Dr. Adam J. Banks, Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Media, University of Kentucky



KU news story about my time as 2010 Langston Hughes Visiting Professor

The Black scholar and artist working for liberation must create more than just content:  s/he must also work create free spaces where Blackfolk can work together, love each other, and just be.  I mean physical, virtual, and imaginative spaces.  We have lived in a state of continual--forced and searching, but still continual--migration.  We have to reconnect, reconstruct what is continually torn asunder.

How do I describe my work?

My scholarship is a committed search for the ideas, epistemologies, and strategies African Americans have employed in their pursuit of liberation; the ways technology issues inform and intersect with that pursuit; and the language to bring those pursuits and traditions to academic, civic, and often-ignored Black communities.

Throughout my work I argue that Black rhetorical traditions exhibit complex and nuanced ways of understanding the difficulties inherent in the attempt to navigate through the seemingly impossible contradictions of gaining meaningful access to technologies with the good they seem to make possible and at the same time resisting the exploitative impulses that such systems always seem to present.

Some excerpts from Race, Rhetoric, and Technology:  Searching for Higher Ground (warning, the excerpts below are a bit long, but they give a good idea of what i was attempting in the project...)

from the preface, "can these dry bones walk again?"

There is much that this condensed sketch of my recollections of technologies in my old schools misses, and it might seem to make absolutely no connection to the initial thoughts about computer games with which I began. Let me try to connect them with another reflection: while I came of age during the revolution in computerized gaming and did all kinds of slow grinds to Roger Troutman and Zapp’s 1986 song “Computer Love,” and heard Prince’s 1983 lament “Computer Blue” and heard funkmaster George Clinton achieve all kinds of electronic effects in his music from “Atomic Dog” to “Computer Games,” it took me until much, much later to develop anything approaching what we might call digital literacy. Let me try to make this plainer: any 6 year old who has ever touched a PlayStation I or II could beat me in the football game Madden2004 or 2003 or 2002 or almost any year, even though I like the game and would love to get better at it. Why is it that almost any six year old could easily whip me, a PhD (yes, in English, but still…) who grew up in the age of computer games and who writes about technology access? The development of sports video games is the perfect example of the larger point I want to make about the utter seriousness of technology access. The ever popular John Madden-endorsed football game, like almost all other home video games, goes through changes each year. The virtual game becomes more “realistic” in each instance, with ever-increasing numbers of “plays” one can assign an offense or defense, ever-expanding controls the gamer has over the players on the field, ever more complex codes and patterns of implicit knowledge carried over from older versions that make me more confused every time I even watch my younger brothers or nieces or nephews play. Even though none of us has played organized football, my family members and friends have a far more sophisticated knowledge of football play calling and execution than I will ever have—so much so that I bought myself that long-desired Atari 2600 and its RealSports Football last year and now delight in the easy access it offers me, with its blips moving across my television screen and simple metaphors of running, passing, tackling (and especially with its uncomplicated joystick configuration).

It is clear to many by this point that my dreamy recollections of Ataris and my narrative about family members’ expertise with current video games and their platforms is a parable of sorts to make sense of what has happened in the educational system and the nation at large since computers and information technologies came to dominate our understandings of education and the workplace. For all the time and effort it would take me to become competitive with my friends and family members in John Madden’s namesake football game or NBA Live or any other game they enjoy, the games and maybe even the gaming systems will have changed, making my work that much harder—all of this in a situation where I can at least afford a Playstation II or Xbox if I wanted one. Take this same situation, but instead of a family’s fun on some weekend when I visit home and bragging rights being the only things at stake, and the fact that I can at least choose to make all of the adjustments I would need to if I wanted to “compete,” and instead imagine one where an entire group of people have been systematically denied the tools, the literacies, the experiences, the codes and assumptions behind the design choices, the chance to influence future designs and uses, and make the stakes that people’s educational success, employability and thus their incomes, roles in the society, and their political power, and tie all of that to longstanding lies about that people’s educability through regular news stories about their violence and failing schools and connect that to a centuries old history of outright exclusion from any education involving any technology supported by violence, terror, politics, and the definitions encoded into our nation’s founding documents, and then one might understand what is at stake for African Americans with the Digital Divide.

Not only are Black people forced to catch up to technological tools and systems and educational systems to which they have been denied access, but they are required to do so in a nation (or system) in which the struggle they endure to gain any such access to any new technology, any acquisition of any new literacies, is rewarded by a change in the dominant technological systems and the literacies used to facilitate access to them, and thus the same struggle over and over again The only difference is that the consequences are people’s life chances, their material realities, whether they get to eat, have homes, and live fulfilling lives.

