In This Issue

JANELL HOBSON INTERVIEW

Albany, New York

JANELL HOBSON is professor and chair of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She has authored two books, edited volumes and special issue journals, and is a regular writer for outlets like Ms. Magazine and Black Perspectives. She is currently working on a new book project, When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination, under contract with Routledge, and collaborating across two institutions to create a pop-up exhibit commemorating the 170th anniversary of Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery. She has created a “Digital Classroom” highlighting various student digital projects.

Hobson has also scripted a lesson with TED Ed on Harriet Tubman, the subject of much of this discussion.

LESSON by Janell Hobson, directed by Yan Dan Wong. TED-Ed, 2018.

 

CARO NOVELLA: Your analysis of technology is informed by many strands of knowledge and experience with digital technologies, both in your life and classroom. How do you define technology?

JANELL HOBSON: Technology refers to any human invention applied through scientific and/or creative knowledge. Writing is a form of technology, whether we’re referring to Egyptian hieroglyphs or Gutenberg’s printing press. Visual imaging is a technology, whether we’re referring to certain elements of architecture or textile designs that can be found among our ancient African or indigenous American ancestors.

What is important, to me, is that we’re able to make those technologies legible beyond western, white, and masculine contexts. In my own women’s, gender, and sexuality studies classrooms, I’ve been very interested in teaching and incorporating digital technologies so my students – mostly women, often people of color – can see themselves as critical thinkers of such technologies as well as knowledge producers.

 

CN: How do you use technology in your classroom? How has this changed over time?

JH: In my very first college-level course that I taught as a doctoral student, I gave my students an assignment to develop web pages and to use such sites to generate information on whatever topic we were discussing in class. So, we started with some basic html coding and applications.

Over time in the 20 years I’ve been teaching college students, with the development of emerging technologies, I have changed the tools and platforms – from video production to geo-mapping – but the content has been mostly the same: using such technologies to advance anti-racist and anti-colonialist feminist perspectives.

I’m excited that I’ve had former students who have accomplished major digital movements beyond the classroom, from co-founding the blog Feministing the same year Facebook was established, which helped to usher in that influential era of cyberfeminism, to utilizing Twitter and other platforms to organize some of the first Black Lives Matter rallies, as one of my students did with the Times Square protest in 2013 in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the murder trial of Trayvon Martin. I am currently supervising a graduate student who is interested in building a free app based on the principles of feminist pedagogy to advance an African-centered #MeToo.

 

FEMINIST MEDIA STUDIES, VO. 8, No. 2, 2008.

CN: In your 2008 article “Digital Whiteness, Primitive Blackness: Racializing the ‘Digital Divide’ in Film and New Media” in Feminist Media Studies, you analyzed representations of blackness as ‘passive subjects of the technological gaze.’ How have representations of blackness and technology changed over the last 11 years?

JH: We definitely have seen major advancements in representations of blackness and technology in media. Courtesy of Marvel, we have the fictitious African nation of Wakanda that boasts the most advanced technologies in the world, with a tech lab run by a young black woman. The same actress (Letitia Wright) was also featured in a subversive Black Mirror episode “The Black Museum,” in which she was able to turn the tables on injustice via technology, and who could forget the inclusion of Gugu Mbatha-Raw fully embracing technology to fulfill a queer romance in the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero”? Of course, Afrofuturist singer and actor Janelle Monáe is then inspired by such sci-fi stories to fuel her truly transcendent and radical project Dirty Computer.

We’re getting some amazing representations this decade, but black people have always engaged technology. Beyond the white gaze, we get to see how they have complicated the technological gaze. I do think, in the wake of Black Lives Matter, we must contend with how black bodies are still relegated as “passive subjects,” through surveillance videos, even though the sousveillance videos of our everyday citizens have been able to subvert the power dynamics here.

 

CN: In too much scholarship, mythologies about scientific and technological development leave out black histories. With renewed emphasis on Afrofuturists, the popularity of the film Hidden Figures, Janelle Monáe’s Arch Android and Dirty Computer, the AfroPunk Festivals, and Black Twitter, is this no longer possible?

JH: It’s still very possible to leave out black histories! Just look at who received this year’s scientific Nobel prizes!? Where are the black scientific geniuses? We know they exist! Why are so many tech companies still so under-represented when it comes to hiring people of color? We have much more work to do in this area, and it’s helpful that we are starting to change the narrative in our popular culture. But look at the story of Hidden Figures, for example.

