... beloved community is formed not by the
eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the
identities and cultural legacies
that shape who we are and how we live in the world. To form beloved community we do not surrender ties to precious origins ...
- bell hooks, Killing Rage: Ending Racism
While the Internet may be a potent medium for self-expression, it remains to be seen how effective it will be for collective action.
- Anthony G. Wilhelm, Democracy in the Digital Age
African American expressive culture, both oral and literary, often centers on the struggle between at once articulating subjectivity as an individual and the inescapable and, at times, regenerative force that shared histories and legacies bring to bear on the formation of any subject position. The ways in which African Americans have imagined and represented themselves has much to do with their shared experiences of racial oppression, alienation, and double-consciousness. African Americans have continued to struggle to realize their individual and collective identities as well as ensure their actual survival. Consequently, the expressive cultural practices of African Americans, as well as the practices of African descendants spread throughout the Diaspora, often entail the protective shifting of identities through masking, performance, and rhetorical strategies such as Signifyin(g).
The trickster figure in African and African American cultures is one example in this regard. Tricksters function as "masters of disguise and consummate survivors, skillfully outmaneuvering their foes with guile, wit, and charm." The trickster figure can be found in folk stories, songs, rituals and, significantly, represents one of the principal aspects of African American expressive culture - the use of modes of communication, i.e. talking drums, for the purposes of transgression, transformation and subversion. Tricksters like the Signifying Monkey, for instance, use humor and deception in order to subvert power relations and to assert agency within a hostile environment. Modern forms of the trickster appear in African American verbal games such as "the dozens" as well as in hip-hop culture and rap music. The verbal wit and agility as well as the assertion of agency exhibited by these practices, both traditional and contemporary, serve to transgress the boundaries of dominant discourse, thereby transforming that very discourse into "double-voiced" utterances that work to subvert the forces of domination. Consequently, not only have these expressive "speech acts" helped to ensure the survival of African American culture, they have also produced a continued disruption of hegemonic systems of oppression.
As African Americans continue to engage in expressive forms of resistance, they are confronted with significant challenges to the modes of communication that they have historically put to use in the struggle for freedom and empowerment. Specifically, the Internet and the proliferation of online communication have redefined human relations as well as the ways in which we make ourselves known to one another - the ways in which we not only "speak" with each other, but also for (on behalf of) each other. A question posed for the present issue of Mots Pluriels is thus the subject of this essay: "Does [the Internet] open up possibilities of resistance to established power structures?" Further and more explicitly, can African American expressive culture find spaces of resistance on the Internet that, while utilizing new technologies, also maintain "ties to precious origins"? By "precious origins," I mean to elicit bell hooks' concept of "beloved community" which she defines as a strategy that entails:
Within her discussion of beloved community, hooks emphasizes that:
I am using hooks' notion of beloved community in this discussion to emphasize the distinctiveness of African American cultural practices as well as historical and political threats to preserving those practices. The question then becomes, given the rapid proliferation and appropriation of African American expressive culture in cyberspace, should the Internet be considered a threat to African American precious origins? Or can the subversive power of African American expression be strengthened by new technologies such as the Internet? Finally, does the Internet merely diminish our attempts to "speak" truth to power or can African Americans and other marginalized groups use new technologies to create and nurture beloved community?
|Cyber-Colonialism and its New Subjects|
In order to critically address such questions it is important to first observe that Web sites designed to target African Americans are notably present on the Internet. Despite the continuation of the digital divide and the disproportionately low numbers of African Americans who have access to computers and/or utilize the Internet, there are a considerable number of Web sites that specifically target African American users by addressing their assumed interests. Simply entering "African American" in Yahoo's general search engine will solicit over twenty categories including: African Culture Worldwide, African American Studies, Afrocentrism, Business Directories, Chats and Forums, Ebonics, Greeting Cards, Gullah, History (which has 185 listings - the most of any category), Literature, Online Shopping, Organizations, People, Personals, Web Directories, and Women. If you click on one of the "results" for "African American," the first few listings are specified under the categories "United States > Society and Culture > Cultures and Groups > Cultures > American (United States)." Choosing one of these listings will yield more varied yet explicit choices for the user such as: African American Child, African American Census Data, Africana.com, AfroNet, BlackSpeak, HBO Cyber Soul City, Virtually AfroCentric and World African Network Online. The majority of these Web sites offer users a conspicuous display of the Net's corporate capitalization on African American users' desire to find cyberspaces that promote their culturally specific practices and histories, as opposed to the "cyber frontier" that encourages users to participate in the perceived utopian practice of eliding racial identities by "passing."
