Breaking and (Re)Making

Breaking and (Re)Making

Ravynn K. Stringfield


The interesting thing about the digital humanities is that it is exceptionally fragile. As Christy Hyman notes in “Black Scholars and Disciplinary Gatekeeping,” digital humanists often spend their time gatekeeping and policing what “counts” as digital humanities, rather than use the digital to dream up new futures. Black DH, or digital humanities that is concerned with and uses the methodologies, praxes, and epistemologies of Black intellectual thought, uses the preoccupation of these gatekeepers to slip into the cracks of the code and break it apart.

As Andre Brock notes in Distributed Blackness, much of the digital humanities canon has done its best to separate Black people from the digital, as if these two things together are counterintuitive, when in fact, Brock argues, they are inherently intertwined.[1]

Black digital humanists such as Brock, Jessica Marie Johnson, Catherine Knight Steele and others use their work as opportunities to showcase how Black people use the digital as extensions of Black cultural traditions. When Steele writes about the digital barbershop, she draws on the long tradition of African diasporic oral tradition that evolves and manifests online. When Johnson writes of “alter egos and infinite literacies,” she evokes the practice of developing personas, which—while we attribute it primarily to the digital age of avatars and profile pictures—can be attributed to the multiple personas which populate hip hop culture. Black people regularly find a multitude of ways to reinvent ourselves and the digital is simply the newest tool in expressing our infinite selves. Brock aptly writes that when we, Black people, go online and perform Blackness, it is for the simple fact that we enjoy being Black.

And that, in and of itself, breaks digital humanities. Like many other forms of humanities, digital humanities is no different in its desire to strip Black people of our humanity despite its very name. In the same way that Black digital humanities recodes various practices of Black culture in the digital, digital humanities as a field is also able to, and does, replicate various modes of harm. Gatekeeping is one of these practices that transcends fields, but master/slave binaries continue to exist in metadata languages and dismissing Black digital humanities theoretical work is prevalent, just to name a few.

Black DH and the scholars and artists and activists who engage in Black digital humanities practices continue to create and theorize while the gatekeepers fuss over boundaries. Boundaries that we jump over with interdisciplinary projects like those of Marisa Parham’s remixing digital essays; with communal effort, like that of the Digital Alchemists, who support each other in their (digital) intellectual pursuits; with a mass of digital content created and curated by Black graduate students with the express intention of leading more and more students of color into and through the Academy.[2]


Some digital humanists are coders, some are breakers and (re)makers, and others use the digital humanities to design new futures for us. The ethical concern I have about the digital humanities is that too often projects exist simply because they can, with no regard for the potential harm it may do. Black digital humanists’ projects often center on humanity and approach digital tools with an ethos of care. My hope for the future(s) is that digital humanities will look to the practices and ethos of Black digital humanists for ways to extend their own ethos of care in their projects. My hope is that the norm will no longer be to exact boundaries, but to observe what has been done to break those parameters and why it was necessary to break them. My hope is that Black digital humanities’ innovation and further breaking is not contingent upon white digital humanists ignoring, dismissing, or even stealing the labor of digital humanists of color. My hope is that our future(s) as a field is not contingent upon further erasure.

This is a vision that is informed by the Black radical tradition, which in turn informs Black digital humanists, who are often Afrofuturists. But futures, as Afrofuturists know, are not created without a firm understanding and appreciation of histories. Black cultural (and in this case, digital) innovation is, and has often been, a product of extreme duress. That does not mean it needs to be.

This chapter was originally published in Alternative Historiographies of the Digital Humanities and was published by Punctum Books. It is republished here under a Creative Commons BY-NCSA 4.0 International license.


Brock, André L. Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures. New York: New York University Press, 2020.

Figueroa, Yomaira C., and Jessica Marie Johnson, eds. Taller Electric Marronage.

Gallon, Kim. Black Press Research Collective. http://

Lee, Tiffany, and Autumn Adia Griffin. Blackademia. http://

Parham, Marisa. “.Break .Dance.” sx archipelagos, July 10, 2019.

Whitmore, Allant.. BLK + IN GRAD SCHOOL. https://www.

  1. André L. Brock, Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures (New York: New York University Press, 2020).
  2. See Marisa Parham, “.Break .Dance,” sx archipelagos, July 10, 2019,; Yomaira C. Figueroa and Jessica Marie Johnson, eds., Taller Electric Marronage,; Kim Gallon, Black Press ResearchCollective,; Allant. Whitmore, BLK + IN GRAD SCHOOL,; and Tiffany Lee and Autumn Adia Griffin, Blackademia,; and on and on.


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Making Sense of Digital Humanities Copyright © 2022 by Ravynn K. Stringfield is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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