Think about it this way: in 1995, when the term Digital Divide began to emerge in the national conversation to signify the systematic differences in access to computers and the Internet, Cleveland Public Schools and many districts like it were still trying to get students BASIC and “basic” word-processing skills, and were struggling to get even those “basic” goals financed because of the landscape of educational funding that still has not been repaired since everyone who could afford it fled urban centers rather than have their students “forced”, as they often put it, to attend schools outside their neighborhoods with children of different racial and cultural backgrounds.

During what was frequently called a digital and information revolution that leaders like Robert Reich argued would fundamentally change the nature of work and would force us to change our approaches to education, what kinds of computers, and information access did school districts in Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Blair, South Carolina, Tallahatchie Mississippi, and Los Angeles have, to prepare students for that revolution, if any? Forced to respond to a reality that a combination of information and technology access and literacy would determine students’ futures, teachers and administrators went about the business of getting computers and Internet connections and training. But while they were doing that, wordprocessing tools like WordPerfect faded in use, Microsoft’s dominance emerged even more forcefully than it had to date, and tools like Microsoft Word and PowerPoint and database technologies had gone through several new versions, each with different capabilities, different expectations of users, making real the high-stakes version of my electronic football parable. Even more significant than the changes in specific applications, the Internet emerged in the public consciousness as it changed to a graphical interface. What computers were and how they were to be used changed, the role of technologies in writing changed, and writing and literacies themselves changed. All of these changes required new skills, new processes, new behaviors, and vast investments in new equipment. But when those teachers and administrators attempted to turn over the equipment and develop the skills and the literacies and the perform the behaviors and acquire the understandings, the initial impetus they had because of the currency of the explanatory power (read its ability to allow administrators and teachers and political leaders demand funding and training and other assistance) of the Digital Divide are gone. Gone because, to most people, the Divide itself is gone.

This phenomenon is no different than what African Americans faced when they looked for ways to gain access to the agricultural technologies that governed the economic life of the nation after slavery. By the time African Americans had any semblance of a chance to learn the technological and literacy skills they needed to enter this economy, its base had shifted from agricultural to industrial. By the time labor activists and leftists like Harry Haywood and Claudia Jones and A Philip Randolph and Civil Rights leaders and Black Power activists were able to shame, cajole, threaten and force the nation to do anything significant to ensure African American access to industrialized labor markets and technologies, the information age and computers emerged and then dominated. And while the information age and computers came to dominate, thousands of young Black students were encouraged, like I was, like Malcolm X was, to take Industrial Arts courses.

So high you can’t get over it, so low you can’t get under it, so wide, you can’t get around it. Like parishioners in Black churches sing about the love of their God, and like George Clinton and the Pfunk All Stars sing about the “funk,” American racism and the racial exclusions that are made manifest in American life and economy seem impermeable, built not only on the idea of scientific and technological advancement, but on the planned obsolescence of our technologies. What this means for Black people is that the original sins of slavery and Jim Crow and the continual dehumanization that accompanied them are repeated, reinscribed into the life of the nation every time the technologies that govern its economic, social, and political structures change. This is so much the case that we are forced to ask of technologies, just as we have always asked of the nation: Is it possible to make this thing work, or do we resist this entire system with all of its built in exclusions and find other ways to survive? Is it time to leave altogether? Does this entire nation have to be rebuilt, redesigned, reengineered if African Americans and other people are to have any chance at equal participation in it?

from the introduction, "looking for unity in the midst of madness: transformative access as the ONE in African American rhetoric and technology studies

This project is an attempt to chart some of the ways African Americans have struggled to make real difference in a nation whose existence depends on rigorous commitments to technological advancement and exclusions based on race. African American rhetoric as read through a technological lens allows a thorough documentation of that struggle, and ways it can contribute to broader digital and rhetorical theory. It can also help us all—leaders, activists, scholars, and lay persons involved in dismantling the systemic supports for racism—reconfigure a sense of what that collective struggle might mean and how it can be taken up at such a difficult time in American history.

