One of the most powerful sessions of my class on New Media Literacies and Civic Engagement last fall came as a result of a visit from Dayna Cunningham from MIT’s Community Innovators Lab shortly after the 2008 election. Cunningham challenged me and my students to think about whether new media tools and platforms might help address the erosion of the black public sphere. She argued that the structures that had sustained the black community during the Civil Rights era were collapsing without the emergence of new structures that would provide the basis for strong critiques of the operations of power and that might be used to hold Obama accountable to his own community. And she asked those of us who were trying to build tools or curriculum to support democratic citizenship to factor these concerns into our design and planning process.
Wanting to bring this exchange to a larger audience, I asked Cunningham if she would be willing to engage in a written conversation which I could share with the readers of this blog. Such conversations across disciplinary and racial borders are rare these days even as the election of the first African-American president mandates that all of us re-examine our country’s racial politics from whatever vantage point we may see the world. This exchange took place over more than a month’s time. I will be sharing it here in four installments, hoping that each piece may spark further reflection and conversation within the community of people invested in better understanding the future of media and its impact on our society. What follows ranges from the history of the black press and the black church to speculations about the design of democratic structures in cyberspace.
Dayna Cunningham: It was great to have the opportunity to talk to your Comparative Media Studies class and pose questions about how new media might help to address the paradox I have been grappling with: the US has elected its first black president at a time when black institutions are weak and black civil society is in deep disarray. What will happen to black voice now that we have this black president? By black voice I mean in particular the longstanding tradition of bottom-up critique of American culture, society and democracy by one of its most despised groups.
Let me start by saying that from where I stand, collective discourse, debate, dissent and demand are crucially necessary for building the political will to advance African Americans’ equity claims. Black voice is critical to this process. I am focused here on that part of black voice that prioritizes political strategies and collective action. Thus, I use the terms “black voice” and “freedom discourse” interchangeably. Because our struggles are counter-majoritarian, because therefore, the “sensible” thing to do is to ignore them and go on with the existing frameworks that make these struggles invisible, it is critical for black people to be able to come together and make sense of their conditions, determine what they want to change and then to figure out how they will make change. This is very different activity from supporting a particular candidate or even a legislative agenda. Electoral and legislative campaigns by definition demand cultivation of the white electoral majority’s opinions and carry inherent risk that they will censure claims or interests that are unpleasant to that majority. Without a prior agenda-setting discourse enabling African American communities to arrive at some collective decisions about their shared future, I can’t imagine either innovation in support of, or accountability to, black concerns.
Black voice stems from the schizophrenic daily experience of being un-free in a society that claims freedom as its first principle. Black voice provides a unique, and I would argue, necessary, perspective on the failures of American democratic institutions. Frederick Douglass, asked to address an abolitionist group on the subject of Independence Day, captured it best when he chose to “see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view:”
[Y]our high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. . . . The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your
fathers, is shared by you, not by me. . … This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine.
You may rejoice, I must mourn. . .”
Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” July 5, 1852
Black voice has been shaped throughout its history by a vibrant and diverse intellectual and popular tradition with wide-ranging debate about black conditions and freedom strategies. From Frederick Douglass’s Abolitionist Movement in the mid-1800s, through the Black Power Movement of the late 1960s and ’70’s, each successive wave of African American intellectual and political currents also was supported by organization in the black community that enabled discourse, agenda-setting and collective action. All of these elements were critical to the unfolding of black freedom movements. The multiple intellectual, political and cultural sub-currents that emerged from these movements also led to the formation of a diversity of local organizations and efforts.
Black voice cannot be separated from the black church and its prophetic tradition—an unsparing, scripturally-grounded moral judgment against the immoral exercise of power and a calling to account of the government and powerful institutions for mistreating the powerless. From Douglass, who compared the US to “a nation whose crimes. . . were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin!” to King, who declared, “America is going to hell if we don’t use her vast resources to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life,” the African American hope for freedom is bound up with God’s love of justice and there is little separation between the struggle for justice and the preaching of the word.
The African American press also played a crucial role in popularizing and deepening black freedom discourse and in inspiring collective black political action. The nation’s first black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal began in 1827 with the declaration: ‘We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.’‘ The Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier were among the largest national black newspapers, reaching circulation in the hundreds of thousands. The Defender was read extensively in the South, smuggled across the Mason/ Dixon line by black Pullman porters and entertainers, passed from person to person, and read aloud in barbershops and churches. Both the Defender and the Courier engaged in explicit and effective political campaigns such as the Defender’s support of the Great Migration that saw the exodus of over 100,000 people from the South to Chicago, and the Courier’s “Double V for Victory” campaign, joined by most of the other major black newspapers and advocating an end to racial repression in the US as the US fought fascism overseas.
In addition to the general circulation papers, many black political organizations had their own organs—the NAACP’s Crisis Magazine, first published by WEB Dubois; Marcus Garvey’s Negro World, and during the black power movement in the 1960s and ’70s, black nationalist, Pan- Africanist or socialist papers. These publications at times reached circulation in the hundreds of thousands with polemics about the relative advantages of various ideologies for addressing the conditions of African Americans and featuring sharp political debates on critical issues from segregation and joblessness, police brutality and education system failures to southern African freedom movements, and the war in Vietnam.