After revealing the unknown history of African American women who worked as “computers” for NASA as accomplished mathematicians, engineers, and computer programmers, and asserting that our heroic white male astronauts could not have orbited space or reached the moon without such women working behind the scenes, I noticed not one news story highlighted the achievements of Katherine Goble Johnson who worked on the calculations for the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, which was commemorated this year for the 50th anniversary.

Johnson was one of the “computers” featured in Hidden Figures, but her story does not get revisited for the 50th anniversary. The main focus still shined the light on our white male astronauts. And this keeps being reiterated in various media. This year’s space-travel movie, Ad Astra starring Brad Pitt, includes black astronauts – some of them women – and even showcased a photograph of black female astronaut Mae Jemison in the background of one scene. This inclusion reminded me that this Hollywood film – IMAX to boot – couldn’t even fathom placing one of the supporting women of color, Ruth Negga, in the starring role, although this change in character might have made for a far more interesting story.

But we can’t imagine a black woman character in such a role. Just as Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón once revealed that studios scoffed at his choice of Mexican actress Salma Hayek in the role Sandra Bullock eventually played in his award-winning outer-space film, Gravity.

 

CN: Can you describe your vision and intent for the interactive exhibition exploring the history of Harriet Tubman that you were developing?

JH: This year, I’m actually collaborating with various instructors and students from the University at Albany and RPI on a local temporary pop-up exhibit to commemorate this year the 170th anniversary of Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery. Hopefully, this will move us toward a more permanent interactive exhibition.

The vision for this really started with my love for planetariums and my obsession with Harriet Tubman’s story, which I am including a chapter on in my new book – an examination of the ways that we remember her, in comparison to more obscure black women in history. Back in 2013, I organized through my department a centennial anniversary symposium on Tubman and was able to turn those papers into a special issue of Meridians, a peer-reviewed academic journal that was edited by black feminist historian Paula J. Giddings at the time. One of the issues that stood out to me, during the symposium, was the way that I had included some of our university officials to welcome symposium attendees with opening remarks, and one of these white men quite innocuously but insidiously introduced Tubman as a “remarkable” woman who accomplished so much that was “unbelievable” for someone who “could not read or write.” Something about the way he said that felt like a great undermining of all that we were doing with our symposium to recover the woman behind the myth, to imagine what it took for her to be so courageous (and yet so vulnerable), to imagine that someone of her caliber had an intellectual history to contribute to a university community like ours. So, that’s where the vision came from.

In a recent conversation I had with black feminist astronomer Chanda Prescod-Weinstein – an interview for my Black Feminist in Public series with Ms. – we discussed how scientific women in slavery are “lost to us forever,” but she herself was not willing to claim Tubman as an outright astronomer, just someone who “applied astronomy.” And that makes sense, if the parameters from which you are operating require intellectual production to be one where someone has the time to just sit back and wonder and calculate and hypothesize scientific theories – someone like Benjamin Banneker, a free black man also from Maryland, who gave us a series of Almanacs that charted the stars in the late 18th century. Tubman is busy trying to get to freedom, so her engagement with the stars is just about utility.

What strikes me about her story and our interpretations of her story is the way we don’t assume a scientific or technological gaze could be applied here. Of course, Tubman’s own interpretations, especially in the wake of her having suffered a serious head injury when she was young that resulted in epilectic seizures throughout her life, is one of religion and spiritualism in which her visions from these seizures facilitated her navigation of the physical environment. That’s not coming from a scientific consciousness, but I’m very interested in how we could view her through the lens of a divine scientific mind, if you will. She never lost her way and, as she once bragged, she “never lost a passenger” on the Underground Railroad. That’s serious skill based on critical literacies of geography, astronomy, and botany (her skill in herbal roots is what made her very effective as a Union Army nurse during the Civil War).

HARRIET TUBMAN EXHIBIT PROPOSAL (PowerPoint), Janell Hobson. n.d.

CN: Why is it important to present Tubman more fully right now?