The overall argument I make is this: that rather than answer either/or questions about whether technological advancement and dependence leads to utopia or dystopia, whether technologies overdetermine or have minimal effects on a society’s development, or whether people (especially those who have been systematically excluded from both the society and its technologies) should embrace or avoid those technologies, African American history as reflected through its rhetorical production shows a group of people who consistently refused to settle for the limiting parameters set by either/or binaries. Instead African Americans have always sought “third way” answers to systematically racist exclusions, demanding full access to and participation in American society and its technologies on their own terms, and working to transform both the society and its technologies, to ensure that not only Black people but all Americans can participate as full partners.

The story of African Americans’ pursuit of a transformative access can contribute much to rhetoric and technology theory by engaging both in a space beyond the narrow polemics of whether Technology is ultimately evil or wonderful, but rather develop and articulate models of the specific kinds of practices that can provide excluded members of society access to systems of power and grounds on which those systems can be challenged and ultimately changed in meaningful ways. This story can also provide a framework of African American rhetorical study that moves beyond the admiration of individual exemplars of rhetorical mastery or ideological debates about whether people or organizations were assimilationist or separatist, accomodationist or resistant, liberal or conservative, progressive, or radical. As important as the exemplary text or figure is, attention to the individual text, rhetor, or moment decoupled from the traditions and movements that make them possible leads to the assumption that the gifted Black rhetor is somehow an exception to, rather than the result of, “normal” speakers or writers. Such a different approach to African American rhetoric, I hope, can connect rhetoric with the “real” to provide bases for collective action while refusing to demand that people submit to a practical or ideological orthodoxy that, in the end, not only destroys individual identity but the possibility for collective action as well.

from chapter one, "oakland, the word, and the divide: how we all missed the moment"

I once thought I could never imagine what it would have been like to be among the newly freed slaves after the shock of it all when the word finally came down, after the Juneteenth celebrations, after the pained attempts to locate lost family and loved ones, when the difficult work of reconstruction sat there waiting to be done. Same thing with those who helped to build Black lives and opportunities anew after the decades long struggle of African American leftists, moderates, liberals, and conservatives resulted in the temporary victories of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. It all seemed so basic when I would learn bits of the histories of those moments: how could we not have gotten further? How could the rare coalescence of a national political will to change and legislation attempting to make that will some kind of reality not result in more tangible progress? How could Washington and DuBois be still debating what should have been obvious more than thirty years after emancipation? How could activists be left with such shambles of an education system thirty years after Brown v Board when Blackfolk were infected with a euphoria that had them chanting “free by 63!”?

Why is it that we end up in this endless cycle when we learn about Black freedom struggle? Over and over and over again, victory, then inertia, then contentiousness then the sickening feeling that such history making victories made little difference in the long run? As an undergraduate with all of the idealism of 18 and 20 year olds everywhere and all of the certitude that things were so clear and so easy, none of this made sense. The crack epidemic making shambles of my family and neighborhood at the exact same time Dr. King’s birthday was being recognized as a national holiday? Surely the Negroes in whatever parallel universe might be watching us were shaking their heads as I was. Then I saw, on a much smaller scale, admittedly, how these travesties take place: the Digital Divide and Oakland. What happened (and didn’t happen) with the alignment of these two national discussions in rhetoric and composition’s theorizing and teaching showed me what happens when Black warriors get caught on the wrong end of time warps being forced yet again to defend Black humanity, and when both well meaning and reactionary elements of the mainstream refuse to change—partially out of their insistence on subjecting that very humanity to debate and partially out a blindness to the grounds on which we’re all forced to live out our collective humanity shifting rapidly while forcing that very, very old debate, all in a national environment where what seemed to be promising legislation or policy turned out to be nearly bankrupt.

This is exactly what happened in the late 1990s—the Department of Commerce introduced the Digital Divide as a concept to acknowledge the systematic differences in technology access that African Americans, other racial minorities and those in rural areas experienced and attempted policy initiatives that members of the Clinton administration thought would help to erase those gaps. While what seemed to be a promising bit of political will emerged for educators to address problems of technology access in their schools, colleges, and universities, this issue failed to even make it onto academics’ collective radar, with few exceptions. And a major part of why educators all over the country, at all levels, missed it, is because of their inability to avoid, yet again, the debate over Black humanity—in this case, educability in standardized English, because of the Oakland controversy.

