The ECDA Goes to Cuba

In early June 2018 the ECDA traveled to Havana, Cuba for the Caribbean Studies Association (CSA) conference. This conference was a pivotal moment for the project—since Fall 2017 we’ve been building out a new site, supported through Northeastern University Library’s Digital Scholarship Group, and customized through the CERES toolkit. At CSA, we presented our work on the new site, and solicited feedback from CSA attendees through an interactive workshop on decolonial pedagogy. In the short posts below, ECDA members reflect on their experiences in Cuba, explain how presenting research in the Caribbean altered their notions of a decolonial archive, and look forward to next steps, drawing from feedback received by the workshop participants.


Liz Polcha (PhD candidate in English at Northeastern, ECDA Project Manager): While the ECDA co-directors, Professor Elizabeth Maddock Dillon and Professor Nicole Aljoe, have presented their research in the Caribbean several times, this was the first time I had the chance to attend CSA and share my work on the ECDA in the Caribbean. In Havana, internet access is precarious and can be difficult to obtain–I was hyper aware of my own privilege, as a graduate student situated in a private research university in a North American east coast city, where daily access to internet is taken for granted, and nearly every student at my university has a laptop and a smartphone. Presenting research at a conference without wifi helped me think more carefully about how a digital archive can work in an analog form, and how we can use the digital and analog together. It also meant that our workshop (unlike many digital humanities workshops) wasn’t structured around participants staring at their computer screens while practicing computational methods in a guided environment, but instead involved face to face conversations between those of us presenting and the participants. After giving an overview of the project and presenting a couple of the exhibits we have been working on, we broke into small discussion groups with the twenty or so participants, which led to a vibrant discussion in both Spanish and English. For example, one of the attendees brought up Cuba’s underground hard-drive based internet: el paquete, a cloud-less file sharing system that I was unfamiliar with before travelling to Havana. I can imagine digital projects from across the Americas and the Caribbean creating hard-drive friendly content for el paquete–where Cubans could read decolonial histories of José Antonio Aponte or Three Fingered Jack or Florence Hall. My overall sense from attending CSA and spending time in Cuba was that Cubans have ingenious ways of working with and against the constraints of the digital, and that digital humanities scholars could learn so much from Cuban knowledge systems like el paquete. I am grateful for the opportunity to spend a few days in Havana and can hardly describe here the many ways the experience changed my thinking about Caribbean studies, North American imperialism and colonialism, and how digital research is inflected with imperialist ideology.


Sarah Payne (PhD candidate in English at Northeastern, ECDA Research and Pedagogy lead) Like Liz, this was also my first time in the Caribbean and I was initially taken aback at the difficulties surrounding Internet access. Without reliable Wi-Fi, I had to rethink my ideas about a conference presentation, particularly a digital humanities presentation, in which I would normally have a live version of the site integrated into my talk. Not having a live website to demo forced me to explain more clearly the pedagogical aspects of the site rather than rely on the bells and whistles of technology. During the discussion portion of our workshop, I was struck by the number of participants who questioned how those in the Caribbean, or those with unreliable Internet in general, could still use and interact with the ECDA. One participant emphasized that mobile Internet use was just as, if not more common, than laptop use. As the ECDA has transitioned to a new site this year, however, we haven’t really discussed mobile compatibility. I have also worked as a CERES Research Assistant this year and helped multiple projects transition to this platform, yet I largely don’t discuss mobile formatting and compatibility during training sessions. The CSA workshop revealed this blind spot of mine: my training sessions are built on assumptions regarding laptop ownership and technological access. Another workshop participant also pointed to social media as a common form of online engagement, particularly with younger demographics. Given that college students in the Caribbean would likely be already using the Internet to engage with social media, she suggested that the ECDA consider ways those in the Caribbean can use social media to interact with the project. Both suggestions about mobile compatibility and social media use made me reconsider questions of audience and accessibility and how the technological choices we make about the project should reflect our decolonial motivations. I found the conference incredibly useful and enjoyed our time in Havana immensely. I hope the ECDA can continue to find meaningful ways of collaborating with those in the Caribbean.


Alanna Prince (PhD Student in English at Northeastern, ECDA  Research and Metadata Lead).  I am still processing my time in Cuba. In a sort of intuitive way Cuba felt comfortable and familiar to me. And yet, I was constantly surprised by how different it was from America, and how different it was from my expectations. Being immersed in Cuban Culture, and being at CSA certainly brought a greater sense of obligation to inclusivity to my work at the ECDA. During the Q+A session another scholar asked what we were doing for the people in the Caribbean and I was honestly at a loss– I had thought I *was* doing good work for them, but I struggled to find an answer that wasn’t based in teaching at the higher levels. It was certainly humbling. I realized that many of the conversations I had been having about decolonization were ones that were staying within the academy– I was concerned about the pedagogy of colonization and shifting the way it was taught, but not giving as much thought to the fact I was only really talking to those privileged enough to even be in those academic spaces in the first place. While I have no doubt that this work is important, I am also exploring new ways to centralize the people of the Caribbean in my work now. This has started off in really simple ways, like when I listen to the stories from my Haitian neighbors I pepper in what I know about the colonization of Haiti in order to both inform and affirm their experiences. These are mostly small ways so far, but I hope that I can expand this is into a much larger project.

