Decolonizing the Digital Literary Canon through Digitizing “Chicory”

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Editor’s note: This is the second post in a three-part series on the Chicory Revitalization Project.   

In my first post in this series, I argued that Chicory, a community poetry magazine from Baltimore in the 1960s, could be a valuable resource for public historians seeking the perspectives of regular people, particularly working-class African American young people, about the tumultuous era they lived through. With little mediation by editors, their words are preserved in Chicory. In this post, I will discuss how and why we digitized Chicory, the possibilities of decolonizing digital literary history, and the challenges faced in digitizing recent literary sources associated with resources, copyright, ethics, audience, and accessibility.

More than a historical source, Chicory also upends conceptualizations of the traditional poetry canon and the Black Arts Movement poetry canon. Poetry is thought of as the epitome of high art, best written by well-educated professionals. The Black Arts Movement countered these assumptions, as did the Beats before them. Writers in Chicory did so too, like Gloria Green. She wrote in her poem, “Black Poetry Does,” published in the May 1979 issue:

Kaufman & Baraka hammer nails

into my brain buildin bridges between half-thoughts

shaking me alive w/ spirits/rhythms

forming dark continents w/ in

My heroes ride no white horses

they come rapped in verses like fresh lemons piled on a stair.

Not only does Green name drop Bob Kaufman and Amiri Baraka, two influential figures in the Black Arts Movement, the image of “lemons piled on a stair” reference Baraka’s famous poem, “Black Art,” showing her knowledge of the Black Arts Movement and Green’s skill as a poet.

Even though the Black Arts Movement was a popular movement that spread throughout the country and empowered people to see themselves as artists, today, it is primarily remembered for the work of a select few. Baraka, Kaufman, Haki Madhubuti, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Sonia Sanchez, among others, have become the Black Arts poetry canon. Women like Gloria Green, who show us how diverse and popular the movement was, are forgotten.

Collage of images including a woman dancing, an African figurine, a man playing the guitar, a man drumming, a man painting, children and adults

This cover of “Chicory” from October 1975 shows the variety of arts activities seen as part of the Black Arts Movement.

In 2017, the Pratt Library and I digitized every issue of Chicory, making them available online. By doing so, we are helping to decolonize, or diversify, the digital literary canon. As digital literary scholar Amy Earhart argues, digitization can be “an activist intervention in the closed canon.” Most well-funded digital humanities projects focus on “the narrow digital canon,” putting resources towards digitizing the already-famous, like Walt Whitman, who fit into our national mythologies. A similar narrow Black Arts canon has been created. The Poetry Foundation’s website and Black Past’s page on the Black Arts Movement are extraordinary resources, but focus on the big names already mentioned here. Chicory illuminates additional spaces and voices within the Black Arts Movement.

Digitizing Chicory intervenes in both the traditional literary canon and the Black Arts canon. It expands the definition of poetry by showing how poetry is an art of the people. The Chicory project also makes visible the work of poets like Green, who helped build the Black Arts Movement through her writing, but never achieved fame.


Successes and Challenges: Digitizing Recent History

Resources: Chicory is now part of Digital Maryland, the state digitization program, whose mission is to “facilitate the digitization and digital exhibition of the historical and cultural documents, images, audio and video held by Maryland institutions.” However, the program has only one staff person, a small budget, and a long queue of material to digitize. To expedite the process, I raised about $700 through Rutgers University-Newark, which paid for a commercial vendor to scan the entire collection.

Digitization is just the first step in the process of creating an accessible online collection for the public. Linda Tompkins-Baldwin, Digital Maryland Coordinator, uploaded the digitized files to Digital Maryland, which uses the ContentDM collection management system. Without her labor, including adding metadata, the files might have ended up living on a hard drive on a shelf instead of boxes in a storage room. Now, we have multiple copies of Chicory, both physical and digital media. As librarians and archivists like to say, “lots of copies keep stuff safe.”

Copyright: The library was concerned about who legally held the copyright to the material in Chicory. Contributors never signed waivers or consent forms. Some even included a trademark symbol next to their names. Others published pieces with just a first name or nickname. There was no way to find every contributor after all this time. After consulting with a copyright lawyer, I suggested to the library that because the magazine was originally created with federal funds and was published by the library, that it belonged to the public. After much discussion, they agreed.

Ethics: Copyright protects institutions from litigation, but we must also consider ethics, or the harm or benefit to the creators of the content. Scholars may see an obvious benefit to digitizing and making these materials available, but the people who wrote for Chicory may still be alive and wish to assert their rights as authors. We had to ask ourselves whether it was ethical to take a poem written by a teenager in 1970 and make it available on the internet—a kind of distribution that could not have been imagined when the author first published the piece.

Following the work of librarians and historians, we asked ourselves: is there potential harm to people by making materials accessible? In this case, we thought the risk was extremely low, but if anyone finds their poem and wants it deleted from the collection, we will honor that. To date, no one has asked. In fact, we’ve heard from contributors who are delighted that work they thought was lost forever is now accessible, suggesting that we need to balance benefits, like the joy of someone finding their work which they thought was lost is not, with concerns about harm.

Access or Preservation: Scanning gave us an image of each page, which reserved the author’s preferred formatting, and a text version that allows the magazine to be searchable. Searchability through keywords created a new way to use the material that did not exist in its print run, which didn’t have an index. Searching allows users to find information anywhere in the magazine, whether that’s the editor’s notes to each issue, or a poem. Artwork is not searchable, however; this is a problem that the project would like to address in the future.

At the moment, I see the current digital Chicory collection as primarily for the purpose of long-term preservation rather than for users. Fewer than 10 libraries in the U.S. hold issues of Chicory. As the saying goes, lots of copies keep stuff safe. But preservation is not access.

A popular meme: On the left side of the image is an upset, angry, crying woman pointing her finger, while being held by another woman. Above the crying woman is the caption "You can just search full text!" On the right side is a white cat, sitting on a chair in front of salad. Above the cat is the caption "Metadata."

Metadata includes information about a text that can help users find what they’re looking for, even if the author didn’t use those specific words. Metadata cat reminds us, however, that full text is not the same thing as metadata. Image credit: Emily Dust Nimsakont, @enimsakont on Twitter.

The digitized material is technically accessible to anyone with an internet connection. But, in practice, it’s cumbersome to use. In part, there’s too much information. How do you give people an entry point into Chicory if they don’t already know what they’re looking for? Keywords may not bring up all the results. Poetry is not journalism. Poets use figurative language, similes, and metaphors, making keyword searching hit and miss. We considered tagging each poem with its themes as a solution, but tags are not searchable in ContentDM, thus reducing their usefulness.

Audience: Questions about accessibility are really questions about audience. We intend this project to reach young people in Baltimore, poets, and scholars in various fields. Does the current digital collection reach those people? In the last post in this series, Sydney Johnson, a graduate student at Rutgers University-Newark, will discuss her project to use Instagram as a platform to reach new audiences for the Chicory archive, particularly young writers and people of color.


~Mary Rizzo is the associate director of Public and Digital Humanities Initiatives at Rutgers University-Newark. She is the author of Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore Beyond John Waters and The Wire (2020), and Class Acts: Young Men and the Rise of Lifestyle (2015).

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