Rhetoric and composition, as well as the technology sector in American society, have functioned very much in the same way as the legal system (that I examine in chapter three), in that each rests on a history that has branded African Americans as utter outsiders, unworthy of full, equitable, and just access because they are non-technological, unable to learn Standard English, in essence, non-citizens. Because of the persistence of these constructions, access to technologies and the discursive practices that determine power relations in our society, the Digital Divide, and the larger history of African American is, in essence, a rhetorical problem. And because African American exclusions from the educational system that determines access to employment (and therefore the technologies that undergird the American economy) are so rooted in the specter of the Ebonics speaker and writer, the rhetorical problems that dominate understandings of race in our discipline are technological problems.

from chapter two, "malcolm, martin, and a Black digital ethos"

The overall lesson that Malcolm attempts to teach in this speech is that users of any technology have to know both how to use and when to refuse any and all elements in that system. The informed refusal that a critical access provides is just as important as the informed use that the literacies of functional access allow. Like King, Malcolm envisions a nation transformed by African American access to the ballot, a ballot fully protected by all the means at federal and state governments’ disposal, and in the specific uses to which newly enfranchised voters would put their votes.

Where Malcolm X’s speech shows a thorough functional knowledge and critical awareness of the particular technology of the ballot and the larger political system of which that ballot is a part, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” addresses larger questions concerning the roles of technologies in human life. In the speech, King insists that the test of technological advancement is not increased efficiency or profit, but the degree to which those technologies help to end human suffering and injustice. Religion scholar James Cone documents the ways African American preachers transformed interpretations of the Bible and Christianity more broadly with a “liberation theology” that placed Christ squarely on the side of the oppressed. The purpose of the Black church, then, became about actively seeking the liberation of African Americans, from the individual spirit to the congregation to the nation to Black people worldwide.

The radical achievement of liberation theology is in its ability to take what was a tool of enslavement and racism and use it aggressively to disrupt the status quo. This is the kind of reinterpretation King offers of the role of technologies. In it, he establishes his own activism and African American struggle as examples of technology theorist Andrew Feenberg’s “third way,” arguing that neither time nor technology are positive or negative forces in and of themselves. Instead, they reflect the ideological commitments societies and individuals impose on them. What this means is that one must call attention to the systemic problems in the ways technologies have been used to further oppression—but also that there are always ways to resist, that there is always agency in the individual and in the society. This argument allows King to maintain hope in the world even as he confronts the magnitude of human suffering on a global scale and constant reminders that much of the suffering he sees is connected to the intransigence of racism and racialized patterns of exclusion.

from chapter three, "taking black technology use seriously: African American discursive traditions in the digital underground"

The first, and perhaps most important element of a meaningful access is use—more than merely owning or being close to some particular technology, people must actually use it, and develop the skills and approaches to using it that are relevant to their lives. Unfortunately, we know almost nothing about the uses to which African Americans put digital technologies or the processes by which they develop the skills, abilities, and approaches that will enable them to use computers, the Internet, or any other related tool or process in culturally relevant, individually meaningful ways.

This chapter raises the issue of how African Americans use computer-related writing technologies, and tries to answer the specific question of how Black computer users engage African American language and discourse patterns in online spaces. I argue there that in spite of the prevalence of work on the oral elements of African American language and discourse, and the dominance of early cyberspace theory that dismissed race and culture as irrelevant online, at least in one space, African American community website BlackPlanet, African American language and discourse live, and even thrive in online spaces. The strength of the presence of Black language and discourse online speaks not only to the richness of Black linguistic and discursive traditions, but also to the ways African American technology users can change technologies and make them relevant through the uses to which they put them—even when those technologies are not Black owned or controlled. Black participation on the website also begins to show the ways cyberspace can serve as a cultural underground that counters the surveillance and censorship that always seem to accompany the presence of African Americans speaking, writing, and designing in more public spaces—spaces that seem to consistently say to them that no matter what traditions they might bring to the classroom, the workplace, or to technologies—these spaces (and the written English that accompanies them) are, and will continue to be White by definition.

As much attention as people have paid to the structures, features, and functions of African American varieties of English—whether those varieties are referred to as African American Vernacular English, Ebonics, a creole, or a complete lanaguage that is a member of the Niger-Congo language family, the great preponderance of that attention has focused on the “oral” elements of those language traditions. In fact, one might say that just as African American rhetorical scholarship has tended to focus on oratory or other orally delivered texts like song lyrics, African American language study has taken African and African-derived oral traditions as givens, at times seeming to concede written language to the domain of White culture. Of course, there are many African American language scholars who do not make such concessions, but the broader body of research would seem to make it for them.

