Prior to joining Dr. LaToya Sawyer’s seminar in African American literacies of the 20th and 21st centuries, I’d read quite a bit of Sylvia Wynter’s work—as well as critical interpretations of it—and was excited to explore the possibilities of one of the central ideas expressed in what I personally find to be one of Wynter’s finest works: “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom” (available from Michigan University Press in PDF format).
That idea was simple but profound: what if we liberated our thinking and freed ourselves from the “common sense” that so cavalierly associated humanness with manhood and whiteness? What if we saw white manhood as a comparative possibility within a broader universe of humanness, in which those who did not resemble the colonized sense of the “mythical ideal” (see: whiteness, maleness, or submissive proximity to those characteristics) were not seen as subjects who were lacking, and instead were understood (and more importantly: understood themselves) as sites of human possibility defined by what they were or could be rather than what they were not.
To do this, humans—those beings who, in Wynter’s epistemology, exist beyond the limiting, colonizer’s concept of the “man”—would need to thoughtfully extract themselves from systems of thinking and being which privilege an intentionally hierarchical understanding of existence. While Wynter’s explanation of what this might look like might be described by some as labyrinthine in its sweeping complexity (and bigness in general)—and while the notion is explored extensively through Wynter’s massive catalog of theoretical and creative works—a somewhat simplified model of what I think Wynter gets at in her work can be found in that of another black theorist: Audre Lorde.
Where Wynter’s language explores the problematic hierarchies put into place by the institution of whiteness (a different thing from individual white people—which is an apparently important distinction to make) through an exploration of “vistas” and “nadirs”; “spaces of otherness”; “negroid” and “anglo” and describes how the ascribing of negative connotations with the “negroid physiognomy” (and all associated senses of “good” and “bad”) were manifestations of a larger project for social domination enacted first as a matter of religious class warfare and later mutated into something that seems foundational to American life in a negative way (for non-white folk) if the frequent state-sanctioned deaths of black bodies/beings throughout history and continuing to the present moment are any indication, Lorde’s paper, “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” simplifies things somewhat. Without necessarily reaching into what I would describe as the intellectual stratosphere of theoretical thinking that Wynter occupies, Lorde makes it clear that for “othered” communities to divorce themselves from the hierarchical thinking that weaponizes them against their potential comrades and renders the world a bestiary of endless dangers, the “othered” (she speaks specifically about sexual minorities, the aged, women and the economically disadvantaged) must develop an awareness of how hierarchical thinking situates them in a circumstance of endless hostility and destruction (mostly of the self, but also of other people who Wynter would describe as “human” but not “man”) and then work to meaningfully weave a fabric of community that rejects this hostiliy and destruction in favor of embrace, healing, compassion and resource-sharing.
As someone who has spent the majority of my formative life managing significant dimension of the self that plays out on the internet, and as someone who gained much of his education from digital sources where physical resources or support from people like myself (I grew up in a community with almost no black people other than my family, was not financially stable, and didn’t really know I was queer in any way besides the fact that I was somehow different until my second semester at university), I thought a lot about the agency I had in online spaces that didn’t feel available to me elsewhere.
On the web, I could learn, could access resources and support (through any number of channels, some probably more legitimate than others) that were otherwise unavailable to a poor person of color, could assert my identity and find community with people like me who I hadn’t known existed before, and could conceal my identity when it was beneficial or necessary for my safety to do so in a way that was not possible in “waking life”. For many years, as the high-speed internet became more widely available and my financial situation improved, I thought: maybe the internet—being the free-floating space that it was—could be the site where we could actually begin to free ourselves of the hierarchies and violence that characterized “othered” life in the waking world. We could—I thought—bring the problematic, oftentimes racist, hostile foundational elements of world history out of an unspoken “sphere of consensus” and into an explicit “sphere of legitimate controversy” (these are terms that I borrow from a lecture given by Dr. David Ryfe at the University of Nevada in 2009); here, we could relitigate the ills of our past and create a better world for tomorrow, as ideas on the internet spilled over into reality and institution’s responded by honoring our improved perspective.
Of course, that’s not what has been happening on the internet and, in hindsight, it was naive of me to think that it would.
My understanding of the internet and the various platforms that exist on its network (social media, the blogosphere, digital media, advertising) assumed a curiously idealized understanding of how the world worked. By thinking of the internet and its platforms as neutral mechanisms, I overlooked the fact that these mechanisms are both designed and influenced by human beings and their institutions. Both human beings and institutions, whether they know it or not, are likely to retransmit the conditions most familiar to them (particularly if those conditions grant them power) via the platforms they engineer. Thinking about it this way, and bringing these observations into contact with present day (2019) American political realities as they have been influenced by the internet and its platform, it is decidedly less surprising to me that a new, digital version right-wing, moneyed conservatism built as a protective sentinel around the institution of whiteness managed to grow so virulently influential in the lead up to the 2016 election. Many of the internet’s most powerful platforms, despite boasting devastatingly large and diverse user bases, were engineered (and more importantly) are managed by (still, for the most part) not-so-diverse teams which represent a white male majority who may retransmit—intentionally or unintentionally (this, to me, does not matter so much because the point of these remarks is not to demonize but to point to potential gaps in thinking)—white, patriarchal, violent supremacy or design algorithms on their platforms that allow such thinking to flourish as easily as dandelions grow.
