Representing Race in the Early Modern Archive

Representing Race in the Early Modern Archive

By Cailin Roles

Here at the Women Writers Project, our central work is text encoding: we encode works in English or English translation by women before 1850 in XML, following the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI).

In 2020, the WWP expanded to include a new, internally-funded collaborative project, which asks whether and how digital collections of historical texts can represent racial identity. Building on the work of scholars like Kim Hall (1995), Brigitte Fielder (2020), and Jessica Marie Johnson (2020), we address race not as a stable quality of difference but as a social category with shifting boundaries and culturally specific descriptors. Rather than simply marking the presence of women of color, a practice that reifies whiteness as the unmarked norm, this project seeks to make visible both early modern categories of race and the process of archival categorization by considering race as a critical framework for understanding early women’s writing.


To give you a sense of the project, I’ll outline our process thus far and the work that lies ahead. To begin, our core team members, Sarah Connell, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, Nicole Aljoe, Julia Flanders, and Ash Clark recruited nine external collaborators whose work addresses early modern critical race studies, theorizing racialization and cultural interchanges, the intersections between gender and race, and digital race studies. To ensure transparency and inclusivity, our call for research collaborators emphasized recruiting junior scholars of color. Our collaborators include Patricia Akhimie, Rebecca Y. Bayeck, Susan Brown, Nedda Mehdizadeh, Kirsten Mendoza, Jennifer Morgan, Jennifer Park, Cassander Smith, and Jacqueline Wernimont.

During our first virtual meetings, we began working on an initial statement of philosophies and theoretical issues for modeling racial identity. We then identified texts of interest, including texts already within the WWP’s database, like Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, as well as texts to acquire, such as Lucy Terry Prince’s “Bars Fight.” Our search focused on texts written by or attributed to women of color and texts that thematize race. An example of the latter is Claire de Duras’s Ourika, which I will discuss more in a moment.

Currently, we are in the process of selecting five sample texts whose subject domain is strongly relevant to the project’s focus, which will serve as prototypes for our emerging encoding practices. Additionally, we plan to enhance the encoding of 20 existing WWO texts by adding expanded metadata, local markup to capture racial descriptors, and other key information. So far, we are imagining that each person in a given text will be ascribed a personal identifier, their name (and name variants), their racial representation, and perhaps their gender, class, and/or position in the text. Our goal is to foreground the texts’ representations of race and support a historicized understanding of racialization.

Finally, of course, we will share our results. We are envisioning public dissemination to include blog posts and sharing of test data sets, as well as educational exhibits, demonstrations, and a research report. In terms of timeframe, we anticipate this final phase to occur in Spring 2024.


To give you a sense of some of our early encoding discussions, let’s take a look at one of our in-process texts, an English translation of Clare de Duras’s 1823 novel Ourika. Originally published anonymously, Ourika follows the life of its title character, an African woman who was purchased as a child by the governor of Senegal and brought to Paris as a gift for Madame de B., who ostensibly raises Ourika as a ward rather than a servant. At age 14, however, Ourika overhears a conversation in which an unnamed marquise suggests Madame de B. has done Ourika a disservice by raising her above her intended station, as she will never be able to marry, have children, or otherwise enter society outside Madame de B.’s salon. After this traumatic moment of racial identification, which leads Ourika to avoid mirrors and cover her skin as much as possible, Ourika falls into deep melancholy. On a priest’s suggestion, Ourika chooses to enter a convent and become a nun, where her story is recorded by a doctor shortly before her death.

Some of the encoding we envision for a text like Ourika builds upon methods we have previously employed. For example, we are already encoding the terms “whites” and “blacks” with the element type <rs type=”collectivity”>, which might suggest that the phrase “a black girl” in Ourika should be tagged as such. Yet, our internal documentation describes a collectivity as a “word or phrase that references a group of people meant to stand in for the group’s proper name,” a description that certainly does not capture the complexity of what is happening on the page. This also means that when Ourika discusses, for example, the “blackness” of her skin, that description goes untagged.

We plan to address this by instead tagging all descriptions that have a racial component, whether or not they seem to refer to a supposed “collective” group. This includes explicit descriptors like “black girl” and implicit ones, like “fair” and “dusky,” which will allow us to capture localized, historical language identifying race. We are also discussing the possibility of markup that points between textual references to people and their “personographies,” or lists of people who appear in the text that delineate the ways they are described. Importantly, this will allow us and other researchers to locate characters of color and to conduct analyses across the collection regarding racial descriptors. I should stress here again that whiteness too will be encoded—that is, we treat race as a shifting social category, not as a discrete quality possessed solely by people of color.

As Ourika demonstrates, modeling racial identity is anything but simple. In the slides, I’ve flagged a scene in which a white man dons blackface while dancing to African music. Again, though our current internal documentation does not support encoding for the line, “My partner put a crape over his face,” we are now discussing encoding that would allow researchers to locate instances of blackface across the textbase, which will prove significant for early modern critical race studies.

In the slides is one of the final pages of the text, in which Ourika finishes telling her story, and we return to our narrator, a French physician caring for Ourika. Both at the beginning and end of the text, the narrator refers to Ourika only as the Nun. While we encode all people’s names with the tag <persName>, we do not presently include characters who are referred to only by a title or descriptor like the Nurse or the Nun. By not encoding the Nun as a <persName> here, however, we are essentially erasing Ourika’s character, in the same way that she is written out of the text and into the convent. This is critical too because, in many cases, the only characters of color present in early modern texts go entirely unnamed or referred to only by their role. Thus, another part of our work so far has been considering the ways our typical encoding practices may perpetuate the marginalization of people of color by leaving their presence in the text relatively unmarked.

I hope that gives you a sense of the questions we are beginning to explore. Since this work is very much ongoing, we welcome any feedback.

See the slideshow here.

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