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


Gravestones as Media

You’ll find them in every American town, large or small. Sometimes they’ll be conspicuous, sitting prominently behind the church in the middle of a country village. Other times they’ll be out of the way, obscured by trees or the growth of the city around them. They are rarely visited; in fact almost the only time people visit them is when they are first put up, when someone passes away. They are a sad sight, and sometimes a scary sight – the background setting for ghost stories and zombie attacks – but they serve a purpose. They mark the dead, and leave a notice of their former life. Gravestones are an “extension of ourselves” as McLuhan put it in Understanding Media – not only of the person who has died, but of the people and the societies who bury and memorialize them.

The “classic” gravestone is made out of sandstone, although now granite is more common – and you can spot a pricey one not just by its size and shape but also by its material, with expensive marble replacing commoner and cheaper alternatives. Sandstone fades slowly over time, a physical representation of the fading memories the community has for its older dead. When it comes to their graves at least, the dead do have an age. The writing on the older ones has often almost completely disappeared, leaving their names and dates indecipherable. Newer ones are regularly cleaned, and quite shiny – with flowers and pictures sometimes left by the living relatives. Keeping graves clean is a business, usually called “grave care” or “grave maintenance”. And it is also charity work. In New Orleans, the group “Save Our Cemeteries” is trying to restore some of the many famous historical burial sites in the city. But fame and notoriety are not enough to save a graveyard. Paris’s Montmartre cemetery may be well known, but it is still full of crumbling and crushed headstones. The physical construction of a grave tells us about the affluence and prominence of the person being buried, and the physical upkeep of that grave tells us about their continued prominence – or sometimes lack thereof.

Speaking of prominence, the graves of the famous often serve as a sort of exception to the rule – as a spectacle, spots of regular gathering and visitation, in what is otherwise a place of mourning. To return to Paris, the singer Jim Morrison rests at the Père Lachaise Cemetery and his grave continues to attract crowds. Indeed, that cemetery is unique in that it is a big tourist attraction, which millions visit annually. Of course, there is a similar case in the US – that of Arlington National Cemetery, where many of the nation’s war dead are buried. The rows of plain white headstones that line not only Arlington but more than a hundred military cemeteries both at home and abroad hold a special significance. Their owners died in uniform, and are buried uniformly. And that uniformity, coupled with their number, immediately brings to mind the immense costs of war. But not every soldier has a gravestone, and the absence of one can often say as much as its presence. The age of the machine gun, the bomb, and the tank brought the death and destruction of warfare to a previously unimaginable scale. Among the millions of dead in the First World War, there were many rendered unidentifiable by these new technologies – blown to bits by artillery, or gunned down in a fruitless mass charge. They could not be remembered in a traditional sense, their mangled and unrecognizable bodies lying in a foreign land – their death could be roughly dated, but they could not be named. So the British government created the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior to serve as a site of collective, rather than personal, remembrance (although it is quite literally a grave, or rather series of graves, with actual remains buried below) – and nations around the world soon followed suit.

Regimes of mass murder did away with the gravestone entirely. The Nazi government cremated its victims, or more specifically, made its victims (organized in units of “Sonderkommandos”) cremate each other. The Soviet government supplied generous amounts of liquor to its camp guards before ordering them to bulldoze over and bury unmarked the frozen dead of its Gulag system, in order to make the grisly task bearable. These people were rendered inhuman in life, excluded from that category by totalitarian governments, and they were rendered inhuman in death – excluded from the signification of humanity, of remembered humanity, which a gravestone provides. To these regimes, they were meant to be forgotten. On that note, there’s the curious case of the Bergfriedhof cemetery in Heidelberg, Germany. Like the society that created it, Bergfriedhof was strictly divided by religion – with Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish sections. Many of its gravestones share a certain similarity, namely, their death dates. The first half of the 1940s is heavily over-represented for every faith, for completely understandable reasons. And yet though the dates are similar, and though the deaths occurred under the auspices of the same conflict, the gravestones marked with a Jewish star differ both stylistically and temporally. That is, many of the Jewish gravestones were actually constructed well after the war by charity groups, the person’s physical corpse having been burnt to ashes in one of the crematoriums of the death camps, and their family being unable for obvious reasons to memorialize them. In one corner of the cemetery, across the way from the victims of the Holocaust, there is a gravestone, heavily covered in ivy but otherwise unremarkable, that reads “Albert Speer” – the Nazi war criminal known for being Hitler’s favorite architect and as the wartime Minister of Armaments. The phrase “Never Forget” takes on a strangely dichotomous meaning at Bergfriedhof – victims and war criminals are both marked by rectangular stones labeled with names and dates in the midst of the same tree-laden field, both never to be forgotten for very different reasons.

