“The Cypher is Forever” (Fall Semester Ends…)

Da_Brat-stunning_thumb_585x795This fall semester is now officially over: the last individual meetings are happening now; the final projects are due today; and Jack just stopped by with his Finals-Week-Full-Beard in Full Effect!   (You know the semester is over when your students talk about going back home to sleep and shave.)

Like I have said before in this forum, this is my first time teaching the class, African American Literacies and Education.  Together, with the use of Jigsaw Reading assignments and literature circles (see course introduction and syllabus), we have discussed more than a 100 texts related to histories and polemics of race, black cultures, people of African descent, and literacy.  When I walk out into the library, I see laptops and stacks of those texts everywhere and students so focused, they don’t notice me walk past.  Yes, the end is here!

For lack of a better way to say it, the students in this class were always “good sports.” Whatever pedagogical concoction I had going for the week, they smiled and tried it out.  My favorite experiment of the semester was the chart-making we did during the week that we read and discussed Adam Banks’s book, Digital Griots.  Writing on the walls via charts and colorful markers tends to always make its way somehow into my classrooms.  On this day, I wanted us to really unpack what Banks was defining and theorizing as the intersection of digital/griotic traditions, African American rhetoric, and multimedia composing in the 21st century.   Equally important, I wanted an initial, full and equal discussion representing every single person/voice in the room.   Instead of having oral conversations, we had visual/charted conversations to jumpstart the discussions of the evening.  What I liked most was the verbal creativity students spit on the walls and the shower of words, images, and symbols we had created in relation to and with African American rhetoric, right there in the classroom.

In three different areas of the classrooms, I taped (very large) charts to the walls.  Each corner had a different discursive function, a different sentence for each student in the class to finish on the chart itself, and each student was expected to rotate the room and add their sentence “tag” somewhere in each corner.  Now my students might find me overly sentimental here when I say their writing/tags were HOTTT, so maybe their verbal gangsterism can speak for itself.  The bullets below are a sampling of how it went down collectively with my sentence starters (in yellow) and their collective finish-closers (in bulleted italics):

The African American Deejay is central as a cultural figure/icon and metaphor because…

  • s/he is a constructivist, archivist, and figure who provides access to people who were never supposed to receive the message in the first place!
  • s/he blends cuts for listening and feeling to give us history, technology, purpose, commitment AND tools of persuasion.
  • she molds space, takes it, interprets it and brings all that into the future for her people.
  • she re-sparks the interest in and for her people.
  • s(he) brings a different lifestyle to the world, representing those that live it, keeping it current and liquid, while bonding it to its people.
  • the digital griot moves past just deejaying and makes it a form of pedagogy that links Black language to the people as a new technology.
  • they make the co-existence of “the contradictory, overlapping, open, closed, and fluctuating systems of exchange” into art.
  • she creates direction and guidance for new thinking and social unity.
  • they rock the party and set the mood.
  • they are a living symbol of what African American literacies do.
  • they reactivate black participation.
  • it’s in the mix that the story gets told… and the sequence determines how the crowd moves to it.
  • he/she studies the people’s passions, reconfigures their perspectives and their experiences and motivates them to mobilize/move.

Putting this concept of a digital griot, into words, basically taking a book and reducing it into a sentence or a 1-hour discussion was not so easy so I was hoping this collective showers of words pasted to the walls in the room would add the necessary dimensionality.  Here is how that looked (my sentence starter is in yellow and students’ collective finish-closers are in bulleted italics).

Digital Griots are…

  • the spaces and spacemakers that have a humanistic, individualistic, communal approach to knowledge, knowing, and writing.
  • activists with a digital groove.
  • the manipulators of technology where the keeping of history is maintained for positive sociocultural recognition, change, and advancement.
  • ethically responsible, constantly searching, provocative seers.
  • modern-day perpetuators of oral tradition, storytelling, and time-binding.
  • interactive archivists.
  • my uninhibited space-makers who let us exist without judgment in real and protected ways.
  • liberatory Lil’ Jon.
  • the new school transmitters of new Black narratives.
  • the modern-day storytellers who bring “back in the day” into the right now.

And of course, there was my favorite corner: the re-mix of the SAT analogy! Yes, we can re-mix that too!  (My sentence starter is in yellow and students’ collective finish-closers are in bulleted italics).

The African American Deejay/Digital Griot is to the multimedia age what _________ is to ___________:

  • collard greens are to cornbread: always integrated and soul/body-sustaining.
  • parents are to children: conception and birth.
  • grandparents are to parents are to children: past, present, AND future.
  • head chef/big mama is to the kitchen.
  • red bottoms are to stilettos.
  • new kicks are to my favorite dress.
  • Jazz is to America.
  • voice is to words.
  • the pastor is to the church community.
  • Marvin Gaye is to Taleb Kweli.
  • Nikki Giovanni is to Jill Scott.
  • line break is to poetry.

