DH and Obeah: Amorphous forms of Resistance

The readings and sites to explore this week, perhaps precisely because they were juxtaposed, presented interesting parallels between Digital Humanities and the Black Atlantic. Both seem to find themselves in constant pursuit of definition. Both, in that effort, struggle with the benefits and drawbacks of inclusion and exclusion. Both, too, contain in their very DNAs a vital pluralism of disciplines and denizens.

As I poked around in the last site assigned, the Early Caribbean Digital Archive out of Northwestern, I found myself drawn to the exhibit on Obeah, a religious power forged from the mix of spiritual traditions over time and across space in the Caribbean and an idea brand new to me. The more I read about Obeah, the more it sounded like DH as presented in the three intros to Debates in the Digital Humanities: a potentially powerful and mutable force for resistance and social change.

One section of the exhibit is entitled “Is Obeah religion, science, or cultural practice?” Its opening lines sound similar to the 2012 Debates intro, as the ECDA explained: “The answer to this is complicated, and it might depend on who you ask. For some, it is distinctively one of these things, for others, it might be a combination of them all.”

In other sections, the ECDA exhibit refers to the two most prominent responses to Obeah by the colonial powers: ridicule and fear. I’ve heard both from academic colleagues in response to DH.

The initial inception of the ECDA predates Debates, yet in the following lines I hear echoes of Matt and Lauren’s 2016 call to consider what it means to expand the field:

“While Obeah is not uniform or universal in its practice, it is inclusive. Because of the endless iterations of cultures, ethnicities, and colonizers coming together, all with different roots and belief systems, it would be nearly impossible to have uniformity in any way within the Obeah community. Instead, it sought out acceptance of all practices of Obeah.”


It’s not much of a stretch to read these lines with equal truth when Obeah is replaced by DH and “cultures, ethnicities, and colonizers” are replaced by “disciplines, methods, and practitioners.” Like Obeah, DH seems stronger for its reach than its roots.

The ECDA goes on to say:

“This exhibit also foregrounds politics of gender and age in relation to obeah. Because of the nature and inclusivity of its practice, obeah was a mode of empowerment and social mobility for blacks, both free and enslaved, of a variety of different genders, marital statuses, and age groups. The history of obeah is often primarily oral and, as this exhibit shows, is also one that shifts to fit the circumstances of its people across time, location, and colonial situation.”


While perhaps less directly applicable, these lines too seem to mirror the growth of DH—one that seeks dialogue with and input from a range of areas of interests and expertise, of identities and stages of career, and of speeds and scopes. DH, like Obeah, is flexible in form which allows it a kind of shape-shifting ability in its work for social good in response to social ills.

While these parallels may be reductive, one thing is for certain: the ECDA is a clear example of good that DH can do because of its ability both to utilize and to distance itself from traditional disciplines. It has digitized sources from far-flung archives. It provides these sources for free and without registration hurdles to the internet-enabled public (without much demand on bandwidth, as far as my exploration can tell). It offers several lenses through which to explore the collection, encouraging a broad range of interpretation. And, it explicitly seeks to “decolonize the archive.”

Of course, the EDCA also makes some of the ethical missteps the Debates intros unflinchingly recognize: the ECDA is in English only, it was birthed in a well-funded and American university, and many of its early project alums seem not to be of Caribbean origin or descent. So, while the ECDA is already of real use, so much of its continued success may rest on its ability to address these issues. As the 2019 Debates intro entreats us, “As individuals and as a field, we must interrogate our work to ensure that we are not ourselves complicit in the neoliberal practice of naming problems in order to evade their resolution.”

2 thoughts on “DH and Obeah: Amorphous forms of Resistance

  1. Shani Tzoref

    I love this, Kelly. The use of “juxtaposition” as frame and heuristic “opens” up so much for me.
    In writing my post, i definitely felt fear– especially about not being able to be comprehensive, and not knowing how to be representative. One of the things i like about the multidimensionality of DH is that it can free me to be fragmentary, associative, to move beyond confines of a particular box. In my post I reverted to the familiarity of a much more static linear form. I felt anxious about scope and scale, and so i imposed a more flat schematic interpretation than I would have liked.
    I also felt fear about exploring Obeah, and your post has been a sort of mediating force, giving me an access point. Following the spirit of juxtaposition, I narrowed the field further and am looking at “Obeah and Gender” (https://ecda.northeastern.edu/home/about-exhibits/obeah-narratives-exhibit/obeah-and-gender/) because this feels in conversation with the focus on Feminism in Lisa Rhody’s Text Analysis course this semester. Unfortunately, I’m not having much success getting from this descriptive page, which seems pretty superficial and general to me, to archival material.

    In recent years, I’ve come to value the concept of “reciprocal illumination” in comparisons– and I see juxtaposition as a form of this, as described at length by Kelly (prof.) in the draft Intro to Black Atlantic and described/implemented by you in this post. (I refer to Arvind Sharma’s use of the term “reciprocal illumination”, in the 2016 edited volume “Interreligious Comparisons in Religious Studies and Theology: Comparison Revisited”, where he builds upon his 2005 book,
    “Religious Studies and Comparative Methodology: The Case for Reciprocal Illumination”, which I have not read. I know the term has a prehistory in biology, genetics).

    A side note, with further juxtaposition, intertextuality. relating to my other posts in our group forum about David Scott’s use of the word “think”. It is possible that one reason this caught my attention is the title of one of the books assigned in the Text Analysis course for this week, also about transformative power of knowledge: “Transformations: Thinking Through Feminism.” That itself is a quite deliberate idiosyncratic usage, with the unusual preposition “through”, and the editors play with that in the intro, also sometimes using the verb with a direct object: “how we can think the histories and futures of feminism; the heading, “Thinking Transformations”, and more.

  2. Marie Brewer

    I think, especially in contrast to my thoughts on EDCA, you make some excellent points about its origin, compared with it’s goal. I am fascinated by their stated intent in decolonizing the archive but especially being only in English – that becomes a more difficult argument to make. Lots to think about here!

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