An Interview with Alondra Nelson - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Alondra Nelson

“I don’t know how to live without doing research.”

by Nehal El-Hadi
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Alondra Nelson

“I don’t know how to live without doing research.”

by Nehal El-Hadi
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Alondra Nelson

Nehal El-Hadi
95 Snaps

In 1998, Alondra Nelson started the Afrofuturism listserv, which brought together artists, musicians, and scholars interested in researching and producing Afrofuturistic texts, with DJ Spooky (Paul D. Miller), novelist Nalo Hopkinson, and cultural critic Alexander Weheliye as early guest moderators. In 2002, while she was a doctoral candidate at New York University, Nelson edited a special issue of the cultural studies journal Social Text with a focus on Afrofuturism. The Afrofuturism issue—which addressed “the intersection between African diasporic culture and technology through literature, poetry, science fiction and speculative fiction, music, visual art, and the Internet,” and which maintained that “racial identity fundamentally influences technocultural practices”—turned out to be a seminal issue in the academic investigation of Afrofuturism. It also laid the foundation for Nelson’s work in producing critical interventions into Blackness and technology. Afrofuturism’s tentacular reach two decades later extends the prescience of the listserv and that collection of early texts on the subject beyond the academy and into the arts, community, and cultural institutions.

Nelson’s work unfolds new ways of knowing the relationships between Blackness and technology. Her first book, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), is an in-depth exploration of the Black Panthers’ organizing around the provision of health care to African American communities in the 1960s. In this text, Nelson draws lines between the historical conditions that the Black Panthers were responding to (often using new medical technology) and contemporary health disparities. Her most recent book, The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome (Beacon Press, 2016), responds to social changes produced through genetic testing technologies, uncovering African Americans as early adopters and drivers of genetic testing services, and exploring the implications the technology has had on the experiences and perceptions of race in America.

Nelson is the president of the Social Science Research Council, located in Brooklyn. Shortly after our interview, she became the Harold F. Linder Chair at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. My own intellectual journey has been shaped by the possibilities she has modeled as a Black woman in the academy; I drew on her work in my research on the interactions between material and virtual spaces in the everyday lives of racialized women. I’m intrigued by the deftness with which she extracts these complex and intricate narratives of race and technology, which—while they engage in acts of testimony and celebration—counteract dominant narratives of subjugation in the face of technological advancement. I spoke with Dr. Nelson over the phone from Toronto—she was in New York.

                                                                                                                                                 —Nehal El-Hadi

 

I. LIVING IN CODE

THE BELIEVER: How do you define the word science and what it encompasses? In your essay about Kerry James Marshall for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you write, “I am an interdisciplinary social scientist who writes about the intersections of science, technology, and social inequality.… So, I was absolutely delighted to hear Kerry James Marshall say that one of his favorite art magazines was Scientific American.… Marshall and I share overlapping, idiosyncratic interests in the intersections of science and race…. [He’s] a conjurer of history.” Science is supposed to be rational, right, but you bring in the fantastic in the same breath.

ALONDRA NELSON: I like thinking and writing about Black scientists, and I’m particularly interested in George Washington Carver, who, for nearly fifty years, was a professor at the Tuskegee Institute, an important, historically Black institution. The thing I’ve found interesting about accounts of his life is that he pottered around and tinkered. He became famous in the US for agricultural innovation and for coming up with inventive uses for peanuts. But it’s clear through studying the research about him that he thought of the laboratory as an artist’s studio. He was in there pottering and pondering. I am quite interested in how scientific creativity in the laboratory, in contemporary theoretical math and physics and these sorts of things, may have a similar ontology to art making. Art and science occupy different sites in a sociological sense, but they are in some ways parallel planes of creativity.

I have long known and admired the work of Kerry James Marshall. The moment I found out that a lay love of science had informed the way he conceptualized his art, other interesting things began to emerge from his work for me: the angles; the choice of using a kind of obsidian black, the blackest black color choice, the color that contains all others in the spectrum. That makes Marshall’s work multidimensional in a new way. Although as a child I felt trapped in the sciences as a career trajectory, there was a part of me that had a deep appreciation for what science can accomplish in the world at its best, and later in life, at its worst. So my definition of science wouldn’t be satisfactory to all scientists because I see its parallels with artistry (or “mastry,” to use the name of Marshall’s exhibition at the Met), and also because I have a critical relationship to it. But I know many scientists who understand their work to be a creative endeavor, not so different from what it is to be an artist or a writer, or from other work that requires you to go into a solitary concentration on one thing for a long period of time.