Class or Crass? The Not-So-Hidden Message of Fedoras

From Polyvore

Pink Fedora (From

The fedora has come a long way in the past century. Earlier versions of the fedora in the twentieth century were a fashionable and practical choice for men and women, but the fedora eventually fell out of style alongside most other hats in America in the 1960s. By the 1980s, however, the fedora was the choice hat for pop culture icons like Michael Jackson and Indiana Jones. In the twenty-first century however, the fedora is no longer the hat of just music legends and action heroes.

Marshall McLuhan conceptualized clothing as a direct extension of the skin. In other words, clothing, he argued, was a medium. Our sartorial choices convey certain meanings and messages, regardless of our intentions. If the fedora is an extension of the body, then what does it communicate?

Before moving forward, I must acknowledge the difference between the fedora and its cousin, the trilby. David Colman at The New York Times notes that the trilby has a narrower brim than the fedora, but ultimately these trilby hats are just another version of the fedora. While more astute viewers can distinguish the trilby from the conventional fedora, the online dialogue regarding these hats typically uses ‘fedora’ as a catch-all term.

Although a fedora does not actually ‘store’ information like a book or computer does, the hat does carry a heavy reputation in this decade. In her 2012 essay, “Why the fedora grosses out geekdom,” Leigh Alexander explains that bloggers are noticing a correlation between men wearing fedoras in their online profile pictures and having questionable content in their bios. According to “Forever Alone Fedoras,” one of the Tumblr blogs that Alexander profiles, “a fedora speaks volumes about one’s character. It implies that he is a basement dwelling, live action role playing, no social skills having, complete and utter geek in the worst sense of the word.” If the fedora is the medium, then its message is that this is the hat of an awkward and unlikeable person.

How did the fedora get this negative reputation? Ben Abraham attributes this image to the work of pick-up-artists, or PUAs. Abraham writes, “The quintessential image of the PUA is the swaggering, middle-class white, often geeky male, between 18 and 30, who imitates the dress code and flair of a pimp.” In the mind of these pick-up-artists, the hat is a memorable prop that will entice women into a sexual relationship. According to Abraham, these anti-Fedora blogs are a “challenge to the construction of the fedora as ‘cool’ or ‘suave’, and an attempt to shame those who wear them.” The politics of fedora culture and ‘fedora-shaming’ are for another day, but the fact that these mentalities exist and thrive online demonstrates how Internet users have reinterpreted how the fedora stores and displays information. For the wannabe pick-up-artist, the hat displays a sense of class to women, but for many of these women (and some men, as we’ll see in a moment) the hat carries too much of a connection to men who are desperate to sleep with a woman by any means necessary.

For more evidence on how the fedora stores information, look no further than Reddit – home to both critics and fans of the controversial hat. One subreddit, r/justneckbeardthings, reveals how fedoras store information within an online community. Users on r/justneckbeardthings, which currently has more than 258,000 subscribers as of October 2017, discuss instances of fedoras popping up in digital and non-digital spaces worldwide. Oddly enough, the fedora does not even need to be on a person’s head to convey a message. The subreddit’s header is a picture of a fedora hanging off a sign reading “Fedorah” while tiny fedoras replace the traditional upvote/downvote arrows. Users repeatedly mock the phrase “m’lady,” – an expression associated with pick-up-artists in which they tip their fedora to a woman before making an advance on her. The phrase is so ubiquitous on the subreddit that the image of a fedora by itself is enough to warrant a “m’lady” caption. The fedora carries not only the reputation of pick-up-artists, but their phrases and mannerisms as well.

While the fedora has cemented its place in American popular culture, its current reputation in online circles demonstrates how the hat’s meaning is held not in the wearer, but in the hat itself. If simply looking at the hat is enough to cue the viewer to stay away from the wearer, then McLuhan’s argument that the medium is the message must apply to fedoras. So for anyone looking for a new hat, you might want to think twice before choosing the hat with a rather unpopular message.

Works Cited

Abraham, Ben. “Fedora Shaming as Discursive Activism.” Digital Culture & Education. (2013).

Alexander, Leigh. ‘Why the fedora grosses out geekdom’. Boing Boing (2012).

Colman, David. “Old Hat? Not on a Young Head.” The New York Times. January 18, 2007.

“Just Neckbeard Things.” Accessed October 1, 2017.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man; Edited by W. Terrence Gordon. New York, Gingko Press, 2013.

The Hanky Code as Queer Male Semiotic, or, The Immanent Contradiction of the Medium

In June 2017, queer artist and activist Andy Simmons completed the first of twelve color illustrations exploring the imagistic history of the Hanky Code, a sartorially driven, discreet coding system used by queer men to express sexual desire.

