Oct 19, 2020Liked by Michael David Cobb Bowen

Wow, thanks for sharing this history, Michael! It blows my mind that so little attention has been put toward highlighting black cyberspace history, especially in today's #racism/#blackness-oriented landscape. Some questions (I'm sure more will come up):

- How do you feel that those early email list discussions compare to today's social media platforms and places like reddit in terms of productive discussion/disagreement? And how do you feel about the influence of larger audiences / stronger content moderation?

- While digging around old black cyberspace websites, I stumbled across a campaign by the web directory BlackVue called "A Million Black Dot Coms" aimed at registering 1 million black websites to counter the idea of a digital divide among black people. Seems pretty ambitious, especially in these days of social media dominance over individual websites. But I'm starting to think that maybe there was something to that digital divide, given that there are still lots of non-black designed/run websites (and in recent years, movements back toward personal websites/webrings) - yet I have to really scrape to find a lot of distinctively black 'dot coms'. On the other hand, there were clearly lots of black webrings, directories, search engines, personal sites, etc. in the 90s/early00s - now we have 'Black Twitter' (is there somewhere else?). Why do you think that the momentum for black websites/webrings, etc faded?

- On a related note, early computer geeks were notoriously stigmatized and mocked - and now Silicon Valley is the major trendsetter for most people. Similarly, there's the phenomenon of being called out for 'acting white' in certain black circles. Did you feel especially stigmatized as a 'black geek' in the early cyberspace days? And was there ever a push for there to be a 'black Steve Jobs' type celebrity geek / leader for black communities / tech?

This link fits neatly between these last two questions: https://web.archive.org/web/20000816154408/http://www.blackgeeks.net/2about.html

Why do black computer geeks seem even rarer now? (I can imagine one proposed explanation by a certain mindset being 'racism!' of some flavor)

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Also vis a vis black geeks, remember I was in NSBE. So I had been socializing with black engineers all through college. I had a crush on this woman, for example, back when she wore stonewash jeans and a high top fade. https://tnj.com/michele-leazama-named-president-ceo-nacme/

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Well this is likely to get rambly. I've already started detailed answers to your questions. But here are the nickel versions.

1. Early email lists were private and the owners moderated. We were generally more civil then, and they were mostly dedicated to networking, so there was little reason for things to get out of hand.

2. There was (and probably will again) a constituency of black 'power brokers' whose interest it was to hype up the idea of a 'digital divide'. I just heard the term again a few days ago with regard to 5G. It was stupid foot dragging then and it is now. But there was also a goldrush mentality in the establishment of the first black online spaces in the 90s. This was a perfect illustration of black diversity. I definitely had strong opinions I will get into. I think the momentum faded because of hiphop.

3. Early 'geeks' were stigmatized by the same kind of people then as now - anti-intellectuals, mostly in Hollywood which had really yet to get one computer hacker story even vaguely right before Mr Robot.

You can start here about 'Acting White'. Much sound and fury: https://cobb.typepad.com/visioncircle/2005/06/roland-fryer-an.html

Then go here: https://cobb.typepad.com/cobb/2005/06/acting_white_ac_1.html

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Thanks for the clarification! This stuff is really enlightening for me. (Full disclosure: I first came online as a kid in the late 90s, and my only real exposure to black cyberspace representation back then was through sites for stuff like BET and FUBU - then I was deep into hip-hop / rap / r&b as my main compasses for 'Blackness' for years as a teenager before I started thinking more deeply about race, black identity, etc.)


1. Were there topics / discussions that you were having in those early email lists that you feel aren't happening so much anymore? Or on the flipside, are there online conversations happening these days which weren't happening then (broadly-speaking)?

2. Yeah, I could definitely see these sorts of 'power brokers' coming back onto the scene - especially with all of these pushes to 'Support Black ______'. It really is a shame that black online spaces faded away, because even just from the bits I've been able to find through the Internet Archive, they really do show a much more diverse, and frankly interesting, portrait of black people. Nowadays I basically only see 'Black Twitter' or BLM/CRT sites being put forward as iconic black online spaces.

3. Do you still stay in touch with the NSBE network these days? And if so, does the atmosphere seem to have changed significantly culturally or politically since your time with them?

