Ja’La J. Wourman & Shingi Mavima
Discourse around the revolutionary birth of Black Studies as a discipline often prominently—and justifiably— revolves around the events at San Francisco State College (SFSC). Indeed, it was the determined activism of Black students at the school that led to the 1969 establishment of the country’s first Black Studies department (Rojas, 2007, p. 1). This historic moment immediately spurred similar Black student uprisings in pursuit of Black Studies academic programs across the country, including at the University of Chicago, Harvard University, and Howard University (Rojas, 2007, pp. 97–101.) Yet a historical narrative that focuses solely on the students and their pursuit of the Black Studies department does a disservice to the other agents and spaces of the revolution. As we celebrate 50 years of Black Studies, it is important to recognize and reflect on the events that birthed the field and, in particular, the discipline’s intractable relationship with writing and composition across various and evolving platforms. Furthermore, in recognizing the digital era today, provides uncharted frontiers within literacies, academia, and our communities, the paper also interrogates the fundamental intersection of the Black Campus Movement (BCM)—in its symbiosis with writing and composition— and the digital media space.
As we revisit this historical moment, we draw attention to three critical phenomena of the Black Studies movement. First, Black Studies was interdisciplinary in both its influence and its outcomes. Second, Black Studies emphasized a symbiosis with the community not common within academia. It was birthed out of the apex of the Civil Rights Movement, “deeply inspired by the Autobiography of Malcolm X, the charismatic leadership of Stokely Carmichael, yet shaken by the death of Martin Luther King Jr” (Biondi, 2012). Finally, and of particular relevance to this study, is the centrality of the contested literary media space to the struggle for Black Studies (and, by extension, the Black Freedom Movement). Consider, for instance, that the immediate precursor to the Black Studies-birthing uprisings at SFSC was a 1967 protest by Black students regarding their portrayal in the school newspaper, The Daily Gator (Rojas, 2007, p. 65).
The point is perhaps best represented by Carmen Kynard’s (2013) historiography of the Black Freedom struggle during the 1960’s social justice movements, which helps us understand the relationship between Black Studies, literacy, language, and writing instruction. Kynard invites us to examine the 1920s student protests at Fisk University, the effects of 1950s Jim Crow brutality, and the role of the Black arts movement as cultural production, declaring:
I focus on this range of publications of the new black press as the language and out‑of‑school literacies of black college students….. African American publications represented an important structure and function for African American affinity groups since these publications were a primary way to keep the black community connected (Kynard, 2013, p. 28).
As such, the dynamic had been well established: Literary media was central to the establishment of the Black Studies discipline and, conversely, the discipline has gone on to significantly inform how we think about these literacies and their role within Black communities. The rise of the digital media space, therefore, provides a critical point of intersection and negotiation for writing and composition scholars and those of Black Studies. As we explore these intersections, we will briefly explain first how the terminologies and literacies of multimedia have informed writing studies as a field, its limitations, and how Black Studies and digital scholarship can help inform the way we move forward towards freedom and justice for all.
Aesthetic and the Revolution: Situating Multimodality & Design within the Black Academy Trajectory
The term “design” has largely emerged into writing studies scholarship through the inception of multimodal composition. Design is a term, like art, that has the potential to have various meanings based on the creator’s intention and the receiver’s interpretation. In rhetoric and composition studies, design has largely emerged into scholarship through the inception of multimodal composition, a subfield of composition studies that is inclusive of multiple modes counting as writing, and is based on a pedagogy that suggests writing happens through many forms of literacies. In the 2004 Conference on College Composition and Communication’s Chair’s Address, “Composition in a New Key,” Kathleen Blake Yancey called on the discipline to rethink composition as we know it and instead, think of “a new model of composing where students are explicitly asked to engage in these considerations…located in three key expressions: circulation of composition, canons of rhetoric, diecity of technology (2004, p. 311–12). With these three areas in mind, composing practices are shifted to extend beyond alphabetic text, allowing students and scholars to consider ways writing happens in different modes.
Yet despite these calls for innovation within Rhetoric and Composition studies, mainstream understanding thereof has largely retained Eurocentricity in scope and scholarship. When asked where the terminologies and practices of design fit in the African American rhetorical tradition, the origins and foundation of scholarship are not so transparent. This is because the practices of composing and design in the African American rhetorical tradition do not follow the same rules. Design principles in this tradition are cultural, historical, and politically situated. They have been embedded in artwork, landscapes and architecture, educational systems, and technical documents – to name a few.
