Beth Coleman’s “Race as Technology:” Rethinking Race

“Blackness for such men was not a thing to root yourself in but something to evade and escape. Barack Obama found a third way…”

We Were Eight Years In Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates, 8

 

Official_portrait_of_Barack_ObamaBarack Obama is, and will forever be, the subject of much critical scholarship. His rhetoric, his multi-ethnic and multi-national heritage, and his love of hip-hop and Michelle Robinson have been inspiration for all kinds of writers, from journalists such as Ta-Nehisi Coates to academics like Beth Coleman. In fact, Beth Coleman’s article, “Race as Technology,” an essay which uses Barack Obama as a key example, explores the doors which might open if we begin to reconsider the ways in which we have always thought about race, and viewing it instead as a tool, or a technology. Coleman’s attempt to break into a new world of possibility drew me in as I thought about women and people of color’s contributions to media studies.

Dr. Coleman was an assistant professor of writing and new media at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Writing and Humanities Studies and Comparative Media Studies, but currently is an assistant professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Her research interests include new media, aesthetics, electronic music, critical theory and literature, and race theory. She was a 2003/2004 Rockefeller New Media fellow and a 2004 Ford Fellow. In addition to her scholarly work, Coleman is also a widely regarded electronic music composer.

Her article “Race as Technology,” offers innovative ways to consider race’s relationship to technology. She argues mainly that by considering race as a technology, it can lead to greater subject agency. “Technology’s embedded function of self-extension,” she writes, “may be exploited to liberate race from an inherited position of abjection toward a greater expression of agency.” (Coleman, 177) In order to do this, Coleman posits that our first move is to denature and reframe race from its historical roots to be able to use it as a tool. We need to understand racial identity as constructed in order to maximize its potential as such.

Strengths of her argument include the compelling examples of Barack Obama’s rhetoric and an interesting scene of passing in “The Battle of Algiers.” Her essay borrows from the classic philosophy of Kant and Rousseau, as well as theory which we have been exposed to in this class, particularly Marshall McLuhan, in her assessment of technology as prosthesis. (Coleman, 184) While her argument is convincing and insightful, there are moments in the text which offer points for departure in her future work or else for another scholar to work through. One such section was Coleman’s use of Nella Larsen’s Passing. She begins a discussion, in which the reader is supposed to think of how Larsen’s characters, Irene and Clare, use race as a technology. This section struck me as fruitful but, unfortunately, underdeveloped. It would have been an excellent to theorize queer Black femininity as a technology. How do we understand the female Black body as a technology? Is it the same or different? On this note, it is worth asking another question: can you divorce race from historization as Coleman asks us to do? She herself recognizes the danger of such a suggestion but it still a question worth considering moving forward.

Moving forward, Coleman’s ideas offer me much to think about. She offers ideas about how to theorize constructions of race, but also how this could lead to theorizing other constructions of race. And while she convinces me that race as a technology is a useful tool, I question if, and how, race might be a medium. After all, Barack Obama, as she points out, uses rhetorical devices and quotations from the Founding Fathers in a rhythm belonging to a Baptist preacher. His rhetorical style communicates an allure to white citizens, without alienating Black citizens. The same set of words, spoken in the same way, are decoded differently by separate groups. As Coates aptly writes about Obama, he has “found a third way,” a way which Coleman might argue is constructed by using race as a technology.

Coleman ask us to consider that thinking of race as a technology could potentially be a trap or a trap door. I believe in the trap door. Coleman’s theory can be used as an entry way into the unknown.

 

Works Cited

 

Beth Coleman, “Race as Technology,” Camera Obscura 24, no. 1 (2009): 176-207.

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy. New York: One World, (2017)

 

Nella Larsen, Passing. New York: Norton, (1929)

 

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extension of Man. Cambridge: MIT Press (1964)

Black Hair, Black Voice

“The men noticed…the great rope of black hair swinging to [Janie’s] waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume…”

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (2) 

Hair is a critical component of culture in the African Diaspora. It was always more than a mass that grew on my head, but a symbol of community. Hair styling at home often required me to sit between my mother’s knees as she pulled a comb through my kinks; styling at the salon meant observing as my mother engaged in gossip with the other ladies, found out about the latest church event, and reunited with long lost cousins. The salon and the relationships forged in the process of hair styling are in their own rite vehicles of communication– displaying love and kinship– but the hair itself has always held meaning.