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3. A few short years after I left school, NSBE took an Afrocentric turn, as did much of black America. They began entertaining such speakers as Jawanza Kunjufu and various other Hoteps. Long story short, it was a shit show. Some days you couldn't tell a NSBE conference from the Black Family Reunion or African Marketplace. I had little to do with them in those days. My close friends on the national board went on to very successful careers. Probably the most well known of them is this dude. https://leadership.ucdavis.edu/chancellor/gary-s-may

2. There is always going to be some marketing calculation in dealing with the money it takes to sustain a commercially successful website of any sort. And generally, the economics of hiphop have demonstrated that the lowest common denominator will win. This was proven in the 90s which pretty much ended the careers of all female rappers. I don't want to get into it, but again this is the problem with a failure to accept black diversity. When you get into a kind of monopoly situation where you dare not disagree with JayZ or Spike Lee because you think you figured out all of blackness, then you are inevitably betrayed by your own ignorance.

The answer is to adhere to intellectual honesty, and actual brilliance, and stop believing that the 'blackness' you own is the 'blackness' everybody should respect. That's racial marketing, and those markets are transient and fickle. If it's on a billboard but not in a book, maybe it's only for people in the streets.

1. I have taken a 50,000 foot view, or as I used to say, I've been on two mountaintops further than the one Dr. King talked about. I've already crossed two more deserts, and I'm speaking from that experience. When it comes to black culture and politics, I don't find it particularly interesting or rewarding to debate it online. That's a difficult thing to express and communicate because I've hung out in ...OK I know just the story. I'm nowhere near as rich as Oprah, but I have been to the street of boutiques in Zurich where she was famously denied by a 'racist' saleslady. I felt perfectly comfortable there. But I also took the time to study what the Swiss personalities are like - interestingly I am very much like them.

Here's another personal story. I was sure, at one point, that I was headed to Harvard for my MBA. That never happened, but I did attend a seminar given by black alumni of HBS. So I'm sitting near the front row and the woman who had put on the conference rants for about 30 minutes about how racist Boston is and how she has to fight stereotypes that she's a Northeastern student, not a Harvard student. The dude sitting next to me rolls his eyes. He's a Sr. Vice President at Ford Aerospace and runs an $800 million division. And he's like, yeah that's why she's never going to get anywhere. Her specialty, btw was Healthcare Administration, because her aim was to get better hospitals to ghettos. Nothing wrong with that, but she had already determined that her aim was to be blackity black, but then she complained that people treat her blackity black.

So that's a long way of saying that you need to get in where you fit in and stop expecting everything 'black' to apply to you. These days I say it like this. If you have to choose one black music, what's it going to be: {Gospel, R&B, Blues, Hiphop, Jazz}? Well, dude no question for me it's Jazz. But if I had to give up Classical for Jazz, that would be painful.

There are black Americans all the way up and all the way down. You don't need more than 300 friends. So is it really so bad that you have to troll the streets looking for the perfect beat? We got 42 million. Maybe you need to move to another city. That's what I'm saying to black America. Deal with your own diversity. There is no single 'black community'. There is no single 'black experience'. There is no single static 'blackness'. Move your own ass, and take pride in yourself. Stop trying to borrow glory or suffering.

So this is my way of saying. I decided to have the conversations I wanted to have. I'm that guy. As soon as I could blog, there was nothing that could stop me. So I've written certainly more than 10,000 essays over the years. And I have them all. And I'm still moving forward.

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Oct 20, 2020Liked by Michael David Cobb Bowen

Beautifully put, Michael - this really resonates with my own trajectory away from a specific brand of 'Blackness' (and, honestly, racialization in general) toward actual human complexity and living a meaningful life within my own particular circumstances/values. It's frustrating and sad to see how many people get sucked into the endless race debate spiral - there's so much more to talk about and experience! The hardest part for me these days is trying to convince 'Antiracist allies', etc that my life isn't solely defined by a constant fear of being shot by racist cops or whatever other trending narrative that has eclipsed their perception of me as an actual individual.

Anyway, again, I can't tell you how much I appreciate what you've been putting out into the world - really helps me retain my sanity sometimes haha

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