This course focuses on Blackness and Black Expressivity as central to today's internet and digital cultures. We draw from linguistic justice, digital rhetoric, community cultural wealth, Black visual & sonic theories, intersectional activism, and anti-racist technology studies to look at critical sites and practices of Black-dominated online communications. We will root the various internet phenomena that we have witnessed across many decades now in centuries of Black cultural expressions, community philosophies, and communication styles. We will treat digital culture as a technology (of today), but not as THE TECHNOLOGY. And we will elevate innovation to the same level of invention given the racist history of property and ownership that have shaped our lives.
Here is a bit of critical history that we need to keep in mind as we begin conversations about technological invention and ownership. In the Old South, enslaved Africans were the pulse of technological invention. They had to be since they were the ones who imagined and invented the machines to help with the jobs that only they did. The story of the cotton gin is one such example. The invention of the cotton gin has been attributed to Eli Whitney based on his 1793 patent (#72X). That story gets complicated very quickly though. At the time, the majority of Black folx were enslaved and lived in the South. They were not allowed to patent any of their inventions (and even well after slavery and into today, it remains difficult for people of African descent to get their work patented). In 1858, the United States Attorney General made it illegal for any slave to get their patent approved on the grounds that slaves were white men’s property so their ideas and inventions belonged solely to their white "slaveowners." Today it is pretty difficult for anyone to say who came up with the ideas and mechanisms of common inventions patented to slaveowners. The production of cotton might not seem like a major technological revolution to us right now, but it certainly was in 1793. Cotton was BIG MONEY for much of the Deep South and it was very labor-intensive and hard to work with. Picking cotton and then removing its seeds was slow and painful, so being able to work faster and easier meant HUGE profit from a commodity in high demand in the North and everywhere else (that’s a sly reminder so that yall don’t get fooled out here into thinking the North was not wholly invested in slavery and white supremacy too). A slave in Georgia, known to us today only as Sam, invented a large comb-like device that picked seeds from cotton (and it seems that many slaves across many plantations had created such devices). Today, Eli Whitney is the man credited with the invention of the cotton gin--- a machine that is the mechanized version of Sam’s comb that quickly removes seeds from cotton. Sound suspicious? Many think so. Eli Whitney was a wealthy, Massachusetts-born white man and Yale graduate who had never seen a cotton plant in all his life. After he graduated, he went to Georgia to work as a private tutor to plantation owners’ kids to pay off his educational expenses (since his stepmother blocked his access to the family money). Georgia was the first place to ever grow cotton commercially in 1734. It is hard to believe that the slaves forced to pick and clean cotton waited 59 years for Whitney to come along and show them how to do it faster. The point here is that this is the history of technology in the United States: machines that are built to sustain racial ordering, wealth, and structural inequalities; systems where the disenfranchised popularize machines and make them more efficient and dare we say, “sexy”; and the spread of narratives where the elite take all the credit, insulting our common sense in the stories they create. As it turns out, cotton and the machines that make it represent a very long history where technology, racism, and Black lives get mixed up in some real deep ways. The stories that will be told about digital technologies at the eve of the 21st century will be (and already are) mixed up in the same ways…. except in this space, we are going to be in charge of the narrative this time!