Digital Memory and Narrative through “African American Rhetoric[s] 2.0”

Review of Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age
by Adam Banks 2011; Southern Illinois University Press

Nicole Ashanti McFarlane, Clemson University

(Published: March 28, 2012)

Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age by Adam Banks is a vividly written account that situates DJs as 21st century exemplars of digital rhetoric and is a follow-up to the author’s first book, Race, Rhetoric, and Technology: Searching for Higher Ground. Digital Griots is a remarkable book for what it contributes to the discipline of rhetoric and, most significantly, for its theoretical offerings to the body of African American cultural and critical studies. Banks situates multimedia technology as a temporally-bound phenomenon and stakes his claims about African American rhetorical studies as a tradition of community engagement, meant for greater civic enfranchisement. The chapters, interspersed throughout with “shoutouts” or brief profiles of exemplary approaches to African American digital culture, are named after fundamental hip hop DJ techniques: scratch, groove, mix, remix, mixtape, and fade, respectively. This book has far-reaching aspirations for a transformative composition and rhetoric pedagogy, as it challenges our notions of the basic materiality of what we consider educational equality. Digital Griots compels pedagogues of digital composition and rhetoric to become involved with technology issues facing higher education alongside the question of access. Banks advocates for educational content that teaches people how citizenship works and seeks to address the problem as to why so many black and brown people are technologically disenfranchised. Digital Griots urges readers to pay greater attention to content in digital culture and writing education, how they are deployed, and to what ends. Banks objects to institutional mandates for academic standardization and skills based writing assessments, which tend to overemphasize mechanics. Banks contests the academy’s role in funneling people through the system just for the maintenance of the status quo as we currently know it. He wants to build bridges from campuses to communities and from communities to campuses by enlisting the epistemology of African American rhetoric to ultimately disrupt culturally eradicationist trajectories. Banks seeks to layer over this disruption and suture the past to the present by opening his book with a long epigraph by Paul Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky (That Subliminal Kid) from whom he rips the idea that a continuum of past collective narrative positions the digital griot as the quintessential 21st century rhetor.

Figure 1

A griot is a storyteller in western Africa who perpetuates the oral tradition and history of a family or village. Opening in medias res or at the moment of disarticulated cycle, readers of Digital Griots are asked to flow beyond the illusion of linearity and welcome a seemingly chaotic rupture in narrative form. In hip-hop music, this is known as the percussive scratch. Accordingly, the book’s introduction is titled “Scratch: Two Turntables and a Storytelling Tradition” and starts with this assumption of a chronological break. Banks prompts his readers to find fresh renewal in what is often deemed expected and predictable, thus splicing multimedia composition methods with multicultural education. As inheritors of the traditional roles once played by the black preacher and teller of folktales, Banks asserts, 21st century DJs are archivists of times past and inventors of futures imagined. Black folk, according to Banks, having survived forced migration, centuries of chattel bondage, and Jim Crow, must take on the DJ ethos to fulfill the griotic role. Now manifest as digital griots, DJs explore the hits and investigate the misses through tactical shoutouts, crate-digs, samples, and remixes (26). Banks believes these techniques work to freshly reinterpret the African storytelling tradition and black sermonic style through the layering and rearranging of commonplace narratives already extant in the black community. Digital griots, for Banks, retain their rootedness in African American discursive values, maintaining an ethos of community commitment while playing a central role in continuing to forge African American identity. Whether in the form of a community radio disc jockey or a DJ on the turntables, as far as Banks is concerned, griots offer useful templates for crafting transformative media assemblages. Through digital contexts, DJs can continue performing the crucial role of cultural bricoleurs. By isolating and blending the various bits of audio, image, and print objects made available across cultures, digital griots help formulate black survival networks, which serve to pragmatically intervene in the discussion of African American contributions to academic and cultural authorship.

