4DH + 1 Black Code / Black Femme Forms of Knowledge and Practice
my name is felicityi live inside the cityi am telling onlyas much as you can bear—Brenda Marie Osbey, "Madhouses"
In the wake of my aunt's death, I've been thinking about black femme history, testimony, faces, and feeling. It meant something beyond words, text or archive, to see my face in her face, to bask in the black diaspora humming beneath her skin. Every day, I searched for myself in her mouth wide open with laughter, the cut of her eyes across a room, her lips narrowed around Puerto Rican Spanish or English, usually both. Today, missing her, I mine my archive of photographs, digital and digitized, for her image, savoring the irreverence of her grin or the sacred mischief beneath hands she placed on her hips. Searching for her in bits and bytes is a practice of mourning. It is also a practice of sorting and seeking out ghosts while indexing myself and her along a continuum of Black femme diasporic history.1 In "Controlled Images and Cultural Reassembly: Material Black Girls Living in an Avatar World," Joan Morgan argues that contemporary black female identity exists "in an avatar world where fragmenting, exhibited by both black female cultural producers and consumers is often deliberate, strategic and, generative to pleasure and self-authored erotics."2 As scholars of black women in performance, digital media, and art have described, the black femme is silent and overexposed in the North Atlantic academy, in Western philosophy and art, and in the digital.3 Kalia Story, offering a generous sampling of black femme theorizations from across time and space, notes that "it is only racism and heteronormative conceptions of the feminine and of the queer that prevent outsiders from seeing a Black femme identity for what it truly is: a Black and queer sexual identity and gendered performance rooted in embodying a resistive femininity."4
In the absence of a world without racism or heteropatriarchal structures—in other words, living the only flesh and blood life we can under this sun, on planet [End Page 665] Earth, following Gregorian time-space continuum—black women and femmes dissemble, dismantle, seek fragments of ourselves in kinfolk's faces, and create new worlds even in the shadows cast by digital products. My encounter with kinship material in a Kodak photo scanned into a JPEG and mediated through various devices, applications, metadata, and social networks of lurkers, followers, "likers," and commenters is a genre of black code work. It is a practice, to riff on Tara Conley's formulation, of black femme haunting as becoming.5 In 2017, at the "Race, Memory, and the Digital Humanities" conference hosted by the Equality Lab and the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, I argued that digital work comes in at least four forms (4DH): "DHDH," or the digital humanities in its most structural form as articulated by global academic institutions; "DHdh," or digital humanities as humanistic inquiry using digital tools; "DHDM," or digital media as material and messaging created in digital form or using digital tools; and "DHdp" or digital practice as using the digital to live in the world. DHDH (with its support from research institutions) and DHDM (buttressed by multi-million-dollar publishing companies and corporate funding from digital design firms) hold the largest megaphones, often structuring through grants, awards, paid advertising, and professional networks what kind of digital work is seen as innovative or intellectual and how that work enters the public sphere.
As a DHdp or digital practice, my meditations are not necessarily seen as intellectual work, much less intellectual work worthy of note. And yet creating methodologies for witnessing and mourning in a world seeped in black death is precisely the intellectual and kinship work black women and femmes have engaged in across time and space. At our kitchen tables and at our altars, we receive ghosts. Marisa Parham noted, "pleasurable or painful," haunting "marks the return of something at once foreign and familiar" and excavates multiple sites/sights/cites of memory.6 Or, as Bianca Laureano, at the conclusion of her #femmeinmourning series noted, "I've written so much about the process of losing myself in the shapeshifting grief, the experiences, the coping, the loss of so much. This post is a reminder that when you come back to yourself you are not like you were before this all happened."7 In a meditation on mourning, disaster, and the federal neglect of the island of Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane María, Yomaira Figueroa writes, "we search for the disappeared and hold fast to the disappearing. we labor to remember. we are more than colonial subjects. always more."8 Figueroa wrote in the wake of the storm, which would be experienced in real time by those on the island and then witnessed by a broader diaspora (#DiaspoRican) community through [End Page 666] phones, in text, and especially on social media. Hashtags like #PuertoRico, #PRSeLevanta, and #PROnTheMap indexed the lack of attention paid by White House officials to calls for aid coming from the island, the inability of family members separated by land and sea to find each other, and expressions of hope, outrage, and helplessness.