While there has been much work done examining the ways African American language patterns are manifest in written texts, the fact that the focus of much of that study and most of the theory of those language patterns has been on oral language production is clear. Titles from two of the more prominent books on Black English tell the story: John and Russell Rickford’s 2000 book, Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English, and Geneva Smitherman’s compilation, also from 2000: Talkin that Talk: Language, Culture, and Education in African America begin to show that focus. The Rickfords take their title from the name Claude Brown gives Black English in an interview on language, and they point to several reasons for borrowing Brown’s phrase: a desire to stay rooted in the vernacular tradition of African American English, its links to other forms of cultural production like music, and “the fact…that most African Americans do talk differently from Whites and Americans of other ethnic groups, or at least most of us can when we want to. And the fact is that most Americans, Black and White, know this to be true” (4).

Smitherman’s focus on orality in Talkin that Talk and her classic first book Talkin and Testifyin exists for similar reasons, though she also pushes the discussion further to account for distinctively Black rhetorical strategies and discourse features that, while rooted in Black oral traditions, are manifest in written texts as well. Her work also connects these specific discursive patterns and rhetorical features to African American epistemologies, or world views. As Smitherman shows in the essay “How I Got Ovuh: African World View and African American Oral Tradition,” the point is not simply a linguistic one. In other words, simply arguing that African American English is, obviously (thought not yet for many teachers), rule governed and systematic, and just as valid a organ for expressing the thoughts, ideas, passions, joys, pains, aspirations, and struggles of a people as any other is no longer news for those who study the language variety. A whole legion of linguists have been on that case since Lorenzo Dow Turner more than 50 years ago.

Smitherman goes beyond this point to show how Black English, as expressed through its oral traditions, represents distinctively African American worldviews: “the oral tradition has served as a fundamental vehicle for gittin ovuh. That tradition preserves the Afro-American heritage and reflects the collective spirit of the race. Through song, story, folk sayings, and rich verbal interplay among everyday people, lessons and precepts about life and survival are handed down from generation to generation” (199). The continued focus of many on the oral in Black English, then, is not a resignation that written English is somehow the exclusive domain of Whites—Smitherman herself offers masterful analysis of a wide array of written texts—but a matter of remaining true to the roots of the language, no matter what forms it might take now. Maintaining that focus is also an act of self-determination, of resistance, of keeping oppositional identities and worldviews alive, refusing to allow melting pot ideologies to continue to demand that Black people assimilate to White notions of language and identity as the cost for access to economic goods or a public voice in American society.

from chapter four, "rewriting racist code: the Black jeremiad as countertechnology in critical race theory"

One of the most obvious, yet most difficult sites we have to confront the technologies of race and racist exclusions would seem to be the least technological of all: our legal system. There is an inordinate number of places within that larger site begging for careful debugging, rewriting, or possibly even the destruction of the legal codes that program racism into our American “system:” constant gerrymandering and redistricting by both Democrats and Republicans to dilute Black voting blocs; three strikes laws that eliminated whatever role rehabilitation might have once played in our corrections system and turned the prison system into a wholesale market for Black and Latino labor; absurd differences in drug sentencing laws (five years for five grams while Rush Limbaugh, one of the major proponents of those laws claimed he was ill and needed treatment when busted for trafficking illegal drugs); Proposition 209’s elimination of affirmative action programs; the Newt Gingrich-led and Bill Clinton-enforced Contract “on” America with its scapegoating of the poor and people of color; the Hopwood and University of Michigan trials; Florida, 2000. To say that “the law” has been an important site of African American struggle is to risk ridicule because it’s so obvious. That ridicule is worth risking, however, as the last 20 years serve as an intense reminder of how central a role the law—as legislation, jurisprudence, and the processes that make both possible—plays in maintaining racism in American society.

The examples I’ve cited in opening this chapter are current manifestations of just how troubled the relationships between African Americans and the legal system remain. These current examples might suggest to some that while there has been a backlash in legislation, court decisions, and legal analysis detrimental to Black progress, there is nothing systematic or racist about the American legal system. Such observers might argue that African Americans are merely facing difficult times in a system that, on the whole, works and has has neither the intent nor the effect of upholding racism or exclusions tied to race. Critical Race Theory, however, is a legal movement that has argued the exact opposite—that the American legal system, from the very beginning, encoded racism into its workings, and that the discursive conventions in both jurisprudence and legal scholarship have ensured the maintenance of that initial code. This chapter examines the ways one work in that legal movement, Derrick Bell’s And We Are Not Saved: the Elusive Quest for Racial Justice has worked to intervene in and rewrite the racist code(s) at the root of our legal system.

