Cocoa Williams' success as a digital humanist is bringing African American literary works to light

By Miranda Sullivan

Fitting words appear at the top of English department doctoral candidate Cocoa Williams’ Florida State University Office of Graduate Fellowships and Awards web page: “Knowledge is a tool. Build Bridges.”

The meaning of that phrase is reflected in her research in the digital humanities, particularly focused on how digital archives select and showcase African American works of literature. For her work on this topic, the Black Book Interactive Project (BBIP) Scholar Program recently announced that Williams is one its 2020 award recipients.

The award allows Williams to continue her research alongside a team of scholars who have similar goals in mind. Williams wants to improve diversity in the realm of data-driven research by bringing African American works into digital mediums for knowledge and analysis.

When recalling the moment that she received the news that she had been accepted to the program, Williams says she was surprised, especially considering that BBIP chooses only 14 scholars from the pool of applicants each year.

“It felt more like a dream than reality at the time,” she adds.

The BBIP’s home base is at the University of Kansas, scholars involved with the research and development behind the program are stationed across the country. The Scholar Program mainly operates through webinars, which are focused on the intersections between African American works of literature and the digital humanities.

As a part of the program, Williams will have access to a digital archive of over 1,600 African American novels. She also will have the opportunity to enhance the archive by designing visualization tools for the collection and by creating tools for use in research and education. Scholars in the program are also able to scout for new documents to add to the collection of works.

The project is a year-long endeavor, and Williams’ work culminates in the spring of 2021 with several presentations at the College Language Association conference.

Williams is currently finishing her dissertation, “Museums of the Mind: the Ekphrastic Imagination in the African American Literary Tradition,” under the supervision of English Professor Maxine Montgomery. In her development of the topic, Williams has explored the usage of museum space in artistic expression and in a more critical fashion, namely how African Americans have been able to employ museums in nuanced ways in their works.

“Ms. Williams’ pioneering work seeks to map the intersection between the digital humanities and African-American literary and expressive culture by expanding the scholarly conversation surrounding forgotten or neglected authors,” Montgomery says. “Her multiple undertakings hold the promise of transforming how we envision the digital humanities in its relation with black cultural production.”

Ms. Williams’ pioneering work seeks to map the intersection between the digital humanities and African-American literary and expressive culture by expanding the scholarly conversation surrounding forgotten or neglected authors. — Professor Maxine Montgomery

Montgomery has mentored Williams outside of her dissertation work as well. She is supportive of Williams in applying to other opportunities, like the BBIP Scholar Program, to help grow her academic skills.

“Dr. Montgomery has always encouraged me to be aggressive in applying for opportunities for research and service in the larger academic community,” Williams says. “She has been very gracious in writing letters of recommendation on my behalf for scholarships, fellowships, and training opportunities. I would not be celebrating this success without Dr. Montgomery’s support.

Williams’ involvement in the scholar program is also an opportunity for Williams to continue to build her research while collaborating with other bright scholars toward a connected goal. Williams will have access to resources that will fuel her ongoing research, which draws from William J. Wilson’s “The Afric-American Picture Gallery,” to create a virtual interactive museum tour. In addition, Williams will collaborate with other program scholars to develop tools for use in education and research as well as to conduct research on the BIPP Scholar program and its history.

“I will also be working on research on the organization as a whole, and its nearly forty-year effort to bring African American novels to the public,” Williams says. “The work of this organization in all of its phases has been instrumental in the preservation and dissemination of the tradition of black writing in America. I feel humbled to be a small part of this history and tradition.”

For more about Cocoa Williams’ success as an FSU graduate student, read her post on The Career Center home page here. You can also watch and listen to her speak about her graduate school experience here.

Miranda Sullivan is a junior double majoring in English, on the editing, writing, and media track, and international affairs.

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