What happens when two public intellectuals in the midst of a pandemic grapple with the absurd deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, along with the two fatally shot, another wounded by Kyle Rittenhouse during protests in Kenosha, Wis.; and what role does technology play to tell those stories?
The result is a book that captures, in my view, the zeitgeist of the moment, simultaneously making one uncomfortable and hopeful about our collective lived experience. The public intellectuals in the case are Marc Lamont Hill and Todd Brewster and the book is “Seen and Unseen: Technology, Social Media and the Fight for Racial Justice.”
“Seen and Unseen” plays off the title originated by author James Baldwin. It follows in the Baldwin tradition by offering searing analysis, difficult to refute, even if one disagrees with the overarching proposition.
Beyond the obvious tragedy, the death of George Floyd, seen by millions globally, became a cultural inflection point about race in America that warranted further understanding. Hill and Brewster prompt the reader to examine the painful past and present, along with the possibility of a hopeful future to understand the ever-increasing democratization of technology.
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The technology once in the hands of a few is now in the possession of many (democratization). How has the role of technology, specifically social media and smartphones, contributed toward leveling the playing field of racial justice?
In response to the aforementioned question, Hill and Brewster opine:
“Calls to action no longer need to rely solely on the persuasiveness of the speaker, for the visuals precede them, motivating people who might otherwise not have believed that a white police officer attempting to arrest a black man for the crime of passing a counterfeit $20 bill would subdue him with a knee on the man’s neck until the life was squeezed out of him breath by breath.”
But Hill and Brewster also remind readers that the use of technology to shape narrative is practically as old as the republic itself. It was definitely on display as gruesome photos from the battlefields of the Civil War vividly reminded people of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s words: “War is hell!”
Film was a persuasive tool shaping the racial narrative in America with D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking, but no less controversial 1915 film “Birth of a Nation,” which depicted the Ku Klux Klan, not as racist vigilantes, but as a legion of virtuous soldiers, protecting the South’s honor. It was the first film screened at the White House. President Woodrow Wilson reportedly remarked after viewing, “It’s like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
This 1915 use of technology not only revived the fortunes of the Klan, but also shattered the assumption that history was written by the victorious, giving rise to the myth of the Lost Cause.
Hill and Brewster offer that the history of technology has other data points that shape the racial narrative in America.
In 1963, Birmingham’s Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor’s infamous use of fire hoses and police dogs to attack unarmed civil rights protesters went global. The footage became an embarrassment for the Kennedy administration, locked in a geo-political struggle with the former Soviet Union for the hearts and minds of smaller nations. The streets of Birmingham in 1963 became a visible antithesis for a nation touting the virtues of democracy.
But Hill and Brewster also depict how the narrative has changed in a chapter aptly entitled: “You about to lose yo job!” taken from a 2020 video that also went viral, offering equal portions of entertainment and profundity.
Johnniqua Charles has left her purse at a strip club and is denied reentry when she attempts to retrieve it. The security guard stops her; she becomes outraged and is subsequently detained in handcuffs. At this point, empowered by the cameras of onlookers filming the incident, Charles goes into a chant, telling the security officer, “You about to lose yo job!”
No longer are news cameras required to capture an epic event, Hill and Brewster demonstrate in “Seen and Unseen” — the democratization of technology is now occurring at some of the most unlikely places, as it simultaneously captures the absurd and the possible in our perennial quest to become a more perfect union.
The Rev. Byron Williams (email@example.com), a writer and the host of “The Public Morality” on WSNC 90.5, lives in Winston-Salem.