Described, the “black techno-dialogic” (18) as articulated by cultural and literary theorists, Joel Dinerstein and Alexander G. Weheliye, Banks sees these African American rhetorical values as always being historically engaged with technologies through the inherently self-reflexive practice of furthering the cause of collective liberation and greater democracy. This reflexivity is always in reference to expanding the complex web of human relationships, especially when it comes to civic life. Indeed, Banks effectuates this black techno-dialogical style, which seems to propel his prose with the engine of his many hip-hop inflected shoutouts. His name-dropping exuberance, which could be seen as excessively citational by some, is about the sampling and referencing of epistemologies that work to catapult his line of argument and extend his contributions to African American rhetoric and technology toward something like a "higher ground." In this way, Banks performs his griotic pedagogy. While reading his re-citations and re-memories of African American folk tales like “Shine and the Titanic,” audiences will find themselves laughing aloud. Even when Banks opposes a position of one of his fellow interlocutors, he does so in a distinctly jovial manner by generously acknowledging the intellectual dues others have paid before and from which we benefit today.

A good example of this author’s approach occurs in this first chapter “Groove: Synchronizing African American Rhetoric and Multimedia Writing through the Digital Griot” wherein he critiques some forms of pedagogy that are based on the hip-hop composition model. These multimodal pedagogies have been popularized by individuals such as Jeff Rice and Geoffrey Sirc. Banks agrees with Rice and Sirc when they write about hip-hop composing strategies for their utility in pedagogically modeling how to combine print technologies and hypertextual rhetorics through representations of alternative cultural conceptions. However, Banks balances his praise for such enlightened educational curricula with his reservations for composition writing programs that embrace multiliteracies, while sometimes failing to attend critically to the problems of cultural appropriation. Banks demonstrates how this procedure of “isolated ripping” (13) for the organization of thoughts and ideas through digital appropriations of “diverse” or racialized music and images could have unintended negative results for a profession that claims its investment in democratic plural values.

Such negative results are a significant concern since a sufficiently critical approach to the subject of racial juxtapositions is already impossible if students are not made aware of the initial ironies of the racialized discourses they are asked to put into play. Hip-hop certainly provides students with a familiar composition model through which they can learn to effectively and persuasively reassign meanings and disrupt fixed categories. However, the rhetoric of appropriation through an uninformed awareness of the racial other can be seen as intellectually naïve at best, and culturally insensitive at worst. In fact, I might even take Banks’s critique a bit further by suggesting how the precarious racial embodiment of digitized simulacra actually makes it somewhat more likely that many students will unthinkingly deliver assignments with sexist, homophobic, and/or racist, content. Taking seriously this problem is important and necessarily involves requiring our students to pay closer attention to the subjects and objects that animate our public plural environments—whether digital, architectural or otherwise.

Once articulating the particular issues in African American digital culture in terms of this black techno-dialogic, Banks turns to the idea of “Mix: Roles, Relationships, and Rhetorical Strategies in Community Engagement” in his second chapter in order to critique the potential for “glaring, obvious failure” (40) occurring when academics are called to do the work of community service. In the face of institutional funding and commitment, the tremendous pressure to demonstrate quantifiable assessments based on the acquisition of measurable writing or literacy skills looms large. Banks openly addresses how this situation often creates a phenomenon whereby local communities perceive social exploitation by neighboring campuses (40). Banks is adamant about not being the type of academic who performs this service model of scholarship as a means of securing a long-term livelihood on the backs of local suffering. Instead of succumbing to the pressure to enact skills-based community writing initiatives, Banks advocates for community engagement not based on a top-down model of professors imposing their ostensibly superior expertise on community members in order to build writing and literacy skills. Rather, he proposes a model in which writing and literacy are instrumentalized for the purposes of building community – and black communities, in particular. This is especially true in situations where minoritized populations surround the campus. Therefore, Banks insists that academics involved in community writing initiatives should take a cue from the griotic DJ. As in the black oral tradition, digital griots should be enlisted to reassign routine meanings and re-cite the people’s stories in service to a scholarly agenda that understands and appreciates the social values already operating in and around off-campus spaces. To this end, Banks sees digital culture as enabling new kinds of community spaces in which writing and literacy play truly mediating roles in service to significant social transformation when pursuing various “town and gown” initiatives.

