Can African-Americans Find Their Voice in Cyberspace?: A Conversation With Dayna Cunningham (Part Three of Four)

    by Henry Jenkins
    March 6, 2009

    (Part 1.) (Part 2.)

    Dayna Cunningham: Thank you for reminding me that we are talking about institutions and cultures and politics and that media are nothing more than tools within these contexts. We need social organizations, not just technology. Drat. I was hoping for a quick fix.

    I saw a Washington Post poll, reported on Inauguration Day, of black and white Americans asking their views on the persistence of racism in the US. Only 44% of African Americans polled said that racism is still a major problem. A majority of blacks said it was not (whites, true to past patterns, in large majorities said that racism is no longer a major problem). However, a follow up question asked whether the respondents still witnessed or experienced racism in their daily lives and a significant majority of African Americans said that little had changed for them in their local communities and in their daily experience of racism. Most blacks reported continuing denials of service and jobs, less access to housing, and racialized police harassment.


    Yet, the majority of blacks interviewed chose to say that racism is no longer a major problem. I think that shows a pretty sophisticated parsing of the moment—its huge symbolic significance and its limited practical reach. I think that black responses to the poll suggest that perhaps patriotism, the flag, the Capital building, the White House, and other icons that have been very fraught for African Americans for a very long time, have a more elastic meaning than they did before this election. See, Funkadelics, “Chocolate City” for a longer and more danceable discussion of the cultural possibilities of a black presidency. I believe that this moment is not just an artifact of a black person having been elected: Obama’s personal integrity, intelligence, political stance and skillful communication have done a lot to create it. And while this is not always the substance of freedom discourse, it certainly sets a welcoming stage.

    Thinking about that welcoming stage, and in the vein of the barbershop comment you mentioned, there have been mountains of micro-gestures since the Inauguration that have gotten a lot of air time (mainly phone conversations in my case) in the black community but appear largely to have gone unnoticed in the mainstream. Small as they are, I have to say that these gestures have evoked very strong positive reactions for me and, I imagine, for many other African Americans. Rev. Joseph Lowery began his benediction with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Negro National Anthem. He did not sing it. He simply spoke it as a prayer. He did not name it and the black audience at the Inauguration did not openly respond to it in the moment. Just a quiet reminder amongst the folks that this was Black President Day. Several friends sent me the links to it on You Tube. My heart leapt each time I heard it and I felt full of energy, optimism and even ambition. There was footage of the new President doing the Bump, a very popular dance in our college days. Perhaps I am over-thinking it, but these clips said to me that this man has shared cultural and social experiences that defined our coming of age as black people making our way as the first generation to integrate at some scale into elite white institutions. The quip was that he went home and played Parliament and the Funkadelics (“One Nation Under a Groove”) in the (black) Inauguration after-party at the White House.

    My black friends are also gleeful about the moment, replayed again and again in the press, when Biden is cutting up before the second swearing-in and Obama, deadpan, grabs his arm, turns him firmly in the direction of the podium and signals it is time to get to work. When I told a friend about it, a cultural linguist, he said, “thank you, that story is a gift.” Another came from an unlikely source: Nancy Pelosi in her remarks first made reference to Malcolm X’s “ballot or the bullet” before invoking King. Hmmm, interesting, that she began there.


    Obviously these are each the smallest of gestures that could mean nothing. We can recall that Clinton, when first elected made a few choice micro-gestures: playing the saxophone, visiting black churches, showing obvious comfort in the company of blacks, even earning himself the now patently insulting moniker “first black president” in some circles—but in my view, he quickly squandered the trust and enthusiasm those signals generated when he failed to make a significant investment in urban policy, anti-poverty measures, civil rights laws and other matters important to blacks.

    Yet, much in the same way that racism and degradation are often conveyed in tiny signals that over time crush the spirit, Obama’s little moments, I think, so far are building hope and a sense that something might shift. They are creating space. I see a broad discourse now evolving, an Obama mythology celebrating his wisdom, principles, strength and resoluteness against the Republicans. His daily triumphs—one day against corporate greed, the next, his kids’ Midwestern flintiness in the face of DC snow. I hear the stories again and again told by people hungry for strong humanist leadership and feeling relief as they begin taking stock of how bad things became under Bush. They speak of enjoying and sharing with friends the moments that are available on YouTube. I always participate in these happy exchanges, adding my own favorites—and of course I replay the savory moments on YouTube. This little ritual fixes the small daily victories in my mind and prepares me to continue the struggle another day.