In June 2017, queer artist and activist Andy Simmons completed the first of twelve color illustrations exploring the imagistic history of the Hanky Code, a sartorially driven, discreet coding system used by queer men to express sexual desire.

In the decade bookended by the Stonewall riots and the advent of HIV/AIDS, urban queer male culture experienced rhizomatic transformation. The heady rush of political praxis immediately following 1969 left its intoxicating watermark on the economies of pleasure and desire queer men nourished from San Francisco to New York City.

It would be misleading, of course, to suggest that the first legible crystallization of urban queer male culture materialized in the 1970s. The vibrant cultural ecologies of the post-Stonewall moment were shaped by the multiplicity of queer male social and sexual histories, the coalescence of which sometimes resulted in the adoption of nuanced methods of sexual communication—like the hanky code, known also as the handkerchief code, the banana code, or flagging.

On the Hanky Code as Queer Male Semiotic

The 1970s hanky code, as described by American sociologist and historian Cindy Patton, generated meaning through the “semiotic use of bandanas of different colors,” the selection of which expressed interest particular modes of sexual practice. In terms of practice, an individual would place a handkerchief in one of his back pockets; when read alongside the handkerchief’s colors and patterning, the placement of the handkerchief in either the right or left pocket revealed the wearer’s sexual interests. The conceptual yoking of the handkerchief to sexual expression transformed the sartorial medium into a sexual text—exclamatory to those already versed in its coding schema, inconspicuous to those unaware of its signifying labor.

Despite the hanky code’s novelty and likely importance within spaces inimical to queer sexual expression, its emphasized substitution of articulated sexual particularity for more universal and universalizing signifiers necessarily flattens the nuanced economies of desire out of which the code arose. This hollowing of sexual difference, inadvertently effected by the creation of a system meant to augment sexual possibility, underscores the shifting potentials immanent to a critical concept of the medium.

One might consider, for example, the notional incongruities within Hal Fischer’s analysis of the hanky code as a paradigm of gay semiotics. In the following statement, Fischer highlights the imaginative variability of queer male desire and the correlative complexity of any signifying system operating to capture the nuances of that desire:

The gay semiotic is far more sophisticated than straight sign language, because in gay culture, roles are not as clearly defined. . . . Gays have many more sexual possibilities than straight people and therefore need a more intricate communication system.

Having established the relative depth of the queer male sexual imaginary, Fischer then proffers his descriptive account of the handkerchief qua gay semiotic, which, rather discordantly, unfolds in a language of monolithic absolutism and an almost transcendent stasis:

In the gay semiotic the body is divided into sides, the left representing the aggressive, the right the passive. Any sign placed on the left side indicates that the wearer will always take an active role during sexual activity. Conversely, a sign on the right side of the body indicates passive behavior.

Of interest here, in addition to Fischer’s situating queer sexual possibility as both a repository of difference and a chamber of sameness, is the reversal of the binaristic associations between passive/aggressive and left/right. Although Fischer’s subsequent capitulation that handkerchiefs may ultimately be “ambivalent signifiers because many individuals prefer to pick their roles after they pick their partners” only results in further equivocation, I would like to contend that the slippage visible within Fischer’s analysis illuminates an important aspect of the handkerchief as a medium and the hanky code as a mediated system of sexual communication.

The Immanent Contradiction of the Medium qua Signifier

My purpose in mentioning the specifics of Fisher’s analysis is not to critically glorify the presence of inconsistencies but rather to marshal those inconsistencies as evidence of the signifying medium’s inevitable potential for contradiction, confusion, and communicative failure.

In the version of the hanky code considered authoritative (likely because it is an aggressively distilled taxonomy and thus one more easily employed), the color-categories available for selection simultaneously seem to include so much as to bleed into one another and to remain so disparate as to confound any suggestion that the “hanky code” was used by any homogenized sexual culture (i.e., queer men). Because the handkerchief communicates not only an interest in certain sexual practices but also the “role” one prefers in the realization of those sexual practices, it is difficult to determine whether it was realistically possible to adhere to the code’s demarcations.

Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 9.39.43 PM

I would provisionally suggest that the emancipatory potential of the hanky code—its covert communication of vilified sexual desire—is limited by and also serves as a limit point of the capacity of any medium qua signifier to flatten difference. Placing a handkerchief in one’s back pocket as an urban queer male living in the 1970s revealed to potential partners the possibility of sexual pleasure in myriad forms; however, in its display and dissemination of this information, the handkerchief ossified queer male libidinal economies by sedimenting reductive binaries onto queer male sexualities. Insofar as the “information” expressed by the handkerchief dealt in heteronormative sexual scripts, the hanky code mobilized a medium that broadened the discursive reach of male queerness without unmooring the heterosexualization to which non-normative sexualities are relentlessly exposed.

