African American Online Information Access and Literacy Equality (Some Quick Thoughts)

On the morning of January 12, 2012, Lisa Nakamura’s gave a lecture to our ROPES class.  In that lecture she pointed out that online social networking sites like MySpace had a major “white-flight” when Facebook began gaining popularity five years ago.  As a result, the racial disparity between Facebook and MySpace’s reveal a virtual form of segregation. Another part of this segregation is the question of access to the Web.  Given that a majority of African Americans don’t have personal computer access and are relegated to cell phones, in school, or in public libraries, to access the Web, there are many different Internets as Nakamura pointed out.  Though I was vaguely aware of this disparity, I, as a white graduate student, have high amounts of access at home, on my phone, as well as school.  Before Nakamura’s lecture, I had never considered how segregated levels of online access were.

Given what Nakamura mentioned, I began to think of online access and African American users relationship to online information.  When I read Everett’s article, I found something compelling.  Everett’s research in African and African-American online communities revealed that African Americans use the Internet differently than white populations.  He cites the L.A. Times research that discovered that African Americans are more likely to use the Internet as a tool of information than whites (151).  Even though the African American population generally uses modem (dial-up) access (which puts them behind technologically), they utilize on-line information services more. What compels me to comment on this particular finding: the stereotype of the African American as missing out on what the Internet has to offer: in other words, the digital divide many people see as a site of racial disparity. It’s not that “technological distribution isn’t uneven,” according to Everett. Instead, Everett asserts that part of the focus on the digital divide diverts attention from the fact that “significant technomastery” and “online activism” exists in the African American population, despite limited access (149).

Though Everett goes into more detail about online diaspora and the ways in which African American technomastery is so widespread and pervasive, I’m more interested in looking Stephanie Browner’s article, in light of Everett’s findings.  Considering how African American populations utilize the Internet for information more than the middle-and upper-middle class whites (the presumed majority of online users with unlimited access) Browner’s article brings up how American Literary scholars are posting more online African-American literary scholarship and literature. Three of the African American literary scholarship sites Browner mentions are The Revised Dred Scott Case, Digital Schomburg African American Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century and Chris Mulvey’s Clotel: An Electronic Scholarly Edition. Both of these projects make public previously unpublished or out-of-print 19th century African American literature.  If we couple these archiving and publishing projects with the fact that Everett found African Americans use their technomastery to procure information, couldn’t that be a way in to level out the some of the disparities in literacy?

I realize solving the literacy disparity will take more than educators and progressive public figures encouraging primary, secondary, postsecondary, and working class African Americans to look into these projects.  However, these archiving projects (among others) could be instrumental in equalizing the problem of online access by providing a wealth of information about African American cultural heritage (Our Cultural Heritage Commonwealth: The Report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for Humanities and Social Sciences, as qtd. in Browner).  In terms of promoting literacy among African Americans and given that these users already use the Internet primarily for information, these large database-sized digital archiving sites could start eliminating disparities in literacy rates, and continue to increase African American’s online use of information.


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