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  • 4DH + 1 Black Code / Black Femme Forms of Knowledge and Practice
  • Jessica Marie Johnson (bio)

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...


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pp. 665-670
Launched on MUSE
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