AfroDigital-Sensitized: Black Sensibility Online

440x296_2200-white-people-dancingGranted, I probably take the public nature of a digital universe too seriously.  I will concede that.  When I see “professionals” in my field uploading videos of themselves where they are dancing to one beat, their small child dancing to another beat, and a black artist’s song playing in the background with an entirely different beat altogether, I think: oh hayell TO THE naw.  If that weren’t bad enough, these folk got the nerve to be singing along, karaoke machine in full display, to the tune of yet another beat, wearing the paraphernalia of their college alma mater.  If I were the president of that college, I would have to pull these folk aside and talk to them.  It’s like an audition for American Idol that has gone very wrong: someone has got to step up and just say naw, baby, this right here ain’t for you; focus on another goal.  Call me an essentialist then… I think this might just be a black thang.  The black folk who I know and who raised me simply would not be out here uploading videos of pre-rehearsed performances (copied from TV) to broadcast for the world where they and their CHILDREN are singing and dancing with NO KINDA RHYTHM, RHYME, or TIME.  You have to be the Jackson Five for that kind of thing!  In what I define as black culture, when you publicly display yourself, you better be ready for sharp critique: think Showtime at the Apollo here— the youtube before youtube.  It ain’t nuthin nice when you need to be told to exit that public stage. Even with those youtube videos that bougsie black folk like to critique forever and a day of black mothers twerking (with their kids mimicking in the background), you have to concede one thing: them. folk. CAN. dance.  I’m not saying all the black folk that I know can sing and dance, just that when they can’t, they KNOW it and so don’t arrogantly display it for the world.  At the end of the day, even in the worst kind of minstrel show, black folk just don’t get the option of public display without an iota of talent or rhythm.  And though we are never credited as such, the black folk who I know and those who raised me have some high standards by which you come to understand yourself.

It ain’t like I don’t have a sense of humor.  I laughed all day long when I saw Jimmy Fallon, Robin Thicke, and the Roots do a rendition of “Blurred Lines” with children’s musical instruments.  Thicke never sounded better and this version of the song is so much better than the already played-out radio version.  The brotha playing the banana might be the new love of my life.  And, interestingly, this New-Skoolhouse rendition makes the song more than a wanna-be Marvin Gaye clone and the new rhyme rewrites some of the song’s problematic gender politics.  You see, even for the sake of humor, black folk don’t give up the seriousness of real rhythm and creativity… and knowing what the hell you are doing and who you are.

When it comes to online spaces, I use a black sensibility to tell me what is wrong and what is right.  I might offend folk with what I am saying but the structural racism that I discuss is not something I haven’t examined/read closely.    But that too is a black sensibility: say what you gotta say and whoever feels a certain way about it, let them go on and feel it.  That ain’t my problem or cross to bear. Mostly, it’s my standard of performance, skill, and appropriateness that I see as AfroDigital-Sensitized.  In just a few weeks, I will be teaching three sections of first year writing (FYW) where students and myself will interrogate digital literacies and digital empire more closely than I ever have before in FYW.  The modules are finally coming together and I am quite clear that I am using an Afro-Digital-Sensibility to craft the units of study, the framing of the course, and the polemics of digital spaces.  This is about more than what African Americans do or consume online; it’s about an ideological framework inside of yet another system we have not designed.  Like I seem to be saying over and over again here, I haven’t ever needed to look further than the wisdom of my people to know how to navigate the world, digital or otherwise.

Public Writing/Public Teaching: A Year & Counting

Close-up from the collage that is used as background of this website

Close-up from the collage that is used as background of this website

A year ago now, I created this website.  I wanted a space to do the online work of my classrooms off the grid of a university’s corporate vibe— a space that would offer a more sonic and visually dynamic course organization.  For the most part, that is still the primary goal.  Blogging became the way to think through things and the public nature of this practice has meant that I actually do it, consistently, even if no one will read it.  Blogging feels like the teaching journals I once kept, back when I could actually write on paper.  I like the steady stream of short pieces rather than the longer, extended writing that I often do for publication.  It keeps me writing in the in-between time.  These are very simple practices in terms of the kind of work that happens in online spaces today but that’s where I am for now.