The great diversity and pervasiveness of black freedom discourse throughout helps to explain the generally progressive bent of African American politics today. However, I would argue that today, black politics has largely been reduced to the electoral and legislative spheres; African American media too often promote black celebrity and individual advancement, and along with much of the black civic infrastructure, rarely focus on freedom discourse as a means of exploring strategies for collective political action and accountability to black interests. Perhaps only the Church has survived as an independent space for black voice—and even the Church is sometimes compromised by “prosperity gospel” preachers who have little time for freedom discourse . Moreover, the uproar over Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor, (whose preaching that the US risked damnation as a result of its role in the Gulf War was not unlike King’s prophesizing that America would be damned for its failure to address poverty, or for that matter, King’s condemnation of the US role in Vietnam) silenced even the progressive black Church for the duration of this election. While every white Democratic presidential hopeful in memory has, as a matter of course, cultivated highly visible relationships with black clergy, Obama, was forced to renounce his ties. More than an attempt to alienate whites and to cut Obama off from his core base, many African Americans saw this as an effort to de-legitimate black voice.
Has Obama’s election signaled the dawn of a post-racial moment in which black voice no longer is relevant or necessary? Not likely. African American progress has ground to a halt since the early 1970s, coinciding with a series of policy assaults that shifted massive state and federal resources from increasingly-black cities to suburbs. These policy assaults, cutting social advancement while criminalizing poverty, occurred during Democratic as well as Republican administrations and at all levels of government regardless of the presence of black elected officials. Black elected officials continue to be isolated on major policy issues of concern to black communities within federal and state legislatures. These conditions and political dilemmas are structural in our majoritarian polity and are unlikely to change significantly with the election of a black president. The majority of whites did not support Obama (according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, McCain/Palin carried the white popular vote nationally, 55-43 percent). They are even less likely to support the kinds of radical policy interventions needed to reverse the last thirty years’ conscious and systematic disinvestment in black communities. Without a revivified black freedom discourse and politically energized black public that articulate and press for accountability to its
legitimate claims and join forces with immigrants and other dispossessed groups also struggling for a foothold of inclusion in US society, such interventions will never happen.
Has Obama’s campaign, now being institutionalized as an ongoing organization, with its highly effective organization, social networking, face-to-face outreach, and vast fundraising capabilities, rendered black civic space obsolete? Can it substitute for black black freedome discourse? If not the Obama post-election process, where will the new spaces for black freedom discourse exist?
I would argue that though it will create rich opportunities for people to gain political experience and to engage in important forms of collective action, the Obama post-election process is unlikely to be a sound substitute for the political process of black freedom discourse. Like the campaign, singularly focused on electing the candidate, an ongoing effort to support his presidential initiatives is unlikely to be structured to invite discourse, debate, dissent or demand. How would it provide opportunities for people to hear a range of policy proposals and decide which ones they prefer? How would it enable debate? How would it give access to deeply marginalized black voices—gang-involved kids, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, undocumented immigrants, HIV/AIDS survivors? What if important sectors of black communities fundamentally disagree with the first black president on issues of great urgency and concern to them? What if Pres. Obama wants to do the right thing but needs public pressure to accede?
The need for a 21st century freedom discourse is paramount. The Obama campaign proved that the connection of media technology and organizing holds much promise for constructing electoral movements. Now, how can that technology help us construct new spaces for black and other subaltern voice? Which tools and platforms will help collective deliberation and debate, not just aggregate or pass on information? What venues and mechanisms will aid formation of political identities of dispersed and despised groups? How can these groups find opportunities for speech back to the majority? On these questions, Henry, I look to you and your colleagues for help.
Dayna L. Cunningham is Executive Director of the Community Innovators Lab at MIT. CoLab is a center of research and practice within the MIT Department of Urban Planning. Combining on-the-ground planning and development expertise of DUSP faculty and students with local community knowledge, CoLab helps community residents and leaders create innovative experiments and living examples that address urban sustainability challenges. In 2006-2007, Cunningham directed the ELIAS Project, an MIT-based collaboration between business, ngos and government that seeks to use processes of profound innovation to advance economic, social and environmental sustainability.
Cunningham was an Associate Director at the Rockefeller Foundation from 1997-2004. At Rockefeller she funded initiatives that examined the relationship between democracy and race, changing racial dynamics and new conceptions of race in the U.S., as well as innovation in the area of civil rights legal work. From 2004-2006 she was associated with Public Interest Projects, a non-profit project management and philanthropic consulting firm based in New York City, where she managed foundation collaboratives on social justice issues.
Before coming to the Rockefeller Foundation, Cunningham worked as a voting rights lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, litigating cases in Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi and elsewhere in the South, and briefly as an officer for the New York City Program at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
Cunningham is a 2004 graduate of the Sloan Fellows MBA program of the MIT Sloan School of Management. She has an undergraduate degree from Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges and a juris doctor degree from New York University School of Law.