Last Friday, a panel discussion was held highlighting the effect the Internet has had on Black art, activism and academic work. The panel consisted of regular contributor to Salon.com and an assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, Dr. Brittney Cooper, founder of hip hop radio program WBAI’s “Underground Railroad,” the longest running hip-hop radio program in NYC, blogger and host of several hip-hop websites, Jay Smooth, and Associate Professor of English Kiese Laymon.
In addition, Cheikh Athj ’16 helped facilitate the discussion. According to her website, Cooper writes extensively about both historic and contemporary iterations of Black feminist theorizing and was brought to campus along with Jay Smooth to help guide the discussion and root the conversation in real experiences that they have lived and studied.
The issues discussed among the panelists focused on why the Internet is important for transformative work to happen and the benefits and pitfalls of using the Internet for Black activism and intellectual work.
The panelists also talked about the democratization of space and how it is sometime hard to recognize the work behind the pieces put up online; what could have been hours of work ends up at the same place as pieces of work that people made in a few minutes without serious intentions. Smooth talked about the long process of filming a video blog and how the effort put into it is not translated on the computer screen. There is a certain detraction from complete immersion into artwork and activism when presented on the Internet due to the plethora of stimuli which makes it hard to concentrate on one thing for an extended period of time, according to him.
In addition, an audience member commented on how the Internet promotes complacent activism, where people feel like they have contributed all they can by simply copying-and-pasting a status or “liking” a cause on Facebook or Twitter.
Athj wrote in an emailed statement, “The idea that simply posting a Facebook post about something is enough has to do with our generation’s sense of instant gratification and lack of wanting to put in grueling, hard work to get results.” He continued, “But we can even complicate that. I think we also need to understand that, in the words of rapper Meek Mill, ‘It’s levels to this shit.’”
He explained this quotation, saying, “While he was talking specifically about life in his song ‘Levels,’ his message echoes an important point that we can apply to Internet activism as well: That folks do what they can. While there is a definite level of ‘slacktivism’ in how activist work is committed, some folks aren’t in the position to do more than that. And for others, the post is just a starting point. Again, levels.”
While there are certainly some problems the Internet has created for activism, the communication that can take place and the connections that people can make with each other provide many activists with the power of community, even if they are alone physically or separated from other community members by many miles.
One of the main benefits that Cooper brought up first is the ease of communication that the Internet has created between people. Through online contributions, she and other bloggers can share their voices and thoughts to people thousands of miles away. The issue of different locale is no longer a problem when spreading information and news and people once separated are now able to interact in an entirely new way.
Andrew Joung ’16 also commented on this coming-together of people and activists who are physically far apart from each other. He said, “What the lecture made me think about was the creation of geographically disparate (e.g., trans-regional, trans-national) groups. As the panel said, the Internet allows isolated individuals to interact and form communities–escaping the loneliness that they felt in their intellectual spheres.”
Joung went on, “As the panel made apparent, these communities allow public discussions that would either only occur privately or just never happen. Moreover, as communities form, they form their own kind of ‘language.’ This is in reference to the idea that Kiese’s work crosses class lines in ways that writers like Baldwin may not have.”
Athj took this idea further, arguing, “It’s provided a landscape for the gazes of audiences, communities, scholars and colleagues alike to all have a helping hand in the creation and positioning of Black intellectual production. It’s provided a place for our works to expand minds and greater contribute to the cultural narratives that compose the very multi-faceted existences of those who in live inside and outside of America. It’s allowed for our work to reach greater and more numerous audiences. Quite simply, the Internet has allowed our intellectual and visceral productions to grow and become more than they ever have.”
He went further, speaking to the possibilities that an Internet-driven future could hold. “It’s easy to demonize a culture that has deviated so much from our foremothers’/fathers’ ways of doing activist work, but we live in a day and age where the dynamic of the work we do is so different. How we do work, how we create, the modes that are available to us: we have infinitely more options that those who came before us did. What we have to do is simply utilize them the best that we can. I think that’ll help to lessen–or, at least, buffer–the probability of these issues remaining extremely prevalent. Also just using every chance we can to increase awareness of ‘the cause,’ whatever the cause may be. Also retaining grit, and staying passionate about the things that inform who we are: as humans, and as political bodies,” he said.
The Internet is something that has become an integral part of our everyday lives, and it is hard to remember what things were like before in terms of Black activism, art and academia. As Athj pointed out, it is easy to criticize a culture that has become so different from what it was like before the Internet, but despite some of the disadvantages that the Internet has brought upon these matters, this new generation should learn how to use such a powerful tool to its benefit by updating and adapting more traditional methods to fit into the modern age of the Internet.