Other things happened though that I didn’t anticipate.  I began to articulate a very particular position on public writing and multimedia spaces where all that I know about the Black Radical Tradition and all that I disdain about neoliberalism began to converge.  That has been the single-most benefit to my thinking in the 21st century, a place where everything is digital and everything is commodified: from the continued hyper-spectacle-making of black bodies TO the new century versions of the socially networked Leave-It-To-Beaver family/nation.  Any conversation about digital spaces that does not include these levels of analysis is anti-political.

I use the term, “public,” very loosely though when I reference this site. I never even bothered to open the comments section because I don’t foresee anyone wanting to comment.  Couple that with spam and the many trolls who piss me off and the commenting feature becomes more irrelevant.  Only very recently, I finally did the necessary work to put the “follow” button on this site.  Like I said, “public” is a really generous adjective of this website: I ain’t the academic version of Tyler Perry’s Madea and we don’t live in a READING CULTURE, not even for academics, so I ain’t never been fooled into thinking any large group of people is really interested in me or my work.  It’s just me and my closest girlfriends really up in this.troll spray

What I did not anticipate, however, is that my students would visit me here at this site, like graduate students of color who KNOW they are not included in the intellectual organization of their programs given their experiences, interests, mouths, and proclivity against being white folks’s tokens and lackeys.  Those kind of folk in the academy are few and far in between… but the ONLY ONES who really matter to me!  White graduate students are also here with me, ones who want to actually think about racism rather than perform some kind of touchy-feel guilt or intellectual chic (those kind always go back to not noticing and, thereby, maintaining racism at the institutions that anoint them with degrees and tenure).  These students have been a pleasant surprise… I am honored that they are interested and are with me here.  Truly honored.  They make up the kind of academy worth being in.

WeCatertoWhiteTradeOnlyP260My international colleagues also embolden me.  I can see what countries visit each day and I can guess by the hits on a specific post who might be visiting that post.  What international comrades remind me, those who visit here and email me about my articles, is that internationalism is NOT the whiteness that white scholars in my field construct.   I have been told by editors, time and time again, that people outside of the U.S. will not understand my language and references.  It becomes clear from these people that blackness is to be consumed globally but not politicized; no one questions whether people outside the U.S. know Miles Davis or contemporary black musicians… but now, all of a sudden, no one understands our language and cultural references.  Black is International, no matter how much white scholars in my field would suggest otherwise and keep us out.

The "Touch My Hair Exhibit," was a blogpost/issue especially inspired by students!

The “Touch My Hair Exhibit,” was a blogpost/issue especially inspired by students!

I must say though that my undergraduate students have surprised me most.  I never imagined they would find this website interesting and would tune in so often to this blog, students who cut across the last 15 years of my college teaching.  They have changed the way that I think and the way that I write. I feel bolder now in what I say and how I will say it.  These students have always been more interested in social equality, social action, black feminisms, and radical thought than my colleagues.  I am reminded of a white-skinned Latina in my class recently who told me about a professor who proclaimed his shock at her heritage by saying out loud, “wow, I didn’t know you are a wetback.”  That departmental klansman didn’t even get a slap on the wrist but this young woman sure had one helluva critique of all the white men at that college who co-sign such violence.  We sat and talked for hours at a local coffee shop where we caught one another miscalculating the weight of the system we were in.  My former student was surprised that the departmental klansman actually copped to calling her a wetback when confronted; I assured her promptly— why wouldn’t he?  It’s his world right here, he knows he can do what he wants.  On the other hand, I was surprised that no minimal action was taken against him.  The student caught ME that time: why would he be punished?  This campus is his world, not ours.  Like I said, we talked for hours about our experiences, things I have NEVER discussed with a colleague in that space. Meanwhile, many colleagues in my field are too busy stroking their egos for being accepted at elite, privileged institutions and organizations that do not enroll or register many folk of color to even really notice what is happening to such racially subordinated masses in higher education; others just think the example I gave is an individual act of meanness, not the systemic racism they benefit from.  Buncha dumb-asses.

