Self-Taught! (Part II: In Memory of Spottswood Rice)

Today, I fell in love …with the internet. I returned to a letter written by a soldier for the Union Army, Spottswood Rice, that I first read more than ten years ago in Families and Freedom: A Documentary History of African American Kinship in the Civil War Era by Ira Berlin and Leslie Rowland.  In the letter, Rice (who learned to read and write as a slave by tricking his young “master”) leaves no stone unturned in letting a slave-mistress know what he has in mind if she continues to refuse to give him his child (who she believes is her property.)  By visiting Angela Walton-Raji’s blog, I participated in Walton-Raji’s archival research that witnesses the life of this man and his family. Her website allowed me to finally fill in the picture that Rice’s letter gave me when I first read it more than 10 years ago.

What Time Is It?

If I could become any kind of new media composer today, I would be the AfroDigital version of Jimmy Jam (a name I have always adored) and Terry Lewis, with every and anything that would entail, all the bells and whistles that we have come to expect from them and all the new surprises awaiting us, and just when we thought they were done!  If you grew up listening to the SOS Band, Cherrelle, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation, Klymaxx, and, of course, the Time (and so many others), then you might have a sense of what I am getting at here.  I know that their music doesn’t translate simply as a digital movement, but it is their collaborative presence that I have in mind: what I thought of, way back when, as my generation’s version of Ashford and Simpson (who fueled the music of Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye, Chaka Khan, and so many others.)  You just know when you are in the presence of these folks’s creations which seem to take on a life of their own for many moons to come.  I think that’s what digital spaces have to offer black communities: a unique AND African-Americanized presence that you come to know and incorporate into how you live your life.

I think about digital presence a lot lately, moreso than before, because I am more conscious of the digital spaces that I inhabit.  Immediate, in-time interactivity like twitter is sometimes important to me, but not always.  Even digital texts that are not updated can offer me multiple experiences, voices, and mental images vs. the usual, calcified and static repository of non-dynamic texts.

Here are some texts that I have come to enjoy because every time I enter them, I am, in fact, ENTERING something, becoming part of someone’s/something’s dynamism. Though the text doesn’t really change, I am still offered a new experience, a new way of hearing and seeing, each time I enter.

Johndan Johnson-Eilola’s “Polymorphous Perversity in Texts”, in the summer 2012 issue (16.3) of Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy offers me a way of thinking about academic research and writing where the ideas just literally jump out at you.  On top of that, Johnson-Eilola even offers an 89 MB zipped archive for readers/players/co-imaginers to go off and play some more.

I was inspired by this collaborative movement (movement is the best word I have because text just doesn’t seem expansive enough).  This movement represents a course called “English 696e: Spatial and Visual Rhetorics” at the University of Arizona. The collaboration of amy c. kimme tea, adrienne crump & elise verzosa, crystal n. fodrey, anita further archer, jennifer haley-brown, ashley j. holmes, marissa m. juarez, londie t. martin, and jenna vinson allows you to see the work of a classroom as a relational space of understanding, conflicts, and contradictions so that we can now EXPERIENCE a whole range of perspectives.  I can’t imagine a better entry point into a classroom and its composing.

I like the possibilities that such digital texts offer me.  In my ideal world, I would re-mix all of this with a Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis vibe.  It is only when I imagine the kind of new knowledge-making that Johnson-Eilola and English 696e’s collaboration make possible, alongside the presence and worlds that black cultural icons like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis have created, that I can imagine any reason and purpose for building digital competencies, code fluency, and tech skills.

eRace & New (Digital) Empire

When I listen to discussions about new technologies and digital pedagogies, I am always struck by how alien that discourse is from the historical and political experiences of African Americans.   This is, of course, no surprise given the ways that schools under racial apartheid could hardly foster a culturally or politically relevant education for people of African descent. But the nature and contour of these disconnections are worth examining.