My argument here is that genres and the discursive conventions that comprise them can, through their privileging of certain kinds of knowledge and experience while dismissing others, can become instruments, tools, technologies even, in maintaining established patterns of social, political, and economic relations. Form is every bit as important a site of protest as content. Derrick Bell, in And We Are Not Saved explicitly and emphatically uses and engages the Black Jeremiad as a way of countering the instrumentality of generic conventions in American legal discourse with the purpose of forcing Black experiences and forms of knowledge into scholarly analyses of the law. Through Bell’s use of the Jeremiad, he writes Black people into legal scholarship, “speaking truth to power,” in ways that demand a response. While there has been loud and ongoing praise and critique for the arguments Bell has made about fighting racism, my concern is not with the validity or the strength of the particular answers Bell’s mediations on American racism offer, but on the importance of the forms those answers take.

from chapter five, "through this hell into freedom: Black architects, slave quilters, and an African American rhetoric of design"

But how do we get from systemic critique to making some difference in the design of technological systems? This question points to a significant blindspot in African American rhetorical study as it’s currently conceived. It is imperative that such study address design issues, however. This need is so pressing not only because design itself is rhetorical, but because the history of design has been so exclusive and has done so much to enforce the very exclusions encoded in the nation and its technologies. Design needs to be as important a site of struggle as schools, ballot boxes, and police practices. Greg Tate and Arthur Jafa begin to explore these questions, and the relationships between visual traditions and language in an article “From Dogon to Digital: Design Force 2000. Looting Other Disciplines Along the Way,” arguing that Black scholars and artists need to be as thorough in documenting visual and design traditions as they have the spoken and written word:

We know the continuity is there. You can trace it directly in music; you can trace it directly in language. When you start talking about visual culture it gets a little difficult. A little difficult? Or is it a way of seeing? Perceiving the artful, expressive nature of forms conventionally (in Western culture) held to be unsightly or absurd: hair styled to stand straight up in appreciation of kinks’ sculptural defiance of gravity? Seeing precise, zigzag parts in a girl’s hair as more interesting than straight parts? Loving asymmetry, contrariness and exaggeration: just one pants leg rolled up; caps worn backwards, at a slant, or squashed in a back pocket; taut physiques dribbling down the courts in dragging, triple X shorts; the odd juxtaposition which is ultimately, in its own way, right on. Are there “cool,” “clean” (the perfect persona projected with ease) and “funk” formulations that are applicable to the design process?

Or is it a way of seeing? Jafa and Tate ask the perfectly timed question. How we make a difference in the design of technological systems is, at least partially, a question of how we “see” our work, and for Jafa and Tate, the way we need to see design differently is by looking at our own traditions to make that difference, to interrupt those practices and theoretical approaches that continue to exclude African Americans and other people of color. Amiri Baraka implored people to see these same connections, more than 30 years ago, explicitly grounding technology design in both Black culture and rhetoric in a short essay called “Technology and Ethos.” The essay deserves to be quoted in its entirety, but the opening sentences issue the call even more dramatically than Tate and Jafa:

MACHINES (as Norbert Wiener said) are an extension of their inventor-creators. That is not simple once you think. Machines, the entire technology of the West, is just that, the technology of the West. Nothing has to look or function the way it does. The Western man’s freedom, unscientifically got at the expense of the rest of the world’s people, has allowed him to xpand his mind—spread his sensibility wherever it cd go, & so shaped the world, & its powerful artifact-engines. Political power is also the power to create—not only what you will, but o be freed to go where ever you can go (mentally physically as well). Black creation—creation powered by the Black ethos brings very special results (319).

Baraka asks probing questions about how African American communicators might harness the potentials of technologies in work and play, how Blackfolk would address health crises, even what the “Black purposes of space travel” might be. The point is that Baraka connects Black technological mastery not only with distinctively Black exigencies, but with Black traditions as well, deadly serious and seriously playful as he makes the connections—as only Baraka could:

So that a telephone is one culture’s solution to the problem of sending words through space. It is political power that has allowed this technology to emerge, & seems the sole direction for the result desired. A typewriter?—why shd it only make use of the fingers as contact points of flowing multidirectional creativity. If I invented a word placing machine, an “expression-scriber” if you will, then I would have a kind of instrument into which I could step & sit or sprawl or hang & use not only my fingers to make words express feelings but elbows, feet, head, behind, and all the sounds I wanted, screams, grunts, taps, itches, I’d have magnetically recorded, at the same time & translated into word—or perhaps even the final xpressed thought/feeling wd not be merely word or sheet, but itself, the xpression, three dimensional—able to be touched, or tasted, or felt, or entered, or heard, or carried like a speaking singing constantly communicating charm. A typewriter is corny!! (320)

