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Singing the Nation: On Memory, Ephemerality, and the Minimal Computing Model

In this post, I think through the idea of individual and communal memory as theory, method, and praxis for Black digital humanities work. What I outline in this essay is a process for how I came to this project, how I—and the project—have shifted, and some ideas on the potentialities of a minimal computing model in doing digital humanities work.

I: A Memory: “There’s more to that song… a lot more”1

In January 2011, I was a graduate student at the University of Virginia, when the poet, Amiri Baraka, was invited to speak as part of the University’s Martin Luther King Jr. and Black History Month celebrations. At the beginning of the event, the student group Black Voices performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” After the first verse, the singing concluded. Baraka was introduced. He greeted us, and said, “There’s more to that song…there’s a lot more.” From my seat, I thought, well, yeah, two more verses, Amiri Baraka.” That was my smug, “well, duh” moment.

But as I sat there, his words stayed with me. To be frank—and to my shame—I would be hard-pressed to provide any specifics of his talk that evening. His assertion of the “more” and the “lot more” would not leave me. It seemed to demand something from me, long after the talk had ended. I was not sure what was being demanded; but it triggered my own memories.

II: Traces: “and it bottomed in me as a kind of base, a foundation of humanity sought”2

So I started talking to my friends, and those early conversation revolved around our own memories of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” of singing it in Black spaces—in churches and schools, at community events and step shows, at the openings of beauty shops, barber shops, and Black bookstores. And we asked each other this question: Why don’t we sing this anymore? In those moments of surface reflection, we congratulated ourselves on noticing this shift and promised to renew our engagement with the song and to each other.

But who was this “we” that we declared no longer sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing?” The song had connected us to community and traditions and histories— to ways of knowing ourselves and each other. As children, it had oriented us to the world, centered us in our Blackness. It is what Baraka calls “We-ness,” the idea that “we black folks were actually real and had desires independent of the lunacy of the vicious racist white folks…”(13).3 For Baraka, the song was foundational to asserting his own humanity and that of Black people, for it provided “a map and diagram, a historic journey” on which he could draw throughout his life (14). It provided a “sweeping recall” of racist violence as well as Black dignity, strength, and bravery in confronting and naming, explicitly, the ugliness of American racism. And of creating beauty within that maelstrom.

“We-ness,” in the context of this collection, is also the moment Aretha Franklin commands, “everyone, sing,” transforming a celebrity performance into a communal practice. And “We-ness” is in the mashups created by different users, but featuring similar images and narratives of African Americans’ lived experiences—demonstrating a shared archival impulse. It is young people singing and YouTube commenters offering loving critique while adding their own knowledge, memories that became activated through listening and viewing and communing in the digital space.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” triggers memories and gives life and veracity to Black experiences; it reveals the lie of a history that refuses Black humanity; and it serves as a base for privileging Black ways of seeing and knowing. For me and for my friends, our ideas about “Lift Every Voice and Sing” revealed the ways that our speculation was about an easy assumption of loss, a belief that the song had lost the ability to resound with our contemporary Black lives. But perhaps I am being too hard on us.

III: Sites of Memory: “on the basis of some information and a little bit of guess work you journey to a site to see what remains were left behind and to reconstruct the world that these remains imply”4

I came to learn more about “Lift Every Voice and Sing’s” resonance to Amiri Baraka after that January evening. And I started my own quest to reconnect with the song. Initially, this consisted of performing cursory web searches and noting references to it in movies and television shows. I later set up Google Alerts, which led me to YouTube, the primary source of videos for this collection. And I found that “we” represented a broad spectrum of people, each bringing their own styles and reasons for performing and creating videos; each bringing their own memories, experiences, histories, and ways of knowing to the song. A YouTube playlist later became a “collection” for a planned Omeka site, as I gathered, sorted, annotated—sporadically at first, and without process or method—then more seriously and more methodically. This I did in part because videos began to disappear, whether by the user’s choice to set a video to “private,” or by take-down notices, in the case of copyright infringement. Moving from a playlist to a “collection,” I could see the shape of something by examining the artefacts: sounds, noises, images, voices, music, song, memories, and the discourses that surround all of this.

This project became a kind of archaeological undertaking that serves as the basis for reconstructing history. In putting together this collection, I was reminded that rememory, as Toni Morrison articulates, is a fraught process—of unearthing, sifting through, analyzing, and thinking about shared experiences, the things that never leave us. In Beloved, rememory’s persistence forces Sethe to take flight and to do the unimaginable. Yet rememory can serve in another context, as it “bump[s] up into a rememory that belongs to somebody else” as much as it does to you (36). 5 Viewed as a site of our inescapably shared trauma, it is also about creating collective spaces that sustain us and in which we share joys, struggles, hope, and aspirations. This digital ephemera—videos created by groups, artists, and everyday YouTubers—engender possibilities and offer us the space and the opportunity co-create and to re-constitute Black knowledges.