Holocaust Shoe Piles as Oppressive Media

And so I persevered. And trusted the silence that envelops and transcends words. Knowing all the while that any one of the fields of ashes in Birkenau carries more weight than all the testimonies about Birkenau.

Wiesel, Elie. Night (Night Trilogy), Preface

Holocaust Shoe Piles as Oppressive Media 

Images of shoe piles in concentration camps have become, in some contexts, a symbol of Holocaust remembrance. Alongside burning candles, calls to “never forget,” and the rattling sounds of cattle cars, shoes have a stronghold in Holocaust memorializing. As representations of the unnamed dead, empty shoes have had multivalent and historically situated meanings; In the present day, the Washington D.C. and Auschwitz Holocaust memorial sites reenact the concentration camp shoe piles in order to evoke an unintelligible sense of loss.

In the camps, the shoe piles had multiple meanings as well. For Nazis, the shoe piles acted as a visual representation of the success of their final solution. Every pile and overstocked warehouse represented a death toll; each pair of shoes represented a captured or murdered body. Left on display the in camps, shoe piles disempowered and threatened those imprisoned within. People in the camp saw overwhelming, ever-growing piles of shoes that emphasized their mortality. Tall enough for large swaths of prisoners to see, the overbearing piles of shoes spread the threatening message through the camp. Jews, Romani, disabled people, homosexuals and others were made aware of their inferiority and inhumanity in the eyes of the Nazi regime.

Aufräumungskommando Spiritual, Emotional, and Economic Labor

As representations of the dead, Holocaust shoe piles have threatened and emboldened those who encounter them. Marshall McLuhan describes clothing as “an extension of our skin [which] helps to store and channel energy” (McLuhan 119). Piles of shoes confiscated from the captured and the dead carried, and still carry with them, the essence of a body that is no longer there. Ambiguous souls occupy the shoes that were collected, sorted and displayed by camp prisoners. The above image, “Aufräumungskommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau Sort Through Shoes Confiscated from Hungarian Jews” demonstrates the emotional, spiritual and energetic work that Nazis subjected camp prisoners to (Note: this image was taken from the “Auschwitz Album” which included within it, among other things, images of the Aufräumungskommando of Auschwitz, a group of primarily Jewish order commandos).

The fresh shoe pile is taller than the Aufräumungskommando sorting through it and too long to fit entirely into the image. As it towers over them, the shoe pile contains within it the heavy story of Hungarian Jews who were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. But also, the Aufräumungskommando had to touch each pair and sort them into piles based on their monetary value. The bodies that would be gassed, burned, and overworked to support the Third Reich would continue to possess economic value for the regime. When prisoners’ bodies were gone, their shoes would be traded and sold in complex sales networks. Eventually, the shoes would be removed so far away from the camps that the aura of the person who wore them would disappear. As the Aufräumungskommando worked, they were forced to separate the essence from the shoe, the object from the person. And as the Nazi’s intended, the bodies would be forgotten.


Piles. Images from the Holocaust consist of piles: piles of glasses, piles of suitcases, piles of hairbrushes, of teeth with gold fillings, of jewelry, of bodies, of ashes…of shoes. All of the piles reflect the absence of bodies. While each of these collections holds deep meaning, piles of shoes have a weighty aura of the people who wore them. The breadth of genocidal rage and the rise of Nazi power can be sensed in those piles. But the meaning has also been flipped by descendants who have transformed them from architectures of power to metaphorical gravesites. Regardless of their application, the piles of shoes from concentration camps contain a sense of the dead and spread the affective horror of the Holocaust.

-Ari Weinberg


Works Cited

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. The MIT Press, 1994.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. Hill and Wang, 1972.

The above shoe pile images were all taken from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Website:

Race, Memory, and the Digital Humanities October 26-28


Link to registration here.

Although just a few years ago Tara McPherson bemoaned the lack of diversity in the digital humanities in her groundbreaking article “Why Are the Digital Humanities So White?” digital scholarly activities that approach race as a central concern have become integral to a vibrant and expanding field.

The Equality Lab at William and Mary is organizing a three-day conference on Race, Memory, and the Digital Humanities. The planned roster of speakers includes Gabrielle Foreman, Jessica Marie Johnson, Moya Bailey, Marisa Parham, Angel Nieves, Pamela Z, Roopika Risam, Stephen Robertson, Catherine Steele, Jacqueline Wernimont, Rob Nelson, Amanda Phillips, Fiona Barnett, Lauren Tilton, Alexis Lothian, and many others.

Panels and roundtables will include sessions on “Race, Digital Humanities, and the Region,” “Trust, Memorialization, and Community Participation,” “Colonial and Postcolonial Digital Humanities,” “American Studies and Digital Humanities,” and “Queer Digital Humanities.”

