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‘If You Don’t Own the [Servers]’: Curating + Aggregating + Doing Black Studies in the Digital Era

By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan | with thanks to  NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Saturday, April 8, 2017.

A typical morning -- opening up the Mac Air to check for social media mentions, monitoring the overnight traffic at NewBlackMan (in Exile). Then a scan of my curated lists of the YouTube and SoundCloud sites, to see which sites have uploaded new content, and what of that content will be of value to embed on my site, and also share to my social media followers. In many ways this activity is no different than the millions of Americans who for the past century have sat down at kitchen tables, or while commuting to work by car, bus or rail, have checked for the news of the day, but with a caveat; there was no easy process to share what they’ve read or heard, save word-of-mouth, which for the sake of argument, we’ll accept as an analog version of social media.  

On this particular morning the gem of a find is a 30-minute video of Professor Bianca Williams’ recent lecture at the Franklin Humanities Institute on "Radical Honesty"-- a Black Feminist Approach to Truth-Telling. Professor Williams, who teaches at the University of Colorado at Boulder, was a Duke undergraduate, and a product of the doctoral program in the cultural anthropology department. Professor Williams was also my first graduate teaching assistant when I arrived at Duke, so I was genuinely thrilled to share her ideas with an audience larger than the dozens who were in the room when she gave her address at Duke weeks ago. The analytics tell me that there were close to one thousand “hits” on her video, only two days after its posting, and it has “reached” close to five thousand on the four Facebook accounts that I manage or co-manage. Within the modest digital eco-system that I curate -- NewBlackMan (in Exile), which engages an average of 120,000 readers per month, and my primary Twitter account with its average of 1.5 million impressions per month -- Professor Williams’ post is a hit.  

While the analytics matter -- they are an index of what foundational digital humanities scholar Henry Jenkins calls “spreadability” -- what matters more, in this context, is the very impulse towards spreadability, which in many ways was unimaginable even a decade ago.  

Social media in the digital era, primarily platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram, is largely premised on the so-called democratization of opinion, engagement and in theory, knowledge production. It is also a moment marked by the ratcheting up of anonymous hate speech and what scholar Tom Nichols calls “the death of expertise.”

Digital Black Studies, Black Digital Studies, or a nascent Black Code Studies, is not only born of this era, but thrives in it, in what might be described as a renaissance of the spirit of the foundational vision of Black Studies as a knowledge project. In its earliest days Black Studies presumed a relationship between knowledge production and  grassroots activism -- Black Praxis -- which in the spirit of the late 1960s, included an expectation that the presence of Black thinkers at predominantly White institutions (PWIs) would engender the siphoning of the resources of said institutions for the benefit of Black liberation struggles, however broadly defined.

To be sure there have been almost three generations of institutionally funded and vaguely imaginative, and unimaginative, efforts to bridge the gap between “town and gown,” and those dark spatial realities, within “town,” in which “town” has little interest in engaging, let alone “gown.” Yet what has been clear, is that Black Studies, as a project and entity, has largely been siloed on the margins of these institutions, tolerated and managed, and rarely deployed except in the management of the very bodies of students that were critical to the presence of Black thinkers on these campuses in the first place. That Black Studies has, indeed, produced a body of compelling and sustainable scholarship, most often in the “service to community,” seems to have gone unnoticed, and unrewarded, by most institutions. Even the pearly Gates of Cambridge, on occasion, dances for dinner.

For the sake of our consideration of the digital turn, if we were to imagine The University as hardware, Black Studies functions as neither firmware or even operating system, yet as part of a network of interchangeable and affordable apps. It was this distancing of Black Studies from the centrality of the institution, yet existing as a metaphor for the colonial vine, that led the former Gerald McWhorter to break from the Institute of the Black World -- a Black Studies think tank that he co-founded with William Strickland, Stephen Henderson and the late Vincent Harding  -- on the basis that Black Studies -- per this framing -- needed its own hardware. And indeed, McWhorter was not alone. If we consider the short-lived Malcolm X Liberation University, which was founded in Durham, N.C., in the aftermath of the 1969 Allen Building Takeover, we see it was rooted in the inability of Duke University to fully imagine a Black Studies project at that time.