Ayana Bird and Lori Tharps said it best when they explained that hair, in Black Culture, is a vehicle of communication, “a carrier of messages.” Going back as far as the 1400s, Bird and Tharps explain that Black hair has always stored, displayed and disseminated information. Particular geometric patterns of cornrows on the head or other types of braids often indicated “marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth and rank.” Braided styles, after completed, were not fleeting—they were often worn for days, even weeks afterwards. The ability to indicate, for example, marital status, could be observed on an individual woman for days at a time. Some patterns could even indicate which family a woman belonged to, which offers an instance of displaying familial pride with one’s hair. It would even be rumored that enslaved Afro-Columbians used certain patterns of braiding as maps to freedom.

Angela Davis sporting a Black Power afro

More recently, Black hair became a political statement. William Van Deburg discusses the budding Black Power Movement in Day in Babylon, stating that “during the late sixties, white American youth used their hair to make a variety of political and philosophical statements. Young blacks were not excluded from this trend.” (198) In 1966, Stokely Carmichael, in his speeches, as he urged audiences toward Black Power, a concept which centered around self-determination for Black people, he would also contribute to the Black is Beautiful movement, stating that “a broad nose, a thick lip and nappy hair is us [Black people] and we are going to call that beautiful whether they like it or not.” (201) This plea for Black people to love themselves as they were would help popularize the Afro, as well as other natural hair styles. In the midst of Black Power, natural hair styles would symbolize a commitment to unapologetic Blackness and “a statement of self-love and personal significance.” (Van DeBurg, 201) It came to indicate a break with white hegemonic cultural norms and thus an embracement of Black culture.

In 2017, statements about one’s political life can also be displayed through one’s hair. For women, in particular, it is becoming increasingly rare to find a young Black woman who regularly relaxes her hair. It seems only fair to note that as Afros and natural hair increased in popularity during the Black Power Movement, natural hair today appears to be making a comeback parallel to the development of #BlackLivesMatter. The debates around today hair sound familiar: one side argues that to chemically straighten one’s hair communicates an accommodation of white supremacy, the other argues that natural hair is just a trend– an empty symbol with no meaning. While it is possible that this moment may very well be “trendy,” it is a trend that is rooted in a legacy of politicized Black hair. It is entirely possible that it is a fad, but there is something inexplicably liberating about cutting off your relaxed hair. Freeing my hair helped me communicate the pride I felt as a Black person—it was the most basic form of self-expression and self-love as my kinks communicated to the world that I had no desire to conform to white American standards of beauty.

Beyonce and her ‘Formation’ backup dancers, sporting afros

It meant something in 1966 when Stokely Carmichael called for Black people to embrace their beauty. That same message of self-love by embracing their natural hair is still heard today—just turn to the Knowles sisters, Beyoncé and Solange, who both sung of the magic of Black hair on their 2016 albums while wearing natural hair styles themselves, or else featuring women with natural hair in their music videos. Solange’s song in particular, “Don’t Touch My Hair,” particularly resonated with Black women as they recognized that their hair was political, historical, and extraordinarily valuable because of all that it was—at the bare minimum an expression of self, an assertion of personhood, and a freedom to love of one’s own body.

“Don’t Touch My Hair” x Solange

 

Don’t touch my hair

When it’s the feelings I wear

Don’t touch my soul

When it’s the rhythm I know

Don’t touch my crown

They say the vision I’ve found

Don’t touch what’s there

When it’s the feelings I wear

 

They don’t understand what it means to me

 

 

Works Cited

“Afro-Colombian women braid messages of freedom in hairstyles,” DeNeen Brown

Hair Story: Understanding the Roots of Black Hair in America, Ayana Bird &Lori Tharps

New Day in Babylon, William L. Van Deburg