This is what black femme forms of knowledge and practice look like when we re-create our feelings in digital form. This is how we offer our pound of flesh to the OS.9
Knowing this, and having cultivated a digital black femme love practice, I'm not sure what I expected when I loaded my picture into the Face Match feature of the Google Arts and Culture mobile app. Created in 2016, the Google Arts and Culture app allowed users to explore artwork from over a thousand museums around the world, digitized for the Google Cultural Institute (GCI). The Face Match feature depends on biometrics, that is, the raw material of my lineage, to power its facial recognition technology. Using my selfie, Face Match compares my "faceprint" to artwork already in the GCI database. After giving the application permission to send my faceprint to the Google servers for evaluation, Face Match returned my results:
• I was the mother in Maternal Love, an oil painting by Galilée-Hervé Ndoma, a Central African artist (59 percent match). I'm holding my child.
• I was the elder in a blue suit favoring Dorothy Irene Height and looking into the distance in a Los Angeles mural by Richard Wyatt. The mural was called City of Dreams / River of History (52 percent match).
• I was the woman in the kitchen cooking at the stove in No Easy Riders, an oil painting by Palmer C. Hayden. I'm in the background, watching men at the table laugh and carouse. I'm standing (52 percent match).
• I was the child in Ndoma's Maternal Love (50 percent match).
• I was in a woman's wrap (capulana) dedicated to Josina Muthemba Machel, a leader in Mozambique's struggle for independence and women's movement; there is a woman in military uniform holding a child. I am the child (46 percent match).
As I swiped to view which work of art the application compared with my selfie, an eerie family album built. Five different personhoods, each refracting social positions, labor roles, class statuses, and lifestyles from across the diaspora. Five different avatars, each fragments of my biometric black femme possibility. Five different fantasies created, brainstormed, designed, sketched, painted, and evaluated by strangers. No swipe confronted me with a horrific minstrel figure or animalistic representation of myself.10 This surprised me. Considering the labor and advocacy work done only in recent years by those [End Page 667] like Aleia Brown, Adrianne Russell, Ravon Ruffin, Amanda Figueroa, Taylor Renee Aldridge, Jessica Lynne, and Sanjana Srinivasan, and many more struggling to open museum and art spaces to black artists and to depict black forms with empathy, the invisible black femme labor represented by my five avatars felt immense.11
Meanwhile, my selfie, ghostly, served as a visual reminder of the consent I'd given, commodifying myself in exchange for a moment of play and a whiff of Relation.12 Even though the app claimed uploads would be stored only to retrieve matches from the virtual arts and culture warehouse, nothing on the internet ever stored could be deleted completely. My data, already on its way to server farms of impossible size somewhere in Iowa, was both immortal and no longer mine. With diaspora on my tongue like an unquenchable thirst, I gave my face to the machine and the ping of regret succumbed to my longing because "I had only dreamt this journey … it is the reason behind most of my journeys—no longer imaginary but real. It weighs with all its might on my unconscious and affects my imagination and creativity."13
Black femme digital practice is me taking a selfie and Google capturing the something unspoken, the something in mourning, the haunting and diasporic desire at the heart of my family's experience with blackness, my social network's experience with representations of Black people in Western art, and people of African descent's constant refusal to be limited to the global North Atlantic's project of making disposable people out of human beings.14 Black femme digital practice is intellectual work that blazes so brightly, it indexes something institutions (DH/DM) can't plan for or reconcile because we are the ghost in the machine.
