Monday, August 7, 2017
Digital technologies, black pain, and its abstractions
When scholars discuss "black pain" and "trauma," they often reference slavery, including "the horrors" of the Middle Passage. Since August 2014, which is to say, since the shooting death of Michael Brown, and then various other police brutality deaths, we've heard more on black pain and black lives in those contexts. Still, in my academic worlds, I rarely come across discussions of contemporary gun violence and the associated pain and trauma.
Of course, topics concerning gun violence in black communities are tricky and tough subjects for academics. Black scholars worry about getting caught up in the quagmire of retrogressive conversations about so-called "black-on-black crime" -- an inaccurate and troubling, yet persistent phrase. The many liberal white scholars who study African American literature and culture are fearful, I suspect, when it comes to talking about violent, intra-racial black conflicts. Safer to stay on the sidelines. Plus, graduate school training prepares rising scholars to research, discuss, and write about the agonies of enslavement, but not the many contemporary cases of teenage black boys shooting other teenage black boys. Again, it's tricky, tough.
For over a decade now, I've thought and talked about gun violence in my adopted city, St. Louis, mostly with family, friends, and guys at the barbershop. When it comes to coverage though, I've most frequently read about gun violence in Chicago, in large part because of the prolific compositions by some of their journalists. The place where I began to put gun violence into broader perspectives emerged a few years back when I discovered the Baltimore Sun's Homicide page.
The site tracks homicides in Baltimore from 2007 - 2017. You can use drop down tabs to create targeted searches for, say, the number of black males, ages 18 to 25, in a given zip code, killed over the past 3 months or for all of 2017 or all of 2015 or 2005. We know, for instance, that as of August 4, 2017, there were 210 homicides in the city, with 175 of those deaths being black males.159 of those 175 homicides were shootings.
I was recently reading a thoughtful article "New World: The Impact of Digitization on the Study of Slavery" by Britt Rusert, where she mentioned that "a growing number of digital archives, databases, and other digitization projects focused on slavery, are transforming how scholars study both the history and literature of enslavement." Rusert "reflects on conversations about slavery and the archive in light of the digital turn." Rusert is discussing the "digital turn" with respect to slavery, but the article has implications for other areas as well.
When I read the piece, I immediately thought of that Baltimore Homicide site as well as the Chicago site, which also tracks homicides. The sites are seductive in their usability. And the archives, databases, and maps central to those sites correspond to a digital turn or two, don't you think?
Of course, further, there's something abstract about knowing that 175 black males (which includes boys and men) have been killed in Baltimore, or that 380 of the 416 homicides in Chicago so far this year have been the result of shootings. When people and incidents become numbers and the numbers become increasingly large, we struggle to discuss or even grasp specific occurrences -- the violent ends of a lives -- in concrete terms.
I think about that abstraction, the problem of transforming individual people into numbers and plot points on maps. Conversely though, I consider the limits of the localized and specific conversations we have around here in St. Louis without placing things in some larger contexts. So in other words, without digital technologies, we'd struggle to conceive of the pain associated with gun violence and its abstractions, and without attention to local conversations, we'd overlook some ongoing, contemporaneous black pain.
• A Notebook on gun violence