The Evolution of Virtual Harlem: Bringing the Jazz Age to Life

paper, specified "long paper"
  1. 1. Bryan Wilson Carter

    University of Arizona

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Imagine being faced with the choice of remaining in your hometown, living in what you have known all of your life in harshly oppressive conditions, or leaving, along with a number of your family and neighbors, headed North or West toward a land of promise and opportunity. This was the basic choice that many African Americans had in increasing numbers after 1865 when the emancipation proclamation was signed and a flurry of legislation passed in an attempt to equal the playing field for recently emancipated African Americans. By the early 20th Century, the Great Negro Migration was well underway, as African Americans were being driven off the land by the violence and intimidation of the Ku Klux Klan, natural disasters, and increasing levels of legal and extra-legal oppression and inequality in all sectors of life. They were also being pulled to the North and West by the perceived promise of increased opportunities in many aspects of life, the receipt of letters and communication from friends and relatives who had already made the move, and the perception of less racism in the North and West.
By the end of World War I, The Great Migration had reached flood proportions with hundreds of thousands of African Americans moving to urban centers in the north such as Chicago, Il, Harlem, NY, the steel belt and the auto industry in the midwest, as well as out towards the great promise of the West. Those who left the south for the urban North knowingly or sometimes unknowingly became a part of the New Negro Movement , known later as The Harlem Renaissance, of the 1920s, and The Chicago Renaissance of the 1930s and 40s. Understanding the cultural, intellectual and political output of African Americans during this period is key to understanding American history and our contemporary society. But what was it like in the big city of the 20s? How did that change, if at all, from the big city of the 40s and 50s?Artistic production was huge during both these periods, how might similar issues of artistic production be discussed from within this virtual environment?
There are a variety of ways to introduce our current generation of students to this vibrant aspect of African American culture that encompass both traditional and avant garde approaches. This project builds on two existing projects to engage today’s learners and teachers in ways not previously possible, and also intertwines modern technology and advanced visualization with traditional practices to create a learning experience like no other that is focused on
The Great Migration, and Beyond. Additionally, this paper explores, through the discussion and demonstration of the aforementioned project, ideas related to digital preservation, lack of diversity in Digital Humanities and introduces Digital Africana Studies as an engaging pedagogy.

The Great Migration and Beyond represents the first time that two major virtual environments focused on African American history and culture will be connected through both technology and theme. We recognize that there will be a number of challenges as we create rich historic landscapes and experiences while simultaneously creating a non-linear, visually and technologically unified journey through time and place related to African American life and culture.

The technology enabling this virtual world development is based on the Unity 3D game engine. Unity 3D is a platform for creating virtual worlds and games that accepts 3D assets or models using Open Standards format, meaning that assets can originate in nearly any 3D modeling tool and those entities can then be imported into Unity. The platform then enables us to distribute the final project to the spectrum of media devices (e.g. PC, Tablet, Game Console, Mobile,  and full VR environments such as the CAVE, CAVE2, or a Data Wall. Additionally, we plan to address how the environment can be experienced through the increasing number of peripheral devices such as the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Samsung Gear or even Google Cardboard.
Key to the verisimilitude and distinctive look/feel of the Harlem/Bronzeville environment is the use of motion capture-based animation of the characters that the visitor encounters. While exploring the environment, visitors will encounter scenes depicting significant historic events of the time and place or common everyday occurrences where, those occurrences actually become a part of the evolving experience, in essence, a living part of a Theater of the Surround.

The Starting Point

The Virtual Harlem Project is a representation of Harlem, New York, as it existed during the 1920s Jazz Age, in 3D space, where objects such as buildings, interiors, automobiles and more are constructed using 3D modeling applications. This project is one of the earliest full virtual reality environments created for use in the humanities and certainly one of the first for use in an African American literature course. Virtual Harlem was originally conceived by Dr. Bryan Carter as part of his graduate work at the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1996, and developed by the Advanced Technology Center there who assisted him in designing it as a collaborative Virtual Reality (VR) environment and learning simulation in which participants learned about and experienced the Harlem Renaissance to supplement real world courses about the subject.  The Harlem Renaissance/New Negro Movement was a unique period in American history that occurred in the 1920’s, just after the end of World War I.

It was a time when Langston Hughes, Eubie Blake, Marcus-Garvey, Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Robeson, and countless other African Americans made their indelible mark on the landscape of American and international culture. This is a time when African Americans made their first appearances on Broadway; chic supper clubs opened on Harlem streets; riotous rent parties kept economic realities at bay while the rich and famous, both white and black, attempted to outdo each other with elegant, integrated soirees (Lewis)., and African American artists and entertainers were the toast of European Cafe Society.

Time Machine: Bronzeville has been in-development as a multi-modal recreation and immersive experience of the vanished and historically significant Bronzeville section of Chicago’s South Side, during The Chicago Renaissance period (1930–1950). Components of this project include a
computer game treatment, online immersive web destination, and
augmented reality gallery installation.