In his own articulation of a Black technological ethos, Baraka insists that individual and collective self knowledge are crucial, and that African American pursuits of technological innovation must proceed from that point of self knowledge, and completely destroy our current notions of form in order to see again, to be able to imagine and produce new forms, free of the assumptions and exclusions embedded, encoded into old forms and old technologies. It is, in short the same Black digital ethos that I presented in chapter two in connection with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X: rooted in African American traditions, committed to African American freedom, and willing to completely reimagine everything that our society is, can be, and should be.

from the conclusion, "still searching for higher ground: transforming technologies, transforming a nation"

In some ways this book is a kind of digital jeremiad, or at least a response to the call of Black jeremiahs throughout our history. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned us nearly 40 years ago. Many of us slept as the signs changed telling us that the world we knew had changed from an industrial one to a digital one. Many of us who were awake might as well have been asleep subject to only the most BASIC of understandings about what technologies could do, could be, the purposes to which we would put them, and the relationships we would have with them. The broader challenge is exactly as he identified it in 1968—the challenge of transforming our technologies as we gain access to them, and that we use those technologies toward the larger project of transforming the nation, of justice and equal participation for Black people and all people. The truth that has been the bedrock of the African American jeremiad and the reason for its central role throughout African American rhetorical traditions remains: either we accept the hard work and sacrifice of this challenge or destroy ourselves in attempting to run from it.

Access will no longer do as the excuse for limiting ourselves and our students to BASIC writing, BASIC literacy instruction, BASIC technology instruction, BASIC diversity efforts. Transformative access as the ONE in African American Rhetoric and as the ONE in rhetoric and composition and as the ONE in technical communication and as the ONE in computers and writing and as the ONE in science and technology studies and as the ONE in Africana studies—the ONE linking dialogue within and across disciplinary lines offers rich possibilities for moving ourselves, our students, and even our technologies and society out of our current Digital Divide, out of our centuries-old racial ravine, and onto higher ground by addressing concepts each of these areas already embraces in one way or another: the related axes of critique, use, and design, employed in an ethos rooted in the jeremiadic vision for a society worthy of the ideals that brought us all here. King’s version of the jeremiad and his vision connected technologies, race, and the future of the nation in his favorite metaphor, his insistence that we are all bound together, like it or not, in an inescapable network of mutuality. King argued passionately from the Montgomery Bus Boycotts that forced him out of post-graduate school naivete and onto the national stage and into a history of struggle to the days before his death working on behalf of striking sanitation workers that our nation’s health, that its survival, depends on our ability to transform our technologies and ourselves from tools, processes, and systems that uphold domination and exclusion to instruments of justice, participation, peace, and love.

My favorite metaphor for the search for that transformative vision that unites King’s speeches, Malcolm X’s television interviews, anonymous slave quilters, recreational chat users, critical race theorists, and millions of unnamed leaders, laypeople, teachers, poets, politicians, preachers, parents, students, designers, journalists, entertainers, and others is the search for higher ground. In spite of our common sense of the importance of Parliament/ Funkadelic’s conception of Funk—especially as it is expressed in the ideas of the Mothership and “The One,” I do not share Robin Kelley’s belief that PFunk stands as a musical embodiment of the radical or revolutionary, particularly when I search for models of rhetorical and technological innovation for all our students, and particularly African American students and students of color. There are clearly “freedom dreams” and radical potential in PFunk’s concepts. There is also the same potential in the forces that gave birth to hip hop as a movement, even though many artists seem to have abandoned that potential with their uncritical embrace of the industry and the networks of power that determine radio airplay and video rotation as they invoke a politics of authenticity by claming they are “keepin’ it real” and “representin” the truth of Black experience.

