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African-American Studies : Where to begin on the web?

by Emma Lambert (1),
University of Birmingham (UK)

Want to review other web sites for an online directory of African American Studies?
(See Building a Resource)

The resources available online to researchers and students of African American history, society, culture and literature, are many, and growing almost daily. In seeking to use such resources, students in particular, are frequently confused by the sheer volume of information available, and unsure where to begin researching an African-American topic. Based upon my experiences of teaching African-American history, the following reviews of selected sites (and by no means exhaustive!) are intended to provide an insight into the wealth of materials on the web, and to direct those new to these topics to explore useful first sites. (All URLs are correct as at time of going to press, and have been accessed during September/October 2000.)

Where to begin?

For those, particularly students, who have little or no knowledge of the field, one of the most useful introductory sites in African-American studies comes from the Encyclopaedia Britannica's Guide to Black History online at http://blackhistory.eb.com, for whom the site offers a broad and easily navigable introduction. The site is well organized, easy to follow, searchable, and very user-friendly. The Time Line offers a selective chronological history from 1517 to the present, including major events in African/American history. The chronology also contains useful links to articles on key terms, events and people. For those who are daunted by the comprehensive timeline, Eras in Black History offers a selected, thematic look at African-American history through eras - 1517 to 1863, 1863 to 1896, 1896 to 1929, 1929 to 1954 and 1954 to Present. Information within this section is presented in sections such as "Arts and Education" and "Civil Rights" and is particularly useful for anyone wanting to trace the development of a particular element across a longer period of time. The Articles section is the e-text equivalent of a text encyclopedia, offering alphabetized entries in one section on people, and in a second section on events and institutions. The first includes African Americans as diverse as Mohammed Ali, Maya Angelou, Nat King Cole, Ida B. Wells and Tiger Woods, and the latter on abolitionism, through the Nation of Islam to the UNIA. The site also contains an extensive bibliography, and is a comprehensive introductory site.

For those who have some knowledge of African-American studies, those looking to further their knowledge, or those requiring more detailed sites and information, the Britannica site, although always useful as a reference tool, may not be the most appropriate starting point. If this is the case, there are few sites better to start your search at than the Rutgers site http://www.libraries.rutgers.edu/rulib/socsci/hist/afrores.htm. This is an extensive collection of links to African-American web resources, organized by thematic sections - Reference Sources, Text Collections, Periodicals and News Sources, Archival Sites and Electronic Texts (by century). The range of links is indeed impressive (although since not all of the links work or are active, can also be a little frustrating). The Reference Sources section contains information on documents and bibliographies such as an excellent bibliography on Slavery, and a listing of 425 theses and dissertations on African-American topics. Through the Access to Text Collections section, can be reached sites like the Library of Congress' "African American Mosaic" and a large collection of African American writers through the Black History and Literature site at the University of Keele (UK). Links to Periodicals cover publications such as a range of African American newspapers and Black World Today. There are also links to a range of African-American groups and organizations. Of particular use to university/high school students looking for primary documentation is the E-Text section, which contains a range of texts for each century from the 18th to the 20th century, including slave narratives and writing by Afro-American thinkers and leaders such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. This really is a fantastic resource and well worth bookmarking for future reference.

You might also begin at the Schomburg Centre's website, particularly if you are interested in research in African American archival collections, of which the center holds many. The Manuscripts and Archives digital collection provides full information of the available through detailed online finding aids - a new addition to the site. The collection includes, for example, the papers of Paul Robeson and of Gwendolyn Bennett and papers relating to Angela Davis and to the American Negro Theatre. http://www.nypl.org/research/sc/sc.html. The site also contains several Digital collections accessible online. African American Women Writers of the 19th Century, is an e-text archive of writing by African American women including Harriet Jacobs, Eloise Bibb, Phillis Wheatly and Soujourner Truth to name only a few. The full range of documents is searchable by author and title, and individual documents are keyword searchable - very useful for researchers or students attempting to trace thematic concerns across a range of authors/texts. Images of African Americans from the 19th Century is a similar style archive of information, but dealing with visual representations of African Americans, again searchable by categories and by keywords, and accompanied by a good introduction. Two digital exhibitions Harlem 1900-1940 : An African American Community (Read a review of this site by Kristin Mapel Bloomberg - http://www.Georgetown.edu/crossroads/asw/sitescene3.html#afam-1) and The Schomburg Legacy - Documenting the Global Black Experience for the 21st Century are also available and of interest for research and/or teaching purposes.

A couple of other sites also make for excellent starting points in particular areas. The Library of Congress' African American Mosaic provides a guide to the study of black history and culture, based upon the archival holdings of the Library of Congress. http://lcweb.loc.gov/exhibits/african/intro.html. The topics represented are carefully selected to coincide with archival holdings, and are, therefore, not as wide ranging as the topics covered by other sites. However, within the four topic areas currently on display (colonialisation, abolition, migration and the WPA era) the collection is strong. The site is easy to navigate, and document based - you can view, for example, a map comparing slave and free states, a map of the ethnic neighbourhoods of Chicago, and can access WPA slave narratives. Finally, the Black History Museum site at http://www.afroam.org/history/history.html provides excellent interactive essays on a range of subjects, primarily focusing upon racial struggle. Here you will find information on slave resistance, the Black Panthers and the African-American experience of World War Two, alongside more focused exhibits on Jackie Robinson, the Million Man March, and advertising of the 1920s and 1930s. Most take the form of essays with interactive links.

Building a Resource

49th Parallel would like to begin to compile an online directory of reviewed websites in African-American studies. If you have visited a site not reviewed here, either on a general or a more specific topic of African American Studies, we would like to receive your review of it. Reviews should be approximately 200 words in length, and should cover the following points, as appropriate :-

  • Correct URL and date of access
  • Title of Site
  • Organisation/Institution/Individual responsible for the site
  • Description of Contents
  • Review of Contents
  • Reviewer Recommendations - accessibility, suitability, points of interest etc.

Please email reviews as Word attachments to Emma Lambert (lamberel@hhs.bham.ac.uk). Reviews will be published in the next edition of 49th Parallel and held online as a permanent resource for readers.

(1)  Emma Lambert is currently completing her doctoral thesis at the University of Birmingham,  England, where she also teaches 20th Century American History, and African-American history since slavery.