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Erasure

This semester, I’m teaching DGST 395: Applied Digital Studies. It’s an upper-division required course for Communication and Digital Studies majors. It’s the first time I’ve ever taught this course, and the first time in a long time that I’ve been able to teach an upper-division course of any kind.

Given what’s been going on over the past few months, this course (and the other course I teach, DGST 101) have taken on an increased urgency. I’m working in an environment where the students are increasingly afraid and feeling unmoored. I can’t say that I don’t also share those feelings. I want to give them something to hold on to, to work in and work towards, to have them feeling empowered and informed.

But I also know that I need to push them and to challenge them. I have written before how I purposefully assign Afrofuturist works in my classes and theme them around themes like erasure, silences, and gaps, to get them to pay attention, to watch, to listen, to dig, to work at unlearning the loud, dominant narratives they have internalized.

I want to give them space and the tools and the knowledge to speak up, speak out, act, grow, and become good, if not great, citizens.

This semester, I assigned Binti, by . It is a short book, a novella, and a fast-paced read. It is a testament to Okorafor’s skills as a writer that she can build a world, multiple worlds in fact, in such a compact narrative. From publisher’s summary of the book:

Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.

Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti’s stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach. If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself – but first she has to make it there, alive.

I’ll put it bluntly: it is a girl with dark skin and dreads trying to make her way to one of the most prestigious universities in the universe. She is a genius, already a master builder of technology, and chooses to defy her family and cultural traditions to attend the university. She also must deal with the prejudices and stereotypes against her people specifically, and then humans more broadly.

This short, powerful book was the jumping off point in discussion erasure. It’s impossible to really discuss that theme as it appears and reappears in the novel without spoilers. Go, read it, read the sequel that just came out, and think about those things that are erased, elided, and forgotten.

Without spoiling too much, there is much to be said about naming a war-like alien race an allusion to a Greek mythological figure. I was proud of my students’ thoughtful discussions of the book and its themes, even if a) this isn’t a literature course and b) they weren’t that familiar with science fiction tropes, let alone Afrofuturism.

I then invited them to look for their own examples of erasure through/with technology. I started them with a number of examples taken from Model View Culture, as a way to start thinking about the erasure of race, gender, sexuality, disability, etc either through or with technology.

I was amazed, as always, with what they came up with. Beyond what they had already read about and the various iterations of those erasures, students found examples of erasure of Veterans, erasure of knowledge, erasure of language and culture, as well as various problems of representation.

We talked about tokenism, about preservation, about institutions and systems versus individual actors. They shared their own experiences of erasure, as well as they strongly-felt reactions to it. We talked about how erasure and misrepresentation wasn’t invented in the 21st Century, but how technology has worked to both to exacerbate as well as confront and counter these erasures.

There is another space and place to talk about my own erasures, but I really appreciated this exercise in being able to share various incarnations of erasure, and hopefully helping the students becoming more aware of what’s missing, and more critical of why.

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