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

    by Henry Jenkins
    March 4, 2009

    (Part one.)

    Henry Jenkins: Thanks for this really rich provocation, Dayna. These are questions which we need to be discussing as a society and they should be central to our understanding of “civic media,” “social media,” whatever we want to call it.

    As a media scholar, my first response to any request to develop new “tools” is to ask what we are really looking for. As I review your language in the closing paragraph, you variously call for “media technology,” “new spaces,” “tools and platforms,” “venues and mechanisms.” This range of terms suggests the degree to which it is not easy to separate out technological resources from the cultural practices which grow up around them.


    So, the African American Press was powerful not because of specially made tools (the newspaper had a long history) but rather because of the institutions which emerged that allowed those tools to be used in a way that served a specific community, because of the editorial decisions made by Black journalists, editors, and readers which allowed newspapers to serve a particular kind of community (one defined along racial rather than purely geographic terms and thus in some senses a virtual community in our modern sense of the term), one which allowed for the emergence of a particular kind of discourse which took shape through news coverage, editorials, and letters to the editor, and so forth. Similarly, the black church wasn’t so much a technology or a platform as a particular kind of social organization, a particular appropriation or articulation of religious oratory to serve historically specific needs of the black community.

    At the risk of betraying my MIT heritage, my first response is to say that the issues you pose are least likely to be addressed on a purely technological level. These are fundamentally cultural, social, political, economic, and institutional problems and only secondarily issues of technology. It isn’t as if what the world lacks is a hammer and then suddenly we can nail everything down.

    It may be that what’s required is getting existing tools into different hands or insuring that those who are apt to deploy them for certain communities have access to the skills and resources they need to turn them towards new purposes. So, rather than looking for new “tools,” we should be looking for new practices, new institutions, and new discourses. And indeed, everything else here points us in that direction, starting with your emphasis on “black voice.”


    One of the challenges of achieving a “black public sphere” in the modern media landscape is precisely the porousness of contemporary communications. Most of the historic institutions and practices you discuss here were hiding in plain site. Historians have talked about the “hush harbor” tradition in black America — going back to slavery days — the need to find black-only spaces where communication could occur within the race. Both the black press and the black church as you discuss them here are in some senses “hush harbors” where blacks could communicate with blacks largely outside of the vision of white America.

    Yes, in theory, as a white southerner growing up in Atlanta, I could have read the black Atlanta press. I certainly knew it existed. I may have even seen a copy or two. But it wasn’t something that I would have regularly come into contact with. Watch a documentary series like Eyes on the Prize and one of the most powerful things you get is the sense that black camera crews working for black broadcasters captured very different voices and perspectives, saw the world through fundamentally different eyes than white camera crews working for “mainstream” broadcast networks. There was a sense that what was said in the black church stayed in the black community. What was said in the black barbershops and beauty parlors, to cite another important locale for framing black critique, stayed there. A black public sphere was possible because African America was in many very real ways a bounded community.

    Now, let’s compare this to what happened to Rev. Wright, whose sermons were directed at a predominantly but no longer exclusively black congregation, who would have understood them as part of this tradition of “freedom discourse.” But in the modern media scape, messages are much harder to contain; they travel and spread everywhere. So, the Wright videos get inserted into a platform like YouTube, which embodies what Yochai Benkler (Wealth of Networks) might discuss as a shared space for differentially interested groups to conduct their communications business. The videos get picked up by bloggers and podcasters; they get broadcast and reframed on Fox News; they end up in the Washington Post; they get discussed on talk radio; they get referenced in political debates; they get reframed in political advertising; etc., etc., etc.

    What Wright’s comments might have meant in a black-only or black-dominanted discursive space is very different from what they meant once they got inserted into these other contexts. And that’s the very nature of the modern media landscape: messages can’t be locked down; they move fluidly from community to community. The black and white churches or barbershops were in different neighborhoods. Today, black-oriented and white-oriented websites are only a mouse click apart. In an odd way, the kind of autonomous black voice you are discussing may be a byproduct of segregation. Not that America today isn’t in many ways still a deeply segregated society but segregation operates through different mechanisms, follows a different logic, and so this requires a new set of communication strategies and practices.

