Introduction: Black Poetry and Technology

By Rambsy, Howard, II | Journal of Ethnic American Literature, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Black Poetry and Technology


Rambsy, Howard, II, Journal of Ethnic American Literature


"It is gradually becoming obvious in the early years of the 21st century that inquiry about traditions and their components can make little progress if scholarship and criticism cling to 'traditional' methods, if thinkers do not test how interdisciplinary work might yield richer albeit contestable explanations."

-Jerry W. Ward, Jr., Journal of Ethnic American Literature (2011)

During the late 1990s, Alondra Nelson, then a graduate student at New York University, began organizing a series of conversations and an online message board devoted to the interactions among black people, technology, and speculative fictions. The message board was entitled "Affofuturism," which participants soon referred to in shorthand as "the list." There, visual artists, novelists, poets, scholars, musicians, techies, and graduate students shared information about and offered contrasting perspectives on science fiction, hip hop, black history, video games, electronic devices, and the future. The list presented me with a special opportunity to regularly participate in a lively space full of active thinkers from across the country and beyond who enjoyed sharing ideas about the interplay of technology, science fiction, and black people. Over time, participants found other destinations on the web; their interests shifted; and eventually, the group dissolved.

Yet, the list had usefully informed some of my intellectual, pedagogical, and organizing imperatives. Questions about race, science fiction, and new media became integral to my thinking and research projects. I frequently incorporated assignments in my courses that showcased the convergence of technology and literature. I offered classes on Affofuturism, and most recently, I designed and taught courses devoted to the crowdsourcing annotation site Rap Genius, which allows web users to present interpretations of lyrics, poems, news stories, and other texts. My experiences with Nelson's online community also inspired me to seek out collaborators on techrelated projects like this special issue of the Journal of Ethnic American Literature.

The lack of scholarly writings concerning technology and African American literary studies as well as the relative dearth of scholarship on modem and contemporary black poetry makes this project especially urgent. Collectively, the contributors to this special issue illustrate, to use Ward's phrasing, "how interdisciplinary work might yield richer albeit contestable explanations." The researcher-writers explore aspects of music history, science fiction, hip hop, Affofuturism, digital collections, contemporary poetry, and data analysis. The articles affirm the diverse manifestations of scholarly work on black poetry and technoculture. Without such work, the discourse about one of our most important art forms would lack essential upgrades.

Scholars of African American literature seeking to learn how social media informs student learning and engagements have much to gain from "Hashtag Black Poetry" by Therí A. Pickens. Her article, which reflects on a black poetry course that she taught at Bates College in 2014, pinpoints the ways that the use of Twitter enhanced learning and explorations of literary art in a public forum. Mary Rose's "Leveraging Metadata to Present Poet Eugene B. Redmond's Personal Collection Online" clarifies the processes of digitizing an accomplished writer's collected materials and making those items available for perusal and study online. …

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