It is in this vein of cultural preservation that Banks argues for African American rhetoric’s presence as a history of technological innovation. This section of Digital Griots, in some ways, demonstrates an impulse on the part of Banks to ontologize blackness through his refiguring of the griot. Banks believes digital griots behave as “time binders” who connect the youth to elders and elders to the ancestors (53). Digital griots perform the epistemological imperative of “making do” in the face of a hostile, dominant culture that does not necessarily value the cultural expressions of black bodies. Banks’s transtemporalization of race through the DJ as griotic figure is evident when he asserts, “the tradition of stories that make up the griot’s craft reflect both participation in a resistance to the larger order and link past, present, and future, even in the midst of physical and psychic dislocation” (23). In fact, Banks almost suggests the idea of divine providence at work in the history of African American survival, which possibly allows him to so optimistically argue that a distinctly generational basis is at work behind certain anti-black biases and culturally and linguistically eradicationist pedagogies still at work within the interdisciplinary fields of technical communication, rhetoric, and English composition when he declares:

Anyone still attempting to argue that Ebonics is a problem for black students or that is it somehow connected to a lack of intelligence or lack of desire to achieve is about as useful as a Betamax video cassette player, and it’s time for those folks to be retired, be they teachers, administrators, or community leaders, so the rest of us can try to do some real work in the service of equal access for black students and all students. (15)

This, one might worry, is an overly generous and optimistic assessment of current forces at work in our profession because it presupposes that there are not also significant numbers of young scholars—newly minted composition and rhetoric professionals, no less—still hating on the way black folk talk. (In fact, I suspect that last sentence itself is sure to have elicited a few grimaces and eye rolls from more than a few fresh-faced academics.) But even if we accept the grounds for this somewhat ageist generalization, one might easily counter with the idea that the Baby Boomers—many of whom are indeed nearing retirement—actually came of age during the Civil Rights movement and, very often, are a great deal more empathetic and open to explicitly anti-racist pedagogies than their much younger counterparts. This sense of empathy, one would argue, might be derived from older generations’ histories and memories of first-hand experiences with Jim Crow laws and overt racial privilege and discrimination. While on the other hand, there are the Reagan Babies who can be characterized by their tendency to be a lot less invested in anti-racism, at least insofar as it is believed to address any straightforward political, moral, ethical, or activist project. Indeed, there exists among many post-Civil Rights generation academics (of all racial backgrounds) a type of radical cynicism concerning explicit racial politics, accompanied by a jaundiced view that has been influenced by the postmodern condition of overexposure to global communication, and the nonstop proliferation of media formats and technologies.

In his third chapter, “Remix: Afrofuturistic Roadmaps—Rememory Remixed for a Digital Age,” Banks recognizes the problem of nostalgia in black communities by conceding to the fallacies functioning within the litany of “back in day” narratives animating African American popular culture. This longing for days of yore is especially prevalent in the case of hip-hop with its many sets of “old school v. new school” battles. By riffing on this familiar catalogue of nostalgic African American childhood memories that sentimentalizes yesterday as necessarily better than today, Banks observes how this “old school ethos” (59) within contemporary African American rhetoric has become encoded into hip-hop and the larger African American culture. Banks clearly recounts how, in the wake of the 1990’s “ravages of deindustrialization, global capitalism, automation, class flight into suburbs and exurbs, the rise of computers and the digital information age, HIV/AIDS, crack cocaine, and other concerns” (98), "old school" African Americans sought explanatory power over the social ills they were beginning to confront. Despite this sober assessment of the ongoing problems facing African American communities, Banks stays connected to the more celebrated aspects of African American rhetoric and media studies. Continuing in this optimistic mode, Banks profiles the eBlack Studies “Cyber-Church” project, founded by Abdul Alkalimat, an Afrocentric sociologist. The Cyber-Church is intended as a comprehensive online database for black interfaith worship organizations and is seen by Banks as a valuable resource of African American vernacular media. Following this shoutout, Banks develops his most ambitious chapter in Digital Griots. “Mixtape: Black Theology’s Mixtape Movement at Forty,” which focuses on black theology as an African American political solidarity movement grounded in and committed to building moral and ethical community institutions.

