Category Archives: lectures

Catherine Knight Steele and the New Vanguard of Black Digital Feminists | Chesapeake DH Conference 2020

On February 21, 2020, William & Mary hosted the first annual Chesapeake Digital Humanities Conference. This conference drew together digital humanists from all over the region, and from places further away, like Cornell University. Unfortunately, inclement weather delayed the conference’s start, but nevertheless, the panels and conversations were extremely valuable.

The highlight of the experience for me was the opportunity to listen to, and share space with our keynote speaker, Dr. Catherine Knight Steele. Dr. Steele’s work has included conversations about Black people in the digital, but more specifically, Black women in the blogosphere. As such, it’s not hard to imagine how important her scholarship has been to me, a young Black feminist and digital humanist whose blog–this blog–is part of her scholarly intervention.

I got to introduce Dr. Steele’s keynote, a moment for which I was truly grateful. From the moment she began speaking, I was mesmerized. It became abundantly clear as she spoke who her intended audience was, and she wouldn’t budge on that an inch. She spoke for Black feminists, and those who understood there was something to learn from the combination of Black feminism and digital humanities. She spoke for people like me. Her keynote, a deep dive into Black Digital Feminism prepared and influenced by her upbringing as a preacher’s kid (a sermon with (1) alliteration and (2) three key points), drew from her experiences as a baby digital humanist learning to type from “Mavis Beacon;” and her love of Black feminisms and feminists.

In what seemed to be the same breath, Dr. Steele rapped the beginning of Lauryn Hill’s Lost Ones, and invoked both Zora Neale Hurston and Luvvie Ajayi. Despite their differences, as soon as she brought each one’s thoughts and contributions to the conversation, in conversation with one another, I thought, Of course they go together. How could they not? I watched Steele weave, as Black feminists do, very different theories and praxis to create a new product– what she calls Black Digital Feminism. She defines it as the moment of Black feminist thought shaped by the relationship of Black feminist thinkers to digital technology. Different from Black cyberfeminism, Steele argues that Black feminists relationship to technology predates any conversation about cyberfeminism, therefore Black feminism is the point of origin.

I thought long and hard about what she feels Black feminism can bring to conversations in the digital humanities: Steele cites a shift to praxis over practice, a focus on people and principles as methods we can invoke in digital humanities work. I cheered when she encouraged the audience to ask basic, humanizing questions of their graduate students so they would and could feel more connected to their work– and their lives outside of it. And I almost cried when she offered a moment of transparency: she doesn’t really code.

This was a moment of release for me. In most fields, you are not required to be able to create the work that you are critiquing: film scholars are not required to make film and literary scholars are not required to write novels. Yet, for some reason, there is this impulse that if you critique the digital, you must also be able to create it, and create it from scratch (i.e. coding). But what Steele points out here is an understanding that there are levels and different ways of engaging as a digital humanist. We do need makers, breakers and coders of all kinds, but we also need theorists and critics. It’s a balance, a delicate dance: theorists keep makers honest and ethical (one hopes), and makers inspire theorists to write.

Her keynote, and all that it offered: the theory, the praxis, and the parts of herself that she was willing to share with an audience of strangers, gave me hope. There is a place for me to discuss Eve L. Ewing in the same breath that I invoke Jessica Marie Johnson and Audre Lorde. There is a place for me to bring my blogger, scholar, and writer self into larger conversations about digital humanities. It encouraged me to continue making connections that make sense to me, theorizing in a way that is meaningful to my intended audience. (I honestly went crazy a couple of times at some of the incredible connections Steele was making, as easy as if it were breathing.)

It also made me consider lineage. The work of Black Digital Feminists like Steele, Moya Bailey, Jessica Marie Johnson, the Crunk Feminist Collective and Feminista Jones, just to name a few, were the early adopters of the internet. They felt out the space and then created for themselves. As Steele says, blogs were often specialized enclaves in which Black feminists could have difficult conversations, unlike the environment of the internet today.

