Black “Code” Studies, “Coding”, and Literacy


Photo by Michael Himbeault via Flickr

Two thoughts came to my mind this morning that I realized needed further exploration in a couple posts. I haven’t read enough to really put flesh on their bones. In fact, I think I’ve only collected a few bones. I highlight the ideas here in a stream of consciousness in hopes of returning to these later on as I learn more. Here I’m thinking about the meaning of “code” and “screen”  in both literal and metaphorical ways, how the definitions of these words shape their manifestation  in reality as action on one hand and object on the other.

Black Code Studies and Literacy

I was thinking about Black Code Studies, the double meaning of black code, literacy, and history. There’s black code as laws issued during and after the American Civil War that restricted  African Americans freedmen’s . . . freedom to work. Connected closely to black code is, of course, slave code, the progenitor of black code laws. While black codes restricted the freedom awarded to former slaves, slave codes reinforced the imprisonment of African Americans.

But we also have Black code which is broadly conceived as the study of African Americans’ interaction with digital technology in multiple areas. In this discipline there are “race coders–digital activists, digital feminists, and digital black studies scholars. I would add to this list for the sake of specificity and for my own interests, black computer programmers and hackers. It’s interesting that I add this group because black computer programmers and hackers can be both subjects of study and participants in Black Code Studies. They can be digital black studies scholars who code or they may not be scholars (they don’t hold doctorates) yet code software and perform aspects of scholarship.

But then there’s code itself. It’s the action of computer programming. It’s the programming language itself, the symbol system coders use to build software. And yet there’s “code” which is the categorization of ideas, objects, and people. In literacy studies it means to draw meaning from people’s modes of communication–words, images, sounds, gestures, and even space. In the both sense of the word is ideology. Take, for example, Andrew Feenberg discusses cultural critiques of technology and coins the term technical codes,”the intersection between ideology and technique where the two come together to control human beings and resources in conformity” (15). Code as ideology and conformity trickles back up to where I began in this section of my blog post–code as law and code as study both rely on ideology, values, traditions which structure institutions and people. They participate in oppression and freedom.

I describe all of these definitions to say that digital literacy in general, and computational literacy in particular, belongs to African American literacy history, its struggles, its triumphs, and its promises based on the shifting definitions and manifestations of “code. In reading and writing, yes. In orality(?), certainly.

I’m not entirely sure where to go from this observation. There’s something here about naming, identifying, categorizing, and then, most important, taking action.

One thing might be that as scholars jump into Black Code Studies and/or Black Digital Studies, we should remember that thematically digital literacy and African Americans isn’t new. It’s an evolution socially and culturally. The past informs the present. But I also think that this field, or this area, would need a framework, something like critical race theory as applied to technology. In my own case, using critical race theory and digital literacy.

So here are some other thoughts that’s going through my mind at the moment.

  • I myself am thinking about looping these histories together into a coherent whole, a genealogy of ideologies within and without African American online communities that shift as a result of new digital technologies.
  • I’m thinking about digital literacy and how technological institutions have coded it for and against Black users in the 21st Century.
  • I’m thinking of how educational institutions code coding as literacy in some places, yet embrace it at the same time for white students, mostly, and Asian students, in other cases, but do not afford that same attitude for African Americans in other schools.
  • I’m thinking of looking at digital literacy practices and coding them for indicators of different Black identities (like rap is indicative of a very specific kind of Blackness that I, given my economic background, do not share in). 
  • I’m thinking of digital and computational literacy practices and rhetorical moves made during moments of  and for criseses and political and social movements.

I’m pleased that I was able to put down my observations down on code, even though these thoughts are superficial at best. What I can conclude and what I should do next is a bit fuzzy. Your thoughts are welcome!

Published by aabyrd

I'm the instructor for WCATY's Media Studies in a Digital Age course for Summer 2015.

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