Drawing from our past, the communicative practices of Black people seen through protests and Black publications speak to a kind of Black aesthetic in designing media, and other literacies. It encompasses an authenticity to one’s true self that pushes against the oppressive and systemic racism that would otherwise attempt to silence the Black artist. These conversely, help us begin to forge a working definition of design and multimodality. Consider, for example, the importance of the Black publication to the BCM. As part of their initial set of proposals at SFSC, Black students called for an academic journal that later became the influential Journal of Black Studies (Biondi, 2012, p. 69). Leroy Bennett, editor of Ebony, emerged a prominent supporter of the student protesters at the University of Chicago, telling them that “black power is the only alternative to disaster in this country” (Rojas, 2007, p. 96.) Other publications, such as the Crane Junior High’s Phoenix “became a fount of creativity and gave students space to explore and debate new cultural and political ideas” (Biondi, 2012, p. 103).
Away from the written platform, the BCM was aesthetically punctuated by Afros, Dashikis and the hoisting of the Pan-African flag, as was done by students at Southern University in New Orleans after they had taken down the American flag. These rhetorical and aesthetic choices are echoed in the call of the New London Group. which also puts in conversation design and meaning making practices, saying: “[in design] we are both inheritors of patterns and conventions of meaning and at the same time active designers of meaning. And, as designers of meaning, we are designers of social futures – workplace futures, public futures, and community futures” (NLG, 1996, p. 65). The BCM was, indeed, actively designing meaning and social futures and foregrounds what many literary artists of the past have called “The Black Aesthetic.”
The Black Aesthetic Before the Digital
In pushing against oppressive and systemic racism, one of the earliest noted definitions of African American design in the United States can be traced back to the Black artists during the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance began in the early 1920s and lasting until the 1930s was the first of its kind. Emerging as “The New Negro Movement,” according to Addison Gayle (1971), “the purpose of this movement was to “identify and articulate a community consciousness rather than overthrow existing institutions. The group initiative was to be a dynamic “force for making the world aware of the cultural contributions of Black artists in modern art” (p. 12). Major themes in this movement attempted to portray what this “New America” looked like for Blacks. Inspired greatly from past struggle and oppression, the artist work we see emerge during this time period moved towards establishing a new identity for Blacks. There were however, many artists who did not stray away from addressing the perils in America, most prominently seen in Langston Hughes (1926) essay, “The Negro Artist and The Racial Mountain,” in which he discusses the importance of self-identification as a Black artist early on when he said:
One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet–not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself (p. 692).
Similarly, W.E.B Du Bois (1926) said in his prolific speech “The Criteria of Negro Art,”
…all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.
Amiri Baraka, writer and pioneer of the Black Arts Movement, shared similar views with W.E.B Du Bois towards Black artists. In Baraka’s poem “Black Art” (1987) he begins by defining art as an expression of life that reflects the values of the artists derived from the traditional school. As a writer, Baraka was most well known for being involved in the writing of plays, so he positions Black dramas as an expression of art. He quickly distinguishes Black art from European art saying “European art suggests European life. It is a manifestation of European values.” Asserting the association between art and life early in the poem helps situate the remainder of the poem that proclaims the effects of colonization on Black culture.
When situating the Black literary experience into the digital landscape, however, it cannot be ignored that navigating the digital world brings into the conversation the very same concepts and ideas echoed by the forerunner of the literary arts movement. Drawing from Baraka (1987), a Black aesthetic is commonly seen in many of the products produced by Black journalists and users of the web. As Banks (2006) suggests, an African American aesthetic sees “design practices as an important element of larger struggle, of offering ways to resist the stubbornness of racism and racialized exclusions” (p .130) and “Those of us who care about ending systemic oppressions must design new spaces ,even as we point out problems in our current ones (p. 118). Banks (2006) further challenges readers to rethink what has traditionally been called “the digital divide” because what many have thought to be an issue of access to computers and information literacy that causes this divide, Bank’s argues is “the divide itself is a rhetorical problem at least as much as it is a technical or material one, and because technology issues have always functioned as a metaphor for imagining collective Black futures” (p. 39). However, in order to better understand the divide, we must rethink the definition of technology to include systems of knowledge, tools, networks of information, economic and power relations that enable how a tool is used (p. 40). Although Bank’s assertions are true, Sofiya Noble (2018) argues the importance of understanding how technological systems are inherently racist in their algorithms.
Anna Everett (2002) also takes an Afrocentric approach while tracing African Diasporic engagements of what she calls “cyberspace” to acknowledge the many ways we can find traces of African histories on the web. Of particular interest to this conversation in her study is the citing of popular magazines in which she identifies as “Black cyber presses” (p. 142). Such publications, and their occupation of historically exclusionary spaces, are part of a much longer tradition, as argued by Kynard (2013) that:
The black press itself functioned as its own classroom for these new black college students. By the 1920s, close to 100,000 Caribbean peoples moved to the United States or Canada when U.S. investors bought out small farms in favor of huge agricultural conglomerations. This pan‑African presence meant that someone such as Duse Mohammed Ali, an Egyptian Nationalist, began publishing the African Times and Orient Review out of London in 1912 where he advocated for the study of African cultures, a pan‑African political focus, and independence for colonized people (p. 27).
