MSU Digital Humanities Initiative Receives Garfinkel Prize

A digital humanities collective in the MSU College of Arts & Letters that draws on the legacy of creating spaces of liberation within oppressive societies has won the 2020 Garfinkel Prize in Digital Humanities presented by the American Studies Association. This annual award recognizes excellent work at the intersection of American studies and digital humanities and honors caucus founder Susan Garfinkel for her longstanding service and commitment.

Taller Electric Marronage joins past recipients in work that fosters inclusive, interdisciplinary, and welcoming practices within the field of digital humanities. The website provides a digital space where writers, artists, students, and scholars of color reflect on their intellectual and artistic works, strategies for imagining worlds otherwise, and their intimate freedom practices. The site curates work from communities of color and LGBTQ+ individuals from MSU, Johns Hopkins, and community-based institutions in the United States and beyond.

image of two woman smiling at the camera with 'Black Lives Matter' written in white lettering all over the background
Co-founders of Electric Marronage Jessica Marie Johnson (left) and Yomaira Figueroa Vásquez (right)

“Our site is an important and sacred space,” said Yomaira Figueroa Vásquez, co-founder of Electric Marronage and Associate Professor of Global Afro-Diaspora Studies in MSU’s Department of English and a core faculty member in Chicano/Latino Studies, the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and the African Studies Center. “It’s a place where we can mentor graduate students of color, showcase a series of distinct and creative works, engage in meaningful dialogues, and help writers, artists, and researchers expand their reach and find spaces where their work will be featured and shared with broad audiences.”

Figueroa co-founded Electric Marronage alongside Jessica Marie Johnson, Assistant Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. Together, they created a digital site and continue to curate virtual, on-campus, and community events with support from a team of graduate assistant curators, or “electricians,” including Jada Similton and Stephany Bravo from MSU; Christina Thomas, Ayah Nuriddin, Kelsey Moore, and Halle Ashby from John Hopkins University; and Sarah Bruno from the University of Wisconsin.

Our site is an important and sacred space. It’s a place where we can mentor graduate students of color, showcase a series of distinct and creative works, engage in meaningful dialogues, and help writers, artists, and researchers.

Yomaira Figueroa Vásquez, Associate Professor and Co-founder of Electric Marronage

“We are thrilled that the electricians, who are all women of color graduate students, are able to receive intentional mentorship through the project and create networks of care with contributors,” Figueroa said. “This award is also theirs. We could not have done this without them.”

Figueroa’s expansive work on campus includes creating the MSU’s MUSE Scholars Program and the MSU Womxn of Color Initiative. Electric Maronage is part of her larger mentorship and radical scholarship initiative, the Afro-Latinx Lab, which helps fund the project.

Building a Sacred Space

Taller Electric Marronage debuted during the 2019-2020 academic year, after two years of definition and development between Figueroa and Johnson. Figueroa explained that the site was inspired by the practices of their ancestors who extricated themselves from slavery and colonial dispossession to form independent communities on the outskirts of slave societies. They asked, “what are the living legacies of marronage and how can we use digital spaces to both abscond and reveal?”

painting on a wall of a vlue woman and a pink woman embracing
“Santurce es ley” mural in Santurce, Puerto Rico.

Members of these historic communities were often referred to as “maroons” (from the word “cimarrón” in Spanish) and the process or strategy in forming communities as “marronage” (or “cimarronaje”). Scholars identify two types of marronage: “petite marronage,” which refers to a group’s resistance and escape from enslavement for a short period before returning, and “grand marronage,” which refers to the process of escape and the establishment of permanent communities.

Marronage has been documented from the 1500s, and while most earlier maroon communities no longer exist, some contemporary communities, often called “palenques” in Latin America, may be found throughout the Caribbean, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Central America, and the southern United States.

black and white image of someone looking into a room with the shelves stocked with things and people waiting in line
“En la Botanica” photo by Jose Arturo Ballester Panelli.

Members of Taller Electric Marronage created their escape strategy and built community on the electric or digital space. The word “taller” (pronounced ta-yer) is the Spanish word for workshop or artist studio, often seen as a space of collectivity, collaboration, and action. Figueroa and Johnson crafted a public-facing site on the principles of marronage and began creating and soliciting content and hosting events (first on their respective campuses and later virtually due to COVID-19).

Visitors to the site will find blog posts, poetry, and essays; art and photography exhibitions; videos and podcasts on themes related to resistance, kinship, culture, popular culture, and politics; empowering community practices; and reproductive and environmental justice. The site also serves as an organizing mechanism for exhibits, events, and workshops.

We’ve been very clear and intentional about what we’ve created. We are building on a long legacy of radical work by communities of color, in particular women of color and Black feminists.

Yomaira Figueroa Vásquez, Associate Professor and Co-founder of Electric Marronage

“We’ve been very clear and intentional about what we’ve created,” Figueroa said. “We are building on a long legacy of radical work by communities of color, in particular women of color and Black feminists, who have organized for each other, tended to each other’s work, and found spaces of survival in this inhospitable world. We’re thinking of that as a blueprint and as an inspiration for the work we do with Electric Marronage.”

The Expression of Experience

Figueroa is thrilled with the public’s engagement with Electric Marronage and by the interest in their workshops and events. While the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented live events, the electricians have continued to organize hosted virtual workshops, discussions, readings, and exhibits that are increasingly well-attended. This year alone, they hosted a photography exhibit by Jose Arturo Ballester Panelli both on the website and at the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities LookOut! Gallery, held a series of digital humanities computing workshops, and organized an event celebrating Black lesbian thought and the publication of Mouths of Rain, an anthology edited by MSU doctoral candidate Briona Jones.

black and white image of five people looking away from the camera
Image from Electric Marronage website.

During the month of February, a four-week Bomba workshop was held in conjunction with Bombazo Dance Company. MSU students and community members of all ages from across the globe were able to learn the history, rhythms, and moves of Afro-Puerto Rican Bomba, the oldest existing African diasporic dance in the Americas. Steeped in freedom practices, the Bomba workshop became a beacon of expression and embodied knowledge practices that helped students and other participants move, hear, and feel liberation practices that have been kept alive by Afro-Indigenous communities for hundreds of years.

Figueroa and Johnson are honored by the recognition from the American Studies Association as well as by the growing number of contributors and increasing community interest in the site. Receiving the Garfinkel Prize, Figueroa said, underscores MSU’s profile as a leader in digital humanities and signifies the College of Arts & Letters’ commitment to supporting transformative scholarship and digital and community work.

“It shows there is a need for digital spaces like this, that we’re meeting a need for radical and intentional work that addresses the experiences of underrepresented communities,” Figueroa said. “We didn’t imagine we would get this type of response and that so many people would join us in solidarity for the work we are doing.”