Imagining Black Technological Practices in Contemporary America

Beyond the Hashtag rally, Washington, D.C., July 2016. Photo: Victoria Pickering/Flickr.
“Beyond the Hashtag” rally, Washington, D.C., July 2016. Photo: Victoria Pickering/Flickr.

As practices of online protest evolve into historical narratives, we should take time to consider alternate technological practices developing within the Black community. With some social media hashtags entering half a decade of existence (#blacklivesmatter), it is clear that hashtag activism is becoming a bedrock practice for contemporary organizers. As the tags proliferate, their purpose and uses have diversified and can be read into new and existing Black ways of being. In looking to the affordances of “new” technologies for Black life, we should not only look at the practices and productions of Black social media campaigns but also the imaginative explorations within the articulation of similar political desires.

A simple quantitative analysis of hashtags used in online protest is incomplete because it strips metrics from the embodied realities that foster and compel these technological practices. Black science fiction allows us to reconsider the body and trace the ways Black imaginary worlds act as technological analogues for the technological memorialization practices of the contemporary Black community. In coupling the embodied handheld technological practices of Black Twitter, especially sponsored hashtags like the African American Policy Forum’s #sayhername, with the imagined embodied technological practices found in Nnedi Okorafor‘s Hugo award-winning Binti series, we can develop a clear picture of the ways Twitter hashtags act not only as instances of social protest but as capacious operators to memorialize, enumerate, and celebrate those we have lost. Two rhetorical forms, the novel and the tweet, combine to illustrate the ways Blackness and technology align to generate embodied narratives that operate as assemblages of Black life.

Much recent scholarship that couples blackness and technology focuses on the way any and all technological practices can be constituted and integrated into Black cultural life. This process of assembling, or collecting and incorporating technology as a factor in the development of Black life and culture, is represented in the work of Nnedi Okorafor. Okorafor is an award-winning author of Black speculative fiction who has won both the Hugo and the Nebula, in addition to other awards. She will make the leap into mainstream recognition with the adaptation of her novel Who Fears Death into an HBO drama. She is also a professor at SUNY Buffalo. Her works merges science and fantasy elements to tell stories about Black individuals and communities. Okorafor is purposeful in her insistence in marrying narratives of Black life and technology throughout her writing. Her fiction embodies many tenets of Afrofuturism and pays homage to the discourse of Alondra Nelson, Tricia Rose, and Lisa Nakamura by insisting that narratives of race and technological progress have never been separate or alien but instead align with and inform each other. In a world of science fiction that still often presents only white technological futures, Okorafor pushes for and creates a vital alternative. And despite, or perhaps because of her commitment to the genre of science fiction, her work provides a lens through which we can analyze and break down existing narratives about technology and race.

Okorafor’s award-winning novella, Binti, and its sequel Binti: Home, tell the story of a young Himba girl who leaves Earth for the first time to attend a prestigious intergalactic university. Having run away from her small African community, Binti faces the unthinkable when she becomes the only survivor of a horrible tragedy. She survives, but her body is forever changed: joined with alien technology, hybridized, and extended. Technological communication and hybrid bodies are reoccurring themes that set these short pieces apart from the genre. Readers are confronted with what it means to be human and what concepts or objects converge to make and create a human.

Okorafor presents a Black community that is present and active throughout any and all timelines of technological progress. For all her brilliance, Binti is subject to recognizable modes of prejudice that seek to keep Blackness and technological progress separate, but these narratives of separate progress do not hold. Binti operates within a web of recognizable technology that is easily pulled from whitewashed narratives. Her astrolabe, a tool reminiscent of ancient astronomers and navigators, holds her whole life. She uses it as a map and a communication device that allows her to speak to the dead and communicate with the deceased’s family. It reads and regulates her body, allowing her to ward off anxiety and panic attacks. It is an advanced piece of technology that she built herself with her extensive math skills. Binti also uses technologies that are not so easily or readily identified as such. Her otjize, her community’s custom of washing and covering her body, proves to be an important medical technology that heals her captors. Her clay-covered hair is braided into a fractal code that she holds or operates as an extension or part of her hands. Technology is part of Binti: it incorporates her success, her failures, her terror, her mental health struggles, and her ability to connect with people she loves as well as those who have died. Her relationship with technology is neither flat nor one-sided. Her Blackness and her tech are assemblages—embodied compilations of her person and her history.