There is no technology past blackness. Arguably, there is no technology without blackness. "There's nothing new / under the sun," the science fiction author Octavia Butler wrote, "but there are new suns."15 This epigraph of what was to be the third book in the Parables series, the unfinished Parable of the Trickster, reminds us of the map charted by Sylvia Wynter of a New World of bodies stacked according to their capacity to contribute to what would become Europe. Wynter's cartography reminds us that the New World is a time and space traveling global project of rapacious accumulation and consumption.16 When we contend with the triad digital/humanities/American in our studies, we are contending with the reflection of the New World sun on an oily sheen of violence spread across four continents and countless archipelagos. By 1608 the Spanish Empire was "el imperio en el que nunca se pone el sol,"17 the sun beneath which the indigenous lands of the Americas burned. By 1685 French king Louis XIV (also known as the Sun King) baptized the West with a code [End Page 668] book: the Code Noir. By the eighteenth century, les Lumières understood slavery to be a common good, Jefferson created a mathematical quadroon from the dregs of tobacco, bourbon, and lust, and Comte de Buffon published tales of Native and African degeneration to justify how mothers might beget property and spawn sugarcane. Meanwhile, African slavery, the Atlantic slave trade, and the plantation complex remained the underlying operating system of American freedom. Computers and digital technology (themselves created out of defense department budgets) exist beneath this sun as well.18
What is American studies in an era where four months after a hurricane with almost 50 percent of Puerto Rico is still without electricity, and the ruling party in government, swept into power under the slogan "Make America Great Again," has yet to pass significant reconstruction legislation?19 And what are the humanities for those of us whose dead kinfolk represent archives that have been swept away by enslavement, mass incarceration, ecological disaster, institutional neglect, disenfranchisement, and structural lack of care? In a 2009 issue of American Quarterly on Hurricane Katrina, Curtis Marez asked, "How might scholars of American Studies and related disciplines approach the problem of disposable people in Katrina's wake?"19 Eight years later, black women and femmes continue to search each other's faces by candlelight and pray for the return of our dead. The digital does not live on some other planet, under some other sun past these facts. It lives here, and black femme digital practice, even in our mourning, is the labor of living despite and in the wake of the storm.
Jessica Marie Johnson is a historian of Atlantic slavery in the Department of History and the Center for Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Practicing Freedom: Black Women, Intimacy, and Kinship in New Orleans Atlantic World (University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming) and coeditor with Mark Anthony Neal of "Black Code: A Special Issue of the Black Scholar" (2017). Her work has appeared in a number of publications including Slavery & Abolition, The Black Scholar, Meridians: Feminism, Race and Transnationalism, Debates in the Digital Humanities, Bitch Magazine, Black Perspectives (AAIHS), and Post-Colonial Digital Humanities (#DHPoco).
Thank you to the editors of American Quarterly and the organizers of this special issue; Liz Losh, the conveners, participants, and all those who attended the 2016 "Race, Memory, and the Digital Humanities conference," including Janet Brown Strafer, Karen Ely, and Lynn Briley, who were the first Black women to live at and attend the College of William & Mary (Class of '71); Bianca Laureano, Yomaira Figueroa; and the activists working in Puerto Rico and across the diaspora to #DefendPR. To my aunt Aliette "Cuqui" Nuñez Medina: I love you, te amo siempre. There is no death in the land of women.
1. Jessica Marie Johnson, "Untitled [I'm Going to Try to Explain What My Titi Meant to Me …]," The LatiNegrxs Project, posted March 3, 2017, lati-negros.tumblr.com/post/157956689127/jmjafrx-im-going-to-try-to-explain-what-my-titi.
2. Joan Morgan, "Controlled Images and Cultural Reassembly: Material Black Girls Living in an Avatar World" (paper presented at "Black Portraitures II: Imaging the Black Body and Restaging Histories," Florence, Italy, 2015).
3. Morgan, "Controlled Images." See also Uri McMillan, Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance (New York: New York University Press, 2015); Jessica Marie Johnson and Kismet Nuñez, "Alter Egos and Infinite Literacies, Part III: How to Build a Real Gyrl in 3 Easy Steps," Black Scholar 45 (2015): 47–61; Safiya Umoja Noble, "Missed Connections: What Search Engines Say about Women," Bitch Magazine 54 (2012): 36–41; I'Nasah Crockett, "'Raving Amazons': Antiblackness and Misogynoir in Social Media," Model View Culture, accessed January 12, 2017, modelviewculture.com/pieces/raving-amazons-antiblackness-and-misogynoir-in-social-media; Alicia Garza, "A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement by Alicia Garza," The Feminist Wire, October 7, 2014, www.thefeministwire.com/2014/10/blacklivesmatter-2/.
