Of Wake Work and We Who Would Build: Centralizing Blackness in Digital Work

When I began researching African Americans online seven years ago, the bulk of literature situated black users of online technology as mostly absent, lacking access, and in need of interventions to develop proficiency. This literature was very different than my experience with the robust black online communities I knew whose use of the digital was vibrant, skillful, and wholly unsurprising to me. Since this time, my own passion for digital scholarship has been focused on centralizing blackness in academic discourse about digital culture. The work of the AADHum Initiative seeks to do just that, by focusing on the intersection between digital studies and African American studies.

In the midst of our Spring session including reading groups, digital incubator training sessions and digital dialogues speakers, Jovonne Bickerstaff and Justin Hosbey, the two Post-Doctoral Associates of the AADHum initiative, provide the framework for our endeavor by discussing what it means to each of them to centralize blackness in their own work and the work of AADHum. —Catherine Knight Steele, Ph.D., Director of the AADHum Initiative

 Wake work at the intersection of Black Studies and the Digital Humanities —Justin Hosbey, Ph.D.

“In the anti-black ‘post-racial’ social reality animated and subtended by a black US president, non-humans weaponize sidewalks; shoot ourselves while handcuffed in the back of police cars; are brutally murdered while asking for help; incarcerated, assaulted, and stopped and frisked for walking, driving, and breathing while black. What will be the work of black studies now to defend those who are subject to such overwhelming and gratuitous, narrative and actual, discursive and material death?” —Christina Sharpe, Black Studies: In the Wake (2014)

Here we stand, weeks removed from the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States. The malignant revanchism of White civil society has forcibly dislocated many of us from a cognitive dissonance induced by 8 years of a charismatic Black man being the face of American Empire. To be clear, the age of neoliberal capitalism has always been a politically and economically harrowing zone of existence for Black life. But it seems to me that after this election, our flights of fancy for incorporation into the American settler project can no longer reasonably cohere. Now we must ask—where do we go from here?

As scholars and intellectuals committed to critical Black study and Black studies, where do our responsibilities and accountabilities lie? How can our work, digital and/or otherwise, upend the gratuitous violence that structures Black existence while undo-ing what Sylvia Wynter terms the “narratively condemned status” of Black life?

In her essay, “Making a Case for the Black digital humanities,” Kim Gallon cites the work of Alexander Weheliye (2015) to put digital humanists on notice that the “human,” as defined by the West, is a distinctly racial project that demarcates humanity into categories of “full human,” “not-quite-human,” and “non human.” This demarcation of humanity is made coherent by the violent negation of the unassimilable, non-human, “Black.”

Sylvia Wynter argues that this “human,” what she terms ‘Man,’ is a bourgeois, Western conception of the human that (as a result of colonialism and imperialism) “over-represents itself as if it were the human itself” (Wynter 2003: 260). The “humanities” are key intellectual engines of this overrepresentation: the liberal humanist subject—‘Man’—has animated centuries of hermeneutic inquiry in countless academic fields, from philosophy to history to anthropology. Through the uncritical use of digital modes of inquiry and representation, the digital humanities stand to further embolden the hegemony of ‘Man.’

As someone working at the intersection of Black Studies and the digital humanities, this is the central problem that circulates in my thinking and guides my research. If the digital humanities writ-large fail to reckon with the anti-Blackness at the core of liberal humanism, then a “Black Digital Humanities” should be prepared to deconstruct ‘Man’ and radically reconfigure what it means to be human.

If digital humanists’ remedy for Black absence in many DH spaces is merely increased representation, instead of a conscious and critical reappraisal of the “Humanities” themselves, digital humanists risk replicating the ideological and cognitive frameworks that distort and undermine Black ways of knowing and being in the world.

Gallon argues that a “Black Digital Humanities” could engage in the “technology of recovery,” which would interrogate the ways that the digital can reinforce the racialized configurations of humanity in the West. This recovery work would also be “characterized by efforts to bring forth the full humanity of marginalized peoples through the use of digital platforms and tools.”