BLVR: You do all this, and it’s infused with Blackness.

AN: Yes.

BLVR: So how do you add that layer in, or is it intrinsic to your approach?

AN: I think it’s intrinsic. I think that is the beauty and burden of one’s particular standpoint. I don’t know how to do it any other way. I don’t know how to write a work that doesn’t take into consideration the experiences of people who look like me, who are like me. But also, in regard to spaces of science and technology, I think we learn more and more deeply about their social implications, about their implications for ethics and social justice, when we take the standpoint of people, of communities like those of African Americans, that have been the most damaged by science and technology, and in some cases that have been the most innovative with it, despite these countervailing forces. I say this a lot in my public lectures, because even after completing this research, my mind is still blown by this.

In my research on direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry testing, African American senior citizens were the early adopters of this new start-up technology. And that’s not how we think today about direct-to-consumer ancestry testing. We think about 23andMe and the “quantified self.” What does it mean? I want to explore the grace and courage that it takes to be a community of sixty-, seventy-year-old African Americans who grew up under Jim Crow, who grew up under very explicit conversations about scientific racism, and about whether or not Black people had what it took to be leaders in science and technology and, God forbid, even to understand it. I want to try and convey the profundity of that. These are people who had that lived experience and understood very well the stakes of engaging with genetic science. A lot of the folks I write about and encountered early in that project, whom I interviewed and spent time with, are upper-middle-class professionals. So many of them have had careers that are in the sciences or parallel to the sciences and technology, often in the federal or municipal governments. They really appreciate how important it is for them to have a particular role in giving shape to what various forms of technoscience can mean in their lives. And I think that if we want to understand anything about science and technology, we need to begin with the people who have been the most damaged, the most subjugated by it, but who also, out of that history, are often able to be early adopters and innovators. That’s incredible.

BLVR: And you work in contradiction to the oppositional binary of Blackness and technology. I sent you this quote by Northwestern University African American Studies professor Alexander Weheliye: “So much of Black cultural practices oftentimes push against the limit of mainstream definitions and intended uses of technology and continually innovate without automatically looking back.” Your writing also counters that frame of understanding technology and Blackness where a Black person is seen as a victim or an object. You repeatedly show that a Black person can easily be an innovator.

AN: It’s funny. My mother, just before I was born, so in the mid-to-late ’60s, worked for the US Army. I don’t know if women were officially in the army then, so it might have been the WAVES program1 or some other gender-segregated faction of the military. But she was a cryptographer in the army, and by the time I was in kindergarten or first grade, my mother was working on big IBM mainframe computers for the US Department of Defense. Some of my earliest memories were of being picked up after school and my mom taking us to volleyball practice or a Camp Fire Girls event or whatever, being in the back of a station wagon filled with computing paraphernalia like punch cards and cathode-ray tubes. And early programming required handwritten algorithms—you used flowchart templates to create the squares and arrows and lines that graphically represented a process or algorithm. Because those are my foundational years, there’s no opposition for me between technology and my Black experience. It’s actually in some ways the seedbed of my experience. I have this biographical foundation that then gets taken up in a critical exercise by the time I’m in graduate school. I understand that personal history and a lot of my desire to write in the spaces that I do is connected to my time as a graduate student. I was an obsessive writer and reader in the mid-1990s, at a time when there was a critical mass of really great scholarship and nonfiction work being published that helps us to begin to understand the history of science, race, and racism.

BLVR: You literally lived among code.

AN: Yes! Right! It was a different moment of code, when code had more literal, physical artifacts, and one could live in and with code.

BLVR: That’s really interesting to me, especially in the ways that you work with it now, as its materiality has changed.

AN: Because I grew up with computing in some ways, it wasn’t an abstraction for me. So by the time we get to 1982 or ’83, when personal computing becomes a mass phenomenon in the United States, we’d had computers in our house for several years. We had early video games. My mother would just bring things home; she’d be like, “Somebody at the office thought you guys might like this.” Other people in my generation didn’t have that experience growing up. One day the first Commodore 64 or early Apple desktop computer arrives, and you turn it on and it’s like magic. I had grown up seeing the stuff of it, and the material of it, and the punch cards and the prototypes and the betas and all that.

BLVR: When you talk about the space where science and Blackness intersect, it is almost like you’re describing a parallel universe.