    We need to distinguish between “black voice” as directed at a bounded black community (“the hush harbor” model) and black voice as directed at a mixed audience. Clearly someone like Frederic Douglas who you cite here was very adept at both kinds of communications. His historic impact had as much to do with his ability to form alliances and maintain relations with white journalists, activists, and literary figures and to speak to white audiences as it had to do with his ability to communicate within the black community. The same would be true of someone like Sojourner Truth, who got a large chunk of her support from those white middle class women involved in first wave feminism.

    Implicit in your model here, though, is the idea that there needs to be a relatively independent space for communications within a racial minority where ideas can be formed, tested, debated, and refined, where communities can be mobilized, which may function outside of spaces which are primarily focused on communications across the races.

    Is there no possibility that in the future “freedom discourse” will come through a self-consciously multi-racial and multi-cultural community of practice rather than within one defined through segregation? I am not talking about a “post-racial” society which seeks to imagine that racial categories (and the injustices attached to them) are no longer operative. But rather, some kind of communication space where people of mixed backgrounds come together to identify common interests as they work through our complex and troubling history of racial relations. I’m not sure we know yet what such a community looks like in practice, but does this theoretical possibility necessarily mean a loss of “black voice”? Can “black voice” only be defined in isolation? Maybe I’m just looking for a revived and retooled version of what Jesse Jackson used to call a “rainbow coalition”.

    Obama’s strength has been his ability to communicate across the remaining racial divides in our society — to speak a language which can gain acceptance from white, hispanic, and Asian-American voters even as it inspires high participation by black voters. Early on, there was some speculation that he might not be able to gain the support of the black community because he did not speak the language of the black church and the civil rights movement. In some ways, he does borrow their metaphors and cadence when he speaks, but as you note, he’s had to distance himself from some of the spaces where black critique has historically been framed.

    In one of the interviews after the election, Obama suggested that he was no longer able to go to his barbershop to get a haircut. The “mainstream” media treated this comment as an example of how the president-elect gets cut off from the practices of everyday life, ceases to be an “average American.” But, given the historic role of the barbershop as a “hush harbor,” it struck me that the comment could be read at a deeper level as suggesting his growing isolation from the black community and its critical practices and political discourses.

    One is tempted to argue that African-Americans (and other minorities) enjoy greater opportunities to communicate beyond their own communities now than ever before. But we need to be careful in making that claim. Recent research suggests that there are far fewer minority characters on prime time network television shows this season than there were five years ago. There remains an enormous ratings gap between white and black Americans: the highest rating shows among black Americans often are among the lowest rated shows among white Americans. The exception, curiously enough, are reality television programs, like American Idol, which historically have had mixed race casts.

    We’ve seen some increased visibility of black journalists and commentators throughout the 2008 campaign season — and they may remain on the air throughout an Obama administration — but we need to watch to make sure that they do not fade into the background again. But, if we follow your argument, even those figures who make it into the mainstream media are, at best, relaying critiques and discourses which originate within the black community and at worse, they are involved in a process of self-censorship which makes them an imperfect vehicle for those messages.

    The paradox of race and media may be that black Americans have lost access to many of the institutions and practices which sustained them during an era of segregation without achieving the benefits promised by a more “integrated” media environment. And that makes this a moment of risk — as well as opportunity — for minority Americans.

    I suspect we are over-stating the problem in some ways. There are certainly some serious constraints on minority participation in cyberspace but a world of networked publics also does offer some opportunities for younger African-Americans to deliberate together and form opinion, which we need to explore more fully here. But before I move in that direction, I want to throw this back to you to react to what I’ve written so far.

    Tagged: african americans dayna cunningham mit media lab

    One response to “Can African-Americans Find Their Voice in Cyberspace?: A Conversation With Dayna Cunningham (Part Two of Four)”

    1. Marvin B. Austin says:

      Thank you for this conversation. It speaks to the complexity and duality that Du Bois spoke of. As a 52 year old Black man I am trying to find my way between the continued need for race-based solutions and the shifting demographics that present the opportunity for young people to grow up with an Obama presidency.

      The African American press, and all domains of our community, are working through the same changing times.

      I look forward to the next two parts of this series.

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