Blog Post

Barriers vs. Pathways to Student Digital Activism

In a few hours, I will submit my final edits on a book chapter--Student Digital Writing and Research on Slavery: Problems and Possibilities--hopefuly to be included in Web Writing: How and Why for the Liberal Arts (forthcoming). Of the many points offered in my essay, about the experience of involving African American students (attending a Historically Black college) in writing and publishing to the Web biographies of former slaveholders from Mississippi and Tennessee one of the most poignant is by a student, Larance, who concludes after becoming involved in the class research project:

Certain information should be available, and because slavery was such a big part of American history, the biography of a slave-owner should be one of those things. Such records should be kept accurate and able to be easily accessed by anyone, but in particular, African Americans.

In the essay, I lament that after the course in which Larance was enrolled and for which he composed a biography of Mississippi planter Matthew Lacy ended, Larance moved on, away from the ongoing project and toward a focus on his Social Work major. Perhaps it was Larance's affinity for this practical field of the social sciences that encouraged him to write in a related paper his thoughts concerning information that should be made available. I think Larance has a deep appreciation of social injustice, one that was budding when he took my Composition II (Research and Writing) course two years ago. In the essay, I also try to understand why in fact most of the students moved on, all but two (of twenty). I had practically launched a campaign for their involvement, both while the class had been in session and afterward. In so doing, I had in effect attempted what I hadn't at the time thought so difficult, certainly not impossible--to interest them. Really interest them. I was, I have since learned, trying to convert, not the students directly, but the topic of slavery.

Critical theorist Sara Ahmed explains in "Happy Objects" that people are orientated in different ways to different things--including places, people, and ideas. There would seem little doubt that most people are not positively orientated toward slavery, an observation intended not so much to suggest that people are politically opposed to slavery--who on earth today would say otherwise--but to suggest, instead, that most people eschew or at least avoid slavery's discussion. Ahmed leads me to believe that my African American students, even while they elected to attend a black college whose history is directly tied to slavery, are no less repelled by the topic than is anyone else. How might this be? Ahmed provides possible reasons: first, people do not necessarily in most cases gravitate toward objects that they think will not make them happy; second, because of a perpetual dominance of certain body images as beautiful and good and others as not beautiful and as bad, these students inherit, in Ahmed's words, (these) "bodily orientations" (35). Over the course of even eighteen short years, the students have learned (which isn't to say that they have fully accepted) how a room full of people may react both to their physical entry and to their discourse. As they adjust, they may choose not to speak on topics that invoke race or the nation's troubled history relative to it. In this case, even very young people may view it easier to convert themselves rather than to convert a body of ideas and a universe of sentiments concerning history. Ahmed writes "Maintaining public comfort requires that certain bodies 'go along with it, to agree to where you are placed" (35). She adds that people can get stuck in those places. Stuck or not stuck, students may very well see themselves as making conscientious, smart choices as they are mindful of affect, the roles they play in co-creating the environments they enter. As college students hoping and planning for bright futures including comfortable financial ones, our students may know the price to be paid for incorrect "angling," failure to convert to one's benefit an environment upon entry. Ahmed's thinking accurately describes many of the roles African Americans have been forced to fill when society would not let it be otherwise. Some of the behaviors, codes and scripts that might keep one alive have for centuries been passed down from father to son and from mother to daughter. Lee Daniels's "The Butler" was a recent reminder of this when we saw the lead character played by Forrest Whitaker, Cecil Gaines, commit himself to hear nothing, see nothing, and only serve. According to Ahmed, not only do groups cohere around a "shared orientation" (36) but such consensus creates an economy. In agreement with sociologist Beverley Skeggs, Ahmed writes, "The affective differentiation is the basis of an essentially moral economy in which moral distinctions of worth are also distinctions of value" (35). This is what one would call the bottom line.

And what has this to do with African American students shying away from either involving themselves in study of slavery to begin with or of continuing work on this topic begun in a college composition class? Despite the very recent resurgence of popular film treating the topic of slavery, students have seen the economy, nationally, regionally, and locally, and they have not yet been convinced that the types of conversions they have already come close to mastering are no longer required. Neither would they seem to be convinced that a new economy--a creative one in which culture is capital--is upon us. Never did I use this tack, black history as capital, to interest them in slavery research. I relied instead on a combination of intellectual and moral suasion, suffused with much pathos. On the one hand, I wanted them to feel both anger at the keeping of knowledge from them and excitement that their scholarship could make a difference in the world knowing the phenomenon of slavery in ways that they might otherwise, without the work of recovery, not.

I brought the Eaton-Bailey-Williams Freedpeople's Transcription Project to Rust College, where I teach, because I envisioned a relationship between undergraduate students, research, knowledge-production, digitization, and the Internet. I believed at the outset and I believe now that there is a place for many digital activists and digital entrepreneurs in the new economy. What better place for students to become prepared for such work than on a college campus, in a humanities classroom, at a liberal arts institution? Why should students studying at an Historically Black College or University, in most cases located in the American South, not be equipped to become members of, as social theorist Jeremy Rifkin wrote recently, "a sharing economy"?  As he observes a continually evolving system, Rifkin asks, "How will this economy of the future function when millions of people can make and share goods and services nearly free?" How do we reorientate Larance and other students to the topic of slavery so that they themselves can become those people who provide information that should be available? How do we create an economy of sharers interested in furthering humanity rather than a system of exploiters, where every possible thing is for the gain of a relative few. In this case of slavery, we must begin, as Ahmed might suggest, with reorienting ourselves to the past. And from where I stand, we must convert African Americans students, along with others, not to feeling happy about slavery itself but about the possibility of transforming the world through their own participation in knowledge creation.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. "Happy Objects." The Affect Theory Reader. Eds. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Carter, Larance. "The Life and Lineage of Matthew Lacy." Unpublished paper. Rust College, 2012.

Rifkin, Jeremy. "The Rise of Anti-Capitalism." Editorial. New York Times. ed. 16 Mar. 2014. SR4. Print.

Skeggs, Beverly. Class, Self, Culture. London: Routledge, 2004, cited in Ahmed, Sara. "Happy Objects," The Affect Theory Reader. Eds. Melissa Gregg and

          Gregory J. Seigworth. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010, 35.

 

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