By providing resources and training in digital tools, AADHum seeks to support participants—in all stages of scholarly development—in their research at the intersections of African American history, culture, and digital humanities. As a doctoral student in the Sociology Department at the University of Maryland, College Park, AADHum Graduate Assistant Melissa Brown considers how the AADHum initiative is already enriching her work in productive, critical, and challenging ways.
I came to the University of Maryland interested in representations of Black women. Shows like Flavor of Love and College Hill offered supposedly realistic portrayals of Black people. I wanted to know how White people who had limited contact with Black women in daily life reacted to reality television dating shows. Did White Americans who had few relationships with people of color rely on television as their sole exposure?
I stay aware of the way society describes Black Americans to answer this type of research questions. My personal experience with police shooting and killing a family friend has taught me how media and law enforcement characterize Black people as criminal or deviant. So when Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, I wasn’t surprised by how the media and politicians characterized this teenaged Black boy. What I didn’t anticipate, however, was the rise of #Blacklivesmatter. Activists across the world used Twitter to organize the first antiracist social movement of the digital age. So when media characterised Michael Brown as “no angel,” the people took to the streets to demand justice.
Since then, I have studied tweets related to #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName, which centers on police violence toward Black women, as examples of Black empowerment through the use of technology. My training in sociology had led me to believe that a digital divide meant Black people had less access to technological infrastructure and skills. But, as I worked with digital humanists to uncover insights about these social movements, I realized that black technological ability did exist—contrary to the deficiency story told about Black people and digital technology in quantitative sociology. That work led me to a new research question: What can we learn from the ways that Black people use digital technology?
While digital divide research reinforced stereotypes about Black inferiority, social media data told a story about people empowered to push back.
The narrative of the digital divide portended an increasing disconnectedness from modern life for Blacks worldwide. This narrative reinforces the notion that White Americans and Europeans possess technological superiority. With social media, Black people spoke for themselves rather than be reduced to variables in statistical models. I realized while quantitative research talked about Web 1.0 (computer-based Internet access), my research showed the power of Web 2.0 (smartphone-based Internet access) for Black empowerment. While digital divide research reinforced stereotypes about Black inferiority, social media data told a story about people empowered to push back.
#BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName helped me look beyond the digital divide. I learned how Black women led these social movements, building on the legacy of Black feminism. I also learned these movements were more than armchair activism, leading to protests and marches across the world and uplifting Black transgender victims of violence.
I wanted new ways of finding answers about Black technological ability and the digital humanities provided me an opportunity to answer questions about Black identity not possible through quantitative sociological methods. So, as soon as MITH director Neil Fraistat announced the AADHum initiative, I expressed my interest in the endeavor.
AADHum creates a space for cultivating interdisciplinary knowledge about digital Blackness. First, as a Black woman, I embody technological expertise as I learn digital map-making and hone existing skills like social media engagement. Second, the AADHum team consists of a diverse, interdisciplinary group who use their knowledge to lay the groundwork for a digital Black studies project. Finally, AADHum permits us to advance research on digital blackness through reading groups and digital incubators that center scholarship on the topic.
In AADHum, I am already learning how to push the boundaries of knowledge about digital Blackness—for instance, framing research about Black people’s technological agency through Andre Brock’s concept of critical technocultural discourse analysis. I also learned methodology to analyze Black digital cultural products from Project Director Catherine Steele’s research, as well as theory to examine the lack of diversity in gaming and racism toward Black online gamers via Kishonna Gray’s research.
I am eager to learn what else I might uncover while I am with AADHum. I will use the skills I learn to develop my research question for my dissertation in order to analyze the ways Black women in the exotic dance industry use Instagram to display sexual agency. I hope to illuminate the entrepreneurial innovation of Black women’s social media use, thus complicating the narrative about Black technology ability.
—Melissa Brown, Doctoral Student and Graduate Assistant to the AADHum initiative