How Do We Remember and Memorialize the Middle Passage?
November 25, 2019
A few years ago, two associate professors in Duke’s English Department started a reading group to explore their shared interest in human mobility and its cultural expressions. Building on their discussions, Charlotte Sussman and Tsitsi Jaji teamed up with Dominika Baran, Jarvis McInnis and Corina Stan to direct the Representing Migration Humanities Lab.
“We were lucky to have some great graduate students as part of the group convening the lab,” Sussman said. “They made me really enjoy working collaboratively.”
One of the lab’s projects, Migration Memorials, explored how humans remember and mark histories defined by movement. This led to discussions about the Middle Passage and the idea of a memorial to victims of the trans-Atlantic voyages that brought enslaved Africans to the New World.
Through Sussman’s Data+ summer research project, a team of students set out to locate where and why enslaved Africans died during the sea voyage and analyze patterns of mortality rates.
“It’s been really interesting to fill in the gaps of the Middle Passage and search for patterns,” said Chudi Zhong, a master’s student in Statistical Science. “There is a lot of missing data, and we’ve used current technology to fill gaps. For example, using the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, we can find records on how many enslaved people died. The Climatological Database for the World’s Oceans has other kinds of data for ships. We merged the two databases and found 35 matching voyages. Then we used our own model to make predictions.”
As an undergraduate majoring in Philosophy and Global Cultural Studies, Ethan Czerniecki ’20 said the Data+ project gave him “a different way of approaching these topics outside the humanities that proved to be expansive.” He added, “I wouldn’t have thought to treat these individuals as data points, but [the data science approach] opens up new areas like data visualization. Combining a humanities project with data science is really interesting, and the methodologies interact well.”
English Ph.D. student Emma Davenport served as project manager for the Data+ team. “This was my first experience in a real mentorship role,” she said. “It’s different than being part of a team doing the research. Being a mentor calls for a different set of skills and a different orientation.”
This year, a Bass Connections project team is continuing the work of the Representing Migration Humanities Lab and the Data+ project. Some of the students are creating a map showing where the deaths occurred in the Atlantic; their original data will support a proposal for a Middle Passage memorial.
Special Event on December 4
Join us on Wednesday, December 4, at noon for Representing Migration through Digital Humanities. Presenters include team leader Charlotte Sussman, Associate Professor of English; Jane Harwell, Ph.D. student in English; Perry Sweitzer, Ph.D. student in Religion; and Daisy Zhan, undergraduate student at Haverford College.
This presentation takes place at the John Hope Franklin Center, 2204 Erwin Road in Durham. Part of the Wednesdays at the Center series, it is sponsored by the John Hope Franklin Center and the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies. A light lunch will be served. Parking is available in nearby Trent Rd. and Erwin Rd. parking decks. The series provides 1-hour parking vouchers to guests.