How Not To Read: An in depth analysis on African American Literature

Method: In order to gain a greater understanding of African American Literature, I decided to evaluate different autobiographical pieces from the time period ranging from 1849-1875. These works of literature included: Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave by Henry Bibb (1815-1854), Thirty Years a Slave by Louis Hughes (1832), Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself by Harriet A. Jacobs (1813-1897), Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman by Austin Steward (1793-1860), and Biography of a Slave, Being the Experiences of Rev. Charles Thompson, a Preacher (1833). I first used Jacobs’ work as a starting point in Voyant Tools since this tool reveals the most about a particular piece of literature. I explored using the Cirrus and from there used the graph to get a closer look at particular words in their relation to frequencies. Upon finding several useful starting points I decided to use a few other pieces from the same time period written in similar contexts to see if I could form a pattern of their experiences/storytelling. I repeated the same process using the entire corpus again on Voyant Tools and found some interesting common threads throughout the works. Again, by generally focusing on the Cirrus and the graphs to focus in on the different works, I began to create a general list of concepts and words to use in the Google Ngram tool. I wanted to look very specifically into several other works of literature from this specific time period so I made sure to use the time period of 1830 to about 1900. I then took the words that I thought captured these various works of literature and out them into the Ngram tool to see what I could discover about other pieces of literature.



Process: To start, I began by evaluating the work of Harriet A. Jacobs in Voyant Tools. By starting with this piece, I was able to produce some interesting questions to further my investigation of the other pieces of literature. Typically, I begin my methodology by simply seeing which words are most used. Then, once I see that I try to see the context of a few words in the highest peaks shown in the graphs. Upon inserting Jacobs’ data I came to an interesting discovery. Whilst previously using Voyant Tools to evaluate African American literature I had not seen them frequently use the word “master,” rather they referred more commonly just to the “white man”. Moreover, in Jacobs work of literature, she uses the word “master” 149 times as can be seen in this graph:

use of the word “master” in Jacobs’ work


By taking this observation, I wanted to look closely at the way that African American’s refer to their oppressors throughout different slavery works of literature written from an African American perspective. Furthermore, Jacobs’ also brought the themes of the family to her work with the frequent use of grandmother (184) and children (277). I wanted to understand the connection and the importance of these words in the literature and see if this was true for other works from this time. With these discoveries in mind, I created my corpus and inserted it again into the Voyant tools to cross compare. Interestingly, one of the most frequented words was “master”:

Cirrus of the entire corpus

I wanted to closely look at this use of “master” because I felt that this would be most revealing about the general works of literature and the possibility of a decline in this term throughout African American literature. I wanted to take this word that was used throughout five different works and see if this was just as popular throughout other pieces of work. For reference, Thompson’s piece used the word most frequently:

The word “master” in the entire corpus

With this new information provided by the Voyant tools it also made me question why that might be happening. I did some additional research and found that Thompson’s work was published in 1875. Therefore, I wanted to use Ngram to dive into this further and see if other works used the word as frequently around this time. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Thompsons’ use of the word “master” did not seem to be following a trend from the time his work was published. However, the interesing part of Ngram is that you can also see the way the word was used in the past. In the 1830’s, the word was actually at its all-time high which is at around the same time that he was born. Therefore, it might be an interesting connection to make about his own experience in the experience of others. Nonetheless, Ngram shows that the word was used throughout time.

While doing this exploration using Ngram, I thought it would also be interesting to see who the authors during this time using the word “master” were and if there was a connection to race. Interestingly, there was not. In fact, most other works of literature during this time using the word “master” seemed to have some sort of expertise connection rather than a slavery connection. This word seemed to lead to a dead end in terms of actually revealing something about my corpus. I decided I would move along to another word. I worked backward thinking that these specifics would actually not end up revealing a great deal in the grand scheme of literature. I went into a more obvious term that was also used frequently: “slave”. The word peaks at around the 1860’s:

I wanted to then see if this was a time period where a lot of African American’s were writing about their experiences, or if this was a time where they were being written about. Indeed, much of the literature from this time period was talking about slavery. A mixture of all sort of discussions, but you definitely see some of the works from our main corpus.

Finally, in order to see if this corpus related to the general time period. I searched “slave master” in Ngram to see what results bring. There is a definite spike around the same time that “slave” appears more frequently–the 1860s. Of course, this result brought many of the same results: works of literature about slavery. But other than that, there were not definitive comparisons. This again, lead to a dead end. I decided that this was probably the most information I could get from this corpus.

“white” frequencies throughout corpus

I finally decided an interesting way look at these works would be to compare to some previous works I had studied from African American literature: W.E.B DuBois and Booker T Washington. This was not in my original plan, but given that, I did not gain much insight from these works so I thought it would be interesting to see how these works compare. Just as I suspected, the word “master” was no longer a part of the Cirrus. What was a part of the new Cirrus was the word “white” which did not even appear in the first Corpus. I then looked at the word “white” to see who was actually using the word most frequently and of course: it was DuBois and Washington. This led me to ask more questions that they could answer. Why was this word not used by these other writers when they were clearly being oppressed by the same people. I could not really understand why by just looking at the corpus, but it did leave me with questions for future analysis. 









In the process of doing algorithmic criticism, I learned a great deal about my corpus and about my original text. Perhaps the most interesting was to see how other works were using the most common words used in my own text. Then, to use Ngram and further expand my search I could see when people started writing about these themes I found in my works. Indeed, what I learned in general by using algorithmic criticism is that it is a great place to start doing research and also to do big scale research. I would have never been able to read everything from these five works of literature, but with these tools, I was able to understand some of the prominent themes found throughout their works. This is definitely something new for me, and I really want to continue to use the tool in the future to see how works of literature compare. I think this would be a great tool to do some big data on large groups of authors to see what connects them together. In the future I would like to focus on works on literature from Central American to see how their stories connect to one another given their common history.