It is within this same trajectory of claiming Black space by way of publication that we see the birth and evolution of such magazines as Jet, Ebony, and The Black Tribune (to name a few) from the mid 1940s to present day. The emergence and advancement of these Black publications came during a time where mainstream publications and media did not focus on the Black experience. To combat that, we have seen these popular publications re-invent themselves and transform as technologies began to advance, and journalism recognized the need to migrate platforms to the digital. As the demand for print subscriptions declined, various forms of blog-style magazine were birthed, and today the blogosphere has become one of the mainstream avenues for many Black intellectuals, influencers, and entrepreneurs.
The advent of social media and the digital era, on the one hand, represents the potential for the continuation of this tradition of reclaiming media spaces as sites of Black intellectualism and rhetorical practices in digital and public spaces traditionally not recognized in writing studies scholarship. On the other, it represents uncharted territories of unparalleled reach and access, confronting what Adam Banks has termed the “digital divide” (2006). Banks reminds us that the conversation goes beyond a question of African American and minorities access to technology and digital media; it is one of ownership of technological tools and digital spaces that are not culturally situated in writing studies scholarship.
One particular point of discussion that foregrounds the remainder of our essay is his notion of an African American “rhetoric of design” that centers design practices such as architecture, quilting, and other meaning-making processes that help us better understand the liberatory meaning-making technological practices that Black people have participated in centuries ago. Similar to Baraka (1987), an African American rhetoric of design would push against an Eurocentric approach when creating digital media and technologies, but instead, embraces the cultural and historical heritage of Black folk, intertwined with images and rhetorical messages of freedom. This calls for critical considerations that may or may not have been envisioned by the revolutionaries of 50 years ago, such as re-examining how protests signage and the circulation of media during that time period can inform rhetoric and composition scholars, because in truth, the products and artifacts that came out of the Black Campus Movement reflect some of the more current materials at the forefront in the Black digital production landscape today.
Shift to Digital Media: The Remix
In a shift to Black digital media, much of what we see emerging from internet culture is a reflection of Black culture and rhetorical practices. Richardson and Ragland (2018) help us better understand this work through activism and digital remix, focusing on ways online spaces have become major media sources and ways of understanding the communicative practices of African Americans. Looking toward the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the multiliteracies seen extends Black/African-American language traditions through performances, fashion, protests, sound, social media, and celebrity figures: advocating for the lives of all Black people in the wake of mass violence, racism, and oppression. Because Black language comes out of the Black experience, chants and protests simultaneously seek to affirm Blackness while also dismantling systemic oppression. Richardson and Ragland (2018) note the ways literacies are remixed throughout the #BLM movement, such as wearing t-shirts that read “Hands up, Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breathe,” —the final words of Eric Garner and George Floyd that are now being seen on face masks in the time of COVID-19. These remixes all point to how multiliteracies circulate from the material to the digital, symbolizing how Blackness is represented in social and political movements. With the use of social media, the hashtags #StayWoke has also shown the influence of Black cultural expression, with woke being an African American slang term meaning to be “awake” and out of a state of slumber (p. 43). In addition to hashtags, memes are a way the #BLM movement and supporters have teased awareness of their mission, showing the realities of what Black men and women face today, in contrast to their white counterparts.
What Richardson and Ragland (2018) demonstrate by exploring the communicative practices of BLM is the effectiveness of utilizing verbal and nonverbal forms of literacy that ultimately speak to the Black experience in American and across the diaspora, spanning from decades ago until now. Similarly, Adam Banks’ Digital Griots expands what multimodal can be, and brings into consideration literary traditions from the African American community that otherwise may be overlooked. The use of the griot, historically known as a West African storyteller figure, is a rhetorical move that calls to attention how the dj can be looked to in understanding rhetorical traditions in the African American community. It shows us how African Americans have always been resisting Western control because hip hop has always been political and is a way to tell real stories past and present in the Black community. In so doing, Banks is illustrating the critical ways remix and invention are centered in African American literacies, that are deeply rooted in the African American fight (or struggle) for freedom.
The significance of each moment of remix reflects a broader conversation that centers Blackness at the forefront of innovation and design. As Andre Brock Jr. (2020) argues, “Black folk have made the internet a ‘Black space’ whose contours have become visible through socially and distributed digital practice while also decentering whiteness as the default internet identity” (p. 5). And although moments of remix were not digitized during the activism of the Black campus movement, we are certain these same practices would have occurred, as they are doing so today.