That generation of Black feminists made it possible for a new vanguard of Black Digital Feminists to aid in the expansion of their work. The New Vanguard, which I see primarily manifesting in those graduate students and early career scholars who do digital content creation (mostly because of my positionality as a Black graduate student), take cues from our Digital Aunties. We build blogs, vlogs, podcasts and carefully curated instagram feeds to help each other, and the generation after us get to and through the academic spaces we currently inhabit. We create collectives and build community online. We find the digital to be a space of resistance, but also one, as Andre Brock insists, where we should be able to simply be.

This new moment of Black Digital Feminism in action would not exist if not for the work of the earlier adopters of the internet and the digital. It would not exist if not for our Black feminist foremothers who theorized about us, for us.

And we certainly wouldn’t be here without Catherine Knight Steele, who was critical in our ability to merge these two strands of thought.

“What do I owe?” | An Evening with Ta-Nehisi Coates

Fun fact: I adore Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing. I got Between the World and Me in 2015 and never looked back. Just a year later, he started writing Black Panther, and I recall reading digital issues on my iPad in my dorm room, huddled under the covers like a child. In 2018, I was awarded my Master’s degree for a thesis in part based on those comics.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been an important part of my intellectual coming of age story; so naturally, when I heard he would be keynoting at ASWAD (which was being held in my city), I knew I had to be in that room.

I sat in the packed room last night, taking in the conversation. It wasn’t a traditional lecture, but a dialogue between Coates and a long time friend, Dr. Benjamin Talton of Temple University. The two covered a lot of ground, moving from the intellectual places and forums Coates inhabits to the digital spaces he has shied away from; they discussed his seminal piece, “The Case for Reparations,” and his newest piece of fiction, The Water Dancer; and in between were insightful remarks about practicing history. He read a few passages from the novel and then answered a series of questions from the audience about everything from narrative voice to writing as activism.

There are so many strands of thought that I could potentially pull out as I use this post to digest what I heard Friday night, but I think I want to focus on two moments in particular. The first moment was a series of questions Coates asks himself when he writes:

“What’s my duty? What’s my commitment? What do I owe?”

I wrote the questions down and almost missed a significant portion of the talk because as he discussed his own duty and commitment to writing, I began to think of my own.

I tackle these questions often, think about them almost daily, mull them over with Micah. I think about duty when I write fiction, considering the Black girls for whom I write. I think about my commitment to accessibility in my academic writing. I insist upon maintaining my personality in my writing because I want to show how you make a space for yourself when everything tells you that you are not welcome. And I often think about what I owe to myself. Of course, much of what I do is for other Black girls, but truly, the bulk of my work is selfish. It’s for the little girl I was who needed the stories I find different ways to tell.

I want to show my younger self that I gave myself permission to be large.

There’s magic in that act, which, in a way, leads me to the second moment I’ve been chewing on from Coates. Someone asked Coates about the magic in Harriet and the magic of representations, and he said what I have been preaching about for the last year or so. The supernatural is present, and has always been present, in our narratives. He’s being faithful to the way enslaved folks saw the world, and despite the circumstances, it was always tinged with a touch of magic. He used the talisman Frederick Douglass received that was supposedly to keep him from being beaten ever again as an example. I would also point to Charles Chesnut’s Conjure Woman Tales, and Zora Neale Hurston’s investigation of Hoodoo, and Ntozake Shange’s Spell #7, and Solomon the Flying African, and and and.

Our people are magic, in particular our women. And Coates acknowledges that openly and that moment encouraged me to move forward with my dissertation investigation. To have someone who has been such a force in my intellectual life unknowingly validate my belief was a powerful moment.

And even more exciting was learning that Coates and I share intellectual lineage. When asked about professors and spaces that shaped his thinking, he of course mentioned Howard University and several of the professors he interacted with there. In his fairly extensive list was Dr. Blakey. In stunned disbelief, I wondered if he was talking about the Dr. Blakey that I knew and had as a professor back in 2017. A quick peak at Wikipedia confirmed what I knew as Coates described the work Blakey had done: Coates and I had interacted with and been taught by the same professor.

I came into that room wanting an autograph but I left with an invaluable gift: things to think about. Coates has been provoking me to push further with my thinking for several years now, and I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to see him in person.


If you want to know more about the conference, check out the ASWAD website: http://aswadiaspora.org/