I am reminded of conversations that I have heard about people’s general anxiety and discomfort about the public nature of digital texts.  I certainly agree with this stance but, at times, quite honestly, the paranoia seems completely unfounded to me.  This anxiety comes from an assumption that feels more nested with privilege than with any reality that I can see.  The underlying assumption goes something like this: when I show up, everyone will notice.  Meanwhile, the amount of time, care, and attention that bloggers and website designers must give to bring regular, continual “traffic” to their site is immense.  In terms of a digital universe, you do not simply post online products and have multiple readers and followers right away who then stay with you. What would make people think otherwise?  So another assumption operating here is this: as soon as I speak/write, people are listening.  I can’t imagine a reality more foreign to women of color.  I can’t pinpoint when and where I first learned this lesson but I can be sure that, as a woman of color (unless I am trying to be like or only “theorize” the likes of Basketball Wives, etc), mainstream perspective-bearers are seldom listening and if they are, it is often from the place of hostility, feigned interest, paternalism, or resistance.  I don’t know what it is like to assume that when I speak, write, or post online, or anywhere, that I have an immediate  and/or large audience.   That’s a kind of privilege I simply have not experienced.

Then there is another discourse that I hear a lot, a discourse that I myself have been working diligently to avoid: the issue of control.   I often hear this idea that in a digital universe, you can control your public image and presence.  Now that’s another hard pill for me to swallow.  At what point in history have black folk been able to control their public image?   I mean, really! Do we need to be reminded of what happened to Trayvon Martin for Walking while Black, wearing a hoodie and eating skittles?   Do we need to be reminded of the endless questioning of President Obama’s citizenship and birth status?  A black president can’t even control THAT!  This idea that people can control their public presence just reeks of a privileged mindset and history that I can’t understand as anything other than empire. This is not to say that communities of color have no agency, that we are mere victims of an onslaught of visual images that present us as animals.   We must, of course, actively construct our images and public presence in a world that is seeking to deny our humanity.  There is, after all, a word for that: RHETORIC.  The issue of control is a serious one for me because it is a concept so alien to how people of color have needed to imagine and operate in public spaces that it is void of any meaning for us.  I think here of a blog that I follow— the Crunk Feminist Collective— who quite forthrightly present themselves as inserting an unapologetic crunk, black, of/color, contemporary feminist discourse into the public sphere.  In my mind, that’s a very specific audience and yet, when I read the folk who comment regularly to the collective’s posts, I am often baffled that so many folks outside of that political vision assume the right to try and “correct” what the Crunk Feminists are doing, saying, and theorizing with an often unashamed homophobia, sexism, and/or racism.  To their credit, the Crunk Feminists handle them fools something lovely, which all brings me back to my original point: some of us simply can’t control our image and public presence in a capitalistic, racist, heterosexist world. But we DO fight for the right to have that public presence and resistance.

I will call my last point of disconnection the Sleeping Beauty complex.  As an educator, I see a wide continuum of how people relate to technology: on one far end are the people who fetishize any and every new thing; way on the other end are the folk who demonize anything related to technology (often while maintaining a Facebook account, of course); in between is a whole range of perspectives and experiences.  The folk who baffle me most though are those sitting and waiting for the institution to tell them exactly what to do and to train them exactly how to do it.  The kind of trust you must have in institutions to sit, wait, and expect all that is just not something I can relate to.  That kind of passivity and faith means that you don’t really understand or critique institutions as spaces in place and time that invent and sustain power, presumably because you share that power.   Or, similarly, you want a piece of that power and are waiting for the opportunity to cash in.  For me, this kind of Sleeping Beauty complex where I wait for the king to arrive means giving up all self-determination: the desire to willingly forego my own decision-making and meaning-making by simply waiting for the institution/empire to tell me what to do, in other words, to bestow its imprint on me.  That kind of waiting only works for  those who already expect and represent power, which simply has not been the historical experience of black communities.

While these expectations related to audience, control of public presence, and the benevolent caretaking of  institutions seem so simple and “everyday”, they are deeply invested in social hierarchies. Since I do not sit at the top of these hierarchies, the view down here gives me a different perspective on how and why these everyday topics circulate.  These are perspectives that digitally-emboldened, color-conscious students also need to hear and think about.


eBlack Archiving and Pedagogy

I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked [James] Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don’t know why I should be asked to explain your life to you. We have splendid writers to do that, but I am not one of them. It is that business of being universal, a word hopelessly stripped of meaning for me. Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world. That’s what I wish to do. If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water. Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective there are only black people. When I say ‘people,’ that’s what I mean.