This unique William and Mary event, organized as part of the 50th Anniversary of African Americans in Residence on campus with the support of the Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, the Office of the Provost, the American Studies Program, the Omohundro Institute, the Sharpe Community Scholars Program, the Department of English, the Department of History, William & Mary Libraries, and many other partners honors the university’s commitment to 21st century inclusion efforts.

Please contact Elizabeth Losh at lizlosh [at] wm [dot] edu with any questions about this event.

Roopika Risam on Digital Humanities and Social Justice



On October 24 and 25 noted digital humanities scholar Roopika Risam of Salem State University came to William and Mary to lead a workshop on Omeka for social justice and to give a lecture on “The (Digital) Souls of Black Folk: Race, Memory, and the Digital Humanities.”  Risam has a long track record of innovative work with digital collections, beginning with her graduate career at Emory, which houses the born digital materials of Salman Rushdie, and extending to social media interventions in current events with the Brexit Syllabus.

In her talk she began by contextualizing Jerome McGann‘s call for a “new republic of letters,” which would be constituted by an interdisciplinary and international network of humanities scholars. She also showed Mapping the Republic of Letters, a Stanford digital humanities project on 17th and 18th century letter exchanges  Risam observed that this old republic of letters, which the Stanford digital humanities project sought to map, denoted “an Enlightenment era intellectual community of scholars and writers in Europe and the United States who sought connections across national boundaries that also preserved both linguistic and cultural differences.” However, Risam expressed concerns that today many types of historical actors weren’t “legible in the new republic of letters” and that “those who care about race and culture of the African diaspora” might not benefit from existing intersections of “cultural objects, cultural memory, and digitization” that “produce cultural power” and create “value for particular voices and stories.”

After providing an overview of current scholarship on “cultural memory,” Risam argueed that “intervention is particularly important for the African diaspora, which is heavily underrepresented in digital cultural memory.” To demonstrate her point about canonical whiteness, she tabbed through digital humanities projects on William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. “Literary and cultural canons have determined whose stories are worth preserving, and they have, in turn, provided self-evident value for the representation of particular canonical authors, traditions, and voices in the digital cultural record.” For Risam, digital literacy practices that privilege the results of a Google search further reinforce existing biases and omissions.

Risam asserted that “the imperative of digital humanities scholarship is to seize control over the means of production of digital cultural memory, taking advantage of what Henry Jenkins has called ‘convergence culture,’ the digital spaces where ‘old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways.'” Describing the present moment as “a juncture in contemporary history where public discourse is paying attention to the fact that racism exists.” She noted that in The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, at the dawning of the 20th century, that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line,” and pointed out that “the problem of the 21st century is the problem of the color line too.”

Risam emphasized that “technologies have been imperative to the rise of the new civil rights movement,” particularly with the use of social media and hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter. “Hashtag memorials naming those who have died at the hands of police are disseminating their stories and, in some cases, put pressure on law enforcement and the justice system. Many of the same technologies are fueling the growth of digital humanities as well.” At the same time, as Risam argued, earlier digital archives of the experiences of the African diaspora have already been lost, such as The Charles Chestnutt Archive and Voices from the Gap. (She cited the work of Amy Earhart on digital loss.) Instead, “the most substantial material on the African diaspora is produced as pay-walled digital archives or databases provided by corporations for hefty fees.” She showed the Adam Matthew database to illustrate this disturbing trend.

However, Risam also reassured the audience that “all hope is not lost, because funding bodies like the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Office of Digital Humanities and Institute of Museum and Library Services “seem to have realized that, indeed, there is a problem, and have expressed interest and given grants to fund projects related to African diasporic cultures.” Model projects include Kim Gallon’s Black Press Research Collective, Angel David Nieves’ work on Soweto 76, and the work on the Maryemma Graham and others on the history of black writing.

Risam also championed the value of “tiny DH” where “every ONE of us can make a difference,” because we “can do this work ourselves, on a small scale, — embracing the affordances of digital humanities tools and methods to enrich the digital cultural memory of humanity.” Her own projects “have been accomplished on a shoestring budget, often in collaboration with students, and funded by less than $10,000 in grants” by leveraging “existing archives and freely available technologies to make an intervention in representation for the African diaspora.” Examples include the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases, a project at Emory University that Risam worked on as a graduate student with Hank Klibanoff, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. She also co-directed a project with Chris Forster at Syracuse University to provide a critical digital edition of the work of Claude McKay, a Harlem Renaissance poet who was also an immigrant from Jamaica, whose work was now in the public domain and largely disseminated through cheap inferior editions “with no quality control or assurance.” She explained that the Harlem Shadows project was born “as an exploration of the feasibility of creating lightweight critical digital editions of public domain texts.” This project inspired Amardeep Singh to produce Harlem Echoes with Lehigh University, which reimagines and offers contextual material.