One such search engine targeting African American "interests" is http://www.everythingblack.com/, based in Atlanta, Georgia. This site offers users the ability to research information specific to African American culture, which is listed under various categories including Arts and Humanities, Business, Education, Entertainment, Events, History and Culture, News, Organizations, Reference, Sports and Travel. EverythingBlack.com boasts that it is: "The place to find anything and everything BLACK on the Net!" In the third annual survey of visitors to its search engine, EverythingBlack.com reported the responses of 19,173 users. The majority of respondents listed an annual income in the range US $32,000 - $52,999. Seven thousand of those surveyed reported that they had been using the Internet for 2-4 years. Surprisingly, 2,132 of the respondents reported not owning a computer although they had clearly engaged in online communication as evidenced by their participation in the online survey. The majority of users surveyed - 15,485 - indicated that they accessed the Internet and EverythingBlack.com's Web site from home, while 14,253 indicated that they accessed the Internet from work. This information seems to point to a strong presence of African Americans online and further begs the question of how African Americans act within and are acted upon in cyberspace.
African American users are being aggressively lured to sites that claim to speak to their culturally specific needs while at the same time courting their "pocketbooks." Another instructive example is http://www.netnoir.com/ which, like EverythingBlack.com, is based in Atlanta, Georgia. Netnoir markets its site as "the premier African-American online Web site, providing tools and resources to manage your life online." Netnoir's corporate partners include America Online and Adhere Network, the latter of which has a stated goal of "connecting advertisers to the urban/youth audience." Another of Netnoir's corporate partners, YellowBrix, states that it:
As a result, attracting African Americans to the Internet in many instances entails the reification of race, in this case of blackness, through the emphasizing of racial identity as a commodity. Although Web sites commonly and necessarily solicit financial support in order to survive, reliance on corporate sponsorship can have negative effects on the cultural legacies and practices that have traditionally forged the political empowerment of individuals and communities, and that foster bell hooks' notion of "beloved community." African Americans are marketed to, and are seen as "markets" for, corporate sponsors. Many of these sponsors share the stated main goal of "integrat[ing] content" with corporate profits. In accordance with this, both Web sites discussed above contain pages that instruct advertisers on how to appeal directly to African American users. Netnoir's advertising page, for instance, explains that there are several reasons to "Target the African American Markets." First among these stated reasons is that "African American consumers spent over $650 billion in 2000 and are expected to spend $1.3 trillion in 2001." The two remaining reasons, listed as subheadings, are that "African Americans Earn Just As Much As The General Population" and that they comprise, along with other minorities, "The fastest Growing Online Communities."
Yet another Web site, http://www.blackwebportal.com/, claims to be "a True BlackWebPortal" that functions in the "Spirit of Umoja." Its representative company, KemNet Technologies, states that its vision is:
The company claims an equally lofty mission statement:
Yet, even as KemNet Technologies employs powerful African American expressive poetics such as Umoja and Kemet, it informs its potential advertisers that:
The contradictions here are not merely didactic; they speak to the intrinsic difficulties of forging effective spaces of resistance on the Net. How can a Web site simultaneously "bridge the digital divide" while focusing on attracting "the most affluent, educated, and prosperous persons" within the community? Given KemNet's goal of not only serving African Americans, but also African descendants throughout the Diaspora, how can wider and globalized access be ensured under the real material conditions of economic inequality and disenfranchisement present throughout the Diaspora's "global village"? If KemNet's actual target audience consists of the elite members of the African American community (which KemNet describes as households with a median income of $73,000), what happens to those voices which don't readily translate into the capital needed to secure KemNet's success on the Internet? Where can the masses of marginalized voices "offline" find their cyberspaces of representation and resistance?