Manning Marable (2000) has outlined the definitive components of the Black intellectual tradition as being “descriptive, corrective, and prescriptive” (p. 17). This essay has demonstrated how Black Studies and the African American rhetorical traditions, both pillars of the Black intellectual tradition, have continuously sought to describe, correct, and prescribe solutions for the lived Black experience. Furthermore, the two have influenced one another throughout the evolution of the fields, particularly when it comes to the Black Arts movement, Black presses, and, now, the Black digital media. The effectiveness of social media and popular culture shows the importance of the rhetorical device of invention and remix and how Black people past and present have designed multiple literacies to combat oppression and resistance to their humanity.
As we write this, the US is on fire, figuratively and metaphorically, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. It is no coincidence that Black Studies, accompanied by critical innovations in the African American rhetorical tradition, was born in the aftermath of the 1967 Uprisings and other watershed movements of the Civil Rights Movement. The Floyd-inspired Uprisings mirror those of five decades ago, with the critical distinction of having the digital media space available for organizing and mobilizing. From the recording and dissemination of the incriminating footage, to the resulting outrage and online activism, and the rapidity with which the movement garnered international notoriety; is undeniable that the fight for Black Liberation has moved significantly into the digital sphere. It is incumbent, then, that scholars of writing and composition studies, in tandem with those of Black Studies, deliberately work to harness this momentum into a sustainable intellectual vehicle for the uplift of the African American community.
The digital era, on the one hand, provides an opportunity at continuity for writing and rhetoric as a pillar of Black scholarly activism: an intractable relationship that has existed for centuries and was immortalized with the birth of Black Studies 50 years ago. On the other, the era fundamentally presents limitless potential as a platform that defies classroom walls, societal categorizations, and even borders. Its optimum utility, however, depends on our recognition of the potential, an understanding of the “digital divide” and other barriers to our agency, as well as the age-old commitment to the struggle for Black upliftment in the US and beyond. Coupled with unrelenting innovation within Black forms of literacies and rhetoric, the digital era could be more than just the battleground for equality as we venture into the 21st century: it may well be a critical avenue in the march towards freedom.
Banks, Adam J. (2006). Race, rhetoric, and technology: Searching for higher ground. Routledge.
—. (2010). Digital griots: African American rhetoric in a multimedia age. Southern Illinois University Press.
Baraka, Amiri. (1987). Black art. The Black Scholar, 18(1), 23–30.
Biondi, Martha. (2012). The Black revolution on campus. University of California Press.
Brock Jr., Andre. (2020). Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures. NYU Press.
Du Bois, W.E.B. (1926). Criteria of negro art. Crisis, 32(6), 290–297.
Everett, Anna. (2002). The revolution will be digitized: Afrocentricity and the digital public sphere. Social Text, 20(2), 125–146.
Gayle, Addison. (1971). The black aesthetic. Doubleday Books.
Gilyard, Keith, & Banks, Adam J. (2018). On African-American rhetoric. Routledge.
Hughes, Langston. (1926 June 23). The Negro artist and the racial mountain. The Nation, 692–93.
Kendi, Ibram X. (2012). The Black campus movement: Black students and the racial reconstitution of higher education, 1965–1972. Palgrave Macmillan.
Kynard, Carmen. (2013). Vernacular insurrections: Race, Black protest, and the new century in composition-literacies studies. SUNY Press.
Marable, Manning. (2000). “Black Studies and the racial mountain.” Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, 2(3), 17–36.
The New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60–93.
Richardson, Elaine, & Ragland, Alice. (2018). #StayWoke: The Language and Literacies of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement. Community Literacy Journal, 12(2), 27–56.
Richardson, Elaine B., & Jackson, Ronald. L. (2007). African American rhetoric (s): interdisciplinary perspectives. Southern Illinois University Press.
Rojas, Fabio. (2007). From Black power to Black studies: How a radical social movement became an academic discipline. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Yancey, Kathleen Blake. (2004). Made not only in words: Composition in a new key. College Composition and Communication, 56(2), 297–328.
Ja’La J. Wourman (she/her/hers) is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University. She has taught courses in the First Year Writing and Professional Writing program at MSU and is a 2020 King-Chávez-Parks Future Faculty Fellow. Her research focuses on digital culture and design, content strategy, and Black Entrepreneurship and has been presented at national conferences such as Cultural Rhetorics, National Council of Black Studies, and CCCC’s. When she is not working on her academic scholarship, you can find her managing RG4C.com, an inspirational lifestyle brand where she is the founding editor-in chief.
Shingi Mavima, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Toledo. He specializes in contemporary Southern African history with a focus on both its colonial and postcolonial periods, with additional scholarly interests in African literature and popular culture. His peer-reviewed publications have appeared on a wide range of subjects, from Afro-based traditions in Battle Rap to ethnic conflict in postcolonial Zimbabwe. He is also the co-founder and executive director of CLUBHOUSE International, a non-profit organization dedicated to working with Zimbabwean primary school students in community-building projects.