Risam’s signature project — soon to be public — Mapping the Global Du Bois looks at how Du Bois wrote “about the mutual relationship between colonial subjects and African Americans since the beginning of his career.” She used Omeka with the Neatline plugin and Simile timeline plugin to create a map and time line containing approximately 1500 records from Du Bois’ correspondence, mapped over place and time.

A central concept in Risam’s work is that digital humanities methods can be used to actively challenge existing narratives written about the African diaspora. “The other core idea behind my work is how we can use our own institutional histories as sites of knowledge and intervention. This is the motivation behind Digital Salem, which is still under construction but is designed as a landing pad where audiences are offered multiple ports of entry into the culture, history, and literature of Salem, Massachusetts.”

In closing she reminded her audience that “it’s worth remembering, as Jerome McGann argues, that ‘to be absent form the archive is yet to participate in the record.'” She encouraged William and Mary faculty and graduate students to apply these principles to “materials of LGBTQI Virginians, and the university’s historical relationship to slavery.”

“Absolutely – absences can speak volumes,” Risam insisted. “But its not enough for us to stop there, to rely on a presence defined by its absence. If we want to be sure that communities who have typically been marginalized in knowledge production are part of the digital cultural memory of humanity, we have to do the work to put them there. And we can do it – with our knowledge in the humanities, with attention to the ethics of curation, digitization and display. We can create usable digital projects that expand representation and that are contextual, pedagogical, and informed.”

Failure 2.0: A Critical Making Journey

From an independent study with Professor Liz Losh, my fellow graduate student Lindsay Garcia (and you can check out her fantastic Cockroach Disco project) and I experimented with different technologies typically found within a Makerspace and readings in topics related to the overarching field of Feminist Science and Technology Studies.  These topics included cybernetics, new materialism, affect theory, and digital media.

We especially engaged with, and through attending the FemTechNet Conference—“Signal/Noise: Feminist Pedagogy, Technology, Transdisciplinarity,”  the idea of critical making, termed by Matt Ratto.  Critical making links “critical thinking” (an abstract and cognitive practice) with “making” (a tactile and hands-on practice), giving weight to our material experiences with technology and help connect it with a more community-oriented, social critique.  How does one inform the other?  How does an idea conceptualize and translate into a material reality?  How do things and ideas move from the material world to the digital world and vice versa?

With these questions in mind, I attempted to build a sweeping automaton that not only commented on the traditional ideals of domesticity, but also the “(hu)man as machine,” Cartesian mind-body dichotomy through clockwork machines.  Some of my previous works involved automata and how we situate technology into our everyday lives and within neoliberal context.  Moving forward, my original plan was to construct the automaton out of paper which was my clever way of tying in ideas of environmental awareness and sustainability.

20160516_180141I have made paper automatons in the past.  Ron was my first automaton and I made him fairly quickly over one Thanksgiving weekend with a pack of construction paper, scissor, ruler, and a whole lot of Elmer’s glue.  For this final project, however, I wanted to incorporate as much technology as I could, and as quickly as I could, into designing and producing something that was disposable and biodegradable.

The design started in Sketchup.  As with most design software, there is a learning curve, and you more or less pick and choose which program you want to focus learning.  From Sketchup, I exported my design into Pepakura Designer, a program that translate 3D designs into 2D paper models that can then be reconstructed back into a 3D model.  The first constraint of Pepakura, more popularly used to constructing costume pieces, is scaling.  Given the dimensions of my automaton, certain gears and cam components were rendered too small in Pepakura to be folded successfully meaning I had to reconfigure my design.  The second constraint, since I planned on using a Cricut to help cut the smaller components, was that Pepakura did not export its file into svg that was compatible with the Cricut design space.  To convert between two formats I used a third program, Inkscape, a graphic editing software.  It also had a learning curve, but it exported in svg.  Unfortunately, the graphics from Pepakura through Inkscape when exported as svg were not compatible with svg formats accepted by Cricut, which had its own library of images, most available for purchase.  Scaling also became a major issue throughout as each step of the process.  The Cricut cutting mat limited its cutting width to 12”.  Even when I finally got the scaling correct, what was unexpected was the amount of paper waste generated.

In the end, I did manage to get a complete cut out and scoring with Cricut, but the cardstock paper proved too weak.  Even with thicker poster board, however, the precision of Cricut becomes a problem.  It was too precise and segmented each line which made it harder to extract each piece.  Finally, I decided to just 3D print the automaton by its individual components.  The process was less strenuous, but there were still problems of orientations, filament extrusion, and layers not adhering together.