JH: Harriet Tubman is very much back in the limelight, first when she was announced as part of the redesign of a new $20 paper currency, and now with a new feature film about her life coming to the big screen and directed by a black woman, Kasi Lemmons. If we truly valued Tubman, we wouldn’t have counter-arguments about her inclusion into our various American national narratives as the consequence of “political correctness.” She was an extraordinary woman, and she’s real. I saw a misogynistic black man on Twitter dismiss the movie trailer Harriet with the idea that Tubman is a “feminist invention” that didn’t really exist in real life. Harriet Tubman was real and not a figment of anyone’s imagination. Taking her story seriously would require that we recognize her in her full humanity, and not just as a “magical Negro” who somehow spirited away so many enslaved fugitives. That took great skill and, yes, great critical literacy – great critical eco-literacy – that exists beyond reading and writing with pen and paper. I thought an interactive exhibit that could illustrate these skills would be helpful, especially for younger girls and people of color to find a role model in someone who is already celebrated in the larger culture.

 

HARRIET TUBMAN EXHIBIT PROPOSAL (PowerPoint), Janell Hobson. n.d.

CN: Is the Underground Railroad a technology?

JH: We can definitely view the whole enterprise – a secretive network of moving people from slavery to freedom – as a technology. It took secret codes of communication, intricate networks planned along trade routes and safe houses, serious knowledge of the physical landscape, especially at night, as well as ingenious ways of building secret rooms and spaces in the homes and barns of abolitionist allies.

HARRIET TUBMAN EXHIBIT PROPOSAL (PowerPoint), Janell Hobson. n.d.

CN: What was your experience reaching out to potential collaborators and co-presenters?

JH: I have found various scholars and educators who are interested in the subject. I have actually found more resistance from those who preside over museums. Everyone likes Harriet Tubman, but not that many people are willing to take her seriously, certainly not seriously enough to warrant an exhibition that may include various digital technologies and electronic sensors to bring alive the experience of escape and navigation. I’m still searching for the right space for this.

HARRIET TUBMAN EXHIBIT PROPOSAL (PowerPoint), Janell Hobson. n.d.

CN: How do you envision the Harriet Tubman exhibition going forward?

JH: I am hoping that, with the pop-up exhibit, we can develop it into something more permanent, possibly in our local area or through one of the Harriet Tubman visiting centers in the national parks established in Cambridge, Maryland (the area from where she was born and raised) and Auburn, New York (the place where she eventually settled and built her home during her emancipation years).

HARRIET TUBMAN EXHIBIT PROPOSAL (PowerPoint), Janell Hobson. n.d.

CN: What technologies most interest you right now?

JH: I’m now intrigued by augmented realities and how these can be learned and incorporated to enhance history, culture, and our various social justice movements. With concerns over climate change, I would love more conversations on how we can develop emerging technologies that are more planet-friendly and not causing so much damage.

This is one of the problems with Western-based ideologies of technology. We imagine that the West – shored up by its extermination of indigenous America and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which eventually ushered in colonialism – is an “advanced” and “civilized” nation and that they did it first, ignoring all the other advanced civilizations throughout the world. If we can shift this way of thinking, we could then ask why previous civilizations were able to develop science and technology that didn’t put the entire ecosystem at risk!

Just as we need to think of Harriet Tubman differently, we need to think of culture, “civilization,” and “technology” differently. At the same time, when I read about Rwanda, which now has 68 percent representation of women in their government and is on the verge of establishing a manufacturing plant in the production of Mara X smartphones, I want to pay attention and I want to support!

 

CN: Which artists are you intrigued by at this time?

JH: I am absolutely fascinated by two black women artists: Lina Iris Viktor and Ayana V. Jackson, both of whom engage in myth-making and Afrofuturism. Viktor gained some attention when she sued rapper Kendrick Lamar for plagiarizing her artwork in his music video “All the Stars.” Jackson has a current exhibit, Take Me to the Water, which expands on the myth of Drexciya, an underwater world peopled by the descendants of slave-ship pregnant women thrown overboard during the Middle Passage. This is a myth told through Detroit’s electronic hip-hop duo Drexciya and, later by Clipping’s “The Deep”, featuring Daveed Diggs, who appeared in the Broadway musical Hamilton and was recently cast as Sebastian the crab for Disney’s The Little Mermaid live-action remake, which is quite appropriate when you think about it. All these artworks mix the past and the future through this fantasy lens. They give me so much to think about.

 

CN: Which authors and books are you intrigued by at this time?

JH: I am in awe of Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, which offers such an imaginative approach to archives and how we can recover black women’s lives. It’s so thrilling to see that she was selected as a MacArthur Genius this year for her work.

 

END NOTES

“Digital Whiteness, Primitive Blackness: Racializing the ‘Digital Divide’ in Film and New Media.” Feminist Media Studies 8: 2 (June 2008): 111-126. https://digitaltheories.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/hobson.pdf