I also want to echo the sentiments expressed by Liz Polcha and Sarah Payne; I was intensely aware of my privileges being an American (and being one with relative economic security) in Cuba. The lack of internet was a huge deal at first, sometimes frustrating and other times almost scary, but ultimately at the end of the day, it was freeing. Knowing that this was just a break from my iPhone allowed me to indulge in my disconnectedness instead of worrying about when I would connect again. Like I said, I am still processing and it has already been a month. But, I do know that my time in Cuba was paradigm shifting.


David Medina (PhD Student in English at Northeastern, ECDA Research Assistant): Much like the country that hosted it, the annual CSA Conference itself was amazing. During the ECDA’s discussion of our site’s newest features and upcoming projects we heard from scholars who occupy every niche of the academy. We had the great fortune of meeting one of Cuba’s national archivists. She voiced concern and optimism about the relationship between digital and physical archives and noted a need for more reciprocity. It is still surprising and a little disheartening to reflect on the fact that a national archivist of a Caribbean country was preserving documents by way of taking pictures of them with her cell phone. It’s small wonder, then, then that she expressed a need for further collaboration and reciprocity. All in all, the ECDA team received excellent feedback from our audience, but the national archivist’s comments are, for me at least, the thing that continues to resonate the loudest. Even now I wonder about ways in which our project can continue to do more for the physical archives that we have come to rely on. We stand at such a position of privilege in the U.S. academy, one that is afforded by the massive communications infrastructure. How can we best utilize this position? How can the digital archive aid the physical? These are just a few questions that we continue to grapple with. In any event, the ECDA’s visit to Cuba was a useful and exciting experience and one that has helped us (re)consider ways we can advance our shared understanding of the early and the current Caribbean. With any luck, we might find an opportunity to visit Cuba again.

Overall, traveling to Cuba and participating in the annual Caribbean Studies Association conference was, without a doubt, the experience of a lifetime. Because my family hails from the Caribbean and Latin America, Cuba felt like a place that was warmly familiar and yet strangely different all at once. While there is much I can say about the palpable differences between Cuba and the United States, traveling to that warm, sun-soaked country and experiencing its rich culture pushed me to consider the nature of scholarly work done here in the States. Here in the U.S. the ability to access information at nearly any place and any time by way of the affordances of the internet is a distinct feature of our culture. But in other countries, internet access is not as ubiquitous. Traveling to Cuba made this abundantly apparent. And now that we are back in the U.S. our team has begun the task of asking and answering questions about improving access to the ECDA’s scholarly pursuits.


Elizabeth Maddock Dillon (ECDA Co-Director and Professor of English, Northeastern University): One of the key questions for the ECDA, as we have worked on the project over several years, is how to partner with Caribbean scholars and researchers and not enact an extractive (colonial) relation between the U.S. and Caribbean while engaged in building a U.S.-based archive of early Caribbean materials. We have faced something of a chicken-and-egg conundrum: we needed to build something in order to share it, but we didn’t want to build a thing that only locates “knowledge” in the U.S. even as we are trying to build a thing in the U.S. to share. We’re still in the midst of figuring this out, and the trip to Cuba, like other Caribbean workshops, conferences, and conversations before, foregrounded our on-going need to think beyond a U.S.-centric perspective. And it is amazingly easy to be U.S.-centric when you are located in the U.S. The reflections of ECDA team members above will be instrumental as we continue to build the archive. And the comments and ideas of other CSA scholars who generously shared their thoughts at the ECDA workshop will also help us in moving forward with new perspective.


As for me, on this (my first) visit to Cuba, I was struck by the different-history-same-story of colonialism and neo-colonialism in the Caribbean that is more familiar to me from previous work in Jamaica and Haiti. Visiting the Museo de la Revolution in Havana, listening to scholars at the CSA discuss the legal paradoxes of Caribbean sovereignty in locations including Puerto Rico and Haiti, and learning about contemporary social media-based feminist movements in Jamaica and the pan-Caribbean (#TambourineArmy, #lifeinleggings), I had a strong and visceral sense of the “repeating island” history that links the islands of the Caribbean archipelago in their relation to global economies of colonialism, extraction, and dispossession. The links between/across/among the islands of the Caribbean emerge forcefully in the work of CSA scholars and in walking the streets of Cuba, listening to colonial pasts, the history of the Revolution, and the current historical moment as it uncertainly unfolds. One of our early thoughts about the ECDA was to imagine a collection in which early Caribbean materials were archived less in relation to networks of empire than in relation to a Caribbean-based archipelagic geography and culture. Visiting Cuba gave me a strong sense of the urgency of this perspective as well as the challenges of its execution even in digital, rather than analog, form. The postcard of Che’s ubiquitous image on the streets of Cuba, together with an aging, classic American automobile seems emblematic of the complex questions of sovereignty, global capital, and colonial histories that persist in the present.