The Enlightenment’s Contradictory Legacy and the Evolution of American Journalism

The European Enlightenment fostered ideals that still animate democratic societies, but those ideals were freighted with received notions of white supremacy and patriarchy. This presentation traces the ways in which those ideas affected the development of the norms and practices of American journalism in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Of interest: A New Sociological Critique of The Souls of Black Folk

The 1903 publication of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk is considered a watershed in the history of American arts, letters and politics. Du Bois (1868-1963), then a sociologist at Atlanta University, offered his theory of “double-consciousness” – the notion that black Americans are deprived of agency and self-awareness because survival in a racist society requires that they constantly police themselves to remain acceptable to their oppressors.

Writer W E B Du Bois

A lot has been written about Souls of Black Folk and the contemporary relevance of Du Bois’ argument. The best literary and rhetorical analysis, as far as I am concerned, is still Arnold Rampersad’s Art and Imagination of WEB Du Bois (Harvard University Press, 1976.) Rampersad situates Souls within the context of Du Bois’ evolving framework for thinking about race, which rested on several key tenets:

  • People of African descent are one people, with great internal diversity.
  • Colonialism and slavery had a defining impact on African peoples in ways that bind them together despite their diversity
  • Contrary to Hegel, et. al, African-descended people are contributors to history (this conviction grew over time. At the time of Souls, he identified spirituals as an indication of the capacity for cultural contributions.) African-descended people have made strides in the years since slavery.
  • Strategies and policies for making progress should be built upon empirical evidence, not faith or ideology. That requires a cadre of trained and educated leaders, ergo, the “Talented Tenth

Rampersad said that if “Huckleberry Finn” is regarded as the seminal work in American literature, “Souls of Black Folk” has the equivalent place in African American literature. Subsequent generations have had good reason to use it as the point of departure from which to articulate their own views of the African American experience. Agree or disagree, one has to reckon with it.

In a new monograph, The Soul-less Souls of Black Folk: A Sociological Reconsideration of Black Consciousness as Du Boisian Double Consciousness Paul Mocombe appears to argue that WEB Du Bois’ Hegelian articulation of the black experience really was about the desire of elite black folks to be accept by elite white folks. He says Du Bois relies on essentialist biological and cultural notions of race that were prevalent among 19th century intellectuals and steeped in white supremacy. Aspects of his critique are familiar, but his analytical framework seems new and inventive.

I’m not sure I’m going to agree with Mocombe’s assertion that Du Bois was in thrall to scientific racism. I’d say Du Bois struggled with them, trying to find an alternative framework that met the scientific standards of that day. (Mia Bay’s essay, “The World Was Thinking Wrong About Race: The Philadelphia Negro and Nineteenth-Century Science” from WEB Du Bois, Race and the City: The Philadelphia Negro and Its Legacy” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998) speaks to this brilliantly.

Still, I’m putting Mocombe on my summer reading list, and I’d love to know what Dr. Rampersad thinks of his thesis.

New fantasy app: GIGO for public databases and websites

Eva Martin, ex-slaveOne of the most important and powerful features of computational journalism is the ability to pull information from multiple databases and remix them in a variety of ways. Of course, that means that errors in those databases will be compounded and remixed as well. I wrote a bit about this problem in an October 27, 2009 post for Blogher:

“Last April, Amy Gahran blogged a Los Angeles Times story revealing that a crime map featured on the Los Angeles police department website was producing faulty data because of an error in the software that plotted the locations of specific crimes. Thus, crime clusters were showing up in low-crime neighborhoods, and some high-crime areas appeared deceptively safe. The error was particularly vexing for the high-profile news aggregator,, which relied on the maps and as part of its coverage.”

The thing is, that kind of error is relatively easy to solve, compared to other kinds of errors that crop up in public records.

For example,  sometimes we learn that database information is erroneous long after it is created.  For example, police corruption scandals can throw years of crime data into doubt. In Philadelphia in the 1990s, revelations of drug dealing, and other criminal acts by officers in the city’s 39th precinct cast doubt on 1400 prior criminal convictions.  However, if I obtain records from the Philadelphia courts or district attorney’s office for that period, can I necessarily be sure that the appropriate asterisks have been retroactively applied to those cases?

Here’s a more challenging example — not about errors in a database, but potential errors in data interpretation. About 10 years ago, I taught an interdisciplinary humanities course for which I used the University of Virginia’s online exhibit drawn from the WPA slave narratives. It’s an invaluable collection that includes transcripts and even some audio recordings from the late 1930s. The collection has an equally invaluable disclaimer designed to help contemporary readers place the narratives in appropriate historical context:

Often the full meanings of the narratives will remain unclear, but the ambiguities themselves bear careful consideration. When Emma Crockett spoke about whippings, she said that “All I knowed, ’twas bad times and folks got whupped, but I kain’t say who was to blame; some was good and some was bad.” We might discern a number of reasons for her inability or unwillingness to name names, to be more specific about brutalities suffered under slavery. She admitted that her memory was failing her, not unreasonable for an eighty-year-old. She also told her interviewer that under slavery she lived on the “plantation right over yander,”and it is likely that the children or grandchildren of her former masters, or her former overseers, still lived nearby; the threat of retribution could have made her hold her tongue.

Even with the disclaimers, I found some students concluded that the slaves interviewed had not suffered that much in captivity. I had to help them to read the documents in historical and cultural context. As more primary documents become accessible to people who aren’t experts in the subject matter, the opportunity for misreading and missing the context of those documents multiply.

So I was thinking, what is there was a kind of wiki for collecting errors in public databases, enhanced with a widget that could be embedded in any website? Call it GIGO: Garbage In Garbage Out. Create an online form that would allow people to submit errors – with appropriate documentation, of course. Perhaps use the kind of vetting process, uses to come up with a list of credible sites in response to a given search request. (Here’s an example of a Hakia search on global warming.)  What do you think?