• Kasey Peters

The Trudgy Muck of Reading Racist Old Texts: A Reckoning in the Digital Humanities



For those lucky few in this world not familiar with the process of converting a historical, hard-copy text into a digital copy, I’ll regale you. Somebody scans or takes a high quality picture of a historical document. That image is converted to a PDF. If the image is nice and square, if the page is flat, and if the contrast between ink and paper is strong, a digital humanities research assistant like me, thanks to the magic of Optical Character Recognition (OCR), can simply highlight the text, copy and paste it into some text editor, and clean it up for the HTML coding necessary to make the text available on an online database. Viola.


Alas. As has always been my (limited) experience with Digital Humanities, I find myself once again simply transcribing not insubstantial swaths of archaic and barely legible text, squinting sideways at the screen like looking just to the side of a star so that it doesn’t wink out into dark nothing. The text is barely legible this time not because the typeset was manual or because it was printed in ink-runny Ye Olde Englishe, or even because the quality of the physical page on which it was printed has gone tissue paper with time, but because some distant, anonymous student intern hurried through the capture of this image, and the page is warped with movement, absurd curvature, and an occasional grubby thumb in the picture. The thumb is not actually grubby. But I resent the thumb.


Here, I’ll share some OCR with you:


o(~· t ~ar hord Jesus: ther~fore, I run all the <t • im to teac me, no.t only in my head but in 11f-It 1s so lovely when he teaclles me 1 ' .[ ...... 1. • h h bl .. , , 10w poor ~4Jlll .pOW nc t e ood of Jesus makes me poor sinner ...


You get the picture. Sometimes you just have to be a fast typist, instead of using the OCR. Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly when to switch from correcting moderately garbled OCR to simply transcribing. I spend a good amount of time in the trudgy muck, oscillating between the two. And something strange is happening to my brain. You might see above that you know what “teaclles” is supposed to be: teaches. Look at mediocre OCR long enough, and you won’t even see the problems anymore.


The material I am converting for digital availability is documentation of 19th Century Christiam missionary ‘work’ in Africa and the South Pacific. The material is being digitized under the auspices of reclaiming BIPOC voices. When I began working with the material, I knew only that it was part of a larger project in which documents were being digitized for Victorian studies. Maybe stupidly, I assumed that I would be converting a different kind of writing. Maybe creative work, maybe personal work. “Travel narratives, autobiographies, letters, diaries, testimonies,” etc. My ignorance: I didn’t expect to be working exclusively with missionary correspondence. Technically, they are travel narratives, and they are letters—they are the reports of traveling missionaries, the letters of mission-school students. Native people working as assistants in religious and bureaucratic conversion, native people folded into the colonial infrastructure.


I read-but-don’t-read about the trials and travails of British missionaries in their encounters and conflicts with the people of India, and about Dutch missionaries doing more or less the same in South Africa. The documents I work with are often correspondence pieces ostensibly written by, or transcribed on behalf of, indigenous people in those places enrolled in the missionary schools, or working as assistants to white missionaries. I say ‘don’t-read’ both because it is a kind of surface proof-reading, but also because this stuff is gross. These are letters written by (or, again, transcribed on behalf of) Indians and Islanders and Black Africans who recount their humility, their allegiance, their gratitude. They describe the local population’s resistance to Christianlty in terms that are deeply dehumanizing and racist: depravity, ignorance, savage, heathen. It is the language of their colonizers. It is hard for me to recognize these pieces as being in their voices.


Here is an excerpt from a speech on the island of Tutuila, in the Samoan Islands, given to a gathering of indigenous people by a native pastor, a person named Diphukwe. Diphukwe discusses the urgency of providing housing for the priests, to which, one can surmise, the people have been resistant.


' To-day,' he reBUmed, the BamangwaketAle, the Ba.kwena, and the Bamangwato—all your own people—have all got teachers, and are learniDig the Word of· God; and to-day—this day of God—the white teacher has come to you with a word from the great ones of the churches of England to say, •' Where oan the teachers live ? " and with a word f1·om the living God, to say, "The Good Shephel'd, Jesus Ohriat, who is my Son, gave His life for the sheep ; " and you are the sheep, Ba.tauana. For myself, I say that we ought to be glad and thankful to the people of England


I read this, and I am doing a double-reading. First I am making wrong letters into right ones, converting reBUmed into resumed, Shephel’d into Shepherd, Ohriat into Christ (or maybe better, “Oh, RIOT”); and second, I am trying to read beneath these words. I am trying to imagine this person, Diphukwe, who encourages the gathering of local people to accept the missionary organization of their society and the material appropriation of their land, goods, and people. I am trying to catch hold of the voice in bim that runs beneath these words; I am trying to hear him. Because these words are not in Diphukwe’s native language, and they were not written by him, but spoken by him, recorded by somebody else.


