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“Loose, Informal Connections: Black Women Prisoners and the Black International” by Destiny Wiley-Yancy

Destiny Wiley-Yancy

Ambitious Beginnings

Looking back on my work on the Five College Digital Humanities Undergraduate Fellowship, my goals were ambitious. I wanted to design a geospatial carceral history project that drew together transnational linkages between the lives of two incarcerated women, Ericka Huggins and Theresa Ramashamola. On the surface, Huggins and Ramashamola could not be more dissimilar. They were active during different moments of the global Black freedom struggle, lived in different countries, and represented distinct archetypes of Black activist women. Still, their lives paralleled one another’s in many ways. They were both young mothers or mothers-to-be, and the sole woman amongst a group of Black male activists accused of a political crime. The common themes within their activism gestured to the expansiveness of Black women’s international activism during the mid-twentieth century.

However, comparing Ramashamola to Huggins and other contemporaries in the United States proved difficult because of the dearth of archival materials on Ramashamola’s life. This raised questions about why the historical record makes note of Huggins, but not Ramashamola. This observation only becomes apparent when you look at Ramashamola and Huggins alongside one another. There is a politics of the archive at play—specifically, why women like Theresa Ramashamola’s stories are not present within the archive.

Learning to Adapt

As the fellowship progressed the focus of my project evolved from a transnational project into a reflection on history-making processes at obscure third-world Black women’s voices from the archive. With the guidance of my brilliant special studies advisor, Samuel Ng, the project evolved from a comparative project to a project of recovery. Ericka Huggins, a well-known Black liberation leader provides a vision of what a robust history of a Black woman archivist could look like. In order to make claims about recovery, I had to prove that Ramashamola was not there. What I found was despite appearing briefly and infrequently throughout the historical record, Ramashmola’s impressions are heard across South Africa and beyond. I demonstrate these reverberations through mapping the number of international and domestic newspapers that reported on Ramashamola and the Sharpeville Six between 1985-2014.

Article in the New York Times taken from the Sharpeville Journal on July 13, 1988, headlined "Black and Poor, Her Daughter Faces the Gallows."
Article in the New York Times taken from the Sharpeville Journal on July 13, 1988, headlined “Black and Poor, Her Daughter Faces the Gallows.” (Click to enlarge.)

Recovering the Resistance of Everyday South African Women

The digital form of my project evolved along with its focus. I went from wanting to use text frequency software to track themes within Huggins’s poetry, to ArcGIS to display transnational links, to Scalar to bring together my data, to StoryMaps to tell a narrative of internationalism. I settled on Story Maps because I could tell the story of Ramashamola’s influence through the world by displaying the international newspapers that covered Ramashamola’s imprisonment on ArcGIS. Furthermore, I bring together all of the disparate parts of the project by excavating a black women’s archive through Scalar. A significant part of my project is envisioning what I call a “Black women’s postcolonial archive” that could look like. From my work this semester, this requires drawing from a range of nontraditional archival materials in order to stretch a full history of Ramashamola’s influence. I begin to put a “Black women’s postcolonial archive” together through my archive on Scalar.

The objectives of my project are twofold: first to present a salient history of Ramashamola’s reverberations within the archive. I do this through my work with ArcGIS and StoryMaps. The second part of the project is to recover Ramashamola’s memory. I do this through Scalar, where I draw upon archival research, as well as existing digital archives such as the University of Oxford’s British Anti-Apartheid Movement digital archive.

Text on the left side of the screen accompanied by a map connecting the locations of Ericka Huggins and Theresa Ramashamola across the Atlantic Ocean.
Text on the left side of the screen accompanied by a map connecting the locations of Ericka Huggins and Theresa Ramashamola across the Atlantic Ocean. (Click to enlarge.)

Conclusion

I am grateful for the opportunity to embark on this project. Data visualization and mapping is not my forte, but through this project, I have become more comfortable with digital humanities technologies. From this experience, I have learned that the digital humanities are about adapting and evolving focuses and themes in order to bring together a blend of traditional and digital analyses. In short, my project does so by reflecting on the history-making processes that influence the emergence of Black women activists within the archive. Centering Ramashamola in this project models what I hope history-making processes will do in the future: take stock of where Black activist women of the third world appear within the archive. The digital component of this project now represents the news publications and locations of where Ramashamola and the Sharpeville Six showed up in international news. In this way, Huggins’s presence in my project evolved into more of that of a foil, a vision of what kind of memory could be possible for Ramashamola.

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