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Reviewed by:
  • Digital Black Feminism by Catherine Knight Steele
  • Rachel Pierce
Digital Black Feminism by Catherine Knight Steele NEW YORK UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2021, 208 PP. HARDCOVER, $89.00; PAPERBACK, $27.00 ISBN: 978-1-479-80838-0, 978-1-479-80837-3

Catherine Knight Steele's Digital Black Feminism has two goals. The first is one of recovery: Digital Black Feminism contributes to a growing area of scholarship that attempts to uncover and, in doing so, center the role of women and minorities in the development of digital tools and practices. The second goal is the centering of nonacademic online critical voices as central to Black feminist thinking. Out of these two goals emerges the argument of the book—that "the use of online technology by Black feminist thinkers has changed the outcome and possibilities of Black feminist thought in the digital age, and Black feminist thought has simultaneously changed the technologies themselves" (4–5).

This argument is built on an analysis of Black feminist online discourse, the empirical material comprised of a large collection of tweets, blog posts, Instagram posts, and similar digital text. Methodological choices here are central. Knight Steele has not utilized computationally driven digital humanist methods, instead choosing to follow threads as a member of the Black feminist online community, "yielding access to both the digital artifacts and the context required to interpret them" (13). This emphasis on context is key, and digital humanists might take note of this political and scholarly rationale for eschewing the array of web scraping and automated analysis technologies. I would especially recommend reading the note in Knight Steele's conclusion on how digital media breaks down a divide between public and private that we researchers must think about and navigate as ethically as we can (155–56).

Digital Black Feminism is comprised of five chapters. The first demonstrates how the historical societal position of Black women in the United States has resulted in the development of particular skills with communications tools. The second chapter deals with the "virtual beauty shop," a metaphor for spaces built for and run by Black women that traverse the physical and digital. The third chapter examines Black feminist bloggers in order to uncover the discursive practices that have reacted to and had generative effects on the development of digital platforms. The fourth chapter discusses the public intellectual projects of three historical Black feminists (Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Zora Neale Hurston, and Anna Julia Cooper) and three contemporary Black feminists (Luvvie Ajayi, Jamilah Lemieux, and Feminista Jones). The final chapter examines Black feminism as a digital product, elaborating the tensions inherent in selling a kind of politics in capitalist digital landscapes.

Digital Black Feminism focuses primarily on discourse rather than identity, but identity groups still emerge. Knight Steele contrasts an older generation of Black feminists who fail to "embrace the 'gray'" in feminism (59) with two younger groups—hip-hop Black feminists and digital Black feminists. The first group is largely located in the academy, [End Page 217] hip-hop feminists bridge the divide, and digital Black feminists are portrayed as non-academics and often entrepreneurs whose feminism is part of their online branding. There are class issues at work here that would reward unpacking. There are a few classed historical terms—"the cult of true womanhood" and "respectability" among them—that might benefit from more nuanced treatment. Shifting histories of class politics are pertinent to the ways in which Black women have historically navigated institutions such as education systems, business opportunities, and eventually digital tools and cultures both as individuals and as an imagined collective.1

This book weaves together several threads that have long deserved further analysis. Black women's approaches to technology, feminism, and business have often been treated separately, but Digital Black Feminism demonstrates that these areas are interdependent in ways that affect the development of digital culture, as well as the arc of Black feminism, as a source of intellectual production. Importantly, Black digital feminist writing has made the existence of a Black female audience of readers inescapable, making this work more marketable. But as Knight Steele writes, "Digital Black feminist writers do not...