Through Okorafor’s novellas we begin to map the particular constellations of contemporary Black technological life and epistemology. How have we taken familiar and historical narratives and merged them with contemporary technologies? What does a particular technological assemblage of Black life look like today?

In an effort to respond to these questions and to highlight the popularity and usage of handheld devices and embodied technological memorializing practices, I collected several weeks of tweets that include the #sayhername hashtag.1. I focus on Twitter because of its roots in mobile phone technology. There is substantial research and work being done in the creation of Twitter archives by scholars like Toniesha Taylor and the contributors of the Documenting the Now project. I chose the hashtag #sayhername not only for its popularity and strong AAPF backing, but also for its kinship to an old practice made new: the practice of saying and repeating the names of those lost to police brutality. This slow enumeration and memorial is well documented in the African American literary canon. (Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man quickly comes to mind.) This naming and re-naming is an assemblage that creates a body made tangible through words and repetition. These types of embodiments are rendered further when the practice is technologically restructured via a tweet. The names of unknown victims become real, palpable, and personal with the help of hundreds and thousands of voices and a small handheld mobile device.

In analyzing the collected data represented through word cloud visualizations, we see that the naming/re-naming function of #sayhername is successful. The hashtag builds a virtual archive of women, and one can easily understand who is being remembered, honored, or talked about by the prominence (size) of the name. The weeks collected, since the beginning of 2017, include the weeks of February 7, April 18, and May 22.

Tweets collected from the week of April 18, 2017 using the #sayhername hashtag.
Tweets collected from the week of April 18, 2017 using the #sayhername hashtag.

Two of the weeks show high frequencies of key recognizable names that can be connected to the current events of those weeks. However, the week of February 7 reveals how events can skew results.

Tweets collected from the week of May 22, 2017 using the #sayhername hashtag.
Tweets collected from the week of May 22, 2017 using the #sayhername hashtag.

In the week of February 7, the frequent words are “happy” and “birthday,” and these well-wishes were amplified through various archives of celebrity tweets. On weeks like this, a year after her passing, Bland is rendered again in a moment adjacent to, but outside of, her death. These moments lament her passing while acknowledging her life, but they also imagine her outside or in addition to it. Through a praxis that is solidly Black and technological, she steps out of a flattened narrative dictated by histories of violence and for a moment is (and is not) thirty years old. Bland’s narrative becomes less about avenging her death and instead centers her life.

Tweets collected from the week of February 7, 2017 using the #sayhername hashtag.
Tweets collected from the week of February 7, 2017 using the #sayhername hashtag.

This enumerative convention of #sayhername is but one way Blackness and technology align to produce embodied narratives that operate as assemblages of Black life. The hashtag, in addition to raising awareness about police brutality, is capacious enough to serve as a catalyst for conversations about other issues facing Black women, like conversations about mental health and domestic violence. In this way, the cell phone is akin to something science fictional, like Binti’s technology of survival, communication, and remembrance. The use of this hashtag, and the conversations it invokes, promotes the passing of history and different modes of communication in the Black community. Thinking through these conventions alongside the imagined affordances of Okorafor offers divergent alternatives for readers to consider the complex ways the Black community uses technology, mobile devices, and applications. These conversations do not have to stop at important pushes for liberation, but they are critical to understanding how we might live and survive life despite its many complexities.

  1. These tweets were collected using a Python script modified by the DASH-Amerikan team from a script written by Tom Dickinson and a script developed by Documenting the Now

Alyssa Collins

Alyssa Collins is a Ph.D. candidate in the English department at the University of Virginia with broad interests including literature of the African American and African diasporic communities, posthuman theory, history of science, and the digital humanities. Currently her scholarship is focused on the intersections of race and technology as depicted in 20th century and contemporary African American literature, digital culture, and new media. Follow her on Twitter @LyssaDee.