In January 2011, despite the Egyptian government’s attempt to establish a communications blocade, thousands of young Egyptians blanketed the streets nationwide, demanding an end to Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule. Journalists and social media theorists have highlighted the significant role played by Facebook, Twitter, and blogs in contributing to the diffuse yet organized nature of these protests; the use of social media enabled an unprecedented number of separate demonstrations to occur simultaneously on what was dubbed beforehand—in online posts and tweets—as an upcoming “day of wrath.”
The Arab Spring, however, is not the first revolution driven by social networks; in the Americas, especially within the complex structure of New World slavery, the power of social networks to achieve such momentum has a long history and a vast geographical terrain […]
The Arab Spring, however, is not the first revolution driven by social networks; in the Americas, especially within the complex structure of New World slavery, the power of social networks to achieve such momentum has a long history and a vast geographical terrain, from Virginia to Trinidad, from Veracruz to Antigua, and beyond. We can look back, for example, to the German Coast Uprising of January 1811, in which slaves spread word of a planned revolt among hundreds of their peers at plantations up and down the east coast of the Mississippi. Although Charles Deslondes is often credited as the hero of the uprising, historians have now pointed to as many as 11 separate leaders, representing various ethnic groups, and a vast network of communication that extended back through the Caribbean.
In my research and teaching here at Georgia Tech, I encourage my students to think about how we can use our contemporary understandings of technology and its various functions to better understand the political and cultural work of literature across a broad span of history. How might we use our postmodern understandings of virtual worlds, disembodied selves, and global connectivity to help us visualize and imagine the perpetual movement of cultures across time and space, through the diffuse circulation and exchange of languages, experiences, epistemologies, and traditions?
My own research on slavery and social networks, for example, examines the ways in which earlier acts of social and political resistance thwarted narratives of origin and traceability in the same way that some of today’s resistance networks do, even as they rely on hierarchical structures and institutions to (sometimes surreptitiously) achieve their aims. By linking contemporary network theory to historical and contemporary acts of political resistance and community formation, I employ a humanistic lens that is necessarily technological. I ask students to consider how virtual networks, like those that have inspired or tracked contemporary democratization movements in Tunisia, Cairo, and Iran (a.k.a., the ‘Twitter Revolution’) transform the logic of destabilization and chaos that guides network theory, into a seamless structure of movement and action. How might a reexamination of slave resistance and slave narratives through this critical-technological lens, for example, further our understanding of the evolution of social networks and political mobilization across different geographies and historical periods? What might we learn from the kinship ties forged in these early American spaces and the narratives of flight and survival they inspired? How does the contemporary virtual community borrow from this unique history of constructed kinship, and how might such a link help us reconsider nationalism, democracy, and family in the twenty-first century?
Slave rebels of 1811, then, have much to teach us about the kinds of social networks that enabled and inspired the protests of 2011. Hemmed in by a social structure that has been historically focused on the problems of alienation, discontinuity, and the dissolution of ‘natural’ categories of kinship, slave communities (whose formation and persistence—in the face of great odds—is in itself an act of rebellion) might actually offer contemporary readers new insight into the convergence, the function, and the power of diffuse social and political networks throughout history. For as slave ships made the same journeys and marked the same patterns of travel across and back through Atlantic ports, as family and community members heard information—even misinformation—about their kin adrift in the New World, and as new patterns of kinship were formed, based on common struggle and common cause, a new kind of network collectivity emerged. This new collectivity was not tied to the traditional organizations of geography nor biology nor national affiliation, but, like today’s global internet, was a collectivity that emerged and strengthened precisely because of its lack of boundaries, traceable origin, or kin—anonymity and alienation became acts of strategic camouflage: Because they were suddenly nowhere and no one, they could use information to be anyone anywhere—a collective action united against oppression.
My research and pedagogical investments are thus inherently interdisciplinary and rooted in the technological, as I work from the premise that race—as a diasporic, performative, and infinitely mobile act—is itself a technology, and one that is central, not peripheral, to understanding how communities and nations are made and unmade.
By locating my study of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slave networks within a contemporary discourse of social network theory (particularly recent scholarship that discusses the global internet as a space of queer or creolized networks), I am able to help students think outside traditional paradigms of community, national, and familial organization. Just as contemporary social media prioritizes overlapping functions and strategic alliances above traditional kinship ties, so many slave networks generally functioned and were organized—by necessity—outside traditional paradigms of family, home, and national allegiance. The diverse community of strangers in the New World who organized plots and created a vast network of information mirrors the organizational structure of the global internet. But while we often pathologize these kinds of networks in our contemporary era (i.e., terrorist cells, disease outbreaks), a backward glance at slave networks reveals the politically progressive implications of loose ties and networked mobilities for inciting democratic social movements, such as the abolition of slavery and the collapse of dictatorial regimes.
My research and pedagogical investments are thus inherently interdisciplinary and rooted in the technological, as I work from the premise that race— as a diasporic, performative, and infinitely mobile act—is itself a technology, and one that is central, not peripheral, to understanding how communities and nations are made and unmade. The emergence, survival, and the spread of community networks are forged by these mobile and mobilizing racial alliances, and backed, of course, by a shared desire for freedom that was strategically, if not ideologically, parallel to the founding propositions of New World settlement.