While African American Web sites do provide discussion forums and chat rooms that encourage the "free" exchange of ideas, the constant barrage of advertising messages that are omnipresent on these sites reminds users that the most important reason for their presence on the Net is their ability to generate profit. In Democracy in the Digital Age, Anthony G. Wilhelm points out:
One urgent issue that needs to be addressed related to the content of political discourse [on the Internet] is the status of the 'marketplace of ideas' in cyberspace - an arena in which, on the one hand, users can be publishers or producers of content while, on the other hand, their endeavors are circumscribed by private and governmental actors who are, to borrow a term from Habermas (1987), 'colonizing' the space in which political discussion can occur.
Of course, it is understandable that one would celebrate Web sites like Netnoir and KemNet. These sites offer African American users the possibility of exchanging and promoting collective cultural experiences and discovering a place of belonging on the Internet where cultural identity can not only be shared, but also affirmed. However, we must continue to examine the "price" that is exacted for participating in corporate-mediated cyberspaces that take advantage of our search for "beloved community" on the Net by reifying race and subjecting our identities to the laws of the market.
|Masters, Slaves and the Politics of Recognition - Art in the Age of Cyberspace Production|
A recent and ongoing cyber-event may further illuminate both the problems as well as the possibilities of political and cultural resistance on the Net. This past March, I received an email message not unlike many messages that have been sent to me by colleagues and friends over the span of the last few years. It announced that the fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger had appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show. Oprah, according to the email message, confronted Hilfiger regarding rumors of racist statements he had allegedly made expressing his frustration over the popularity of his clothes with urban youth - particularly non-white urban youth. The email went on to report that in response to Oprah's inquiry, Hilfiger admitted that he had made the following statements: "If I had known that African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians would buy my clothes, I would not have made them so nice," and "I wish those people would not buy my clothes." The email was sent to various "interested parties." The "warning" produced a firestorm of responses over the Internet, ranging from denouncements of Tommy Hilfiger to congratulatory praise on the ability to get the "word" out through cyber-activism. Most of the responses called for a boycott of Hilfiger's clothing lines. As the email message bluntly stated: "Now, let' s give Hilfiger what he's asked for - let's not buy his clothes. Boycott! Please - pass this message along."
The plea to "pass this message along" bears some resemblance to Civil Rights protests of the past and it clearly attempts to mimic the grassroots organizing efforts that have indeed spawned many sociopolitical movements centered on racial equality and cultural as well as economic empowerment. Yet there are important distinctions to note about this cyberspace call to action. To begin with, the rumor about Hilfiger's comments was false. Tommy Hilfiger never appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show; Oprah has stated on her Web site that she has never even met Hilfiger, posting a statement that specifically denies the veracity of the rumor. Furthermore, Hilfiger and his company representatives have repeatedly disputed any such racially biased and offensive sentiments regarding who wears his clothes. Yet, what is even more notable than the erroneous nature of the "report" concerning Hilfiger's Oprah appearance and his alleged racist statements is what was contained in the rest of the email.