In this next year, I plan to write with undergraduate students even more clearly in mind.  If I write with the student in mind who I just described, my content and rhetoric will carry a whole different kind of momentum and weight in what Mecca Jamilah Sullivan has so brilliantly called “THE IMPOSSIBLE FUTURE” at the Feminist Wire.

As for more mundane goals, I also plan to vary some of my vocabulary here.  I tend to over-rely on the word, fool— I think this is a good word and keeps me from cussin too much but it can become redundant.  I have decided to take it Old Skool, maybe even borrow from Aunt Esther on “Sanford and Son” and diversify my vocabulary: old buzzard and jive turkey come immediately to mind. The terms, Klansmen and Grand Wizard (KKK terms), will become vital new additions and I already know who these terms fit best.  It’s gonna be a good year!

“This Woman’s Work”: Sybrina Fulton

Mamie-Sybrina Collage

My Collage of Mamie Till-Bradley, Emmett Till, Sybrina Fulton, and Trayvon Martin

“Trayon Martin is the Emmett Till” of our time… that’s a statement I have continually heard in these past days and I would have to agree.  The corollary is also true here:  Sybrina Fulton is the Mamie Till-Bradley of our time.  In Sybrina Fulton’s talk at the rally at One Police Plaza in New York City this past weekend, I was particularly inspired by these lines:

As I sat in the courtroom, it made me think that they were talking about another man. And it wasn’t. It was a child, who thought as a child, who acted as a child, who behaved as a child. And don’t take my word for it. He had a drink and candy. So, not only—not only do I vow to you to do what I can for Trayvon Martin, I promise you I’m going to work hard for your children, as well, because it’s important. (see 16:43 to 17:20 of the footage shot by Democracy Now).

When you think of the difficulty Mamie Till-Bradley had in securing her son’s body (Mississippi seemed to block her every move to have his body shipped to her in Chicago), it seems strangely reminiscent of the days Sybrina Fulton had to wait for her son’s body to be named Trayvon Martin, rather than the original John Doe white police proclaimed him to be, unworthy of even an investigation. It is not simply that both mothers lost their sons to white violence, publicly paraded by the courts’ refusal to convict their murderers.  It is the way these women opened up  their grief to the world and to a social analysis of that world.

Mamie Till-Bradley has not often been written into the chronicles of history as radical; it has mostly been black women and black feminists who have done this work and will continue to do this work with Sybrina Fulton’s life also.  Both of these women’s radical, emotional openness is simply chilling for me.   Ironically, we are in an age where everybody thinks they are “radically open” because they can post photos and videos on any and every social networking site of: 1) their children performing liberal rituals of white, nuclear American familyhood such that facebook, google+, and youtube become the new “Leave it to Beaver”; 2) themselves, friends, and family and the neoliberal objects/vacations/outings/performances they have materially acquired as the site of today’s corporate-induced narcissism.  All that “openness” but ain’t none of it like Sybrina Fulton’s! Or Mamie Till-Bradley’s!  An openness that looks American apartheid right in the eye rather than promote its whiteness!  At a time when most people use the “public forum” to simply promote the system we are in, Mamie and Sybrina halted the empty notions of progress, material celebration, and mainstream values that a white world would want to visually represent as Truth.  If there was ever a definition of speaking Truth-to-Power, this is it.

I think about Sybrina Fulton quite often and I cringe at the label that I hear too many often giving to her: strong black woman.  Yes, Sybrina Fulton is strong.  Who would suggest otherwise?   Yes, I understand the sentiment because so many of us hold her close and dear to our hearts and prayers, hoping she will know she is loved and cherished, shaken to our own core by the pain we can only imagine she is enduring.  Yes, we feel the awesomeness of her ability to stand in the face of that pain, brutality, and ugliness. But we need some deeper understandings of this legacy of black women and black mothers who defy all odds to love their children and challenge a world that hates black people.  Violence against black children is violence against black mothers so strength ain’t even the half.