Though my critical making journey has yet to finish, here are my conclusions.  I had started with something simple, and I sought to make it more complicated.  We often come into a project with all sorts of presumptions and we presuppose that because technology is involved and that will work a certain way from our experience that, naturally, the process will be quicker and easier.  We forget that some of these technologies, applications, software, and platforms are built through constraints.  Moving from one application to another involves a layer of translation and each step of translation allows for failure.  This evokes a relational dynamic that Lauren Berlant termed “cruel optimism.”  Individuals remain attached to “compromised conditions of possibility” or “clusters of promises” embedded in desired object/ideas even when they inhibit the conditions fulfilling such promises (24).

Sometime when you move from one application to another, extra bits of information/data are generated.  There’s a more eloquent way to state it, but data on one platform might translate slightly different onto another platform.  And then you end up with something like this [insert picture of broken pieces].  When we jump from one program to another, we’re not acting as the translator.  We become the interpreter, which is slightly different, although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably.  Each role presupposes a certain level of knowledge and language needed to do the job properly.

Perhaps the solution is very simple for the formatting and scaling problems I have encountered.  I post the pdf of the paper cutouts and sketchup file of my design here if anyone would like to give it a try..  I wasn’t able to figure it out, but then again, part of the fun and challenge is that you’re only learning to use the technology as you’re using them.  There’s always a learning curve; it really does depend on how much time and patience you have to spend.

As testimony to the spirit of critical making where the process is as important as the end result we have to allow room for failure without needing to celebrate every failure because failing is frustrating — and using technology, when it comes down to it, is a long series of trial and error moments.  If I had started this automaton the same way I built Ron, I might be finished.  But at what point do you push the technology aside and go for the tried-and-true trinity of prototyping: paper, scissor, and glue?  Does it make a different in the tactile knowledge?  These are the questions I’m still trying to figure out and these are the questions that engaging in prototyping and critical making help to answer.  I had my calculations and my measurements.  In theory, the automaton should work.  But the only way to test theory is through practice.  [INSERT UPDATE and picture when automaton is assembled]  And while my biodegradable automaton did not come to fruition, the part of journey and process did allow me to convert scrapes into homemade recycled paper. 20160516_18005920160516_180106


The Cockroach Disco: re-joying the most-hated pest

by Lindsay Garcia, PhD Student in American Studies, The College of William and Mary

Feminist Pest Control, a faux feminist collective slash non-profit organization, is my first foray into the digital humanities. I came to William & Mary from a visual arts MFA program as a video and performance artist with the intent of utilizing creative practice-based projects as forms of scholarly research. Therefore, I naturally gravitated towards the digital humanities, following in the footsteps of other DH scholars, such as Garnet Hertz, who builds works that engage critically with the making process. Hertz even uses the cockroach as a technology in past projects, such as Cockroach Controlled Robot (2004-2006) and Posthuman System #1: Cockroach with Wireless Video (2003).

This semester, an independent study with Professor Liz Losh allowed me the freedom to tinker with digital tools available at the Physics Maker Space and to use prototyping techniques to invent fantastical technologies.  Throughout the independent study, fellow graduate student Khanh Vo and I read important texts loosely based in Feminist Science and Technology Studies such as Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures, which explores the overarching technologies associated with digital media; The Affect Theory Reader, which examines the role of affect in contemporary culture; and New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, which re-told theories of materiality from a more vitalist point of view. These texts, and others, provided me a theoretical framework for asking questions about technologies and objects, such as The Cockroach Disco, which I made as my final project. Deploying what Stephen Ramsay calls “the move from reading to making,” I pondered the questions: how do technologies produce materiality and affect? How can these formations be utilized to harness human ideological changes, specifically about animals that are considered pests?


From there, The Cockroach Disco emerged. As evidenced in the Feminist Pest Control Promotional Video (2016) above, which elaborates on the (fem)manifesto, Feminist Pest Control is actively pro-pest. That’s not to say that all humans should be forced to live with unwanted animals, but instead, that human supremacy with regards to animal hierarchies needs to be examined, subverted, and defamiliarized. The Cockroach Disco endeavors to consider the standpoints of cockroaches and create a joyful experience for them based on their morphology, instead of feeding them with poisons or squashing them with a book. This device also facilitates the improvement of human-pest relationships by providing a platform for which walls separate the bug from the human, creating a “safe” environment for both species to get to know each other better and to develop positive affects and reactions between the two species.


