that each one will start with a “portal,” a doorway through which the viewer enters.  In the first cluster, the portal will be my family tree: viewers will be able to click on names of family members and meet them through photographs, obituaries, personal commentary, and the like.  The portals of the remaining clusters will be maps that foreground place.  By means of clickable icons, they will pinpoint, and allow the viewer entry into, the many sites—neighborhoods, streets, buildings—that anchor my story.  A first map will introduce nineteenth-century Gotham—its commercial areas, ports, fashionable neighborhoods of the white elite, as well as areas inhabited by poorer folk, whether black, native born whites, Irish or German immigrants.  Later maps will highlight specific sites of particular significance to the black community—churches, schools, institutions—or to individuals—home, work places, etc.—and tell their stories.

But in and of themselves the clusters don’t really create narrative tension.  So how can I organize them to create a narrative that will pull viewers in and stimulate their interest?  I’m thinking that one technique might be that of contrast: for example, the introductory map would be organized around the contrast of wealthy neighborhoods of the white elite to the downtrodden areas that were home to black New Yorkers and lower class whites.

Another technique could be what I call “point-counterpoint” that illustrates how every step forward taken by the black elite was met with resistance by white New Yorkers, forcing them to take at least half a step back.  Proceeding chronologically, I would show how black leaders of the 1820s, ’30s, and ’40s struggled to form a cohesive community by establishing schools and other kinds of institutions, but were consistently opposed by white racists for whom mob violence was often the weapon of choice (the African Grove theater riot in the early 1820s, the 1834 Chatham Street Chapel riot).  At the same time, I would juxtapose black New Yorkers’ sense of themselves—their hopes and aspirations—during these decades against the views of British visitors like Mrs. Felton, Mrs. Trollope, and Charles Dickens, who wrote about the city’s black population from the ignorant, negative perspective of an outsider.  I would also point out how such a juxtaposition is replicated in the 1850s as the rise of black entrepreneurship in the city was met with similar hostile and derogatory reactions from American writers William Bobo, George Foster, and others.  My archive’s narrative arc reaches its zenith (or maybe I should say its nadir) with the draft riots of July 1863 during which white mobs set out to destroy everything black New Yorkers had so painstakingly tried to build.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I first need to get back to Omeka, create my clusters and enter my data and metadata.

editor’s note: Carla L. Peterson is professor of English at the University of Maryland. She currently is completing a faculty fellowship at MITH. This post originally appeared at Black Gotham Archive on January 27, 2012.