Our current context is one that melds:

Multimedia cartels where most Americans visually circumscribe and incessantly celebrate mainstream, white familyhood, a continual site of historical violence and exclusivity in this country— I am not suggesting this is limited to the U.S., you need only watch the current foolishness surrounding the Royal Baby in England to know the U.S. has never been alone in mobilizing white imperialism to define family/nation;

WITH

A world where black motherhood is demonized and made into public spectacle for a gaze as white as the viewing of Gone with the Wind Tune in any Tuesday or Wednesday to Tyler Perry on OWN; he, of course, has not invented these images but when we promote them ourselves then you KNOW we’s in trouble (last night, Big Momma sang a slave spiritual to her white female boss, further castigated her own black daughter-turned-prostitute, and begged/sobbed for son’s release from prison).

When you place Sybrina Fulton into this kind of context, you begin to see why the label “strength” just won’t do for a black woman like her.  And you begin to see why so many black women will write her body, story, and pain so centrally into the history of black people and black freedom.

The Records We Leave Behind…

cover

Lynch Law in All Its Phases by Ida B. Wells

I would like to think that I am cognizant and critical of what Adolph Reed has called the tendency to romance Jim Crow where the nostalgia of a more settled, dignified black community often masks class inequalities and deep economic deprivation.  I understand his point and yet, I do believe that there were some political understandings in that moment that we just do not have now.  Poverty does not make you uncritical; but today’s consumer capitalism, media, mass/popular culture surely do.  Today, I am thinking about this in terms of the record we leave behind and how we understand the lives of children of color who are not our own.

The June 12 video at the youtube channel called AllThingsHarlem made me think of this because I see the filmmaker as a Red-Record-Keeper, as part of a historical black protest tradition (and obviously, by calling him a Red-Record-Keeper, I am referencing Ida B. Wells’s writing where she chronicled and protested lynch law).

For me, this kind of video is the best of what youtube and the digital universe have to offer me.  Because our digital world is market-driven under new regimes of capitalism and the individualist, neoliberal imperative, this kind of work at AllThingsHarlem is hardly the norm.

I see this Red-Record-Keeper doing something phenomenally different from what I see many folk of color doing online when it comes to youth: building a kind of digital resume of their children’s individual accomplishments and feats.  I understand that people live long distances from their extended families and share information online but I don’t get when these sites and images are open to the public, which is more normative than not.  And I don’t get when these children’s lives are being chronicled as triumphs of neoliberal accumulation instead of openings into the larger communities in which we come to understand ourselves.

Crocodile+Dundee

Crocodile Dundee and His Black Friend/Brother

I am reminded here of an acquaintance who pointed me in the direction of his friend, a scholar of color, who he continually INSISTED was a kind of third-world-radical, never really backing down from that position.  On the contrary, I saw this person as someone who was performing a kind of caricature of a radical-chic, never concealing how mesmerized by and covetous of whiteness they were, and claiming minority status only when it was convenient after almost a lifetime of passing as white— all of which are pretty common in academia.  Simply out of curiosity, I decided to do some google image and video searching.  I was convinced that this scholar would showcase all manner of white individualism in personal photos and videos online.  I was not wrong.  I typed in the scholar’s name and then, just one click in, there were photos of not-so-cute children (I am mean, I know, but I gotta be honest here), with one dressed as Crocodile Dundee and it was NOT even Halloween!!   That’s right: Halloween wasn’t even around the co’ner; this was a reg’lar excursion. I’m dead-serious. I really wouldn’t lie about something like this.  I couldn’t even make up something like this if I wanted to.  Yes, a “third world radical” calling their child the white male character in a horribly racist and colonialist film (I wouldn’t have actually known that the intention was for the child to look like Dundee but it was explicitly named and celebrated as such in the caption/title.)  Now, you would think my acquaintance would have mentioned or questioned this stuff since he certainly witnessed all of it way before I did and in much stronger doses (that one photo was all I could stand …I couldn’t even glance at all the foolishness captured on video).  Since all these folk proclaim themselves radical scholars, they must think that the very real nooses around black people’s necks in Wells’s The Red Record were simply a theoretical metaphor. And KRS-One’s words about police brutality must also just be more metaphor, just a background song on the video above, all while black and Latin@ children are routinely violated just on their way to school in NYC.  This very real violence is simply not part of your politics when you are digitally celebrating your children’s visual proximity to Crocodile Dundee with a peanut gallery of folk of color proclaiming and co-signing this as “radical” consciousness.