This is important work, particularly in a political climate where Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) have introduced Bill 103, which declares that “No Federal funds may be used to design, build, maintain, utilize, or provide access to a Federal database of geospatial information on community racial disparities or disparities in access to affordable housing.”

This makes the stakes of Black digital humanities work even higher, particularly for scholars interested in geospatial analyses of race, space, and housing. The introduction of this bill reinforces the narrative of a “postracial” America – a place where pointing out racial disparities is tantamount to racial oppression itself.

If this bill becomes law, we may no longer have access to even the state’s “official” renderings of race, space and place. Since before the time of W. E. B. Du Bois’ “The Philadelphia Negro,” maps and other geospatial renderings have been key in understanding the modalities and race and class inequality in Black communities.

This bill is an assault on key databases used by activists, scholars, and communities in the struggle against regimes of urbicide and racial capitalism in the United States. This makes Gallon’s “technology of recovery” even more resonant, because Black historical and literary archives may soon be the only databases from which we can understand how that the past haunts our present, and propel ourselves towards a Black future.

In my own research, I am drawn to Christina Sharpe’s conception of “wake work.” Wake work does not seek to amend Black suffering through the frames of juridical, philosophical, or historical solutions. Wake work theorizes Black life in both the “wake” and the “hold” of the slave ship, requiring recognition “of the ways that we are constituted through and by vulnerability to overwhelming force, though not only known to ourselves and to each other by that force.”

This is critical Black study that does not seek to make room for the full scope of Black humanity to be recognized by the white consciousness. Rather, it works to “defend the dead” through the cultivation of a ‘blackened consciousness’ that would inhabit the ways that we are both living and dying in the wake.

In my own digital humanities work centered in New Orleans, 11 years after the storm, this means staring unflinchingly at the political, economic, and intellectual assemblages that over-determine Black life/death, while simultaneously understanding how insurgent Black social life can undermine these over-determinations.

Is digital wake work possible? If so, what can it look like? That is the question that I intend to work through as a researcher within the AADHum Initiative.
If it is indeed true that, as Moya Z. Bailey says, “All the Digital Humanists Are White, All the Nerds Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave,” then it’s time to say—in the words of Jonathan P. Jackson—“Gentlemen, we will be taking over from here.” In our work, how can we discover and further develop digital lines of escape, made possible by the apertures that emerge at the collision of Black Studies and the digital humanities?

 We who would build: Re-visioning resistance & theorizing beyond the gaze —Jovonne Bickerstaff, Ph.D.

We have two hands: one is to battle, one is to build. We battle. We resist by calling out threats to our dignity by name. We build. We actively protect our dignity by creating what works. Those two hands may be on one person, one organization may be set up to do both. For others, they are the battling or the building kind. Either way, the battlers need the builders. The builders need the battlers. This is a discipline of resistance. —Brittany Packnett, activist

Outlining her concept of “Black studies in the wake,” Christina Sharpe emphasizes its call “to be at the intellectual work of a continued reckoning the longue of Atlantic chattel slavery, with black fungibility, antiblackness… accounting for the narrative, historical, structural, and other positions black people are forced to occupy.” Drawing on Alexander Weheliye, Kim Gallon, by contrast, characterizes Black Studies as “a mode of knowledge production” that “investigates processes of racialization with a particular emphasis on the shifting configurations of black life.”

Building on the Duboisian tradition of intellectual activism that advances scholarship while furthering social justice, both suggest that the real and vital work on black people necessarily speaks to race—that is, analyzing the consequences of and resistance to the project of racialization.

I can see how interrogating the racial project of whiteness that shapes black folks’ lives can be a way of speaking truth to power for African Americanist scholars. Still, focusing so acutely on unpacking racism and racialization as sole or primary path of resistance gives me pause. I wonder if we’ve framed what Black Studies does—and more importantly can do—too narrowly.

