White Students and Black Words

One of the most striking aspects of Banks’ discussion was his advocacy of using digital media and the humanities to bridge the gaps between generations and to form stronger communities.  As a student of historic preservation, these are questions that we work with every day in our efforts to make preservation sustainable and inclusive.  However, like the field of digital humanities and digital writing, preservation is largely dominated by white scholars and professionals.  This isn’t to say that there is no minority presence in the field, of course.

Throughout Digital Griots, Banks is invested in the idea that African Americans should have an evolving rhetoric that is “on their own terms,”  using “social epistemologies and subjectivities” directed towards “Black publics or [. . .] cultural geographies (156).”  Essentially, created for a black audience, by black authors, and engaging with topics that are relevant to their community- an important framework for any culture.  With this in mind, I wonder if the weight of African American rhetoric and sources  or the importance of an individual as a griot/te change if their work is being used or interpreted by someone who is white?

As an undergraduate, I really didn’t do very much work with any sort of ethno-centric rhetoric.  Honestly, it just isn’t something in which I am or have ever been particularly interested.  The majority of the exposure I got to non-white writing or media was through my history classes and later in graduate school, use of African American oral histories in survey work.  While none of the people interviewed were likely individuals who could be formally called griots (and they certainly weren’t the DJs that Banks mentions), their oral histories and tradition are important elements of preservation research that are used at an increasingly regular rate.  Especially where black and minority voices have been oppressed by racism or other forms of discrimination, one of the best ways to gain accurate insight into their community’s experiences for the record of history is to speak directly to individual people and let them share their story in their own way.  In our field, however, the students “remixing” these words and thoughts for their papers are often white.

In the same way that Banks discusses “selection, arrangement, layering,” and “blending” in the context of musical arrangements, different voices in communities perform these same functions to talk about their experiences (35).  Stories are remixed or blended as different people tell and re-tell them, and then again changed as they’re added into various contexts and arguments.  It occurs to me that the stories of black interviewees- and indeed, all interviewees- are authentically, completely theirs until they are remixed and re-used by somebody else.  Despite the fact that the initial words and ideas belong to the interviewee, they are appropriated and taken out of their context for use by somebody else.

I know that’s very likely confusing and doesn’t really engage with the digital aspect of  the book, but I was curious to explore this thought a bit more (and I will probably update this again when I’ve had more time to think about it).

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One thought on “White Students and Black Words”

  1. Gab,

    It seems to me that you hit an important tension In our work here: On the one hand, it is important for white scholars to “reach out” to the voices of minority speakers, artists, and writers. On the other hand, we need to try not to appropriate those voices.

    And into that mix comes someone like Adam Banks—who needs to negotiate his status as both a member of the African-American community and an academic, a professor at an R1 university. I was struck in rereading Adam’s book by how hard he works to establish his street credentials, as it were. The effect is virtuosic, compelling, yet there seems to be an anxiety underlying it.

    Not a definitive response to your exploratory remarks, but I hope something that will help us think further about these issues,

    Joe

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