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Social Text 20.2 (2002) 125-146
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The Revolution Will Be Digitized
Afrocentricity and the Digital Public Sphere
Introductions sketch the discursive framework for what follows, and what follows immediately are prefatory remarks that speak to my ambivalence about the evolution of digital culture and race. The focus of this project is on early instances of African diasporic engagements with cyberspace. I begin by acknowledging my ambivalence about the rhetorical terms of the nascent technocratic order, an ambivalence that seems justified each time I boot up my personal computer to compile my years of research into this topic. In powering up my PC, I am confronted with DOS-based text that gives me pause. Before access to the MMX technology powering my system is granted, I am alerted to this opening textual encoding: "Pri. Master Disk, Pri. Slave Disk, Sec. Master, Sec. Slave." Programmed here is a virtual hierarchy organizing my computer's software operations. Given the nature of my subject matter, it might not be surprising that I am perpetuallytaken aback by the programmed boot-up language informing me that my access to the cyber frontierindeed is predicated upon a digitally configured "master/slave" relationship. As the on-screen text runs through its remaining string of required boot-up language and codes, I often wonder why programmers chose such signifiers that hark back to our nation's ignominious past. I doubt that the Hegelian master/slave dialectic is the referent to which these programmers allude.Even though I do not assume a racial affront or intentionality in this peculiar deployment of the slave and master coupling, its appearance each time I turn on my computer nonetheless causes me concern.
Historicizing African Diasporic Consciousness
African diasporic consciousness originated in the darkened abyss below the decks of European ships during the infamous middle passage of the transatlantic slave trade. Severed from the familiar terrain of their homelands and dispatched to the overcrowded bowels of slave vessels, the abducted Africans forged out of necessity a virtual community of intercultural kinship structures and new languages in which to express them. During the first half of the twentieth century, African diasporic scholar-activists W. E. B. DuBois and C. L. R. James argued that these historical [End Page 125] events created the preconditions for Africans in the New World to be among the first people to experience modernity. In 1969 James asserted that:
The vast change in human society came from the slave trade and slavery. All the historians tell you that. . . . It was slavery that built up the bourgeois society and enabled it to make what Lévi Strauss [sic] thinks is the only fundamental change in ten thousand years of human history. The blacks not only provided the wealth in the struggle, which began between the old [aristocratic] society and the new bourgeois society; the black people were foremost in the struggle itself. (James 1992, 396)
Other contemporary theorists, such as Paul Gilroy in The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, echo James and DuBois's positions to elaborate that the transatlantic African diasporic consciousness of African Americans, African Caribbeans, black Britons, and others is directly attributable to the post-Enlightenment demands of a modernity that followed the invasion of the European body snatchers into Africa seeking black bodies to power the impending industrial revolution. Despite the well-documented dehumanizing imperatives of the colonial encounter, the ethnically and nationally diverse Africans in the New World developed self-sustaining virtual communities through paralinguistic and transnational communicative systemsand networks of song, dance, talking drums, and other musical instrumentations. The formation of these new African-inflected communications strategiesenabled this heterogeneous mass of people somehow to overcome their profound dislocation, fragmentation, alienation, relocation, and ultimate commodification in the Western slavocracies of the modern world.
This brief overview is necessary to contextualize the ideological primacy and the historical development of an African diasporic consciousness in oppressed New World Africans whose decolonizing movements and struggles ushered in what is termed the postcolonial era. Many, including this writer, are not convinced that colonization is over. For...