NOTAt first, all the books I read on the internet reinforced my fears about the net effect of social media on the health of our body politic. For example, I thought three facts from Congressman Ro Khanna’s recent book, Dignity in a Digital Age, were enough to scare anyone concerned about the future of democracy.
Khanna reported that an internal discussion on Facebook revealed that “64% of all memberships in extremist groups are due to our recommendations”; he revealed that before 2020, “QAnon groups grew millions of followers because Facebook’s algorithm encouraged people to join based on their profiles”; and he pointed to a United Nations report that Facebook played an “instrumental role” in events in Myanmar that led to the murder of at least 25,000 Rohingya Muslims and the displacement of 700,000 others.
Seen and unseen, a brilliant new book by Marc Lamont Hill, a black professor, and Todd Brewster, a white journalist, certainly does not ignore these dangers. But the accent of the authors is mainly placed on the positive the effects of Twitter and Black Twitter, which they claim have democratized access to information, and the power of the smartphone to provide the compelling video evidence needed to prosecute the murderers of men like George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery.
The book is a quick, smart, and short history of the effects of new communication technologies, from 19th century photographs to 20th century movies and television and the internet of our time.
It includes terrific mini-portraits of many of the heroes and many of the villains of the black-and-white battle that has so dominated American history, including the great black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, who happens to be the most photographed. 19th-century American and white supremacist Thomas Dixon Jr, whose novel The Clansman served as the basis for the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation.
There’s a great section on the impact of The Birth of the Nation, which alone revived the Ku Klux Klan and did more to rewrite Reconstruction history than any other book or film. Its manager, DW Griffith, has been outspoken about wanting to give white Southerners “a way to fight back.”
“The sufferings of our family and friends – the terrible poverty and hardship during the war and for many years after – could not be found in the stories written by Yankees that we read in school,” wrote Griffith. “Out of all of this came a fiery determination to tell… our side of the story to the world.”
As the authors note, “His film did that spectacularly.”
The book also reminds us that this was the first film screened at the White House and that the host, Woodrow Wilson, was a Johns Hopkins friend and classmate of Thomas Dixon Jr. Wilson, of course, was also the president who authorized the segregation of the federal government.
But what makes this volume particularly valuable is the authors’ ability to see the good and the bad in almost everything.
W. E. B. Du Bois said The Birth of the Nation depicted “the Negro” either “as an ignorant imbecile, a vicious rapist, a venal or unscrupulous politician, or a loyal but doting idiot”. James Baldwin called it “an elaborate justification for mass murder”.
And yet the film was so egregious that it also had a huge positive effect – it “did more to advance the NAACP”, which had been founded six years earlier, “than anything else to that date. Essentially , this revived the civil rights movement.At that time, this term still had no meaning.
Du Bois and the NAACP hoped to retaliate “in kind” with a film called Lincoln’s Dream but were blocked by “lack of enthusiasm” from white capital.
In Our Time, Hill and Brewster identify the unique power of the George Floyd murder video, which “resonated with white people because the cruelty inflicted on him was so undeniable, so elemental…and so prolonged (nine minutes 29 seconds) that it could neither be ignored nor dismissed”.
For black people, of course, it was much more personal: as they watched “the last breaths expelled from Floyd’s body, they could see themselves in his pain; or an uncle, or a sister, or even a long-dead ancestor”.
A beautiful mini-biography of James Baldwin includes many of his most pungent observations, including: “All that is confronted cannot be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is confronted. And, “To be a nigger in this country, and to be relatively aware, is to be angry almost all the time”.
It turns out that “one of the most frequently cited counter-public BLM voices is that of Baldwin.” He is “the literary touchstone, conscience and pin-up of the movement” as well as its “most tweeted literary authority”.
This is the most positive contribution from Twitter – and in particular from Black Twitter – that I have ever heard of.
The authors write that Baldwin “was impatient with America because he saw it as trapped in its own history”, and wanted America to admit “it owed its very existence to an ideology of white supremacy”.
There was a time in my life when I considered this an exaggeration. But once you recognize that ours is a nation literally founded on genocide and slavery, Baldwin’s judgment becomes an indisputable truth.
Seen and Unseen: Technology, Social Media, and the Fight for Racial Justice is published in the United States by Atria Books