By Published: April 23, 2021

CU Boulder scholar is one of the newest recipients of the prestigious Mellon New Directions fellowship, which promotes continued interdisciplinary training

Research can sometimes take scholars in unexpected directions, making certain lines of inquiry difficult to pursue—but not impossible, at least with more training. A prestigious fellowship recently awarded to a University of Colorado Boulder professor, though, allows for just that.

Henry Lovejoy, an assistant professor of history, is the first scholar from CU Boulder to receive the Mellon New Directions Fellowship, an award from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that encourages professors in the humanities and humanistic social sciences to pursue additional necessary training outside their field of study, taking their research in new directions.

1828 visualization combined

At the top of the page: Map of the precolonial African coast, 1828. Above: a combined visualization of 1828.

For Lovejoy, a historian who studies the African diaspora and has been working to map precolonial Africa, this $268,000 award will allow him not just to study the historical records and datasets of the Yoruba diaspora, but also to learn and understand the mathematical and spatial statistical models behind mapping. 

Up to this point, Lovejoy relied on the Laboratory of Interdisciplinary Statistical Analysis (LISA) at CU Boulder and graduate students Vachan Daffedar Aswathanarayana (MCompSci’20), Zachary Mullen (PhDApMath’20), Ashton Wiens (MApMath’20), as well as Tiffany Beebe, Alexander Langer, Travis May and Megan Tocci, graduate students in history, to generate the data, develop new digital methods, perform analyses and unveil never before seen maps of part of precolonial Africa.

With this fellowship, though, he’ll gain the technical skills necessary to do some of this work himself, including completing a GIS and Computational Learning certificate at CU Boulder; learn some spatial statistical modelling in consultation with Eric Vance, an associate professor of applied math at CU Boulder and LISA’s director; and continue working with a Canadian digital humanities company, Walk With Web, owned by Kartikay Chadha. 

Ultimately, he plans to use these experiences to create a mapping-based interactive digital archive that will be freely available to the general public, potentially helping millions across North America, the Caribbean and Latin America gain a deeper understanding of African ancestry.

We recently talked with Lovejoy about this award, what he plans to do with it, and the significance of interdisciplinary research:

Q: “Congratulations on winning this award! What was your reaction when you found out that you won?”

A: “I’m really excited because it’s a huge project to undertake and I think this is going to be really an interesting way to look at the African diaspora. I’m trying to map different points of conflict over time in precolonial Africa and line it up with slave trade data to understand the probabilities of African origins. So I think the impact of this fellowship is huge in terms of Africa ancestry in Africa and across the Americas, not just in the United States, but also in the Caribbean and Brazil and other places in Latin America. It brings a unique set of skills to be able to map uncertain geographies so that we can begin to plot the changes to different places alongside the movement of people.

The digital humanities are really on the cusp of a major breakthrough, and visualizations are really key to educating not only other researchers, students, but the general public."

This project is endless in scope, but it will provide opportunities to develop new lines of research and recruit a diverse student body, who can help participate in such a massive endeavor.”

Q: “In the proposal you mentioned creating an innovative, digital archive. So, how do you envision that looking or what are you envisioning including as part of that?”

A: “What I’m envisioning is creating an animated map that shifts over time. So, every year we have numbers of slave ships departing the coast, and then internally there are different conflicts that happened over time. The hypothesis is that a large amount of people were enslaved during intra-African conflict and then were subsequently taken to the coast.

By doing this, I will be connecting and layering spatial data into other open source archival information and datasets such as those related to slave voyages, or historical narratives of enslaved experiences over space and time. There is so much spatial data yet to be mined from primary and secondary sources. I believe that with these new skills, it will be possible to map a part of our planet in a historical period that has yet to be truly visualized. … Up until this point, it’s been really difficult because we haven’t really been able to put people, specific people, where they came from inland onto particular slave ships.

Now, internally for Africa, it’s a lot more complicated, but there are more archaeological discoveries, so I think 3D technologies are going become really important, so you have a data point inland and begin to look at archaeological sites or connecting multimedia such as oral traditions and other interviews of people, local leaders and such who are talking about the history. Currently, archeologists are 3D scanning world heritage sites, so it will also be possible to take students to these difficult-to-reach places in Africa via virtual, mixed or augmented educational environments linked into a cartographic archive.  

Henry Lovejoy

Henry Lovejoy

Alternatively, we can begin to reverse engineer all of this spatial data as well and begin to look at internal migrations within Africa, so there’s actually a very huge slave trade that went into a number of states that were forming in this period, and those slave populations were as much as the Americas combined. So, we actually have a lot of missing information about the lives of millions upon millions of people whose voices have been silenced through racism and discrimination.”

Q: “Broadly speaking, what do you view as the significance of studying or adding this interdisciplinary education to what you already know?”

A: “I think right now, the digital humanities are really on the cusp of a major breakthrough, and visualizations are really key to educating not only other researchers, students, but the general public. 

Understanding maps is a really good way to help people locate themselves within their very complicated history. We tend not to think about Africa in the precolonial period. We look at the modern-day boundaries, but those are really only relatively recent since post-World War II. So you go back another 50 years, and that’s when the colonial map happened. 

I’m working in the period where there are basically no maps that exist due to lack of written evidence among cultures that chose different ways to transmit their histories. So people often have a misconception that they might come from a place like Ghana or Angola, but those countries didn’t exist until the mid-20th century following decolonization.

I think bringing in different types of visualizations to arts and humanities research is only going to be more and more important.”