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Developing a Digital Picture of Race

illustration of laptop with digitized image

Jessica Marie Johnson’s research stretches across the Atlantic, travels back and forth in time, and traverses analog and digital space. 

An assistant professor of history at the Krieger School, Johnson maintains a sprawling range of ongoing research into the history of slavery and the nature of Black lives. Since coming to Hopkins in 2016, Johnson’s innovations in digital humanities have girded her understanding of how African American women have lived and envisioned what freedom might look like.  

Johnson’s methods have also fully engaged her students in research that attempts to answer questions of race and rebellion. Foremost among her works in progress is Life x Code: Digital Humanities Against Enclosure, which she says is a research project designed to get Hopkins history students comfortable with using new technologies to mine historical data.   

Started last fall, Life x Code (“We pronounce it ‘life code,’ but throw the ‘x’ in there,” Johnson says with a laugh) has already sent a quartet of budding Hopkins historians out into the field to explore matters regarding race and society.  

It’s a way to bring graduate students into the field of digital humanities. And it represents one aspect of social justice work.”

—Jessica Marie Johnson

As they explore a range of Black historical subjects, students learn how to use platforms such as StoryMaps, which helps them turn images, narration, and a timeline into a compelling visual story; Omeka, a free and open-source platform that makes it easy to turn online digital collections into exhibits; and Twine, which allows for interactive storytelling.  

Christina Thomas, a Hopkins doctoral student who also manages the Life x Code program, is currently at work on several projects, including one involving a nearly 200-year-old Methodist congregation in West Baltimore. Her goal is to put analog church records online, and then create a historical documentary from interviews with church leaders and parishioners. Eventually, the video will be shown on YouTube, she hopes. 

“Church elders are looking for ways to share their stories and to broadcast them,” adds Johnson. “We really need to preserve these community perspectives.” 

Johnson’s efforts expand beyond campus. Hopkins and several other universities have put digital tech to work on transcribing and digitizing 19th-century ads offering bounties for runaway slaves. Students then add in other digital content to give a fuller picture of slave life. 

Johnson’s schedule has been chock-full lately. Besides winning a Johns Hopkins Diversity Award earlier this year, her book—Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World—was published this summer by the University of Pennsylvania Press. 

Yet, Life x Code represents her research focus most compellingly. 

“In a broad sense, it’s about filling gaps and making space for populations that have been overlooked and marginalized,” Johnson says. “It’s a way to bring graduate students into the field of digital humanities. And it represents one aspect of social justice work. It ties in with my goal of using digital-humanities teaching to inspire research into how we can overthrow racist systems.”