Digital Story: What Does It Mean to be Black? Background/Context

My Idea

As an African American I often wonder about what defines me, particularly to others. Is it my education, middle class background, my work, my scholarship or the color of my skin? What is it that makes me “Black.” I have learned that there is no constant: “Blackness” alters with time, situation, people, place to place. It was startling to me that the white South Africans didn’t seem to recognize that I was Black, and I was troubled by the comments they made about the people with whom I had come to identify given that the color of my skin is what defines me to so many white Americans as well as other Blacks.  If race is a construct, then it can be deconstructed and reconstructed– and that is what I experienced traveling to South Africa in the summer of 2011. Returning to the States and in the years since, the one “fact of Blackness” is that of fear, anger, sadness, and the fact of looming danger. “Black” too often overrides “American” for Black citizens of this country.

As a Black woman in the Academy, I find myself conflicted. I began my work in religion in seminary, no actually it goes further back to ministry teaching and preaching in my “home” congregation in Cincinnati, Ohio. I had never planned to pursue a PhD in religion. Still not altogether sure how I arrived here, though I can see that the journey has value. My heart is not in this place at all; but, will it be to my advantage, to the advantage of my people for me to obtain this PhD? I believe so. Will it change the way many my country perceive? I doubt it.

Digital Storytelling and Mr. Brown

When my siblings and I were in elementary school and high school, Mr. Brown would come for Sunday dinner. Mr. Brown was an educator, like my mother, and he educated us–no, he fascinated us with his slide shows from around the world.  Mr. Brown had been EVERYWHERE, or so it seemed to us. He probably had ventured to every continent, to so many countries.

After dinner, he would set up the slide project and screen and for the next hour or two we were captivated by his stories of China and Hong Kong and Egypt and Greece and Israel and . . .well, EVERYWHERE. But the great thing about Mr. Brown’s storytelling is that he allowed us to interject with questions, he smiled and laughed with delight at all our oohs and aahs. He allowed us to enter his story, his travels; his fascinating life. Through his storytelling, he didn’t only inform or educate us–though he did that. He invited us into the world.

This digital storytelling section of the VRM class, particularly the Joe Lambert method made me think of how much more we gained from the “interactive” storytelling with Mr. Brown.  I feel pretty confident that had Mr. Brown lived into the digital age, he would have plastered each of his travel stories on Facebook. He loved educating and traveling and educating through his travels. I think he might have used digital storytelling to engage and delight a broader audience.

When trying to select a program for telling my digital story, I thought of Mr. Brown’s slideshows; I considered Photostory 3 (takes awhile to download), and Slidestory–something in keeping with Mr. Brown’s way of telling stories. When I went to the Digital Learning Lab for assistance, my “tutor” suggested PowerPoint. It has that slideshow feel, so not very fluid, but I felt Mr. Brown very present in the making.


I’ve come full circle in this class–the first blog, I believe was based on Fanon’s “the Fact of Blackness.”  Franz Fanon in “The Fact of Blackness,” posits that he would not have known he was a “Negro or “N____” as long as he was only around others like himself. “Blackness” then, was an inescapable imposed identity rather than a self-identification.

African American medical anthropologist Duana Fullwiley says that her race changes whenever she crosses the Atlantic. In a matter of one day flying from American through France to Senegal for fieldwork she can go from being African to “white/European.” Harvard

Even in the 21st Century geneticists are debating whether “Blackness” is genetic and if so, if Blacks are genetically inclined to violence and thus whether it is reasonable to restrain Blacks violently. Time magazine . Other geneticists say that this a racially motivated theory, that there is no genetic difference among races.

In light of increased racial tension in the U.S., Carnegie has established a program for engaging in discussions around race. Students, teachers, activists are invited to participate in the conversation. Perhaps my future work will include something like this.

Statistics about South Africa People and Society

Background on police killings of Blacks, in “Exactly How Often Do Police Shoot Unarmed Black Men?”

