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The Charles W. Chesnutt Archive: Statement of Purpose and Principles

By the Chesnutt Archive editorial staff [1]


Launched in 1997, The Charles W. Chesnutt Archive offers works by the African American author, lawyer, and civic leader Charles Waddell Chesnutt.[2] These include his fiction, essays, reviews, and poems; a bibliography; and hundreds of contemporary reviews of Chesnutt’s works. In 2019, the Chesnutt Archive was awarded a Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. This funding will allow the entire Chesnutt Archive site to be converted to TEI-compliant XML and redesigned, creating a more user-friendly interface and making all text and project metadata fully searchable. 

Additionally, the site’s manuscript wing is being expanded to include transcriptions and images of Chesnutt’s hand-corrected page proofs for four of his longer works—The Conjure WomanFrederick DouglassThe House Behind the Cedars, and The Marrow of Tradition. Grant support also enables us to create an underlying infrastructure for the site (including GitHub-based data management and a customizable API) that is more sustainable and will more easily allow for future expansion.

These technical improvements and content additions will draw more attention to the works of one of the most important literary figures in the U.S. But in addition to these changes, the editors and staff of the Chesnutt Archive felt some other new approaches might be warranted. The state of public politics and anti-racist activism has shifted since the 1990s, with the arrival of social media, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the massive protests of 2020—and Chesnutt’s work speaks profoundly to the long history of anti-Black violence and Black resistance. Other shifts have happened as well, in literary theory (toward a “post-critical,” less theory-driven style), in textual scholarship (which has flowered in the digital age), and in archival approaches to the materials of historically underrepresented groups subject not merely to the erasures of a racist hegemony but to exclusion from the processes and institutions of cultural preservation that enable historical narratives. The work of the award-winning digital archival project Colored Conventions, for example, has set new standards for the preservation and sharing of historical materials relating to African American communities.[3]

In light of this altered landscape, during this grant period we have been developing new approaches to the building of the Chesnutt Archive. In the spirit of these approaches and in the hopes of engaging in dialogue with our readers about not just Chesnutt but how best to preserve his materials and extend their study, we offer a description of our discussions and decisions.

I. The Chesnutt Archive and the Community

Alert to increased attention to the importance of post-custodial archival protocols and calls for recovery projects to serve the communities from which their materials emerge, we hope to expand the role of descendant communities and African American cultural experts across fields in the development as well as the use of the Chesnutt Archive. A small but important first gesture in this direction has been the renaming of the archive upon the release of its new interface: what was the Charles Chesnutt Digital Archive has become The Charles W. Chesnutt Archive. This title change both expands our remit beyond the digital, to include our social role in all its forms, and uses the version of Chesnutt’s name he most commonly signed to his published works.

Social Media

The Chesnutt Archive has had some success in collaborating with public media (most recently Browner’s contribution to a New York Times piece on Lorraine Hansberry’s use of Chesnutt’s work).[4] But until this grant period it had not utilized social media regularly. We created a Twitter account for the Chesnutt Archive, and staff time was allocated to its maintenance. At the suggestion of Christy Hyman— a UNL doctoral student, Chesnutt Archive GRA, and rising Twitter presence—we took some time to reflect on our purposes and principles prior to posting on the account. Following these discussions, Hyman composed ethics and best principles guidelines for social media engagement by the Chesnutt Archive (see appendix A). In essence, we aim for our Twitter account to serve as a responsible member of an already-existing community centered on the life, works, and legacies of Charles Chesnutt. We are interested not only in the original texts, but also his resonance today. But our goal is not to adjudicate historical debates about Chesnutt (at least in this medium); rather, we hope to share updates from the Chesnutt Archive and retweet content from other projects, libraries, scholars, and artists that provide useful cross-pollination with our own project.

