19th Century Black Public Sphere and the Visually “Shared Language” of the Public Sphere

In her essay, “Rethinking the Black Public Sphere: An Alternative Vocabulary for Multiple Public Spheres” Catherine R. Squires illuminates the functions of Black public spheres

“Thus a Black public is an emergent collective composed of people who (a) engage in common discourses and negotiations of what it means to be Black, and (b) pursue particularly defined Black interests… “

As early as the nineteenth century, African Americans created a Black public sphere through African American newspapers, churches and performance.  Prior to this African American discussion and strategizing was explicitly prohibited in southern states or allowed with a curfew in the north.  The mark of subaltern and disenfranchised groups is the censor of their public spheres and counterpublic, since they explicitly challenge the hegemonic discourse.  This nineteenth century discourse was the staging for the African American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s which Zeynep Tufecki explores in her book “Twitter and Tear Gas.”



James Brown African American Room, Newark Public Library circa 2011

The meat of public spheres are the networks that are formed by the participants. Tufecki employs the word network in the technological and sociological sense.  She explains that her story “is a story not about technologies but also about longstanding trends in culture, politics, and civic movements that converged with more recent technological affordances.”  Networks empower different ways of communicating and strengthens the existence of a counterpublic.  Michael Warner describes counterpublic as “Their members are not merely a subset of the public but constituted through a conflictual relation to the dominant public.”

Through dialogue and staging a conflictual discourse they strengthen what Tufecki calls “network internalities.”  To wit “Network internalities are the benefits and collective capabilities attained during the process of forming durable networks which occur regardless of what the task is, or how trivial it may seem, as long as it poses challenges that must be overcome collectively and require decision making, building of trust, and delegation among a semi durable network of people who interact over time.”  Though Tufecki ‘s framework is international with a significant concentration in the Middle East she often illuminates the work of Americans such as in the Occupy Movement and African Americans in the latter part of the 20h century.

media room

Media Room, Occupy Wall Street, Noelle Lorraine Williams

Interestingly her theory of “network internalities” works best in examining the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Tufecki brings up that the call for the Montgomery Bus Boycott stemmed from one woman, JoAnn Robinson who worked with two of her students to mimeograph and distribute thousands of notices to boycott the buses.  Though Robinson was not representing a particular organization – accurately reflecting what Tufecki describes as more of as the 21st-century phenomenon of an “Ability to organize without organization.”

JoAnn Robinson works under her own direction according to her biography.

However even in her individuality she represents the best of networks and Tufecki’s theory of “network of internalities” because it is only through the strength of the networks that she herself maintained as a teacher and community member, the ones that the church and social justice organizations have fostered and finally what may be described as a 1950s style of womanism that the boycott was successful the first day and subsequent days.


Occupy Wall Street, 2011

The power of the African American counterpublic fostered in the 19th century through the arts, the Black church, informal urban business is what served the African American community through abolition, reconstruction, Jim Crow and fostered a national contemporary dialogue around police brutality.

Tufecki is deft in explaining the ways that major national movements were sparked and initially sustained by individuals.  But I question in what ways did cultural folklore (the most sustained counter public) help foster these decisions made by those that helped define @TahrirSupplies a movement to assist protestors at Tahrir Square with medical supplies?

What is clear throughout her piece is that the opportunity for technology and social media is mediated through the public sphere.  Early on defining the public sphere as something defined by in large part through “public education and dialect” contributes to our understanding of a “shared language” how first mid-twentieth century images and then social media are able to create a virtual public sphere through the power of the visual.

Newspapers, radio, televion and now social media become a library of images and a virtual public sphere.  She succinctly explains about the prevalence of libraries at protests, “Perhaps more than anything, libraries represent a public good and a public space that is non-monetized and shared.”

Libraries – both material and virtual share commonly understood visual marks like text and image to convey a deeper understanding of the topic at hand.  The power of the network is in the shared image, in many cases the brutalized body, and if there is any chance at a common library or public sphere for subaltern and disenfranchised communities around the world, it is that.

“The Khaled Said episode, centering as it did on graphic and therefore controversial photographs, echoes an earlier incident in U.S. history, the murder of Emmett Till Seeing those images was a galvanizing moment for many persons and exposed many white people to the reality of the ongoing lynchings at a time when the civil rights movement  was poised to expand nationally. (The Montgomery bus boycott began within
four months of Till’s murder.)
Khaled Said’s case played a similar role in Egypt. A young Egyptian activist
told me about Khaled Said’s story and the pictures moved him from
being a political bystander to being an activist: “He [Said] wasn’t even political.
Yet the police tortured and killed him. If it could happen to him, it
could happen to anyone, even me.” (140)

About Noelle Lorraine Williams

Noelle Lorraine Williams is an artist whose life's work exemplifies her continued interest in engaging people in conversations using art, history and contemporary culture about spirituality and American identity. Her website is www.noellelorrainewilliams.com
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