IV. Memory and the Minimal: “we move from data to information to knowledge to wisdom”6

In “The Source of Self-Regard,” Toni Morrison articulates a process by which one becomes educated. She writes, “We move from data to information to knowledge to wisdom. And separating one from the other, being able to distinguish among and between them, that is, knowing the limitations and the danger of exercising one without the others, while respecting each category of intelligence is, generally what serious education is about” (307). First, I marvel at the way that Morrison articulates not just a process for developing wisdom, but also the way that this process mirrors in many ways the practices of Black digital humanities and of the minimal computing model. Morrison’s identification of these discrete categories has helped me to reflect on the videos in the collection not merely as digital ephemera with a limited shelf life, but rather, as distinct and interacting sites of memory that produce and co-constitute knowledge. Further, by including a range of creative expressions, I hope to avoid privileging one way of knowing over another. In this collection, youth performers share space with professional singers and celebrities; mashups, creative recompositons that meld sounds and images are in conversation with church choirs and a cappella groups. This juxtaposition, the bumping up into another person’s creation, another person’s memory, offers us other ways of imagining the “we.”

It was in context of an ephmeral archive, rather than my initial Omeka site with maps, graphs, documents, and other planned elements needed to transform ephemera into matter, that this project really began to take shape. I focused on the central questions that the minimal computing model asks: what is necessary, what do you need? I asked myself other questions: who is this for? With whom did I imagine myself in conversation? Answering these question pushed the project further and “who” became a more concrete “we.”

A minimal computing model fits with both the practical and theoretical impulses of this project. In addition to simplicity, ease of use, and the lower consumption of power, the notion of “maximum ephemerality” also jibes with my idea of “an ephemeral archive,” which I had begun thinking about in 2014, roughly the same time that videos began to disappear from my playlist. Outlined by Jentery Sayers in “Minimal Definitions (tl:dr version),” maximum ephemerality, “Reduce[s] an impulse to inscribe, measure, or visualize with technologies in order to increase the likelihood of experimentation and collective participation.” 7 In this moment, one in which we are forced to confront our own fragility, our own ephemerality as (potentially) disappearing bodies amid a global pandemic, minimal computing impels us toward a reassessment of our individual and communal practices and makes apparent the ways we might reject circulating notions of a “new normal” as we think about the potential to reclaim and reshape community. What might that look like? What is sustainable? What is not? What do we need?

“And Alex will probably kill me for saying this…”8

Yet “minimal” computing does not mean minimal labor, if you work alone. In fact, I found that this model works best when the work is done collaboratively, otherwise, it really is “maximal labor.” As someone who prefers to fly solo, this was a painful realization. But this model, is important, I think, because it has forced me to return to community in meaningful ways; and it has moved me to reengage with my technology roots. It has demanded that I adjust my view, ask for help, rethink old practices, and learn to use some new tools. That asking-for-help part? (hard!): But once I asked, the community answered. And continues to answer. This has been both incredibly satisfying and terrifying.

However, this is not to say that my minimal impulses might not shift later down the road (sorry, Alex). I still see the appeal of my old Omeka site. I also understand the demands on labor, computing power, and resources, things that really hampered the development of this project in terms of what I wanted to say–and to whom. Yet, I think minimal computing, as outlined by Sayers, Alex Gil, and others, can help us cast a new light on Omeka and other tools we use for our work. I can also see other projects, other riffs that take this collection and pose new questions that might be an appealing fit for using those tools, whether in research, in the community, or in the classroom.

What I have outlined here (I hope) is what I imagine DH to be (can become?/is becoming?): sites of exploration, of inclusivity, of questioning, of co-creating—and of understanding that critical questions can be personal and communal and still be deep and theoretical and meaningful as DH work. And this is all undergirded by a politics of care.


  1. Anne E. Bromley, “Baraka Recounts, Instructs, Riffs About King and Black History.” UVa Today. January 3, 2011. ↩︎

  2. Amiri Baraka in ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’: A Celebration of the Negro National Anthem: 100 Years, 100 Voices. Julian Bond and Sondra Kathryn Wilson, Editors. Random House, 2000. ↩︎

  3. See Bond and Wilson. ↩︎

  4. Toni Morrison, “The Site of Memory” in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, William Zinsser, Editor. Houghton Mifflin, 1995, pp. 83-102. ↩︎

  5. Toni Morrison, Beloved. Penguin Group, 1987, 35-36. ↩︎

  6. Toni Morrison, “The Source of Self-Regard” in The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations. Knopf, 2019, 304-321 ↩︎

  7. Jentery Sayers “Minimal Definitions (tl:dr version),” Minimal Computing: A working group of GO: :DH, 2016. Also see Sayers (Ed.), Making Things and Drawing Boundaries: Experiments in the Digital Humanities, University of Minnesota Press, 2017. ↩︎

  8. This has become a frequent preface of mine with this project. I owe much to my friend, Alex Gil, who has not only provided tremendous material support, but also encouragement and generous amounts of finger-wags. ↩︎