Banks fully anticipates how some readers might interpret the religious overtones in his call for a collective racial response to the technological shift underway as forwarding an agenda that constrains individual expressions of identity. Therefore, Banks borrows from Bradford T. Stull’s work on religion and politics in the American rhetoric of emancipation to assuage such concerns when he suggests the mixtape as the model for the digital griotic technique in the formation of a black “theopolitical” canon (113). For Banks, the mixtape method should be emulated as a template for anthologizing the most valuable elements of African American culture. The mixtape method facilitates a productive unity across black civic and educational life and remains central to the griotic DJ’s goal of mixing and blending seemingly disparate cultural and political impulses. Banks identifies the mistakenness of “either/or binaries,” when it comes to conflicting notions of “the block and the rock” or the tensions inherent within the spectrum of political and social positionalities emanating from local, national, and transnational communities (116). Banks defines black theology within this “greatest of all time” pantheon in the African American freedom struggle for radical democracy as offering a vehicle for political solidarity and ethical transcendance. Both Banks and Stull are absolutely correct when they acknowledge African American rhetoric’s indebtedness to the black liberation theology tradition, especially concerning the contributions of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King to African American political theories and intellectual culture. In view of this, among Banks’s major influences from the field of religious studies are black liberation theologians, James H. Cone and Katie Cannon. Both Cone and Cannon are copiously cited throughout this section of the Digital Griots in order to help articulate “a space that [is] both clean and funky, Saturday night and Sunday morning. . . [a] space to be in the community both physically and psychically” (62). What Banks holds most significant about the work of these black theologians is the complex partnership articulated between rhetor and audience through black oral culture in the African American sermonic tradition. Of chief concern in Digital Griots are the deeply intertextual connections between everyday communication practices of black folk and the complex abstractions and intricate belief systems demonstrated by African American sermonic rhetoric. In his own words, “the griotic role of the preacher. . . is to wiki with the audience” (51). Banks is more encouraged by the role of religion to work toward progressive ends than this reviewer. This discouragement emanates from manifold concerns.

First, there is the matter of the predominance of “word of faith” and “prosperity gospel” doctrines, for their completely ubiquitous influence on contemporary religious life within the black community. According to these doctrinal systems, health and wealth come about as the result of obeying a divine order, whereby individual adherents atone for deliverance from the worldly state of sickness and poverty. Devotees to this world view believe they may enter into a heavenly contract of security and prosperity, which can only be earned through faithful, affirmative speech, significant monetary offerings, and regular tithing. Today, it could be demonstrated, many multimedia representations of the black church are completely dominated by the right evangelical wing of the black church, which centralizes word of faith and prosperity theology doctrines as an African American cultural ethic. This ethos is evidenced by figures like Fred Price, Eddie Long, Creflo Dollar, and TD Jakes (including much of the logos found in Tyler Perry’s melodramatic popular movie and gospel play slapstick, for that matter). While Banks correctly recognizes the rhetorical nexus of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King influencing whole generations of African American intellectual and political thinkers, to identify these cultural icons as still holding great sway in the black church actually underestimates the power of conservative impulses emanating from within contemporary black religious life. Much to his credit, Banks does critique the political coalescence of economic conservatism with the rhetoric of religion, but only tangentially – when he asks whether it is feasible to resurrect a prophetic voice through digital culture instead of merely raising "money for buildings that might or might not get built or extol some pie-in-the-sky religion that asks people to suffer patiently now but still pay for the preacher’s Cadillac” (124). Though, instead of exploring this topic more deeply as this reviewer might have hoped, Banks turns to highlighting a couple of secular DJ blogs that he believes are fulfilling the griotic mission of prophetic voice.