Through the use of digital 3D image creation and animation, game and web technologies, the visitor can explore the history, lore, and legends of Bronzeville during the defining events of the 20th century: The Great Migration, The Great Depression, The Chicago Renaissance, Jim Crow Segregation (American Apartheid), World War II, and the emergence of The Black Metropolis.
Intuitively navigating the avenues, alleys and interior spaces of Bronzeville, and interacting with its residents, the visitor discovers the genius, ingenuity, and invention in all the arts and humanities, from painters’ studios and recital halls, juke joints and storefront churches, to lecture halls, theater stages and street corner soapboxes that distinguishes the vibrant and creative period of The Chicago Renaissance.

The Vision: An Expanded Harlem/Bronzeville World
The immersive cityscapes of
Virtual Harlem and
Time Machine: Bronzeville are historical simulations and interpretations of the vanished Harlem and Bronzeville of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, recreated from extensive research of the photo and graphic records, the African American press archives, personal memoirs,  oral histories and statistics.

The richly detailed environments will be deeply embedded with informing and contextual media. The visitor’s movements and interactions with animated characters and objects will trigger radio broadcasts, phonograph recordings, ambient soundscapes, and links to other resources. The visitor will be able to interact with and manipulate objects in the environment to access the archive of historical photos, print documents and media clips that illuminate the events, persons, and significance of the creative, cultural, social and commercial engines that were Harlem and  Bronzeville in these periods. Extensive use is made of documentation gleaned from African American press, radio and film archives.
The projected Harlem/Bronzeville complex will enable the visitor to explore 3D simulations of the vanished Harlem and Bronzeville communities. With a click/touch, select locations can be viewed through decades of change, allowing the visitor to witness the evolution of the neighborhoods, and to compare the historical views with the contemporary cityscape. 3D animated scenes and tableaux depict historical events, persons and places significant in understanding this period and its arts movement. In-world interactive maps and guides aid the visitor in navigating the terrains and times.
Featured historical figures, locations, and significant events of Harlem and Bronzeville  include:  artists’ profiles and portfolios for Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Arna Bontemps, Margaret Walker,  Gwendolyn Brooks, Inez Cunningham Stark, William Edouard Scott, Charles White, Archibald John Motley, Jr., Eldzier Cortor, William MacBride, Elizabeth Catlett, Gordon Parks, Horace Cayton, John Johnson, the Jones Brothers (Policy Kings), The Apollo Theater, the Cotton Club, Connie’s Inn, The Theresa Hotel, The Dark Tower, The South Side Community Art Center, Parkway Community House, South Side Writers’ Group, the American Negro Exposition, Louis Armstrong and Chicago Jazz, Thomas Dorsey, the “Father of Gospel Music”, blues artists, Contralto Mahalia Jackson, Katherine Dunham and Ballets Negres, the Beaux Arts Ball, The Skyloft Players, The Bud Billiken Parade, Artists’ and Models’ Ball, Savoy Ballroom, Regal Theater, Rhumboogie, Club DeLisa, among many others.

Timeline, Maps, and Infographics
Through the Graphical User Interface Unity3d overlay (GUI), the visitor will be able to access a Timeline, maps and other infographics, presenting a multimedia chronology of The Great Migration, The Harlem Renaissance, and The Chicago Renaissance. Images and text, media clips and animations pop up as the cursor rolls over key points on the graph. Hot spots on the graph link to other components of the environment, enabling visitors to travel quickly around the space. The Timeline, maps and infographics also present contextual information about national and international events, as documented in the African American press and other media sources.  This prototype GUI will also enable users to save information, take snapshots and submit suggestions for integration of their own research for approval or suggestions to improve the experience.

Another of our challenges will be to create a forum for a community-of-interest, encouraging inquiry and making connections, and a host site/server for live presentations, teaching/learning experiences, performances and discussions. We envision an expanding archive and repository for Humanities research and scholarship (Implementation Phase). The start-up phase will include the design and samples of supplemental materials and guides to aid educators, and researchers in making full use of the evolving technology components and capabilities of this multi-modal compendium of reference materials, image archive, bibliography, repository for and curation of visitor contributions, and library of, and portal to, essays and lectures by scholars.
The immersive Harlem/Bronzeville complex presents an unprecedented contribution to the historical representation and interpretation of African Americans, uniquely enabled by current and emerging technologies. The design of the content and interactive engagement will make the Harlem/Bronzeville destination attractive to a wide spectrum of visitors, with international reach.

Enhancing the Humanities
The evolution of video games, the excitement surrounding virtual reality with the launch of a number of VR headsets, the increased graphic and processing power of currently available personal computers and gaming consoles, the rise of low cost and accessible virtual environment and game development tools, and the focus on increased engagement in the classroom makes this a perfect time to consider ways that both these projects might focus on a much larger and unifying aspect of African American culture and transformative period of American history,
The Great Migration. The nationwide observance of the centennial of The Great Migration begins in 2016, and our project is intended to contribute to this multi-year observance.

The Larger Discussions
This project, in addition to it representing an innovative use of emerging technologies to teach Africana content, also introduces three parallel discussions; digital preservation, lack of diversity in Digital Humanities and the pedagogy of Digital Africana Studies.

