Professor Vincent Brown is determined to take history out of the musty archives. He’s the director of the History Design Studio at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American History. The term ‘design studio’ usually refers to the space in which creatives work. Applied to history, this sexy image turns the study of the past into a stimulating subject.
The History Design Studio’s website confirms that scholars and students use innovative multimedia strategies to make history exciting and accessible to a diverse audience. They engage in “databasing, storyboarding, audiovisual narration, performance, cartography, and software development.” Experimentation is an essential element of the artistic process.
Vincent Brown is both a distinguished historian and filmmaker. He and the award-winning filmmaker Graham Judd are co-founders of Timestamp Media. This is how they describe the company: “We are a collective of filmmakers, storytellers, and scholars who believe that knowledge of our entangled past can light the way to a common future.” Cross-cultural dialogue is a primary objective.
The rather clever brand, Timestamp, literally signifies the digital record of the time of an event. It also acknowledges the fact that historical records have long been digitised. In addition, Timestamp suggests that history can be conceived symbolically as a series of events that must be digitised. History must be converted into a format that appeals to digital natives.
It was the American technologist Marc Prensky who coined the term digital native to describe youngish people, born after 1980, who were raised on smartphones, computers and social media. January 1, 1983 is the official date of the Internet’s birth. Prensky styled those of us born before 1980 as digital immigrants. We are often lost in foreign territory. We grew up with analog TV and print media. And some of us find it very difficult to make the switch to digital. We keep saying we like the feel of books, even as we run out of space to house them.
WIDEN THE AUDIENCE
Timestamp Media’s most recent project is the making of a documentary film, “Chief Tacky Day,” shot in Jamaica earlier this month. The film is an excellent example of the kind of creativity advocated by the History Design Studio. Brown knows that his pioneering book, Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War, is likely to attract only a relatively small number of fellow academics. Most digital natives will not read the book unless it’s assigned reading on a history course at university. And even then, there’s no guarantee that they will read it from cover to cover.
The documentary film will certainly widen the audience for Professor Brown’s brilliant work. Tacky’s Revolt won the 2021 Anisfield-Wolf award for non-fiction. Founded in 1935, the prize celebrates books that enhance understanding of racism and enrich appreciation of cultural diversity. That’s just one of several awards the book has won. There’s the Frederick Douglass Book Prize, the Elsa Goveia Book Prize, the James A. Rawley Prize in the History of Race Relations, the P. Sterling Stuckey Book Prize, the Harriet Tubman Prize and the Phillis Wheatley Book Award. It was also a finalist for the Cundill Prize. Brown gives a nuanced account of the knotty history of Africa, Europe and the Americas that is manifested in Chief Tacky’s heroic story.
In email correspondence, Brown told me he first encountered Chief Tacky in Michael Craton’s book, Testing the Chains. It was on a course taught by his dissertation advisor David Barry Gaspar. Tacky’s story stayed with Professor Brown for several years. He elaborated: “I touched on Tacky’s Revolt in my first book, The Reaper’s Garden (2008), but even before that was published I got the idea to write on the series of slave wars led by Africans from the Gold Coast . . . . I originally intended for Tacky’s Revolt to be just one among the insurrections I would write about, but I eventually realized that I could effectively discuss the larger phenomenon of Coromantee revolt in the Americas by focusing on the Jamaican uprisings of the 1760s within the larger context.”
CELEBRATING CHIEF TACKY DAY
Last year, Governor General Sir Patrick Allen declared April 8 as National Chief Takyi Day. The updating of the English spelling of the Chief’s name, from Tacky to Takyi, affirms the specificity of his Fante origins in Ghana. Many of us hope that National Chief Takyi Day is the first step towards acknowledging Chief Takyi as a national hero. Before Sam Sharpe and Paul Bogle, there was Chief Takyi.
Before the American Revolution and the Haitian Revolution, Takyi’s heroic war against British imperialism and slavery erupted in Jamaica. On Easter Monday, April 7, 1760, Takyi and his followers began the rebellion by killing enslavers on the Frontier and Trinity plantations in St Mary. The uprising lasted from 1760-1761. Though it was eventually put down by the colonial forces, it was a terrifying manifestation of the powerful desire for freedom that eventually led to the Emancipation of enslaved Africans.
Distinguished historian Professor Emerita Verene Shepherd was one of the experts interviewed by Professor Brown for the documentary. She, too, certainly knows how to make history sexy. For 12 years, she hosted the popular radio programme, “Talking History,” which was also broadcast on YouTube. Professor Shepherd has long advocated that Chief Takyi be declared a national hero. Resilient cultural activist Derrick ‘Black X’ Robinson, chairman of the Tacky Heritage Group, was also interviewed. For over a decade, ‘Black X’ has trod barefoot from St Mary to Kingston, on the same mission to ensure that Chief Takyi is honoured as a national hero.
Professor Brown’s conception of the documentary film extends its reach beyond Jamaica: “At a time when the teaching of slavery’s history is being suppressed in school districts across the United States, ‘Chief Tacky Day’ will remind viewers and readers that knowledge of this history is indispensable to comprehending the Americas.” In Jamaica, we also need to come to terms with the past. Why are the elite afraid to declare Chief Takyi a national hero? Perhaps, it is because his revolutionary mission has not been fully accomplished in the 21st century.
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