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COVE: Putting BIPOC Back in the Narrative

By Liana Li Hua Boulles

History and historical fiction have bewitched me since I was child. One is rooted in facts while the other is a hybrid of truth and imagination. Yet both become a story, one that people have increasingly begun to question and reinvent.

As an Asian American writer whose main interest is the Gilded Age (late 1860s to the early 20th century), I am hard pressed to find any good representation of nonwhite people. Newly released period pieces, a la Kate Quinn and Stephanie Dray (or Andrew Davies, if you want to binge-watch instead of read), try to incorporate modern themes of feminism and independence while romanticizing a bygone era. Yet they undermine their own message by making white, attractive people the stars and relegating people of color to the background or the cutting floor.

This is where the Collaborative Organization for Virtual Education (COVE) has stepped in create change.

small cove bannerCOVE is a digital platform and database that publishes peer-reviewed material, provides teaching resources, and advocates for the humanities. Their new initiative- to preserve and promote documents about and/or created by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), particularly during the Victorian Era- is led by general editor and Purdue professor Dr. Dino Felluga.

The objective of COVE, says Felluga, is to “bridge the divide between digital humanists and traditional scholars. There are all kinds of [online] tools that are great for learning, but for a lot of them you have to become very proficient in coding.”

To remedy that issue, COVE has encoded over 8.6 million individual works across different fields of the humanities and continues to add more every month. These documents range from short story anthologies to historical maps and photographs to translations and analyses. Instead of forcing students to buy expensive, oversized textbooks, teachers can instead select individual works and create their own course anthologies. COVE offers additional learning features such as online annotations, timeline builders, and map builders.

“The term that has been applied is ‘undisciplining,’” said Felluga. “Our goal is to rethink how we approach anthologies, [where] a set canonical group of figures represent each time period, which is inevitably tied to class, race, and gender. That’s been changing as people question the traditional anthology, but the tendency has been to choose very few, token examples of people of color as authors within these collections.”

One of the many faults with tokenism is how marginalized people’s experiences become flattened and pigeonholed. For example, in the Transatlantic Romanticism anthology, the Black writers are placed in a smaller and, in Felluga’s words, “segregated” section that focuses on slavery.

While it is vital to remember the devastating toll of slavery on Black American communities, it’s also unfair to flatten their experiences into trauma porn. It demands more emotional labor out of Black students to constantly read about their ancestors’ abuse so their white classmates can become enlightened about racism. It’s even more frustrating when Black stories that go beyond slavery- true stories of whalers, cowboys, politicians, entertainers- get overlooked when they are just as relevant. Even those few pieces about slavery, however brilliantly written, cannot cover the full scope or scale of a people’s intergenerational suffering.

“Since we’re not constrained by the limits of an anthology, we want to make a massive amount of content available so you can build your [own] anthology as you wish,” said Felluga.

“Our other tools offer the option of rewriting and un-disciplining the subject you teach as a collective project,” said Felluga. “What parts of the map should we be looking at? What images should we be examining and incorporating? That flipped classroom approach allows you and your students to rethink how we approach questions of representation across time.”

coveThrough grants and collaborations from other universities and groups, COVE acquires collections to encode and corresponding teaching materials that center POC. One of these is the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, which has the largest collection of African and Asian authors in the world.

The Research Society for Victorian Periodicals (RVSP), which specializes in 19th century magazines and newspapers, has provided a grant and connections to several academic collections. One of these is Adam Matthew, a publisher that created another database for missionary records and journals. Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom and the Bigger 6 Collective are groups that seek to decolonize how we approach Victorian Studies and Romanticism, respectively.

“It’s not enough to just make the content available if nobody is using it,” said Felluga. “Our goal is use new technology to be more active in our engagement with students. They are encouraged to annotate, to do their own research, and actively begin to question how things have been constructed. This is an effort to reclaim these voices.”

Black, Indigenous, and people of color are unapologetically taking up space in the realms of fact and fiction, and I am here for it. Perhaps one day I will be fortunate enough to contribute to the growing diversity of historical fiction. And perhaps I will use COVE to search for figures and facts, for places and peoples, for a way to undiscipline our understanding of a complex era and write a more inclusive future. 

BoullesLiana Li Hua Boulles is a writer attending Purdue University, where she is pursuing a double major in Creative Writing and Film & Video Production. She was born in China and adopted when she was a year old. Since her mother worked in a bookstore and later a library, she has always been surrounded by books. She grew up on a steady diet of Magic Tree House, Percy Jackson, and young adult fiction. She inherited her love of film from her father, who showed her black-and-white classics, westerns, and Oscar winning epics. In high school, she was a band geek and the editor of the school newspaper; she graduated from Griffith High School as valedictorian.