Crocodile Dundee and His Other Black Friend

Crocodile Dundee and His Other Black Friend/Brother

Even if this child wasn’t made into the Dundee-Lookalike-Extraordinaire, I would still have questions about this kind of objectification of children’s bodies in a digital universe where all children can now publicly dance, sing, and perform like Little Shirley Temples for the empire’s cameras. Be clear: I am NOT talking about recording and keepsaking children’s wonderful spontaneous moments, school events, sports, or community functions; I am talking about grown folk who deliberately create digital spectacles from children’s orchestrated, pre-rehearsed performances in a living room.  In this world, of course, the Dundees, though ridiculously exploited, still come out on top because not all children/commodities have good stock value; some can be discarded like the ones caught on the film above. Cameras can amazingly reveal what we really see and value in the world.

crocmain_555076a

When a Black Man is NOT Dundee’s Friend!

I know this Dundee narrative seems like a crazy detour but it is an example of why I am so drawn to people who do the kind of digital work that you see in the youtube video that I have highlighted at the top.  This brotha is not someone who will only construct, notice, and chronicle the individualist accumulations of biological offspring.  Maybe it’s because he’s not the academy’s typical critical theorist who is reading books about radical thought but never actually thinking and doing any of it.  For him, radical ideas are NOT something that you do for university approval while you live the rest of your life as an imperialist.  Adolph Reed hit this best for me when he says such intellectuals are sealed “hermetically into the university so that oppositional politics becomes little more than a pose livening up the march through the tenure ranks. In this context the notion of radicalism is increasingly removed from critique and substantive action. Disconnected from positive social action, radical imagery is also cut loose from standards of success or failure; it becomes a mere stance, the intellectual equivalent of a photo-op.”

I hope to pay more attention to these kinds of Red-Record-Keepers today. I am grateful to my special sistafriends, real maroons, committed allies, and genuine colleagues who will challenge me if I start forgetting or slippin on that kind of work.  Otherwise, history will look back on we “radical scholars of color” who did nothing but act as neoliberal individualists who digitally chronicled, celebrated, and defended ourselves/our children/Crocodile Dundee for accumulation of white capital.

“How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy”

The National Conference for Media Reform just closed the first day of its events.  Out of money, time, and energy, I, unfortunately, could not attend so I have especially appreciated the conversations Juan Gonzalez and Amy Goodman are broadcasting at DemocracyNow.org where they talk with Robert McChesney on his new book, Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy (with links to the first chapter on the website). The discussion opens with words from the media activist, Aaron Swartz, who tragically ended his own life this January after being demonized and surveilled after essentially e-liberating academic scholarship.

McChesney describes google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple as both monopolies and empires that have changed the internet at the levels of access, use, and application with no real separation from a national security state.  Along with Gonzalez, McChesney advocates for a political-economy of the media, going so far as to call AT&T, Verizon, comcast/cable a cartel that has essentially privatized the internet.  I tend to agree and wonder how and why we, as writing teachers, would ever frame technology in our classrooms and with students outside of these kinds of conversations.

The best take-away from the conference seems to be that communities and groups ARE taking the media into their own hands. And while the conference sounds like it is very hands-on, it is also minds-on, something that doesn’t always happen when we turn college writing classrooms into tech labs and demos.  Writing in the 21st century has to be about more than new tools and technologies. First and foremost, we need to talk about exactly what this conference seems to be reaching for: a cultural revolution.  This, to me, seems like exactly what black radical traditions have always been about anyway… we have never NOT been in need of cultural revolution.