~Toni Morrison

If I had to define what AfroDigital texts look like and do, I would re-mix Morrison’s arguments above and include issues of digital composing and design.  I am drawn to her singular goal of offering an unapologetic, self/community-determined right to think, imagine, and create with and for black communities.  An AfroDigital pedagogy would seem closely related.

I’ll start here by wondering/wandering about the intellectual, textual community that digital texts can  provide.  I mean something beyond (for now, at least) the seemingly endless experimentations in classrooms with new technologies as if the experimentation itself is the pursuit of knowledge, a rigorous theory of new media, or the creation of socially critical or meaningful action.  I have seen enough youtube videos online made by young people, often for their classes, that deploy quite ingenuous uses of technology but say nothing critical about black communities, fail to transcend the tradition of book reporting, or, at worst,  showcase dazzling multimedia tools about nothing.  I love when these kind of tech-creative projects are done by 11 and 12 year old students but when the creators are college students, I have some questions, to say the least.

So I am not talking about digital products as the sole marker of an AfroDigital pedagogy.

I am also not talking about the replacement of books and articles since nothing of the sort would be true of my own life.  The reading that I do on blogs and other websites does not replace the reading that I do in books and articles, some of it online/e-Book and some not. Nevertheless, I still believe that it is simply no longer enough for a group of students to connect with one another in classroom dialogues or via online discussions alone.  Nor is it enough to simply read a book outside of the digital universe that can give vision and audio-dimension to the text. We need to contextualize the world of ideas as part of the digital life that many students already have.  For an AfroDigital pedagogy, I am talking about the creation of a fierce, eBlack mini-archive that complements each of our classes.

While students certainly have access to more information and knowledge about black communities and their histories than ever before,  I see no evidence of a greater understanding of power, race, and culture today than 20 years ago when I first began teaching when there was no such thing as google, iTunes, or widespread use of DVDs.  I don’t expect this understanding from young people since this is the reason, after all, that they are in my classes.  However, to talk about the unlimited exchange of knowledge that can be found online severely miseducates students.  A google search, for instance, is as coded by money, power, and access in relation to whom and what gets listed, not unlike previous power dynamics that determined whose books/nations made it into a library or printing press.

When I want to link course content to various websites and videos, I clearly need to know that content first in order to sift through the options.  For instance, I wanted to build connections for my university program to current scholars’ counter-standardization and counter-testing movements in New York by locating politically challenging video-presentations.  I had to know first to look for Pedro Noguera and Michelle Fine because what I got before including their names in my search was inane, at best, and racist, at worst.  What about our students who do not know Fine and Noguera as critical, radical thinkers and educational activists?  Do we assume they will find these sites and people on their own because the internet is so amazing in the way it equalizes information-gathering from multiple perspectives?  Do we assume the internet is so highly interactive and engaging to young people that students will automatically do the work of sifting to find radical nooks and corners?  Do we assume they will know, in the example above, to follow the NYCLU on twitter to see the latest activist work they are doing in and for schools?   And if they are following NYCLU on twitter, is that the beginning and end, the creme de la creme, of their intellectual work? I say no on all this.

Do we just include a link on a syllabus (or classroom text) or pull up a video in class where oftentimes, like in the case of the panel which hosted Noguera and Fine, contending for our attention, are comments from racist whites about how and why they refuse to send their white children to schools with the poor and dumb black kids in the district?  After all, isn’t this what digital spaces allow— free exchange of ideas we may not get otherwise?  I say no on all that too.

I can’t afford to assume that our digital universe readily provides access to students to fully humanized representations of black communities.  I can’t assume that the most race-critical perspectives have been digitized and easily located for them.  I can’t ever assume that students’ possession of a new technological toolkit means that students have a radical or culturally-relevant use of it. So as I plan my class this fall, I am mindful about one, important use of my own website: to gather up and (re)present digital texts as a mini, eBlack archive so that my students and I can focus, think, be, do, and listen better to the black communities we are learning about.

When I first began using the term, AfroDigitized, in 2005, I had not heard the 2001 “The Shrine” album compiling a variety of artists from Africa forging what they call futuristic and future sounds of the Motherland.   After now hearing that album, I like the term even more as well as this notion of looking and listening digitally to the future, as if it were already here, rather than assuming that we have now is enough. These realizations, at least for me, are small but necessary first steps toward an AfroDigital Pedagogy.