Banks, “Looking Forward to Look Back”

Banks, Adam J. “Looking Forward to Look Back: Technology Access and Transformations in African American Rhetoric.” African American Rhetoric(s): Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Ed. Elaine B. Richardson and Ronald L. Jackson. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007. (15 pages)

Banks offers an alternate focus of analysis for African American rhetorics, namely—in the face of a word-centric approach to African American rhetorics—we have often neglected the use of technology. Often the issues of technology for African Americans have come in the form of the “Digital Divide”, typically referring to the gap in access and ownership of computerized technologies by African Americans. However, in this conception of the Digital Divide, we implicitly see the issues of access to be technical rather than rhetorical. At the start, Banks alludes to an anecdote provided by  Taborn: “saying that the Digital Divide is closing because minorities have a greater access to computers is like saying minorities have a stake in the automobile industry because they drive cars” (189). As Banks writes, we often conflate the “Digital Divide” with a “Discursive Divide”, thus obscuring the rhetorical ways computers are structured cyberspaces and digital production. Banks questions succinctly, “what actually constitutes meaningful access” (192)?

The Digital Divide, then, would be seen more rhetorically, more critically. Banks writes, “Science and technology issues shape the power relationships that have historically provided the exigence for African American rhetors, and they have influenced—tangibly and intangibly—the rhetorical situation through the dynamics of control that determine  how gets to speak to whom, in what circumstances, and to what degree those messages are mediated” (193). Banks continues to point out that a more substantive discussion of the Digital Divide considers “what African Americans can and should do with technolog(ies) grounded in past struggle” (193).

Historically, shifts in technological advancements—and medium of communication—has had an complicit influence on the conditions  of African Americans: “not only did these technological changes structure the conditions in which African American people lived but they influenced the environments in which they organized to resist those conditions” (194). In this way, technologies and particularly the context in which they were made, ways in which they are used and circulate within society have political undertones: “those politics can profoundly change the space sin which messages are created, received, and used. The potential of the changes in these spaces can be staggering when considered in light of the communicative possibilities they can either open up or shut down” (195).

However, Banks notes that the focus on technology, medium and material in AA rhetorics also highlights the multimedia, multimodal aspects of AA rhetoric, using voice, body, and image in discourse. As such, Banks also notes the savvy use of television by Civil Rights leaders, Malcolm X and King. But, much like his argument about the Digital Divide, there are also infrastructure concerns with television: “While a person who is interviewed on a television show does get a change to speak directly to many different audiences, that person in some ways has very little control over what gets spoken” (199). He later questions, “how does one answer questions when the interviewer controls the questions and the conventions of turn taking; when an entire staff overtly shaped the context before the interview happened and had the power to edit as it saw fit without even consulting the person interviewed before the special aired, or even on live television; and when the staff can pace the show in such a way that the interviewer got the first, last, and arbiting words” (200)?

Banks concludes that the real issue for the AA community is “how to use technology to become technology innovators and produces” (201).


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