In Safiya K. Noble’s text, Algorithms of Oppression, this point is addressed. The author describes the possibility of biases in the engineering of algorithms, and while she does not decry these biases as inherently damaging or “bad”, she does imply that a failure to examine these biases and operating under the falsehood that digital platforms are somehow devoid of human influence and therefore “neutral” with respect to the influence of the sociopolitical realities of waking life is, in fact, damaging, which she demonstrates through her exploration of search results pertaining to women and black girls especially.
Having explained the context of her thinking, Noble details the necessity of situating her analysis of the algorithmic performance of search engines and its resulting impacts on people in an explicitly black, explicitly feminist, explicitly woman-centric mind frame.
“The impetus for my work comes from theorizing Internet search results from a Black feminist perspective; that is, I ask questions about the structure and results of web searches from the standpoint of a Black woman—a standpoint that drives me to ask different questions than have been previously posed about how Google Search works…” (Noble, Algorithms of Oppression: Kindle Edition, Loc. 565)
“A Black feminist perspective offers an opportunity to ask questions about the quality and content of racial hierarchies and stereotyping that appear in results from commercial search engines such as Google’s; it contextualizes them by decentering the dominant lenses through which results about Black women and girls are interpreted. By doing this, I am purposefully theorizing from a feminist perspective, while addressing often-overlooked aspects of race in feminist theories of technology.” (Noble, Loc. 571)
Noble’s contextualizations, paired with the visions for a greater, more just field of possibilities in being that Lorde and Wynter envision paint a far less flattering picture about the internet’s current state of possibility than I envisioned (and if the discussion about technology’s impact on the environment extends beyond purely sociological concerns and into the realm of environmentalism, there is room for an eco-feminist discussion about how emergent internet technologies like the blockchain , which is said to be exacerbating a looming energy crisis and how breathless excitement about these technologies in highly powerful, mostly white and wealthy communities can lead to the destruction of human, animal and plant life much in the same way that other forms of consumerism do; Erika Cudworth’s “introductory” text to ecofeminism might be helpful in that respect—see Developing Ecofeminist Theory: The Complexity of Difference).
Another complicating factor comes into play is the matter of access and literacy in the digital realm. While not specifically a black issue (and I think I should clarify that while my project does situate itself to a significant degree in blackness as a starting point for discussing possibility, African Americanness and blackness are not the sole aims of my thinking about these issues), it stands to reason that communities who are frequently denied opportunities or resources are less likely—as Noble writes in Algorithms of Oppression—to find classes in ethics, or digital literacy readily available.
Naturally, this is problematic for a number of reasons, the most salient among them being (at the time of this writing) that digital products are impacting the relationship between people and institutions. Information circulated via digital channels is increasingly difficult to evaluate in terms of credibility, advertorials are increasingly prominent in publications and increasingly difficult to distinguish from news media, profit schemes and ideological agendas are increasingly diminishing trust and reliability even in local media, emergent media like “deepfake video” technology is further blurring the lines between fact and fiction, and much of the population lacks the literacies needed to navigate these challenges—which grow only more numerous while resources to address them seem increasingly scarce.
In 2016, I endeavored my first attempt at mitigating the growing difficulties where digital literacies were concerned. I developed The Web Literacy Project, which is an actively updated digital syllabus aimed at a broad demographic of educators (or general web users, though the former group was certainly the priority) that is meant to provide people with tools to begin thinking about and teaching digital literacies—with questions of access squarely in mind.
Since engaging with materials about African American literacies in Dr. Sawyer’s class—and consuming various other literature, including proprietary material pertaining to my content marketing work in the commercial sector—I have realized that, while well intended, The Web Literacy Project is possibly too broad in its aims, not particularly creative in its solutions (which are entirely too prescriptive, in hindsight), already quite dated and, because of its stance that platforms are neutral and thus only user behavior must change, fundamentally flawed.
With these realities in mind, and inspired by Dr. Noble’s black feminist situation, I have begun developing a list of texts that I believe will be beneficial to reapproaching the development of programs/syllabi like The Web Literacy Syllabus. Rather than focusing solely on materials that discuss digital literacy as a set of practices to be taught or thought about—with technology as a neutral platform—I mean to work with this new list of texts to first situate my thinking in the realm of social equity, activism, and digital literacy as a matter of human rights. In the context of what I know now, this means that I must ask myself meaningful questions about how race, class, gender and other elements of identity have historically impacted access to literacy and power—and how activism in relation to that literacy, and to concepts of being in general, can help vulnerable people to claim meaningful footholds in the digital debate.
