After several years of research, development, and outreach, Professor LaShawnDa Pittman launched her “Real Black Grandmothers” website in late 2017. After extended research on race and poverty, Dr. Pittman began focusing on the influence of black grandmothers on black families and US policy. The website was launched with a clear mission: “At the center of Real Black Grandmothers, these black grandmothers’ own compelling words address the need to understand a population that often has been idealized or ignored and to advance public awareness about a critical aspect of the African American experience in America. When I was creating this project,” Pittman explains, “I thought, ‘What I wouldn’t give to hear my grandmother’s voice, talking about being a grandma.’” This website, and the larger project, creates an archive of these voices and stories that don’t just establish a history, but also challenge the myths and stereotypes about who grandmothers are.
The community response to this project has been tremendous. Pittman has had her website covered by The Seattle Times, Seattle Magazine, and UW News, among other news outlets. As a consequence of this coverage, Pittman has had multiple people contact her about sharing their own stories or the stories of their families. Pittman has found her work getting tagged in dozens of posts about black grandmothers on Twitter and Instagram. In this public arena, she finds herself engaged in the storytelling and in supporting the archive making of others in social networks.
Pittman is very clear about one thing: She could not have crafted a resource of this size without the support and encouragement of her colleagues in American Ethnic Studies. “This project represents the department but also what the discipline is about,” Pittman explains. “Something that's really special about being in AES is that I get to do this kind of public scholarship. When I started this book project I had no intention of taking on a digital humanities project at the same time, but because I’m in a department that values public scholarship, I could do that. This department is deeply dedicated to community. This project is also in alignment with AES values and has been received like that from my colleagues.”
Pittman’s work on this type of public facing archive has spread into her classroom as well. During Spring 2018, Pittman taught a course on Black Digital Studies and used her experience in assembling the Real Black Grandmother’s website as a way of showing students the possibilities and challenges of public archives. “For this class,” she pointed out, “I wanted to focus on who gets to tell our stories and how, all the different ways our stories have been told and the role of digital media in this process. Students have been blown away in thinking about knowledge production and who gets the space to create access to these sources.” For one of their assignments, students had the option of contributing to the archive. In response, Pittman had multiple students tell her: “I can’t wait to interview my grandmother.”