Lack of Diversity in Digital Humanities
So what exactly is the Virtual Harlem/Bronzeville project? Since its inception, the Virtual Harlem Project has been called a variety of things to include a virtual learning platform, a collaborative learning network and a digital humanities project. Although it is most likely one of the oldest VR environments focused on African American life and culture, more specifically, that of the 1920s Jazz Age/Harlem Renaissance, until recently, Virtual Harlem has rarely been discussed as an example of diversity in Digital Humanities. This is rather odd given that the project is particularly focused on African American life and culture, that it was conceived by an African American scholar and that it was initially intended to be used in an African American literature course. Yet, discussions of Virtual Harlem tend to center on the project as a good example of advanced visualization, technology in the classroom, or even a digital humanities project, without much mention of it having an emphasis on diversity. There are a variety of reasons why this may be the case. One is that there are so few VR projects that deal with diverse topics that those that are tend to be discussed with regards to the technologies used, not necessarily the nature or content of the project. Virtual Harlem also represents the use of interactive technologies where students are encouraged to become active contributors to a much larger landscape that is accessible by other members of the class and by limited numbers who are not enrolled. Contributions to the environment are done in non-traditional ways, to include performance, 3D body scanning and motion capture. It is just this sort of non-traditional teaching, learning and use of advanced technologies that some, particularly within the Africana Studies scholarly community, sometimes tend to view with a level of scepticism. Possible reasons for this are complex and may in part be related to how traditionally, scholarly respect for the discipline has been connected to knowledge and experience of its scholars. When the focus is shifted towards the technology used, there may be a fear of losing part of that respect. Tara McPherson suggests that “politically committed academics ...engage technology and its production not simply as an object of our scorn, critique or fascination but as a productive and generative space that is always emergent and never fully determined” (McPherson 155). Virtual Harlem represents one of the myriad of technologies that are and can be used in the humanities to address the learning styles of this generation of students, to encourage students to make use of the variety of tools they have at their disposal to express their understanding of humanities content, and to help us all deal with increasing amounts of data and information directly and indirectly related to the humanities. There are, however, a number of exciting projects by a diverse set of scholars that are flying under the radar simply because these scholars tend not to publish their work in digital humanities journals, many are dealing with tenure and promotion and focusing their publishing efforts on that which those evaluating their dossiers are more familiar instead of pushing projects that some fear may call their scholarship into question simply because evaluating digital humanities projects is not always fairly done in every discipline. These scholars are caught in a catch 22. Their projects are an amazing example of the use of technology in the classroom, yet evaluators have a fundamental lack of understanding of what digital humanities is or how to deal with it for tenure and promotion. So underrepresented scholars typically have to publish in traditional venues while working on their digital humanities projects as side projects until tenure and promotion are earned. Funding for digital humanities projects dealing with diverse topics is also difficult. Statistics are difficult to come by, but judging from the articles published in the most difficult popular digital humanities journals and books, there are very few pieces published that document projects dealing with diverse topics, created by underrepresented scholars. That is a problem. So what can be done to diversify the field? What can be done to encourage young minority scholars to contribute their ideas to the growing body of digital humanities scholarship in an effort to strengthen the field? Answers to these questions are not easy, nor will they be addressed in the very near future. However, there are efforts being made to introduce underrepresented scholars to digital tools and projects that, in time, may filter into the classroom and eventually into scholarship of these groups. These activities include workshops funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mellon Foundation along with pedagogies being developed that inherently incorporate technology as a part of the teaching and learning process.

Digital Africana Studies

Digital Africana Studies closely parallels Digital Humanities in that it encourages scholars to use a variety of technologies to teach and research within their fields and seek connections to the outside world in an effort to understand the human condition. Furthermore, Digital Africana Studies, also encourages students to use a variety of digital tools to express their understanding of course content and find relationships between what they are learning, their lives and the world around them. Digital Africana Studies is a direct outgrowth of Afrofuturism, which is a theory that explores how people of African descent are represented in conversations of the future, whether that future be depicted through science fiction, the entertainment industry, popular culture or education, as well as a way of looking at the world, a canopy for thinking about black diasporic artistic production, a way of considering the presence of people of African descent within past, present and future Western society, as well as an epistemology that is thinking about the future, the subject position of black people, and about how that is both alienating and about alienation. So when I am asked, “what
is Virtual Harlem?”, I find it simultaneously strange, curious and sometimes insulting that some would try to categorize, label and subsequently only
see it through a relatively narrow lens, thus missing the larger, experiential aspect of the project. Digital Africana Studies is the pedagogical and practical application of Afrofuturism in that it seeks to explore how advanced technologies may be used in the classroom to support a more experiential environment, one that creates memorable  encounters with the culture and content of the course.

McPherson, T. (2012). Why are the Digital Humanities so White? Or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation. In Gold, M.K. (ed),
Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 155.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2016
"Digital Identities: the Past and the Future"

Hosted at Jagiellonian University, Pedagogical University of Krakow

Kraków, Poland

July 11, 2016 - July 16, 2016

454 works by 1072 authors indexed

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (11)

Organizers: ADHO