ICHORA 2020, DAY 3: Tonia Sutherland, “Data, Death, and Dignity”

Note: This presentation was one of three Keynote Addresses delivered at ICHORA 2020.

Tonia Sutherland (University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa) delivers a powerful set of analyses and messages about the role that ethics, agency, and consent should play in the circulation of images of human bodies and other digital remains, particularly those of African Americans, whose physical bodies have been subjected to disproportionate degrees of violence or trauma within real physical spaces.  Working from critical race theory, critical archival studies, performance studies, and digital culture studies, Sutherland argues that the internet and digital image sharing affords the means for the “commodification of the deaths of black people” in ways which seem both eerily similar and somewhat different to previous technologies that aided the circulation of “black death” in the United States.

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Tonia Sutherland, speaking on Zoom, recorded by University of Michigan iSchool, October 2020.

Exploring what it means to treat “human beings as embodied records,” Sutherland follows performance studies scholar Harvey Young in arguing that separating the “idea and the corpus” of black bodies has a dangerous tendency, especially in digital spaces.

Sutherland turns first to examine the records of Atlantic slavery. [1]  Between 2013 and 2016, the Danish National Archives digitized one kilometer of shelf space of colonial-era records, which resulted in five million digital images. These UNESCO World Heritage-designed records were then placed online on a website “The Danish West Indies – Sources of History,” which opened on March 1, 2017. [2] However, even though these digital archives of slavery “hold the promise of new historical knowledge and the potential for genealogical reconstruction for the descendants of enslaved people,” the access to the records has “the potential to lead to the uncritical sharing of images and other data that are rooted in trauma, hate, and death.” Digitization of historical records, Sutherland claims, contributes “to a distancing of the lived experiences of enslaved people.”

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Sutherland turns next to the subject of lynching postcards, which became available through the quick production of photographs in the late nineteenth century, as well as the immediate transmission of news about lynching through radio during the early twentieth century. Sutherland follows scholars who contend that such visual and oral representations of lynched black bodies extended “claims of white supremacy” beyond the in-person mob who took part in or watched a lynching. Similarly, the recent death of George Perry Floyd Jr., whose life was extinguished by members of the Minneapolis police on June 9, 2020, became more widely available. Images of his death were conveyed to an international audience through almost real-time digital video photography. Careful to distinguish the sociotechnical differences between lynching postcards and the video of Floyd’s death, Sutherland suggests that the internet allows the trauma of racialized violence to be “more easily re-experienced.”

Other topics for Dr. Sutherland’s critical investigation include storing information in DNA for the long term; posthumous performances like the digital resurrection of Tupac Shakur in 2012 at the Coachella Music Festival; and a “suite of digital afterlife services,” which tempt users with the illusion of immortality through digital chatbots and memorial pages. In each of these case studies, the question of where the lines “between memorialization and commodification,” or between the right to be forgotten and the right to remember, is drawn. The European Union’s GDPR points towards a legal definition of the right to be forgotten, though is not a legal regime without flaws. But, as Dr. Sutherland acknowledges, such a right has not taken hold in the United States because it runs up against “the public’s right to know.” U.S. laws have generally worked to expand the rights of individuals in their abilities to record, remember, and distribute information about other individuals. Consequently, archivists in the United States—with their emphasis on public access and, recently, on online display of digitized records—are simply part of this wider legal and social order. 

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On the other hand, some progress seems to be evident, at least among professional historians. As historian at Brown University, Francoise N. Hamlin, demonstrates in an article in The American Historical Review in April 2020, the decision Hamlin made not to publish or circulate the notes taken after an inspection of the personal papers of African-American activist and autobiographer, Anne Moody, was not an easy one. [3]  Still, the power to forget the past could be determined in collaboration with the individual, or possibly in conjunction with the closest family member to the individual, after their death.

[1] Harvey Young. Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body. University of Michigan Press, 2010.

[2] D. Agostinho, “Archival encounters: rethinking access and care in digital colonial archives,” Archival Science 19 (2019): 141–165, accessed at https://doi.org/10.1007/s10502-019-09312-0

[3] Françoise N. Hamlin, “Historians and Ethics: Finding Anne Moody,” The American Historical Review, Volume 125, Issue 2 (April 2020): 487–497, accessed at https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/rhz1228.

Dr. Eric C. Stoykovich

College Archivist and Manuscript Librarian, Watkinson Library, Trinity College (Hartford, CT)

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