Might our pre-occupation with black struggle, whether in the conditions of or resistance to oppression, make us complicit in the diminishing the fullness of black humanity and what we might explore in it? Can we imagine examining black experience without making America’s racialization project the dominant idiom?

Recently, activist Brittany Packnett developed a Twitter thread which began, “We have two hands: one is to battle, one is to build.” Certainly, we African Americanists know how to battle. So much of our training as scholars prepares us for it; we’re socialized to privilege the work of critique and deconstruction.

Given how black folk have been conceptualized or written out of cannons, our proclivity towards confrontational debate may be more pronounced. We feel the pulse of that resistance when Gallon characterizes Black Studies as “the comparative study of the black cultural and social experiences under white Eurocentric systems of power.” But… is that enough? Is our conception of black scholarly resistance too narrow? Taking Packnett’s call for a multifaceted strategy of resistance to heart, I must ask, when do we build?

These questions are central to who I’ve become as a scholar. Surely, I do my share of confrontational resistance, interrogating problematic paradigms, particularly when I teach. Still, as my research agenda solidifies, I’m more compelled by that call to build. Centering black experience has been my entry point for moving beyond critique to imagine new narratives and inquiry to engage in what I term theorizing beyond gaze—orienting my own work and my hopes for the AADHum Initiative.

“From my perspective there are only black people. When I say “people”, that’s what I mean… No African American writer had ever done what I did… even the ones I admired… I have had reviews in the past that have accused me of not writing about white people… As though our lives have no meaning and no depth without the white gaze. And I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one … I didn’t have to be consumed by or concerned by the white gaze… The problem of being free to write the way you wish to without this other racialized gaze is a serious one for an African American writer” [emphasis added]. —Toni Morrison

Freedom for her, Nina Simone once quipped, was the absence of fear. As a scholar and writer, my vision of freedom is more akin to Toni Morrison’s and begins with one radical tool: choice.

I name, frame, and lay claim to different terrains: examining understudied populations (couples in enduring relationships), raising novel questions (how emotional strategies for resilience impact intimacy), and situating my research in unorthodox literatures (sociology of emotions vs. “the black family”). In every case, each she/he/they that I describe is, by default, black. Refusing to explicitly qualify race in work on black people can be jarring because having non-white experiences centered is so rare. In addition to disturbing notions of black folks as the perpetual other, theorizing beyond the gaze forces us to recognize how failing to fully account for positionality undermines our theorizing.

If we uphold confrontation as the primary or most effective tool of resistance, I fear we risk neglecting how resistance requires and has always relied as much on subversive tactics like theorizing beyond the gaze as on direct action. In the AADHUM initiative, I hope that helps us think through how can we begin to construct a “meaningful intellectual and activist challenge that circumvents the analyses of injustice that re-isolate the dispossessed, à la McKittrick’s invocation of Gilmore.  

It’d be easy (and reductive) to see black Twitter simply as an offshoot of mainstream Twitter use. But what if we saw it instead as innovation narrative, à la Steve Jobs and iPods and iPhones, whereby they’re responsible for optimizing technology use in ways that reveal its fullest potential? Or conversely, could we invert the arrows of co-optation, which typically focuses on stolen African American products, to reveal how communities of color used Twitter and Vine towards subversive ends of mobilizing social change (i.e. BLM), celebrating black joy in the mannequin challenge or viral memes on Vine?

Ultimately, how, when and why we enter as African Americanists, seems to turn largely on who we are working for and what we are working towards. The aim is not to abandon the battle, but simply to recognize that, while necessary, it is insufficient.

My hope in the AADHum initiative is that we move towards what Brittney Cooper calls “liberatory world-making” —imagining new ways of seeing and thinking about that intersection of digital studies and African American research. We battle and we build… and we choose the work to which we’ll devote our hands each day. Today, I build.

2017-03-27T12:33:29+00:00 February 28, 2017|AADHum, Black Studies, Digital Humanities|0 Comments

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