In terms of African American rhetoric in a multimedia age, it could be argued that black mega churches are the popular heirs to what still remains of black theology, replete with their PowerPoint slideshows and booming audio, put into service for the moralistic emphasis of individual uplift and “bootstrapping” social mobility. Characterized by calls for moral repentance through the collective redemptive enactment of cultural rectitude under the banner of “buy black” self-reliance, the prosperity gospel and word of faith perspective views the personal accumulation and consumption of material possessions as the self-evident proof of God’s favor, reflective of the kingdom of heaven made manifest. Given this ideological thread so prominent within black communities, how might digital griots counter the popular doxa surrounding biblical scripture that mistakenly recognizes poverty and blackness itself as a curse? Instead of understanding the tremendous income and class disparities between groups as resulting from the dehumanizing structures of systemic commodification of human lives, too many African Americans are indoctrinated into believing that poverty is a part of their “natural” heritage of iniquity and moral deficiency. With this ideological thrust dominating so many contemporary black churches, the praise rhetoric of prosperity gospel becomes pervasively embedded in the mundane comings and goings of everyday African American life. Instead of bidding another goodbye, many in the black community demand that others must “have a blessed day!” When asked how one feels, instead of simply answering “I’m fine,” in quite a large number of all-black social spaces, one is often compelled to respond in explicitly religious terms.

In the case of individual African Americans who have achieved exceptional wealth, the same logic holds true but only within an economy of scale more suited to the spiritual favor ostensibly bestowed upon celebrity athletes, entertainers, and other black elites imbued with the “gift” of leveraging their widely sought after talents in exchange for high salaries. Hence, we have what has given rise to the clichéd scenario of the trap-rapping gangsta pop star on television award shows wishing to “first thank Jesus” for all their success in making the year’s most popular booty-video. It would seem, for many individuals who subscribe to mainline Protestantism within the black community, mass mediated praise rhetoric amounts to little more than a display of basic good manners, akin to reciting one’s grace. This style of black praise rhetoric can often backfire and cause more dissension, however. The failure of some African Americans to fervently and sufficiently traffic in this copia of god-talk can potentially result in being cast out of their communities. Under some circumstances outright shunning of non-religious African Americans is not an unheard of outcome. The ethos implied through the rhetorical performance of praise rhetoric’s simultaneous display of humility and hubris could reinforce the message that black people should be grateful for whatever crumbs happen to fall their way and that black communities are poor because they are undeserving of earthly rewards. For all of the apolitical claims made through these forms of black praise rhetoric, an explicitly political function becomes apparent. Unfortunately though, this type of cultural piety persists throughout many black communities as it represents a paradoxical double move that is at once nationalist and accommodationist. This nationalistic commitment to such an overly foundational worldview has become inextricably tied to the African American political sense of propriety and common decorum. Exactly how the monolithic impulses of evangelical Christianity can be (or even, necessarily should be) extricated from contemporary African American cultural expressions is not entirely clear, but the worry still exists that the bridge across the digital divide by “beginning our journey among God’s children” (qtd. in 110) might have the effect of precluding political solidarity among black people since all African Americans are not always theists. Among the more interesting sociological developments regarding digital race rhetorics nowadays is the increased public visibility of African Americans who self-identify as atheists and secular humanists and, through the boon of social networking sites, are beginning to find one another in significant numbers for the first time. The increased prevalence of African American digital communities comprised of non-believers has even prompted one prominent African American daily online magazine to devote a series of opinion pieces focusing on this growing phenomenon. Though I want to make it clear, the intention of Digital Griots is not to promote a totalizing rhetoric of any one particular religious outlook. Rather, the goal of Digital Griots is to commemorate and celebrate valuable black oral traditions in order to locate a cohesive model for adapting print culture to digital media by critically anticipating what's next for future generations of African Americans.

Arguing along these lines, the book's final chapter, “Fade: Notes toward and African American Rhetoric 2.0,” calls for an Afrofuturistic synchronization across the field of composition and rhetoric as African American cultural studies continues its expansion into the digital humanities (158). Banks closes Digital Griots with an upbeat tone and outlines strategies for African American rhetorical theory and practice to become more fully joined to the field of digital studies by bringing about a technologically engaged commitment to democratic engagement and civic activism. Through Digital Griots Banks provides an original framework for talking about African American political agency, experiences and discursive practices by grappling with the underlying racial apparatus of the American public sphere and interrogates the limits of social equality, technological access, and radical transformation. His arguments initiate a cogent demand for an American educational agenda that continues working toward its democratic potential. Visionary and vernacular, through his linking of oral, print, and digital culture in ways that centralize African American rhetorical practices as fundamental to the humanities, Banks makes another vastly important contribution to the discipline.

Work Cited

Banks, Adam J. Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Mulitmedia Age. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2011. Print.