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In this thread, we've discussed spreadsheets and whether spreadsheets include code and are programming. Considering much of the digital work happening in histories of slavery is happening in a world of databases and network analysis, and considering the historical relationship between black codes as slave codes and what Lauren Cramer and Alessandra Raengo distinguish as "black coding" or the ore self-conscious hacking of systems and code by black and other racialized subjects, it is worth taking a moment to explore what assumptions we make about what code and race do.
Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy is a database of over 100,000 enslaved and free Africans and people of African descent transported to (or freed) in Gulf Coast Louisiana between 1718 and 1820 - from the founding of Louisiana by the French and through the first eighteen years of United States governance. The database team was led by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, author of Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century. In Africans in Colonial Louisiana, Hall argued that Africans transported from the African continent to the Gulf Coast founded an Afro-creole culture, one deeply rooted in Senegambian lifeways, lifeways that then significantly influenced the Gulf Coast culture that would develop over time. Hall wrote an African-centered diasporic history at a time when such connections were seen as illegitimate, pandering, false, and unseemly (at best).
How does a team of researchers code (or encode) enslaved women, children, and men in a context where their existence was seen a problem? What kind of critical gaze did the team apply to the analysis and also salvage some of the humanity of the enslaved?
(For reference, and an entirely different field of study, the archaelogists from Howard University unearthing the enslaved interred at what is now New York's African Burial Ground National Monument faced similar stigma and critical conundrum. See Alondra Nelson's Social Life of DNA for more)
In response, Hall and her team coded enslaved persons like so for use in SPSS databases --
Slave Database Codes:
Free Database Codes:
These spreadsheets were first released on CD-ROM in 2000. They were later compiled and re-released by the Center for the Public Domain, and ibiblio.org so they could be shared for free and available to the public: https://www.ibiblio.org/laslave/about.php and https://www.ibiblio.org/laslave/introduction.php.
Another example of code, slavery and the database is the way the team around the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database encoded their data. Containing information on over 25,000 slave ship voyages, the slave trade database also makes its dataset freely available here.
While an invaluable tool, the database and the database impulse has also been critiqued for the ways it risks re-commodifying enslaved Africans--just this time in spreadsheets and database files.
And although spreadsheets and formulas can be debated as code or not code, programming or not programming, the practice of coding relies on encoding features that are kin in each of these instances--and area also descendants of codes used in the “unmaking” of black humanity that was the Middle Passage and that Atlantic Project.
A final example -- W. Caleb McDaniel created the @Every3Minutes twitter bot after reflecting on Herbert Gutman’s argument that every three minutes an enslaved man, woman, or child was sold in the domestic slave trade during the antebellum period in the United States:
“about two million slaves (men, women, and children) were sold in local, interstate, and interregional markets between 1820 and 1860, and that of this number perhaps as many as 260,000 were married men and women and another 186,000 were children under the age of thirteen. If we assume that slave sales did not occur on Sundays and holidays and that such selling went on for ten hours on working days, a slave was sold on average every 3.6 minutes between 1820 and 1860.”
McDaniel wrote a Python script for the bot, then discovered that “variables forced me to attend to “an enslaved person” as someone bearing multiple relationships to other persons. The code also soon involved me, unwittingly, in a troubling objectification of the human individuals whose stories I was attempting to conjure.” Read his blog post on the experience here.
Link to his script here.
Gwendolyn Midlo Hall’s code book is a direct line to having to choose variables to direct a Twitter bot not to re-objectify enslaved people.
Some questions to consider:
What is the responsibility of coders to attending to coding or encoding of historical subjects already vulnerable to commodification?
How did McDaniel and Hall address the question of race, racialization, and commodification in their code?
If you had an example--like this one--could you turn the code against itself and without changing any of the given data work against the dehumanization impulse of the archive?
Since even color is a social construction, how useful are these codes anyway?