The scholar formerly known as Gerald McWhorter, a.k.a. Abdul Alkalimat, was still on this journey well into the digital era, with his highly influential H-Afro-Am listserv; the list an index of the space between those “never digital” and those “born digital.” As the generation of social media platforms came online, Alkalimat’s listserv had the ability to break news that most in the world knew about three weeks earlier, but which was genuinely breaking news for those on his listserv.  It was not simply a case of a generation of (frankly) 60-something-year-old Black Studies luddites (though it was still that), but a legitimate suspicion of the proliferation of digital platforms, that in the aftermath of the Patriot Act, might catalyze the very surveillance state that we are now all too familiar with. Alkalimat's listserv was a digital source that could be trusted.

That trust was born out of a basic reality -- Alkalimat owned his servers. The servers that power Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and process the massive data of those operations are not owned by those who share interests in Black Liberation projects, even as the narratives of Black Liberation provide needed content for those platforms. Indeed as Professor Marisa Parham recently suggested at a gathering at Johns Hopkins University, #BlackTwitter is an apt metaphor for the exploitation of Black Digital innovation; #BlackTwitter helped Twitter figure out what its own power was, President “Agent Orange” be damned.

Alkalimat, old-school nationalist that he is, never lost sight of what might be described as Black digital nationalism. With a nod to the late Prince Rogers Nelson, Alkalimat offers “If You Don’t Own the [Servers], the [Servers] Own You.” As such Black Studies in the digital era remains a resource issue, even as the so-called aggregation model of Black Studies has arguably made Black Studies more visible -- and importantly -- more accessible than it’s ever been.

Forever the “ghost in the machine” -- or perhaps, “Fugitives in the Machine” as historian Jessica Marie Johnson might be apt to describe --  the Black Digital responses to said machine has been in the curation of Digital Blackness (the digital archive as “maroon”);  the building of digital platforms, the construction of symbolic Black literacies or #hashtags; the privileging of backchanneling (in concert with the undercommoning of the University and The State);  and then in the aggregation Blackness, where aggregation functions as the ethical embodiment of Black collectivity.

In terms of Black Digital praxis, a direct line can be drawn from the emergence of the Black Radical Congress in the late 1990s, notably Barbara Ransby and the late Manning Marable, and its inclination to harvest the power of the Internet, to contemporary digital Black Studies practitioners. Consider Alondra Nelson’s editing of the indispensable special issue of Social Text on Afrofuturism in 2002; the Crunk Feminist Collective, which propelled co-founder Brittney Cooper as the leading voice of a generation of insurgent Black digital intellectuals; the development of the Hortense Spillers curated Feminist Wire; to the burgeoning African American Intellectual History Society, whose essays have been aggregated by the New York Times.

Black Studies exists in the digital realm as a vibrant, intellectual rich terrain. One need only look at the impact of the hashtag syllabus movement -- the crowdsourced syllabi for #Ferguson by Marcia Chatelain,  the  Charleston shooting, Beyonce’s Lemonade -- including Melissa Harris Perry’s curated digital symposium for Elle Magazine on the visual project -- and even Colin Kaepernick’s protest -- to give witness to the wide accessibility of Black Studies in this moment.

We are witnessing a Black Studies that relishes in its messiness. The aforementioned historian Jessica Marie Johnson calls it “Black ephemera” or the “flotsam and jetsam of Blackness” -- Manthia Diawara once described it as “Afro-kitsch” -- as if Blackness itself might not be that ephemera. And indeed, responding to the impulse and inclination by those with the resources to “dig” deeply for data and mine “Blackness,” there have been moves within Digital Black Studies, or Black Digital Studies or Black Code Studies, that resist the order(ing) of things; Same as it ever was.


Mark Anthony Neal been conjuring analog for a digital world for a minute; Check him at @NewBlackMan + @LeftofBlack + BookerBBBrown on the ‘Gram + and the homebase at NewBlackMan (in Exile).

‘If You Don’t Own the [Servers]’: Curating + Aggregating + Doing Black Studies in the Digital Era

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