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Context, Black History, and Asking the Right Questions (#Twittergate, #ASALH, #TransformDH)

On Saturday, September 29, 2012, while attending and live tweeting the 97th Annual Convention of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, I looked down at my phone to discover this tweet from Josh Guild (@wardellfranklin):

Over the next 48 hours,* a twitter discussion ensued, the hashtag #twittergate was born, and several blog posts (there are others, feel free to add yours in the comments) set out to review the ethics and etiquette of live tweeting conferences.

But in the occasionally rancorous discussion that followed (tweeters, such as myself, questioned whether conferences are public spaces, while others wondered aloud why academics seem so stodgy and “guilty,” and still others cheered Twitter’s capacity to divest knowledge from the lofty heights of the Ivory Tower and bring it to the masses) something was lost.

What does it mean that this conversation occurred, for the most part, over the heads of individuals attending and enthusiastically live tweeting a conference focused entirely on the life and history of people of African descent?

The theme of the 97th Annual Convention was “Black Women in American Culture and History.” Several panels featured tributes to black women historians who founded the field. Darlene Clark Hine, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, Deborah Gray White, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Nell Irvin Painter, Sharon Harley, Elsa Barkley Brown were just a few of the names invoked over the course of the convention.  If you add to these founders of the field who are no longer with us–Ida B. Wells, Anna Julia Cooper, and Nannie Helen Boroughs, and more–what you have is a conference dedicated to venerating black women as scholars, activists, intellectuals, community organizers, and more.

We, black women historians, are as far from stodgy academics as you can get.  And we, our bodies, selves, and yes, our research, remain largely absent from mainstream United States and Atlantic history. Truth be told, our work and history is even rendered invisible in much African American and Afro-Atlantic history which (and Aisha Finch noted as much during our panel on “Property, Freedom, and the Politics of Resistance among Enslaved Women in the Atlantic World”) still privileges the names of “rebellious” men.   For example, Deborah Gray White’s Ar’n’t I A Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South is held aloft today as the classic study of enslaved women in the antebellum South, but it almost didn’t come into existence.  White was told over and over her work was irrelevant and unimportant.  She writes eloquently about her experience in the essay collection Telling Histories: Black Women in the Ivory Tower, but she retold the story at the convention in a powerful and moving moment that, yes, was also powerful and moving to tweet.

In such a context as this–and context and citation is something I think is desperately missing from the entire discussion, even from Tressie’s excellent post asking questions about live tweeting–I think we need to ask different questions.  I think we need to ask #transformDH questions.

Questions like, what does it mean to use social media tools at a conference where the subject and subjects under study have been at best marginalized and at worst maligned in the “traditional” academy? What does it mean to use social media to gather the knowledge created at that conference and make it available online to students, teachers, community leaders, librarians and others who could not afford to be present, and strangers who had no idea such a conference was even occurring–but now may be attending next year?

What does it mean for us, as members of #ASALH, to create an academic safe space where we can enter immediately into black history without feeling any need to validate our worth as black historians, the importance of the subject, or review basic knowledge (i.e. whether or not Abraham Lincoln “freed” the slaves)?  What does it mean for us, as members of #ASALH who also tweet, who are also, dare I say, digital humanists, to be able to extend this safe space into the online world by sharing our work and others through social media and digital tech? And what does it mean for us, the #ASALH digital humanists, to use technology that is inaccessible and inscrutable to so many of our colleagues and unavailable within the communities we come from because of funding, training and other issues of #access?

None of the #twittergate tweeters asked whether there was a conversation occurring within #ASALH around the use of social media or technology, rendering the #ASALH context invisible in the discussion.  But the truth is, Josh’s question was extremely valid.  There is some unease around the use of social media, digital tools, and other technology, an anxiety rooted in the contentious relationship between black scholars, black history, the academy, and technology.  While some #twittergate tweets looked askance at those who worried about stolen ideas, a look at the context again shows this is no off hand concern.  The reality is appropriation of ideas may be the least of the struggles black scholars and scholars studying black history have experience and is still one of the most poignant.  Building a body of work around African American history has been an uphill battle and African Americans have struggled to find their place within the academy.  And, unfortunately, there is nothing in the history to suggest these dissenters are entirely wrong.

At the same time, there is much to be said for the number of scholars within #ASALH who are in favor of technology and the power of digital and social media to make black history widely available–and great excitement over the live tweeting that did commence over the four days of the convention!  Many scholars of color are happily sharing work online and doing their best to spread information beyond their classrooms into the wider online arena.

I take loud and visible exception to the idea that live tweeting is a simple matter of the People vs. the Ivory Tower.  Given the relationship between African American history and the academy, I think use of social media is a very important question for scholars invested in black history and life to ask and ask in a serious way. And while I fall on the side of those who prefer live tweeting in the spirit of spreading information about black history and culture as far and wide as possible, I do think it is fruitful to discuss ways to build a protocol around tweeting during panels and in conference spaces. All conferences, panels, and workshops are not created equal.

I also take loud and visible exception to our (digital humanists) inability to conceptualize the discussion in terms other than social media good/academics bad.  In other words, when discussing the use of social media in academia, it is ahistorical and frankly anti-intellectual to create binaries based on public/private spaces, traditional academics/#alt-ac and activists, analog/digital humanities.  And yes, I say that as someone who originally presumed conferences to be public spaces. They are and they are not.  And the inability to pinpoint them as either is precisely why discussion is important.

This is more than a matter of appropriate use of technology.  What we are discussing is the epistemology of conference spaces, the geography of knowledge production, and the best ways to cultivate and critique our work and the work of others. And these questions do not exist in a vacuum removed from the people creating scholarship or the scholarship itself.  They defy binaries.  They deserve discussion.  They require context.  And while in this case, that context must be situated within a larger matrix of racism and sexism within the academy, the problematics of this discussion prove that there are no easy answers–yet.  And that our job, as digital humanists, as academics, as #alt-ac, as activists, and as digital citizens, is to work to find these answers in an as informed, collegial and congenial way as possible.

*Special thanks to Adeline Koh (@adelinekoh) for continuing the discussion on ethics of twitter when my #ASALH wifi failed me.

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  1. […] McMillan Cottom, “An Idea is a Dangerous Thing to Quarantine,” Jessica Marie Johnson, “Context, Black History, and Asking the Right Questions (#Twittergate, #ASALH, #TransformDH)&#…; and Alexis Lothian, “Academic twitter: ethics and conversational nuance.” I like being […]

  2. […] McMillan Cottom, “An Idea is a Dangerous Thing to Quarantine,” Jessica Marie Johnson, “Context, Black History, and Asking the Right Questions (#Twittergate, #ASALH, #TransformDH)&#…; and Alexis Lothian, “Academic twitter: ethics and conversational nuance.” I like being […]

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