The Charles W. Chesnutt Archive Board

In developing an advisory board for the Chesnutt Archive we were guided less by the usual literary-academic approach—very senior scholars, mostly professors, mostly experts on the author in question—and more by imagining what new audiences and engagements the archive might inspire and make possible. We still have Chesnutt experts on the board, but it was important to us that the board be diverse both in terms of race and gender and in terms of domains of expertise and professional field. We also wanted to involve more comparatively early-career people on the board than might commonly be the case in literary editorial projects: not only does this give us access to fresh ideas, but it also allows the board to serve as a useful career experience for junior faculty and as a way to cultivate future Chesnutt scholars. 

With a small board, we may not always be able to meet all of these goals, but they guide the choices we have made so far. The current board may be found on the Chesnutt Archive site. As of this writing, the Chesnutt Archive Advisory Board includes:

Future Possibilities 

The Chesnutt Archive editors and staff have discussed a number of future paths to build upon our engagement work to date. These do not fall within the remit of our first round of funding, but we hope to include some of them in future applications. Potentials include:

The Ethics of the Chesnutt Archive

The Chesnutt Archive is hosted by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities (CDRH) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It is aligned with the CDRH’s Statement of Values (which was itself composed with input from many members of the Chesnutt Archive staff).[5] Relevant portions of that statement include the following:

In consultation with the Advisory Board, we will create a statement of similar principles for the Chesnutt Archive itself, and we have already begun to adopt practices based on these values.

First, we’ve emphasized involving African American students, both undergraduate and graduate, in our work. As part of that process, we have also cultivated an organic approach to the growth and direction-setting of the project, rather than a rigidly structured, deliverables-driven, top-down stance. Two examples may serve to characterize this emphasis and its effects. First, Bianca Swift, a researcher funded by UNL’s undergraduate research program (UCARE) was interested in working with Chesnutt’s materials. In conversation with two of the editors, she developed a project in which she tracked down, transcribed, and encoded Chesnutt’s correspondence with other members of the Black intelligentsia. Swift is also a poet, and rather than work against her creative tendencies, she suggested that she use some of her funded time to write poems in a kind of trans-historical dialogue with Chesnutt. This has resulted in a chapbook and a reflective nonfiction essay on Chesnutt’s activism and the situation of the Black activist today, focalized through Swift’s own experience of both poetry and protest. At the same time, Swift’s work on the correspondence (which was not part of the NEH-funded work) influenced the direction of the next phase of funding applications, which focuses on the correspondence and centrally features the materials on which Swift has been working. 

Another example of the organic approach we are taking involves our approach to the interface design of the project. Finding that we could not spend our funds for archival travel due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the editors and the web designer repurposed those funds to hire an African American artist, Kat Wiese, to create new digital art—informed by Chesnutt’s life and historical context—for use on the site. This would allow us to expand our collaborations with the African American community, address the wide-ranging implications and complications of Chesnutt’s work, and open potential new paths for future Chesnutt Archive endeavors.

Finally, the Chesnutt Archive regularly involves all of its faculty, staff, and editors in decision-making. We have several ways of facilitating this. First is the use of a Slack channel and frequent email communication with the editors for everyday consultation. Second is a series of all-hands meetings, hosted by UNL, at which we raise all matters of significance to the project, debate openly about future planning, and discuss problems encountered in any part of the Chesnutt Archive. Third are regular smaller meetings among the editorial staff and between the editorial and technical groups to handle subsets of our work. Fourth, the responsibility of creating presentations or publications related to our work is distributed widely among the group; undergraduate and graduate students, as well as staff and editors, have made such presentations. Finally, in the first year we established a monthly reading club in which the staff—from project directors to graduate and undergraduate research assistants—read the same work and met to discuss their thoughts and reactions. The activity was well-received and served to raise the general awareness of Chesnutt’s broader body of work among those of us transcribing and encoding the texts; as a channel for our group members to express their reactions to Chesnutt’s often emotionally and politically challenging work; and as a means to generate research ideas. 