My working reading list is divided into three sections:
“Blackness, Identity, and Community Futures” – which seeks to think about the past and future of blackness, literacy and being—and how communicative competence (to borrow from Smitherman) can be used not only to navigate but to create rhetorical circumstances and institutions that centralize the being of the “other” rather than forcing them to reshape or destroy themselves to suit institutions that are intentionally deleterious to all but the other.
“Digital Humanism and Literacy” – which seeks to ask explicit questions about present best practices and research in the field of digital humanities and literacy. This section is included because while I do believe that any race, class or gender-agnostic approach to digital literacy education is bound to be deeply flawed, it remains critically important to know what is happening in the field before I can meaningfully apply new models of thinking to it in the way that Dr. Noble and Virginia Eubanks (whose work, Automating Inequality, appears on the following list but was not cited in this preface as, at the time of this writing, I’m still in the middle of her work) have. Not to mention, there are plenty of scholars who are thinking explicitly about race and class to some extent in digital literacy studies at this time.
“Community Pedagogies and Assessment” – which refers to communities of meaning (a concept discussed frequently by compositionist Juan Guerra, as well as assessment, which I feel at this time remains an important part of any educational model. On the point of assessment—I think it’s important to examine the biases built into it as an “institution” and mechanism because, just like digital platforms, this tool is vulnerable to the biases of its designers and its users. While we cannot necessarily stop that from being the case, we can at least challenge ourselves and our institutions to confront those biases to the betterment of the experiences offered to students. This final section is also inspired in part by information uncovered in Virginia Eubanks’ Automating Inequality:How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor, which speaks explicitly to how algorithms predict, reinforce and punish individuals and communities based on the superstructure of class hierarchy in the western world. While similar on the surface to Dr. Noble’s thoughts, Eubanks’ work focuses more on mechanisms of class and is less situated in blackness and feminism. While that situatedness for Noble does provide a new vantage point to think from, to think in broad terms about algorithmic tools (which I argue that things like individual and programmatic assessment at academic or other institutions) is important if we are to understand how these tools operate currently—and begin plotting meaningful interventions that are creatively, sympathetically and logically inspired by more granular thinking.
This list remains a work in progress and will be actively updated and written about on this website as I continue my doctoral work, and its likely that the content within this “prefacing rationale” will alter as I continue to read and my understanding grows (hopefully) more sophisticated.
Blackness, Identity, and Community Futures
All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks
The Rhizome of Blackness by Awad Ibrahim
Vernacular Insurrections by Carmen Kynard
Fashioning Lives by Eric Pritchard
Savage Portrayals by Natalie Byfield
Writing on the Move: Migrant Women and the Value of Literacy by Rebecca Lorimer Leonard
On Being Human as Praxis edited by Katherine McKitrick
The Womanist Idea by Layli Mapryan
Convergences: Black Feminism and Continental Philosophy by Davidson, Gines and Marcano
Digital Diaspora: A Race for Cyberspace by Anna Everett
Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness by Simone Browne
Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era by Ashley D. Farmer
Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper
The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses by Oyeronke Oyewumi
The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing
Revolutionary Suicide: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) by Huey P. Newton
Faces at the Bottom of the Well by Derrick Bell
Developmental Psychology of the Black Child by A.N. Wilson
Digital Humanism and Literacy
Rhetoric/Composition/Play through Video Games: Reshaping Theory and Practice of Writing edited by Richard Colby, Matthew S. S. Johnson, Rebekah Shultz Colby
On Multimodality: New Media in Composition Studies (CCCC Studies in Writing & Rhetoric) by Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes
The Rise of Writing by Deborah Brandt
Toward a Composition Made Whole by Jody Shipke
Community Pedagogies & Assessment
Raising Black Students’ Achievement Through Culturally Responsive Teaching by Johnie McKinley
Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies by Asao B. Inoue
Anti-Racist Scholarship: An Advocacy edited by James Joseph Scheurich (Editor)
Discourse and Discrimination by Geneva Smitherman and Teun Van Dijk
Race and Writing Assessment edited by Asao B. Inoue and Mya Poe
Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia edited by Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs), Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. González, and Angela P. Harris
Assessing Writing: A Critical Sourcebook edited by Brian Huot and Peggy O’neill
Grading in the Post-Process Classroom: From Theory to Practice edited by Elizabet Allison, Lizbeth Bryant, Maureen Hourigan
How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey
Naming What We Know, Classroom Edition: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies by Linda Adler-Kassner
Organic Writing Assessment: Dynamic Criteria Mapping in Action by Bob Broad, Linda Adler-Kassner, Maureen McBride, et. al.
Performing Antiracist Pedagogy in Rhetoric, Writing, and Communication edited by Frankie Condon and Vershawn Ashanti Young
Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope by bell hooks
Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing by Kathleen Yancey, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak
Writing Studies Research in Practice: Methods and Methodologies edited by Lee Nickoson, Mary P Sheridan, and Gesa E Kirsch