Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age (Book Review)
As writing instructors and tutors, we want to help all our students become better prepared to operate in the society around them. But we are also sending those students into a culture in which ethnic voices are often marginalized, and in which communities of color tend to be on the losing side of a technological and digital divide. Given those realities, how can our practices in the writing classroom help students of color see their distinctive cultural communities as a source of strength? How can our composition instruction help such students make use of African American history, language, and community relationships in their written and multimodal projects?
Scholars such as Manning Marable, Beverly Moss, and Vershawn A. Young have made important arguments about the ways in which students of color can become empowered communicators by drawing on community structures and languages. In Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age, Adam J. Banks makes his own contribution to the conversation by arguing that the writing classroom can serve as a forum for the intersection of African American storytelling traditions and digital rhetoric. Banks focuses our attention on the contemporary manifestation of griots—West African storytellers—in black communities: “The griot has survived the middle passage, slavery, and centuries of American apartheid and has been diffused into many different spaces and figures: storytellers, preachers, poets, standup comics, DJs, and even everyday people all carry elements of the griot’s role in African American culture.”
In updating the figure of the griot in this way, Banks is referencing writers such as Alexander Weheliye, whose Phonographies draws connections between African oral traditions and twentieth and twenty-first century technologies. But Banks’s point is that the relationship between the storytelling tradition of the griot and “sonic Afro-modernity” compels us to reconsider our own methods of composition instruction and philosophy. In particular, Banks wants us to help writers “see themselves as digital griots”: remix DJs who are synthesizing multiple languages and forms of expression for multiple communities. As they learn to see expression as a form of remixing, African American students will learn to recognize the communicative value of African American oral traditions in “folktales, double-dutch rhymes, Hip Hop, and more.” In this way, the students will be able to utilize elements of African American culture in ways that will “provide a familiar bridge to other forms of literacy that offer relevance and begin with the premise of black mastery and celebration of language.” In addition, this griotic emphasis will also help instructors to “open up space for intersectional analysis, intergenerational inquiry, intercultural connection,” and encourage them to move their composition pedagogy in a more community-oriented direction.
In making these claims, Banks is grounding his notion of the digital griot within a larger conversation about composition studies and local and ethnic communities—specifically communities of color, but ultimately all communities to which writing students feel that they have deep connections. In particular, Banks acknowledges the influence of Moss’s A Community Text Arises (2003), in which Moss challenged writing instructors “to move past considerations of individuals as social learners and toward an understanding of literacy as being a truly community-based endeavor.” Moss’s description of a collaborative instruction that allows students to bring to the table “seemingly innocuous literacy events” such as church encounters and sermons was Banks’s most fundamental inspiration for bringing community-based African American literacies into the digital remix realm.
We can see the legacy of such intersections between community and classroom in Banks’s course descriptions and listings of proposed activities. Although these occupy a relatively small part of the book, they might well be the most useful elements of Digital Griots. For his courses on African American literacies and storytelling, Banks begins by asking his students to consider their personal experiences alongside their musical influences, and “write a short piece describing the soundtrack they would use to tell some part of their life story or to describe experiences with literacy, education, and/or technology.” Such an exercise is a setup to a more developed “technology literacy narrative,” in which the students write about their personal histories as parallels with their technological engagements. Banks continues this theme of helping students merge their stories with digital practices in “The Technology Transformation Project.” Here, Banks instructs his students to “imagine a reworking of the computer—from the code to the case, from programming to aesthetics—to include their vision of what a computer might do, might look like, if it were grounded in their own cultural perspectives and their own individual personalities.” And in several different storytelling and oral history projects, Banks keeps the focus on multimodality: his students take folktales, personal histories, and community issues and transform them into visual and electronic projects—projects that illustrate an intersection between musical and visual elements and the students’ African American cultural traditions.
All of these projects are, for Banks, versions of DJing, in which the student-as-DJ makes a statement about personal and community engagement by using the composition equivalent of two turntables and a microphone. But in asking us to use remixing as a model for composition instruction, Banks is arguing for a method of empowering African American students and making a case for the remix as the central form of the multimodal classroom: “The beauty of the remix as trope is that in its focus on renewed vision, on re-vision, those doing the remixing never discard the original text. The antecedent remains an important part of the next text, the next movement; ancestors and elders remain clear, and even central, to the future text.” For Banks, thinking like digital griots will help all composition instructors and students engage with multimodal rhetoric as a collaborative, and a living, venture.
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