The Cockroach Disco looks like a typical aquarium-style pet habitat—albeit with a few off-the-beaten-path flourishes. This habitat has been specially crafted to recognize the biological functioning of the cockroach as best understood by human sciences. I acknowledge that humans cannot fully understand the cockroach because we are not actually cockroaches. The design does, however, give weight to each of the five senses as felt by the cockroaches themselves (discovered only through inhumane animal tests), possibly tapping into cockroach affect—if there is such a thing. While not all 4,600 species of cockroaches are built exactly the same, the disco utilizes the American Cockroach as its model (as these are the bugs I have in my house); however, this device functions for other species as well.

  • sight: Cockroaches prefer dark spaces, which is one reason why they come out at night. The walls of the disco are lined with two-way mirror film, and the light bulb inside emits a red light—a light frequency invisible to the cockroach eye.  This allows the cockroaches to believe that they are in a dark space, while the human also can watch and fall in love with the bugs as they would with other caged pets, such as guinea pigs.


  • sound: Cockroaches do not have ears. Instead, they sense sounds through their cerci, the pseudo-antennae on their behind, that sense the vibrations and currents moving through the air. Because their response to sensing sounds often involves skittering away out of survival instinct, the plexiglass encased portion of The Cockroach Disco is airtight, allowing the cockroaches to not worry about their human (or nonhuman) predators.


  • touch: Cockroaches are thigmotropic, meaning they love to feel sandwiched between two surfaces, which is why they often hide in the crevices of appliances and other various spaces in the house. Therefore, different substructures have been built using foam core and scraps from around the house that simulate this feeling.


  • taste: Cockroaches will eat just about anything, but they are especially interested in sweet tastes, like chocolate and peanut butter. Sprinkled around The Cockroach Disco are various fragments of human life—food, paper, fabric—all tasty to cockroaches. Additionally, a little swimming pool/drinking hole rests in the middle of the space for drinking and to help the bugs cool down from the hot summer days in Virginia as cockroaches tend to dry out easily in dry, hot climates (which, thus, kills them).


  • smell: Just as with taste, cockroaches are drawn to the sweet smells of food and trash which keep their antennae aflutter. Cockroaches do not have noses, but their antennae act as their smelling devices and keep them attuned to what kind of foods are nearby. Additionally, Feminist Pest Control developed a pheromone spray that will entice cockroaches to mate. More cockroaches means more joy and more opportunities for humans to heal from past pest traumas.


The disco creates a feminist DIY aesthetic, especially the use of pink duct tape, which is the binding agent for the walls of the device. This use of simple materials—those ordered off the internet or available at a local hardware store—also alludes to the field of citizen science, where amateur scientists create scientific knowledges outside of the often-impenetrable walls of the academy. Anyone could make their own version of The Cockroach Disco, and if any readers would like to take a stab at improving upon the design, go for it! Collective knowledge aids in healing oppressions felt by human and nonhuman pests.



The Cockroach Disco attracts cockroaches by connecting to the wall via a PVC pipe fitting. Especially in swampy Virginia, even if one does not see cockroaches, they are likely hiding in the walls of the home. For proper installation, a hole must be drilled into the drywall and the PVC pipe glued to the wall surrounding it. Placing sweet-smelling garbage within the disco walls attracts the animals, and the re-joying of the cockroach can begin. While this is a fantastical device, meaning it is meant to inspire change in human mindsets about the much-hated cockroach, it could actually function for someone who has cockroaches in their house, for someone who wants to learn how to remove the fear, shame, and anger associated with the bugs.

The Cockroach Disco will be on display at the Equality Lab in Morton Hall at The College of William and Mary in the fall of 2016. For more information on Feminist Pest Control, please visit the website at or email Lindsay Garcia at


Welcome to DH@WM!

William and Mary has a rich tradition that is firmly grounded in its heritage of canonical scholarship reflected in its archives, libraries, museums, and collections of artifacts, but it is also a vibrant site for many different kinds of digital humanities work.  The Center for Geospatial Analysis continues to diversify its offerings and approaches to engagement with faculty and students around GIS, Media Services in Swem Library has expanded its multimedia digital production facilities with the launch of the  Charles W. Reeder Media Center, the Small Hall Makerspace is growing, the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations is developing its research specializations in Geocoding and Data Visualization, documentation for the High Performance Computing clusters is being consolidated, the eLearning Community is active and vibrant, and the emphasis on innovation at The Center for the Liberal Arts is emblematic of the forward-looking nature of the campus as a whole.

The Digital Humanities Ad Hoc Steering committee has been busy at William and Mary!  We’ve already hosted a launch event: Digital Humanities and the Liberal Arts, a one-day symposium held in March of 2015 featuring experts from across the region.

digital humanities map 2

Forty-three William and Mary faculty members have already responded to our digital humanities survey, so we are looking forward to our upcoming outreach and networking efforts so we can develop a campus strategic plan for the digital humanities that coincides with the needs and desires of students, faculty, and the campus.