The email I received included a poem, allegedly written by Maya Angelou, entitled "WHERE'S MY AFRO ... PICK: An Advertisement from FUBU?" The poem's verses refer to the transitory nature of being "in love" with designer labels, including that of Tommy Hilfiger, and the cultural betrayal of those who choose to blaspheme the memory of "coming to North Amerikkka in shackles" by donning Donna Karan sweaters. The poem attempts to reveal the contradictions of maintaining one's cultural identity within a society concerned primarily with the co-opting of cultural differences in order to make profits. The speaker of the poem relies heavily on the rhetoric of Black Nationalism and consequently calls for a return to an authentic black selfhood that s/he feels is threatened by corporate oligarchies. The poem's driving central message urges readers to become more conscious of their consumer choices and to take control over how they represent themselves and are represented within a market-driven society which only seeks to exploit them for their material worth. The last verses of the poem suggest a response to this exploitation of the black masses that will allow them to "reclaim [their] status in the world" - namely, black people must begin "buying black." In this final plea to support black-owned enterprises, the author of the poem explicitly invokes the popular FUBU clothing line created by African American entrepreneurs Daymond John, J. Alexander Martin, Carl Brown and Keith Perrin.
FUBU's company name is an acronym that translates to "For Us, By Us." The "FUBU" poet's appropriation of both the name and stated business philosophy of the African American fashion design company evinces a primary concern about racial representation and cultural empowerment in cyberspace. That is, does the Internet really offer spaces of representation and resistance constructed "For Us" and "By Us"? Further, how do racial subjects with specifically marked identities and cultural legacies navigate these new technologies in the service of subverting stubborn paradigms of power and powerlessness? The case of the Hilfiger/FUBU caper offers a disappointing yet instructive answer to the latter question.
Not surprisingly, the FUBU poem also turned out to be a hoax, like so many other moments of deception on the Internet. It is this aspect of the Internet - the technological ability to spread this poem far and wide and to dupe users into believing that it was a poem actually authored by Maya Angelou - which lays bare how cyberspace encourages the ventriloquizing of identities. This is directly opposed to the oral and written traditions that have historically preserved "precious origins" and preserved them in ways that are more trusted and, dare I say, more authentic. Although the FUBU poem could be read as an instance of the African trickster at work, that is, as a specific instance of signifyin(g), it reads much more like a case of cyber-minstrelsy. Cyber-minstrelsy speaks directly to the ways in which African American expressive culture and the Internet can be appropriated in order to mask identity and subvert ties to precious cultural origins and legacies. Although some of the responses to the dissemination of the FUBU poem over the Net critically questioned whether or not Maya Angelou had actually authored it, most users seemed all too anxious to embrace both the content and stated authorship of the work. Even as some users pointed out that the poem's homophobic references to Versace seemed "uncharacteristic" of Angelou, the temptation to champion the spirit and message of the poem (and the Internet), instead of the actual legacy of Maya Angelou's literary work, proved too enticing. Given this misrepresentation or maybe misrecognition of Maya Angelou's legacy, a legacy which represents the kinds of African American expressive gifts that constitute our precious origins, the question of the Internet's possibilities for subversion looms even larger. The role of the Internet in allowing such "masked" performances as that represented by the FUBU poem seems to reveal larger issues concerning the alienation of beloved communities rather than the endless possibilities for communication lauded by those who defend the new medium.
What in fact can be said about the representation of culture on the Internet is that actors upon the stage of the new technological world order are desperate to find ways to keep up with these new technologies because they are potential threats to shared cultural experiences. And what they threaten most, as the poem demonstrates, is the reduction of our cultural experiences, our beloved community, to mere objects of commodity culture. Against this, individuals and groups have responded by expressing themselves in any way that they can, even if it means masking oneself as Maya Angelou. The desire for agency and freedom in the "Information Age" seems to necessitate these desperate measures. The ventriloquism displayed by the author of "WHERE'S MY AFRO ... PICK: An Advertisement from FUBU?" represents an attempt to appropriate cyber-reproduction (and Maya Angelou) to legitimize an expression of the masses' genuine loss of faith in material culture. As Walter Benjamin observed regarding the then new technologies of photography and film:
Unique experiences, as well as tradition, are limited on the Internet. In contrast, copies are abundant. So again, how do we make our "selves" and our identities known to each other on the Net?