III. Editorial Policy

All of the practices and decisions above are rightly understood as part of the editorial policy of the project. They have also, therefore, informed the more technical aspects of our editorial policy revision, the revisitation of which was also triggered by moving to a TEI-based encoding platform and expanding the Chesnutt Archive to include materials hitherto unaddressed by Chesnutt Archive policies. Our current policy, still in development, may be found in its state as of the publication of this white paper in Appendix B and in its current state at the Chesnutt Archive site. Below are the most significant examples of decisions we’ve made in light of our overall shift in approach.

Dialect regularization

We decided not to use TEI’s powers to offer regularized versions of Chesnutt’s dialect passages. This may be a controversial decision: one of the great advantages of the digital text is its searchability, and without a regularized corpus, much of Chesnutt’s most widely-read work will only be partially searchable. (While Chesnutt was fairly meticulous about rendering words in dialect in similar ways, he sometimes spells the same dialect term more than one way, and it is possible that in trying to capture different regional or ethnic speech patterns, those variations are deliberate.) What’s more, today’s readers often struggle to interpret eye-dialect passages, and given that one of our goals is to increase readership of Chesnutt’s works broadly, making available a regularized version of the text might aid in readerly comprehension of the works.

But in the end we felt, first, that the legibility challenge represented by the dialect was an integral part of the experience of reading the texts; second, that the attempt to regularize might be perceived not merely as a means of providing word-searchable access, but also as a form of linguistic colonization or normalization; and, finally, that there were ambiguities about converting the dialect to “standard” English that might be impossible to resolve, leaving us with a patchwork regularization at best. 

Development of TEI encoding protocols for proof-reading marks

As noted above, one aspect of this phase of project development is the transcription and encoding of Chesnutt's hand-corrected page proofs for four of his major works: The Conjure Woman, The Marrow of Tradition, Frederick Douglass, and The House Behind the Cedars. However, the current TEI standard (P5) offers no guidelines on or examples of how marginal proof-reading marks should be encoded or how they should be tied to the editorial corrections in the main body of the text. We have therefore been forced to establish such practices ourselves, work that we think will be of great value to any future projects seeking to make such material digitally available. We have rigorously documented these new encoding decisions and practices alongside examples—information we eventually plan to make publicly available. In keeping with our practice of involving all levels of staff in project decision making—even for complex technical issues—these protocols were developed by a diverse team consisting of a senior editor, the project manager, and a graduate research assistant, in consultation with the project directors, and the protocols continue to be refined based on input from graduate researchers as they work more with these complicated documents.


The approaches and ethos described above accord with the origins of the Chesnutt Archive, first built as a semester-long collaborative project by an undergraduate class at Berea College, and with contemporary best practices for digital archives. Though initially launched more than two decades ago, and long useful to a wide range of readers, the Chesnutt Archive has moved into an era of intense and active development. This development comes at a time during which we believe it more important than ever to be reading about, considering, and discussing our nation's complicated racial history—a history with which Chesnutt grapples time and again. Committed to the entwined goals of scholarly rigor and democratic reach and participation, the editors and staff of the Chesnutt Archive seek and welcome suggestions and encourage dialogue. 

  1. Stephanie P. Browner, Kenneth M. Price, Christy Hyman, Ashlyn Stewart, Kevin McMullen, Samantha Gilmore, Tara Ballard, Brett Barney, Bianca Swift. Corresponding author: Matt Cohen,

  2. Stephanie P. Browner, Matt Cohen, and Kenneth M. Price, ed., The Charles W. Chesnutt Archive,

  3. Colored Conventions Project, The Colored Conventions Project's ethical principles statement was based on the 1996 Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing; Note also the upcoming establishment at Pennsylvania State University of #DigBlk, a center for Black digital research.

  4. Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, "Unseen Script Offers New Evidence of a Radical Lorraine Hansberry," New York Times (3 June 2020).

  5. "About," Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.