Review: Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Digital Age by Adam Banks

In Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Digital Age, Adam Banks uses the the digital griot as a conceptual metaphor for “multimedia writing skills” in the context of African American literacies. Banks fuses the word digital to the word griot as a rhetorical move: to ground the sometimes detached, post-modern aesthetic project of multimedia practices to purpose and to traditional and political networks that nourish African American rhetoric. He draws connections between the historical griot and modern day griots like preachers, DJ’s and stand-up comics, and uses these community members who are grounded in African American rhetorical practices to inform his ideas for the future of digital writing practices and composition scholarship. I liked his pluralizing move of including in this metaphor of the digital griot the persuasive motive of rhetorical practices linked to community commitment, making the transfer of this metaphor to writing a call for transformational work. He demonstrates how the persuasive role of the griot has historically been a part of this transformational work all along.  But this is only one of the many ways Banks develops his idea of the digital griot, because, in a demonstration of the flow, rupture, “cut break mix scratch bootleg” (9) style he says grows out of the unique African American experience,  his own book describes the multi-layer, trans-historical, multi-modal process that African American rhetoric is.  

     Banks uses the DJ as a central reception point for all these functions of the griot because of the historic ways the DJ in the African American community “tells the stories, carries the history, interprets the news, mediates the disputes, and helps shape the community’s collective identity” (25.) The DJ represents a time before corporate  radio, when the voice of the community came from the kitchen radio. When Banks speaks about “back in the day” stories he uses the DJ’s practice of remix to suggest that explicit exposure of tensions between old and young generations in the African American community create a remix of perceived gaps in values that bring new insights about the dialectical relationship between the old and the new. Banks fuses the act of DJ-ing with the act of writing, creating a griotic view of the writer, one who uses all the practices available to her through new media technologies that are linked to “principles, priorities and purposes” (153.)
     I am struck  by Banks’ re-definition of the concept of remix--he complicates for me the by now fairly well-circulated idea of remix in the composition classroom as a place for encouraging students to cite different forms and voices in a pastiche kind of writing. Banks defines remix as (in part) “a critical reflexive gesture producing the paradox of independent yet dependent texts” (90.) As Banks points out, the remix uses all the new practices available to the younger generation and to the education world to write and create texts but it does not discard the old texts. In this concept he connects to the scholarship of African American Literacy as grounded in history, knowledge and community as well as the experience of struggle.  As the digital realm emerges and seems to be heavy with sterile technological and highly aesthetic --almost anti-rhetorical-- practices, or, at least, practices that avoid addressing the rhetorical function of what gets produced, Banks’ book reminds us of the need to find openings to use multimedia practices in purposeful ways. This idea of “consequences” for knowledge building in the use of language (Richardson by way of Banks) in Banks’ opinion is necessary to the forging of a direction for digital humanities.  “Acts of writing, the social networks and cultural contexts in which they occur, and the technological networks in which they take place and are disseminated, still involve systems of power...” (Banks 154.) I appreciate and value and constantly strive to think and re-think what Banks says about mixing, remixing and borrowing in the context of blues musicians and DJs who operate within an open and vital culture of appropriation. Banks links this practice to African American vernacular and literacy practices that “show us different interpretations of ethical questions” (145.) This enriches my thoughts about future teaching.