“Googled” Images

Of course, most of the photos on the slideshow are my own from my 2011 summer internship in Z.A. But there are a few that I “Googled” to augment my visual story:

Slide 1: Duana Fullwiley by Stu Rosner, “The Coloured Range,” Jozi Love

Slide 2: Pie Chart South African Demographics, South African People

Slide 7: South African Megachurch (Wikipedia)

Slide 8: Getty Images/Gallo Images ROOTS—Getty Images/Gallo Images ROOTS Mother holding her baby up to her face. Cape Town, South Africa:

Slide 9: search: Mandela Wins, Obama Wins

Slide 22: Clockwise, Eric Garner, Ranisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Rumain Brisbon

Slide 23: David Hooker, JustPeace ; Skip Gates

Background Music

“Everything Must Change,” Quincy Jones,


Digital Storytelling

I found a CDS style digital story and a spoken word message about institutionalized oppression through education.  Each has a unique focus, but generally the same theme. I find that both satisfy Lambert’s elements of owning insight and voice, and of strong emotion. They each involve scripting before speaking/telling the story and each has a soundtrack in the background as well as visual layering, though the Suli Breaks piece is layers of moving images rather than photographs. Each enters from that “moment” that wrests the viewer-listener’s attention. Each makes imparts a unique and powerful, emotional statement of an all too common experience– institutionalized oppression through public schools.

From my perspective, I do not see the DS as any more structured or effective in conveying the story with emotion.  I find both stories moving, and both bring a fresh eye, mind, and heart to the power of educational institutions  (if not “education”) to injure and oppress. The democratic nature of these stories is, for me, particularly evident in the Suli spoken word piece because it is not a formalized construct of another as is the Lambert sytle DS; rather,  it is Suli’s own– not only his own story, but his own WAY of telling his story and with all the elements that are “unique” to DS.

“Love Child”

Suli Breaks “Edu-cation”

Watching Scandal

“Watching Scandal” is about exactly that; not the program itself, but the interaction of two African-American women watching Kerry Washington play Olivia Pope. Two women with very different opinions on Pope’s character watch clips of the program and chat-up their views. The clips are not the focus, rather the interaction between us. We are off-camera on purpose; viewers can focus more on the conversation.

Due to a series of technical glitches and mishaps in the hours it took to do this project, we end up with six rather than four minutes of video. We hope you watch till the end.

Frantz Fanon- “The Fact of Blackness” -Blog by Melanie Johnson and Clemette Haskins

“You think of yourself as a colored man; I think of myself as a man.”

In this scene, Dr. John Wade Prentiss, played by Poitier expresses what, according to Fanon, the black man can express only if he is never subject to the objectification of the white gaze. “For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man.” (“The Fact of Blackness”) In GWCD, Poitier’s character conducts himself as though the white gaze and objectification does not affect him as it has affected his father– as though it is a matter of the “dead weight” of a previous generation. He can choose to marry a white woman, despite race prejudice, because he is a man, not a “colored man.” “The black man among his won in the twentieth century does not know at what moment his inferiority comes into being through the other,” Fanon, TFB.  One might conclude that Dr. Prentiss, unlike his father, has managed to escape the colonization of his mind.

Poitier himself, as a black man who grew up among other black men in the Bahamas, may have experienced what Fanon describes here: “As long as the black man is among his own, he will have no occasion, except in minor internal conflicts, to experience his being through others.” Poitier, the first black actor to receive an Academy Award, is known for having played in his extensive career a number of non-stereotypical roles wherein his characters seem to have escaped colonization of the mind and internalization of the white gaze and objectification despite the fact that the Bahamas did not escape British colonization.

Did Poitier avoid/rise above the primitive stereotyping that Fanon experienced and so passionately expressed in “The Fact of Blackness?” How might one compare/contrast the experience of any number of black men—Caribbean, African—who come to the States compared to black men who grow up in the States? How would you characterize the image and careers of black American male actors today in comparison with the image and career of Poitier?

What do you think?