|I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: The Ongoing Search for Beloved Community in Cyberspace|
In the search for community and empowered subjectivities both on the Internet and IRL (in real life) people on the margins have continued to struggle to forge spaces of resistance and representation in the paradoxical "Information Age." As Tricia Rose has pointed out regarding the problems inherent in the mass marketing of hip-hop music and culture, capitalism now moves so quickly that there is no time to assess one's performances in order to reflect upon them and, more importantly, control their reproduction. The same can be said for the ways in which issues of race and representation get played out on the Internet. The FUBU poet seems to have had in mind the trickster's desire to transgress, transform and subvert the medium of the Internet as well as to challenge the economic systems of oppression and exclusion that continue to circumscribe postmodern life. Although this act of cyber-subversion is certainly questionable, it nonetheless demonstrates a fundamental loss of faith in the postmodern culture of the present age. There is, in the very act of appropriating another's voice, the sense that one has lost one's own. So where is the faith in our individual voices and in our collective memory? Has this simply been (sur)rendered to the Internet?
There is no doubt that computers have made our lives easier. There is also no doubt that they have transformed human contact. We must then be ever vigilant in ensuring that we use new technologies in ways that foster beloved community and that preserve rather than negate our precious origins. Certainly there are subversive ways to read the FUBU poem and the proliferation of African American Web sites on the Net, but we must also remain cautious about the precarious nature of representation in cyberspace. Human contact and cultural traditions, the trickster's story of overcoming adversity told before the village children, for example, are important. They are not irrelevant or simply passť. Precious origins do matter.
The Internet is here, it appears, to stay. With this said, perhaps our faith should lie in the ability of marginalized communities to continue masking, tricking and improvising new technologies like the Internet in order to draw attention to our sense of loss and also our determination not to give up without a fight. We may thus continue to reveal the incertitude of submitting precious cultural legacies to the forces of cyber-capitalism. As Stuart Hall reminds us:
This is true of cultural representation on the Internet, with its cyber-carnivalesque performances, its masking and ventriloquism. While the amount of faith we can place in the future of our cultural legacies online remains to be seen, instances of transgression and other forms of resistance to hegemony both on- and offline will hopefully lay bare the myth of cyberspace's "stubborn utopias."
 See H.L. Gates, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford, 1988). Gates describes the practice of signifyin(g) as a uniquely African American linguistic practice that functions by "means of indirection, implication, and metaphorical reasoning." Gates employs the specific spelling "signifyin(g)" as opposed to simply "signifying" in order to denote an important distinction between Ferdinand de Saussure's concepts of the signifier/signified and what Gates calls "the black concept of Signifyin(g)," which he states is "a bit like stumbling unaware into a hall of mirrors: the sign itself appears to be doubled ... and (re)doubled upon every closer examination," 44.
 W.L. Andrews, F. Smith Foster & T. Harris, eds. The Oxford Companion to African American Literature (New York: Oxford, 1997) 736. For more on the trickster see also Gates' The Signifying Monkey.
 "Talking drums" refers to the "double" use of percussion as both instrumentation and as a means to transmit messages. Enslaved Africans throughout the Americas relied on talking drums to communicate to each other about secret gatherings and planned revolts.
 Gates, The Signifying Monkey, 51-52. Gates explains these tales at length.
 Gates, The Signifying Monkey, 110-113. Gates associates African American linguistic practices with Bakhtin's theory of "double-voiced" discourses.
 bell hooks, Killing Rage: Ending Racism (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1995) 263-272.
 See A.G. Wilhelm, Democracy in the Digital Age: Challenges to Political Life in Cyberspace (New York and London: Routledge, 2000) 57-58. Wilhelm states that: "While the computer ownership figure for non-Hispanic White households was about 47 percent in late 1998, the figure was a dismal 26 percent for Hispanic and 23 percent for African-American households." He also notes that: "Twenty-two percent of White households are using e-mail from home, while only 8 percent of Hispanic and African-American households are e-mailing friends and family."
 Since "race" cannot be definitively determined on the Internet, it should be noted that although many of the sites discussed in this essay specify their target audiences as African American, anyone interested in participating in the Net's African American cultural offerings could and most likely does log onto these sites.
