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.