    The struggle. No surprise, as the Washington Post respondents testify, the real work of unwinding the racial privilege and disadvantage produced in the last several centuries continues and we need much more than symbols. The critical question for us, then, is can we fill this new space Obama is creating? Can we create or revive the practices, institutions, and discourses that you talk about, such that we might advance black freedom discourse, and through that, improve democracy? What might it actually look like to do so, and how might technology help?

    Let’s be specific. Everyone loves a good crisis (paraphrasing journalist, P. Sainath). The economic collapse and Obama stimulus package give us a chance to fix some of the more polarizing weaknesses of the New Deal which, with labor protections, mortgage and educational assistance, gave whites a powerful pathway back to the middle class and, by withholding these protections and benefits from black and brown, created new tools to entrench and racialize poverty. The stimulus will likely provide enough material aid to cities, where the majority of black and brown people live, to make some progress and Obama’s powerful populist messaging inspires hope. At the same time, the money is coming fast and many of the current institutional arrangements, from community revitalization and workforce development protocols to banking practices to local government procurement policies will likely help reinforce the inequitable status quo.

    Yet, a good chunk of the money to cities is infrastructure spending and, in an amazing turn, the Building Trades, once seen as among the most conservative and racially exclusive unions in the labor movement, have come to understand that the future of their unions as older white members begin retiring en masse in the next five years, is black and brown youth. They train 100,000 new workers a year and have made a commitment to open their doors to black and brown youth as the stimulus opens up the job market for their members. Finally, a lot some of the money is targeted for green infrastructure, an area so new that there may not be as much establishment in place to thwart opportunity.

    What practices, institutions and discourses might help avoid the dangers and align the possibilities now arising to address poverty and exclusion in a fuller and deeper way? There are loads of community organizations in minority and white communities that will need to figure out right now how they will respond. What role could black freedom discourse and your idea of a “self-consciously multiracial and multicultural community of practice” have? How can the world of networked publics help here?

    A customary black discourse about the dangers of this moment (“Remember, the New Deal threw us overboard”) is entirely in keeping with the historic role of the freedom discourse to remind us that the best-laid plans can overlook or punish the vulnerable and despised. But historically the discourse coupled dire warnings with inspired hopes and perhaps the Obama presidency gives inspired hopes new grounding—not just in micro symbols but in a senior White House staff that includes black people who know the full, sad, history of the New Deal, lived the multi-generational consequences of its exclusions, and have the expertise and the authority to help avoid the same mistake. A Facebook network (my son created a page for me about a year ago and it remained completely inactive until last month when about 10 people my age sent me friend requests) like the one used to support Prop 8 in California could help build base support for their efforts, bringing pressure through on-line mobilization where they need it and pressuring them when they veer off.

    But we need more to get this opportunity right. We have to figure out how to use new media to go beyond what, at its best, I think it currently does best for most people— serving as an exchange for faith-sustaining or mobilizing stories.

    We need vehicles to quickly transmit legislative developments and funding implications to networks of community organizations as the stimulus hits the states and cities.

    We need technology-enabled learning environments to share lessons about implementing government funding programs and best practices in green building.

    We need creative platforms for community groups to collectively discover overlooked local resources like brown fields that could be redeveloped, and then to collectively plan how to rebuild their neighborhoods.

    And perhaps this is where your idea of consciously multiracial hush harbors comes in: we need spaces for older white workers to explore how they can find common identity and make common cause with the young black and brown turks coming into their hiring halls and apprenticeship programs.

    I desperately hope that these ideas aren’t just more of my ill-advised hope for a quick technology fix and that somewhere, better minds than mine are already at work on tools that can help these projects. What do you think?

    Tagged: african americans dayna cunningham mit media lab

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