By Hakim Bellamy, Media Literacy Project (member of Black Voices for Internet Freedom) Blog cross-posted from Media Literacy Project's website
S31. Any person who shall attempt to teach any free person of color, or slave, to spell, read or write, shall, upon conviction thereof by indictment, be fined in a sum not less than two hundred fifty dollars, nor more than five hundred dollars.
The right to communicate has traveled as long and arduous a journey as Black people in America. In 1740 South Carolina became the first state to pass a law prohibiting slave education. Reading was not banned because of its utility in spreading Christianity, however written speech was one of many freedoms that African American slaves did not enjoy. The idea of slaves sharing and expressing their dissatisfaction with their inhumane conditions, combined with the possibility of organizing like-minded people of all colors (near and far) to alleviate those conditions, was the primary impetus for establishing South Carolina’s legislation.
The same wealthy interests that profited off of the free labor of slaves also influenced and created legislation to protect their “industry.” After the Stono Rebellion of 1739, these interests used fear to persuade South Carolinians that these “slave codes” be enacted to prevent future insurrections and “protect” the economy of the Palmetto State. In neighboring North Carolina, the public education of any African American was prohibited by 1835.
Fast forward to the future where poor people of every color are looking for ways to share resources and information in order to better their condition. Popular education platforms, made accessible by the Internet, have given communities of color a whole new set of tools to make ends meet, create small businesses and educate themselves out of the ethnic ghettos created by institutional racism. African Americans have always been a bellwether for America. Data reveals that disparities around health, economics, and incarceration are always forecasted and exacerbated in the Black community. Access to television, radio and Internet is no different.
Just as Phyllis Wheatley broke the silence of Black women in print, there are many examples of media activism in American history. Media justice has always been a civil and human rights issue. The Internet has served as a catalyst for awakenings and resistance around the world. And like the Stono Revolution, there are entrenched interests that benefit from Black people not having the access or infrastructure to exercise their right to assembly, however electronically, and their right to free speech.
There is nothing vogue about communities of color sounding the drum for media justice. The grassroots movement to transform media and employ cultural production in the service of social justice was initially led by historically disenfranchised communities. The Black people are well aware that information is power, and decisions about what information we do or do not receive should be made by communities and not corporations. Years of corporate media turning our communities into markets has created a legacy of misrepresentation and underrepresentation that has devastated the self-esteem, self-respect and self-reliance of Black people.
In September, Media Literacy Project (MLP) partnered to launch Black Voices for Internet Freedom. Black Voices for Internet Freedom is a coalition of ten national groups who are working to educate users of their communications rights on the Web, and on their phones. MLP is currently engaged in conversations and interviews to finalize an advisory committee of African American stakeholders that represent a diverse cross-section of the community (including military, state government, business, technology, education, faith-based, and community organizations). The advisory committee will guide MLP’s participation in the coalition in a way that best serves the needs of Black community in New Mexico.
The arrival and innovation of the Internet has again put Black Americans in the ambivalent position of being both celebratory and cautious of the media. Any time there’s a possibility for the playing field of commerce, education and health outcomes to be leveled, it is cause for celebration in the Black community. At the same time, we are cautious because a medium that offers the promise of bettering the fortunes of many, very often attracts the rabid obsession of those who’d seek to increase the fortunes of a powerful few.
“Throughout the history of media in this country, whenever technology comes along, it fundamentally changes our media system,” says Joe Torres, Senior Advisor at Free Press (Black Voices for Internet Freedom coalition member) and co-author of News for All People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media. “Whenever something new comes along — whether it was the telegraph, or cable — there’s always an opportunity to allow more people to participate, but corporations are able to lobby lawmakers and pass new rules.” Black Voices for Internet Freedom will help our community benefit from new technology and be more aware of the new rule.
Hakim Bellamy is the Strategic Communications Director at Media Literacy Project.