In many ways, this was the kind of intellectual and political energy that students were pushing themselves to write and think into all semester as I read their response papers each week.   This sampling of my students’ writings on the classroom walls encapsulates the semester quite well for me.

I am thinking now about conversations that I had with two students, Cassandra and Ancy, in my office this week, namely that African American Literacies, Black Language, right living, just schooling, and racial equality are not just the subject of study: it’s how we must remember; it’s how we must remember to live and act and fight.

I opened the semester talking in my syllabus how I once missed the mark (i.e., my artwork/essay showcasing da Brat) with my high school students to fully examine and center African American Literacies as a practice and lived theory.  As to whether or not I hit it right this time, well, I will need more time and space to reflect on THAT.  All I know right now is this semester’s focus on African American literacies and education came with an important message about what that work means: Lateef’s reminder in class a few weeks back that… the cypher is forever.

So to: Ancy, Cassandra, Dan, Dani, Daniel, Fedaling, Jack, Jeanette, Jenn, Lateef, Laura, Nancy, Nick, Princess, Regina, Rory, Sammantha, Stephanie, and Torrie… much love and gratitude to you all for sharing a classroom space with me this semester!

“Digital Griots” in the Era of Technoracial Formation

This week in class, we are reading Adam Banks’s Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age.  We’ll spend some time in class digging into the concept “Digital Griots” so that we can really take on this concept.

Prior to making the decision that this is what we would do in class, I had begun reading the last few years of texts in the journal, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy.  When I did a search on the terms, race, black, and African American, on that website/journal, all that consistently came up were reviews, actually, of Banks’s books, both the first book, Race, Rhetoric, and Technology: Searching for Higher Ground and now his new book, Digital Griots.  That’s all!  I can’t say that I was very surprised, though I do confess that I was very disgusted that, yet once again, the worlds of school, literacies, and textual production were overdetermined as white.  My point is that it becomes quite clear that there is a white void  that Banks is writing into (making it questionable if that journal has the history and political tools to actually offer relevant reviews), so I need to make sure that my class stops, pauses, and tries to really wrap ourselves around this concept of Digital Griots and what the cultural memory and presence of African American deejays offer us in terms of new technological and creative productions.

In relation to Digital Griots, I have also been thinking about an essay by Tara McPherson in the edited collection Debates in the Digital Humanities that a colleague, Sophie Bell, suggested our program read.  McPherson’s essay is called “Why Are the Digital Humanities So White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation” and is, in my mind, the central piece of the entire collection.  I love her question because I can immediately insert any number of institutions and practices: Why is Abercrombie & Fitch so white?  Why is Wall Street so white?  Why is Hollywood so white?  Why is administration in higher education so white?  The list of possible questions is simply endless but what I like about McPherson is that she offers up some answers.

McPherson convincingly shows me that the gaps and whole-scale omissions in merging race and technological productions is an EFFECT of the designs of technological systems in post-World War II computational culture.  That’s one helluva notion, though this is surely not news for those who study this culture.   Her discussion focuses on the operating system of UNIX, the operating system for digital computers, though her discussion can also be applied to C programming given the focus on modularity.  The work of programmers then was always intimately connected to racial paradigms even if that was never the overt tactic or intention.  The logic of UNIX is, thus, a cultural logic with its:

  • embrace of multiple languages and systems that mirrors the typical mindset of neoliberal multiculturalism (the idea that a seemingly egalitarian field can exist that ignores social, material hierarchies)
  • design of covert systems that mirrors the move away from overt racism (Jim Crow signage, lynching, de jure segregation, etc) as if racism is now gone
  • focus on modularity (that now organizes capital) that mirrors the “containment” of large black, working-class/working-poor populations in city centers through the governmental housing initiatives that divested all energies and monies from de-proletarianized/ravaged black city centers
  • framing of a modular code that mirrors the bureaucratic standardization of divided disciplines and entrepenurial-inflected knowledge in the academy
  • privileging of text that mirrors post-Cold-War methodologies in the humanities that devalue context in favor of a new kind of valuing of text
My simplistic summary notwithstanding, McPherson shows that “technological formations are deeply bound up with our racial formations and that each undergo profound changes at the mid-century” so much so that these are “feedback loops supporting each other.” To use more of her words, there are “technoracial formations” where race is “a ghost in the digital machine.”  So I walk away from McPherson’s discussion ready to take on her suggestions: 1) engage David Golumbia’s work on the cultural logic of computation; 2) look past simple screens, narrative, and images and into machines and labor; 3) critically interrogate race, culture, code, and computational systems (in fact, McPherson argues that if we can learn critical theory, then we can learn code too).

For this week, with Banks’s Digital Griots at center, I am thinking about what it means to bring a consciously-determined black perspective to these discussions that McPherson has triggered for me, with the African American cultural formation of the deejay as signpost and guide.


(photos are of DJ Premier)