But Funk’s sometimes nice, sometimes nasty elder sibling Soul probably provides far better examples of what the ONE can be in African American rhetorical study. When it comes to the combination of radical imagination, rhetorical and technological mastery and innovation, and the commitment of all those gifts in the service of one’s freedom dreams, the example from Black music (since, after all, we are a “blues people,” as Amiri Baraka reminds us) who has always kept it real, represented truth, and produced on his radical potential is Stevie Wonder. His contribution on all of these different levels serves as a model from popular culture of what African American rhetoric—and Rhetoric and Composition—can be. Beyond the exemplar that Stevie was and still is, however, the Soul era provides the ideological range that bridges Civil Rights and Black Power, the stylistic diversity that connects unphased cool and the intense heat of passionate insistence on justice, and the spectrum from participating by playing by the rules to throwing those rules away and still demanding to participate to outright resistance of spaces and systems that have excluded us. The combination of gospel vision and blues sensibility—of the demand for immediate results and a focus on the longgame (shoutout to Arthur Flowers for the term), of the demand for equal access and insistence on transformation—that underlies all of African American struggle in some way is exactly the ethos that should guide our encounters with technologies and the exclusions that have marked them.

What is Soul? What kind of intellectual work does “Soul” do as a concept? How can it inform technology use, critique, and design? Soul, as Stevie Wonder understood it in that call to search for higher ground, Soul as Blackfolk understood it and still understand it, Soul as it was and is embodied from Sam Cooke to Curtis Mayfield to Etta James to Marvin Gaye to Aretha Franklin to India Arie to D’Angelo to Jill Scott, is something far, far more than the mere essence or spirit of something. That spirit, that essence, that ethos, is a part of the answer, as Manning Marable tells us “from the interior of our own being, it is an ethical foundation for the choices we make in our lives and the sense of responsibility we feel in how we relate to other people. Soul also implies the possibility of transcendence.” Marable brings together survival and victory, struggle and strength, going on to say that “soul also implies memory, agency, and hope in the face of despair. The Souls of Blackfolk have encountered terrible exploitation and inhumane conditions, a degraded and desperate physical reality that would force most reasonable people to conclude that God, or whatever one might call universal truth, had abandoned and forsaken them. In the construction of Black culture, to have soul is to be truly at home with oneself and with the people. Soul helps us to navigate the hostile currents of an unequal and unfair world, a world stratified by color and class, where all too frequently there seems to be no justice.” But even more than the seemingly absurd faith that African Americans found in themselves and in a nation that has continually taunted them with the refrain “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” soul is participation and resistance, substance and style, access and transformation.

What would happen if the Soul aesthetic embodied in Stevie’s search for higher ground were the aesthetic that guided technology use, critique, and design? What would happen if writing instruction found room to honor the flair of Dr. J’s classic come-from-behind-the-backboard scoop and layup? What would happen if the Freedom Schools organized as a part of the Mississippi Freedom Summer became composition’s and technical communication’s curricular model? What would computers look like if they carried the spirit of Aretha Franklin’s chord progressions when she sang “I Never Loved a Man?” What kind of access to technologies would African Americans and people of color have if our digital literacies were organized around those Malcolm and Martin exhibited in their debate about and activism for access to the franchise?

The notion of a transformative access can be the downbeat, that One, that can show students, teachers, and activists we do not always have to choose between rhetoric and technology, between rhetoric and the real, between analysis and production, between participation and change. The lessons toward achieving that One provided by the brief look at the texts examined here, are several. The first is that any meaningful access must be about much more than the material, or one’s presence in a particular space.


2011 KET Connections with Renee Shaw Interview.  30mins.

2011 article on
SIU Edwardsville’s Black Studies Department blog by Howard Rambsy on my uses of Facebook to build intellectual community

2011 UK Q&A article, “Teaching Students To Be Bearers of History and Collective Memory

2010 Langston Hughes Visiting Professor Lecture, “Mixtape Movement:  Reimagining African American Rhetoric for a Multimedia Age

2008 Ohio State University Visiting Scholar in Digital Media and Composition interview

Scholarly interests

African American Rhetoric, Composition Theory, Community Engagement, Digital Rhetoric


Digital Griots:  African American Rhetoric In a Multimedia Age.  (2011).

Race, Rhetoric, and Technology:  Searching for Higher Ground (2006), winner of the Computers and Writing 2007 Distinguished Book Award

Faculty Appointments and Invitations:

Visiting Scholar in Comparative Media Studies, MIT, Fall 2011

Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Media, University of Kentucky, 2010-present

Langston Hughes Visiting Professor of English, University of Kansas, spring 2010

Associate/Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric, Syracuse University, 2003-2010

Faculty member, eBlack Studies Symposium, University of Illinois, summer 2008

Visiting Scholar, Spelman College, March 2008, June 2011

Visiting Scholar in Digital Media and Composition, Ohio State University, Summer 2007

Grad school:
PhD, Penn State, 2003

Black Rhetoric 2.0:  Linking African American Rhetorical Traditions and Technologies