AN: That’s exactly right: it is this parallel world. There was an exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem called The Shadows Took Shape, and for one of the catalog essays, I reflected on Black women poets from the nineteenth century and early writers who were trying to think about cosmology and early instantiations of science and technology, to pull that timeline even further back. Mark Dery did a series of interviews in 1994 [for his book Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture], and in the introduction to those interviews, he coined the term Afrofuturism to capture epistemologies and ontologies in African American and Black diaspora life. He gives name to a tradition that’s hundreds of years old. In the US and in North America—more in the US, I think—we talk increasingly about slavery as the original sin, but we want to also talk about racial slavery, chattel slavery as originary in another way. For the book, Dery interviewed the historian and cultural theorist Tricia Rose, who wrote the first monograph on hip-hop culture, called Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in America, which for me is a very important book about race and technology that doesn’t get read that way. Dery poses a question to Rose about race and technology.

To paraphrase Tricia’s words: Black people are the first robots. We are the first service instruments, service tools that are like robots, deemed to be both human and not-human. The contemporary literature on robots is instructive: for them to be effective and useful (to humans), they have to be humanoid enough; we like when they have eyes and maybe the eyebrows go up and down, but they can’t be too human. I think that’s one summation of racial slavery and the Black experience. John Harley Warner, a historian of science at Yale, and Steven Epstein, who’s a sociologist of science at Northwestern, write about this change over time, from the nineteenth-century “principle of specificity,” in which medical diagnoses were said to differ by age, race, gender, climate, and other variables, to a kind of medical universalism in which medical therapies were said to be effective across and despite these variables.

But as Dorothy Roberts, the civil rights sociologist and law professor, reminds us, the idea of biological racial differences in medicine exists in the present. Think about a figure like J. Marion Sims, the “father of modern gynecology,” who we know did his experiments on Black women without anesthesia.2 This is a moment—the nineteenth century—in the medical literature and in the scientific racism literature in which all of these arguments are being made about the literal biological differences of Black people, whether or not we are people, and if we are people, how different we are from people who are not Black. Steven Epstein calls it the “inclusion-and-difference paradigm”3 in the contemporary moment. But we’re supposed to be so different, African Americans, and yet we’re similar enough, or moreover the same biologically, such that you can do gynecological experiments or medical research or organ harvesting on us and use that research on other people. Even in science and medicine and technology, there’s a split mind about difference and similarity. To go back to the robot analogy, that is an originary moment for Blackness and technology that makes the relationship between the two distinctive.

 

II. “THE FIGURE OF THE BLACK PRESIDENT”

BLVR: How do you choose what to study? What is it about something that captures your interest?

AN: I have a very instinctual relationship to research topics. I mentioned earlier that this critical mass of literature about race and science comes out in the ’90s: books about racial science during the Holocaust, books about eugenics, early books about science and the slave economy, and these sorts of things. Also in that time, we have new scholarly literature about the civil rights movement and the Black Panther Party. There are some memoirs that start to come out in the late ’80s and early ’90s from leaders and key figures in the party like David Hilliard and Elaine Brown. Enough time had gone by that activists were beginning to reflect on their life in that organization. And it’s also the case that we start to get the first new attempts at scholarly literature on this period.

I was really struck by both the memoirs and an anthology edited by Charles E. Jones called The Black Panther Party [Reconsidered], in which you have a new generation of scholars doing original Panther research. In all of this work, there was passing mention of health technology, medical science, and sickle-cell clinics. I tried to follow the series of citations, as one does—that process becomes the genealogy for you to map out an idea—and I found myself in this echo chamber where people were citing one another, and I’d follow the citations back and couldn’t get to any primary document that told me who made the claim first. So I knew I was going to have to do some of this work myself. I end up doing the book [Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination], and in that book there is a chapter about the Black Panther Party’s engagement with what we now know as sickle cell anemia, the first known genetic disease, which was discovered in a Caribbean student in 1910.

And by the time I was finishing that work, I had been thinking quite a lot about race and genetics vis-à-vis scientific racism and eugenics, and also about the ways that African Americans try to develop rich political and historical explanations and ideologies about what caused sickle cell anemia and why it predominated in—although it’s not exclusive to—people of African descent. So that’s in the late ’90s, early aughts. And then in the early aughts, there are rumors of the emergence of direct-to-consumer genetics. This new phenomenon bridged perfectly from my earlier, more historical project on genetics. I was like, OK, if no one else is interested in this, I am. I felt in that moment that I couldn’t not study this.

