Intersecting Black Histories, Art Practice, and Information History

By Courtney Richardson

My scholarship involves imagining new ways of representing Black American experiences with the intent to encourage reviews (and new views) of known and less known stories from my cultural heritage. I work towards contributing additional perspectives on how knowledge can be visually transmitted between maker and public and am crafting an interdisciplinary practice that combines theories of knowledge transmission with art. I imagine part of this scholarship to engage with my community through immersive or experiential spaces. I want them to feel inspired/invited to leave their impressions on these spaces, ranging from submitted questions/comments to actual modifications of the space and artwork.

For example, I was able to share the beginning phase of my textile work with classmates (who were non-info-sci and non-art majors) before the pandemic.

Courtney Richardson, Name Travel, incomplete (working title), detail photo. 2019–Present. Digitally printed on cotton, embroidered with red metallic thread. About 40in. square.

I presented a visual study that visualized a 2016 historically-based dataset re-presenting 1,000 Black free(d) and runaway individuals (historically labeled the Black Loyalists) who opted to be transported from New York (America) to Nova Scotia (Canada) after the American Revolution in hopes to flee anti-black racism. With the intention to amplify the humanity of those documented, I focused on visualizing individual names—as this was the most unique identifier remaining in the dataset version of a 1783 manuscript entitled, Book of Negroes (B.O.N).[1] I intended to study and present the disruptive, transitory, and indeterminate experiences of migration that was not wholly forced but also not entirely free-willed. Broader insights and questions I hoped to raise involved matters of re/mis-identification, re/dis-orientation and mobility of those who were transported within oppressive spaces.

Most recently, I have extended this work to a broader study of information practices within transatlantic slave history. Focusing on description practices, I identified close similarities between how runaway and free(d) people were physically described in B.O.N. to how enslaved people were described within historical documents utilized for slave industry. In these documents physical descriptions were standardized to measure, value, and commoditize humans based on perceived labor output. Although slavery was still legalized during the time B.O.N. was created, this document was not a slave accounting record. Why and how then were people still inspected and described as human property within this document? I examine these questions from an Information History perspective by reviewing information practices, which normalized and accelerated the use of textual description that objectified groups of people for profit. Returning to the presentation of my artwork to my classmates, I was able to share insights about history, data, and knowledge production in a form that differed from charts and graphs more typically identified with data visualization. This instead provided data they could also touch and question from various perspectives. I am not positive that I will be able to replicate such as a close-shared reading due to the pandemic. So creating a space for connectivity and close reading between physical material and the public is a challenge I plan to work through (or grapple with) as a PAGE fellow.

Featured Image: Courtney Richardson, Name Travel, incomplete (working title), process image. 2019–Present. Digitally printed on cotton, embroidered with red metallic thread. About 40in. square.


[1] Consisting of 3,000 entries, two original versions of the handwritten manuscript exist. British and American officers recorded them in separate books at the same time during registration. This artwork references the British version, which resides in the National Archives of the United Kingdom. You can view a fully digitized version of the manuscript along with more contextual information on Nova Scotia’s governmental website: https://archives.novascotia.ca/africanns/. The 2016 dataset I reference is an open source dataset available through the same website (https://data.novascotia.ca/Arts-Culture-and-History/-Book-of-Negroes-1783/xxcy-v3fh).


10 responses to “Intersecting Black Histories, Art Practice, and Information History”

  1. Caroline Cheung says:

    Courtney, your textile work is stunning! The way you’ve re-envisioned and remembered this history, and these individuals, through textile is impressive & impactful. I would love to hear more about your pedagogy and how you teach through and with your textile work.

    • @Caroline – thanks so much :)! My pedagogy practices utilizing textile have yet to be really practiced or extensively investigated…so far I have only focused on textile-work as a form of research. In my doctoral program, I’ve only TA’d for an Info-Sci intro course this term and before that, I was a RA. A few years ago when I was lecturer in Graphic Design – was the closest I came to sharing this type of thinking to students (and this was even more undeveloped then). So I’d definitely love to chat or hear more about your approach and stances on pedagogy (as well as the other fellows).

  2. Adrienne Adams says:

    Courtney! I am in love with your piece and work. Your work shows how these three topics (Black Histories, Art Practice, and Information History) were always connected and must be read in connection to one another. The spatial layout of the names in your artwork, specifically the grid-like formation, demonstrates what you discuss in the last paragraph about the taxonomic system to classify and record enslaved persons.

    Your work also has clarified for me how the separation of these topics are part of a larger project in Western philosophy to bifurcate the sciences (which unevenly included Information Studies) and Aesthetics (Art Practice). Such a separation masks how the science and aesthetics worked in conjunction to classify the Black Body and fuel the industry of enslavement.

    I am excited to chat more with you about your work!

    • @adrienne – YES – thanks so much for your comments. I definitely look towards chatting more with you regarding both of our interests! That part about Western philosophy art/science separation – YES. Looking forward to talking shop, especially your experiences with Digital Humanities. So happy to connect and be a part of this cohort :D.

  3. Amrut Mishra says:

    Courtney, thank you so much for the comments on my post–similar to what I said about Green’s work enthralling me, “Name Travel” has me floored. I think the way that you chose to represent the archival material that weaves together names of runaway and free(d) people provides so much to think with. I also love the nuance and care you show towards these stories when you write that you” intended to study and present the disruptive, transitory, and indeterminate experiences of migration that was not wholly forced but also not entirely free-willed.”

    I’ll be in touch soon because we definitely need to chat!

    • Thank you @amrut!! I am really looking forward to connect about both of our projects. Just the concepts and nuances of “weaving” feels so endless when thinking about or attempting to study history(ies) and its connection to our present…

  4. Ionah Scully says:

    This is amazing and to see this work–these stories–come into textile is so unique. I was drawn by your application essay and again now by your telling of lesser known stories; it is something also I endeavor to do in the work around the women and Two Spirit individuals in the history of my nation. I’m looking forward to connecting and working with you this year!

  5. Trisha says:

    Thank you for sharing this work with us. I love so many parts about this project, from your methodology of approaching your primary source, to the principles informing the practice, and then the use of textiles to allow the audience to “feel” the data in another way. I can’t wait to learn more from your work!

  6. Trisha Remetir says:

    Hi Courtney, thank you for sharing this work! I loved being able to hear about the methodology, principles, and values behind this project and how they all come together in your commitment to sharing lesser known stories. The use of textiles to allow the onlooker to “feel” the data in this way is brilliant. I get why this pandemic has you thinking those questions of how to create a similar experience. It makes me think maybe a project by mail or by sharing some kind of pattern would be in your future practice? So many thoughts… I can’t wait to see how it next takes shape.

  7. Keitlyn Alcantara says:

    WOW! What an incredible way to visualize history and emotion and movement with textiles. thank you for sharing!

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