4. Kaila Adia Story, "Fear of a Black Femme: The Existential Conundrum of Embodying a Black Femme Identity While Being a Professor of Black, Queer, and Feminist Studies," Journal of Lesbian Studies 21.4 (2016): 6. See also Kara Keeling, The Witch's Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense (Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2007).
5. Tara L. Conley, "Decoding Black Feminist Hashtags as Becoming," in "Black Code," special issue, Black Scholar 47 (2017): 22–32. See also Jessica Marie Johnson and Mark Anthony Neal, "Introduction: Wild Seed in the Machine," Black Scholar 47.3 (2017): 1–2.
6. Marisa Parham, Haunting and Displacement in African American Literature and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2008), 10.
7. Bianca Laureano (La Bianca), "Latinx Sexuality: Latinx Heritage Month: #FemmeInMourning 30," Latinx Sexuality, October 15, 2017, latinosexuality.blogspot.com/2017/10/latinx-heritage-month-femmeinmourning-30.html.
8. Yomaira Figueroa, "Borikén's Present Past or the Archive of Disappearances," Yomaira C. Figueroa, Ph.D., October 1, 2017, www.yomairafigueroa.com/blog-1/2017/9/30/present-past-or-the-archive-of-disappearances.
9. Fiona Barnett, Zach Blas, micha cárdenas, Jacob Gaboury, Jessica Marie Johnson, and Margaret Rhee, "Queer OS: A User's Manual," in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, ed. Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2016).
10. Google "fixed" the problem by removing gorillas from their algorithm. See Tom Simonite, "When It Comes to Gorillas, Google Photos Remains Blind," WIRED, accessed January 23, 2018, www.wired.com/story/when-it-comes-to-gorillas-google-photos-remains-blind/. See also Simone Browne on biometric tech in Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015); and Safiya Noble, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (New York: New York University Press, 2018).
11. Kami Fletcher, "#MuseumsRespondtoFerguson: An Interview with Aleia Brown and Adrianne Russell," Black Perspectives: Published by the African American Intellectual History Society, September 29, 2016, www.aaihs.org/museumsrespondtoferguson-an-interview-with-aleia-brown-and-adrianne-russell/; Ravon Ruffin, "The Nation We Make Together (Part I)," Brown Girls Museum Blog, July 7, 2017, www.browngirlsmuseumblog.com/2017/07/the-nation-we-make-together-part-i/; Amanda Figueroa, "The Nation We Make Together (Part II)," Brown Girls Museum Blog, August 29, 2017, www.browngirlsmuseumblog.com/2017/08/the-nation-we-make-together-part-ii/; "About | ARTS. BLACK Journal," accessed January 23, 2018, arts.black/about/.
12. Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997).
13. Maryse Condé, "Voyager In, Voyager Out," in The Journey of a Caribbean Writer (Chicago: Seagull Books, 2014), 50–62.
14. Curtis Marez, "What Is a Disaster?," American Quarterly 61.3 (2009): ix–xi.
15. Gerry Canavan, "'There's Nothing New / Under The Sun, / But There Are New Suns': Recovering Octavia E. Butler's Lost Parables," Los Angeles Review of Books, June 9, 2014, lareviewofbooks.org/article/theres-nothing-new-sun-new-suns-recovering-octavia-e-butlers-lost-parables/.
16. Sylvia Wynter, "On How We Mistook the Map for the Territory, and Reimprisoned Ourselves in Our Unbearable Wrongness of Being, of Desêtre: Black Studies toward the Human Project," in A Companion to African-American Studies, ed. Lewis R. Gordon and Jane Anna Gordon (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008), 107–18.
17. François Laurent, Estudios sobre la historia de la humanidad (Anillo y Rodriguez, 1878), 10:221.
18. On defense funding and the computer, see Tara McPherson, "U.S. Operating Systems at Mid-Century: The Intertwining of Race and UNIX," In Race after the Internet, ed. Lisa Nakamura and Peter A. Chow-White (New York: Routledge, 2013).
19. See status.pr.com report for January 22, 2018. For a screenshot, see Jessica Marie Johnson, "Afrx Wanders—Status.Pr Update as of 2018 January 23 | 11:21:38," Afrx Wanders, January 23, 2018, jmjafrx.tumblr.com/post/170041832155/statuspr-update-as-of-2018-january-23-112138.