An aside, to explain why I am keeping some weird misspellings in this text: In grade school, I was thrilled to discover that I could read upside down, both because “brains are freaking amazing!” and because my brain was particularly good at it. Few other students eould match me. The more I read opside down, the easier it was. I was a show off during reacling time, holding my book upside down, and Mr. MacIntosh requested that I prove myself by reading aloud to the class. He stopped me after a full page: he sighed, I beamed like the smug little turd I was. But my brain gravitates toward word puzzles, toward disorientation with language. And this double reading that I do of the OCR texts feels reminiscent of that discovery: words are made up of patterns are made up of letters are made up of shapes. L1nes and curvcs end dots. What this means is that I am actually pretty bad at proof-reading the OCR text, as my fellow RA will tell you. (Sorry, Trevor.) I gradually lose the ability to see the errors. My brain just reads for meaning. But it also means that I constantly confront myself as a reader, with the knowledge that I am always only interpreting. And I know that I develop certain habits of interpretation; I rely on well-worn frameworks that I must recognize and reassess. This has come to the forefront as I engage with these historical texts. Who the hell is speaking? How can we possibly know?


In my upside-down reading of Diphukwe’s speech, I try to imagine subtle, tactical phrasing be might have used, transcribed by a white priest as “you are the sheep, Batauana.” I imagine a man weighing the urgency of immediate peace against the threat of long-term violence. I imagine a man determined to hope. I imagine, too, the possibility that the transcription might be perfectly accurate, that be did say and mean exactly these things, “be glad and thankful to the people of England” as the people of England extracted and destroyed and enslaved and indoctrinated with self-hatred, and either way it opens a well in me, a well of sorrow for him and fury on his behalf.


In three brief letters written by girls enrolled in the Sunderland Chr1stian missionary school in India to the supporters of the Missionary Society, students describe their studies in similar detail. All three end their letters with a psalm. Two of the girls disclose their poverty; all three reiterate their humility, their gratitude, and their need for support. I can only imagine these letters as an assignment, dictated in the class, coached like the five-part essays we insist on extracting from high schoolers. “Your affectionate girl,” and “Yours, affectionately,” they christen themselves. “God be merciful to me a sinner,” ends Tooloosee’s letter; Lutchmee closes her letter with “Cleanse thou me from my secret faults.”


Insidious, all of it. I hope these girls were the privately disdainful high schoolers I imagine them to be. I hope Lutchmee wrote this with a little sarcasm. I hope Tooloosee was absentmindedly looping out her letters, admiring her own handwriting, thinking about how much she was looking forward to a hot supper. I hope them some inner fortress of self. I even hope the letters’ groveling tone was added by a white missionary society typist. I even wish for the letters not to exist. Because they’re not the actual letters we have images of—have I mentioned that?—the thumb-warped images are only transcriptions of the actual, whatever the actual actually was. These documents are collected in Missionary Society magazines, to garner the continued financial support of their white Cbristion base back home. They are propaganda.


I don’t know that we are reclaiming the voices of Black and Indigenous people in their humanities. The idea that they can be reclaimed, that their voices are just buried in un-digitized documents and that the suppression can be in some small way corrected with digitization, is a kind of erasure of what white colonialism and white Chr1stianity wrought for the nominal authors of these texts. The suppression has happened in decades of academia, sure, but it happened in real time, as they spoke; it happened right at their throats.


Projects like these, I think, depend on what we do with them. I am a Digital Humanities noob, and the 19th Century is not my area of expertise, if I have one. And I’m sure (or, I hope) that this single project is not the single representative of a broader 19th Century studies engagement with racism and colonialism. But this work reminds me with a fierceness that the legacy and language of Clmshamty and whiteness are intertwined. This reclamation as I perceive it is less about Black and Indigenous voices, and more about an accounting of whiteness and colonialism. A reckoning, one hopes. A confrontation with the pervasive refutation of whiteness as racialization.


Perhaps in 19th Century studies, as in literature, the work and art of white people has broadly and for too long been considered just art or just work, while the work or art of non-white people is perceived primarily through the lens of racialization. What can be reclaimed here is not the just work of Diphukwe or Lutchmee, but the racializing work of white people. The literary art and work of white people is also about race. The freedom we white people think we have to write and think and read about everything other than race is a privilege that whiteness affords us, at the expense of everybody else. Most of us have only been pretending that it isn’t part of our voice, and that it isn’t any obligation of ours. But of course it is. We have to hone our practice of reading everything such that we can see that clearly.