 See L. Nakamura, "Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet," CyberReader, ed. V.J. Vitanza (Allyn and Bacon, 1999) 449. Nakamura's essay posits that: "Discourse about race in cyberspace is conceptualized as a bug, something which an efficient computer user would eradicate since it contaminates their work/play." Nakamura further describes these discourses as "stubbornly utopian."
 "African-Americans Online," Advertising Age, 11/29/99, vol.70, issue 49, S10.
 Although there is a clear need to conduct more extensive research, African American women presently appear to make up a majority of the users on African American Web sites. EverythingBlack.com's survey indicated 13,022 female users versus 5,899 male users, while Netnoir and BlackWebPortal.com reported that of their users, 54% and 60% respectively were women.
 "About Us" at "Netnoir," 2001. http://www.Netnoir.com/index.cfm?go=%2Fnncorp%2Fabout%2Fdefault%2Ecfm (16 July 2001).
 "Corporate Partnerships" at "Netnoir," 2001. http://www.Netnoir.com/index.cfm?go=%2Fnncorp%2Fabout%2Fpartner%2Fcorp%2Ecfm (16 July 2001).
 "Welcome to a TRUE BlackWebPortal" at "BlackWebPortal.com." http://www.blackwebportal.com/services/ (16 July 2001). "Umoja" is the Swahili word for unity and is widely used by African American cultural and political organizations.
 Kemet is both a location, "The Black Lands Along The Banks of the Nile," and a fundamental principle in black Egyptian studies. BlackWebPortal.com combined the words Kemet and Network to form KemNet as the company name. See KemNet's discussion of the naming process at: http://www.blackwebportal.com/services/AboutDefault.cfm (16 July 2001).
 Wilhelm, Democracy in the Digital Age, 42.
 Oprah Winfrey's complete statement can be seen on her show's Web site, on the "Show Archives" page for January 11, 1999, at: http://oprah.oxygen.com/tows/pastshows/tows_1999/tows_past_19990111.html (7 September 2001).
 The entire FUBU poem can be accessed at: http://www.empirezine.com/, which also contains a "Maya Angelou discussion forum" at: http://www.empirezine.com/spotlight/maya/forum/Maya/index.htm (14 July 1999). Users of the forum's message board discuss topics related to Maya Angelou's work. This site has several entries pertaining to the circulation of the FUBU poem. Another site, militaryvibes.com (currently inaccessible), contained a poetry board where users presented their work and received responses from other users. This site contained a discussion of the FUBU poem as well. Other discussions of the event were found primarily on Web sites run by private individuals. Strikingly, Netnoir, KemNet and EverythingBlack.com do not contain any references to the poem in their discussion and chat archives.
 This line is probably a reference to discourses concerning the Ethiopian and Egyptian legacies of African Americans. In the nineteenth century, African American writers and abolitionists often referred to the ancient African cultures of Egypt and Ethiopia as a way to combat stereotypes of racial inferiority.
 Co-founder Daymond John states on the company's Web site, http://www1.fubu.com/, that FUBU is "the consumer making for the consumer." The company FUBU, however, has no connection to the FUBU poem or its proliferation on the Internet.
 Nakamura, "Race In/For Cyberspace," 445. Nakamura uses the metaphor of "tourism" in order to illuminate the practice of "racial identity appropriation" on the Internet.
 Here I refer to the fourth stanza of the poem which reads: "You come up in the club wearing Versace / clothes made by a homosexual male / So even when you say you are straight / it is very hard to tell."
 W. Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. H. Arendt (New York: Shocken Books, 1969) 221.
 T. Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (University Press of New England, 1994).
 S. Hall, "What is this 'Black' in Black Popular Culture?" Black Popular Culture, ed. M. Wallace (Seattle: Bay Press, 1992) 32.
 M.M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. H. Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984). I am explicitly referring to Bakhtin's notion of "carnival ambivalence" here.