Maybe it’s the emergence of new organizations that ties my research together. I’ve got an essay that I need to finish that is on the explosion of for-profit and not-for-profit computer coding academies and schools. They didn’t exist ten years ago. I’m curious about this emergence, particularly as someone who is old enough to have grown up in a computing culture, when we had these early beta computers in my home, when you couldn’t even turn on a computer or do anything on a computer like print or run files if you didn’t know some code. And to me, the question is: Why wasn’t that a moment in which we had computing and coding camps? Why is this new organizational sector rising in this moment? I’m interested in the emergence of this new social sector. And I’m also interested in putting that in conversation with contemporary conversations about STEM diversity and tech diversity. I do see the heartwarming and really positive implications and outcomes of organizations like All Girls Code, Black Girls Code, Code for America—all these coding endeavors that are really trying to engage, in particular, marginalized communities. On the other hand, because we know some of the history of computing that comes out of Nazi Germany, in the history of IBM, because we know the history of ARPANET and the internet and the military-industrial complex,4 that’s also sobering. And the question for me is: What are we bringing these young people into? If we think about James Damore, who was at Google and wrote this sexist, racist manifesto about his “downtrodden” experience there, or Ellen Pao’s book about her experience as an Asian American woman working in Silicon Valley and her lawsuit [in 2015 against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins for gender discrimination; the court ruled in favor of the firm], one can’t help but think, Black girls code, and then what? Do we want to send these young women to Silicon Valley, to toxic work environments? I’m interested in the paradoxes and conundrums that are in some ways not exclusive to spaces of science and technology, but that have particular twists and turns in those fields, both because of their pernicious histories and also because of the way those industries are being built out in the current moment. Right now it’s a small project, an essay I’m doing with a former student, but it might become something bigger.

The new book project I’m working on is an exploration of the Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Obama administration. I’m in the early stages, interviewing people who worked in the administration. Among other things, I’m interested in the fact that the biggest, most dynamic, most robust Office of Science and Technology Policy in the history of the US took place under the governance of a president of African descent. I don’t know where that’s going to lead me in the project, but it makes me think: Did this feat require a president of African descent? For example, Obama goes to Hiroshima in 2016—he’s the first sitting president to visit. Notably, he doesn’t apologize for the atomic bomb. It’s not an apology tour; it’s not meant to be for political repair; but he does say emphatically in a speech there that our scientific and technological imaginations have to be accompanied by a moral revolution. I think it was his way of saying that if we’re going to do these big gestures in science, like the A-bomb, moonshots, we have to have our ethical apparatus up and running as well. I’m wondering if the figure of the Black president plays a particular role in making it possible—not only because he’s willing to go to Hiroshima, but also because he perhaps embodies or symbolizes a keen and personal awareness of the history and critique of the more racist and pernicious aspects of science and technology, of the tremendous state power that has been brought to bear.

 

III. TIME IS HARD

BLVR: Alondra, how do you find the time?

AN: I don’t know how to live without doing research. Our time on this plane is so finite and I have so many questions about the world. And I also feel, for whatever reasons—biographical reasons, reasons of luck and good fortune, privilege, social networks, who knows—that I have come to have a very particular perspective on the world. I’ve reached a place where I’ve gone from, Gosh, I’ve got all these crazy ideas, to really appreciating that if some ideas are not written by me, other people are not going to write them. There’s a wonderful Toni Morrison quote: “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I am now at a stage in my intellectual trajectory in which I truly, deeply understand this sentiment.

There are probably thousands of books about John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, and there will be thousands of books about President Obama and his historic administration. But I feel like I’m the only person that can write this particular one. I’ve reached a point in my life as a thinker and writer where I feel a sense of urgency around the work.

Right now I run a research nonprofit, the Social Science Research Council, which I think is also important to our conversation for different reasons. It’s a ninety-six-year-old organization that started during the progressive era, when we had another moment—I hope we’re still a little bit in this moment—when we thought that social research could tell us important things about the world. To be able to bring kinds of projects that have not been cultivated in a place like this, to take the mandate and the mission of this organization, which is to be pace-setting and agenda-setting in social research, and to suffuse that with thinking about forms of marginalization, inclusion, and exclusion—that is a given to me, regardless of the research topic. Also, in 2019, I can’t imagine a single project we might do—whether it’s about the seventeenth century, 1619, the history of Jamestown and the origins of slavery in what would become the United States, or a project forecasting some future phenomenon—that’s not going to have to deal with the centrality of science and technology. It is the infrastructure for everything we do, including how we think about and access archives. There are things that I want to accomplish here at this organization because it is such an important infrastructure for social research. But time is hard.

BLVR: What is your relationship to time? How do you understand time?

AN: Of course, it’s not linear! We have made it linear in all sorts of ways. Yes, we’ve got our Roman calendar. But we’re always lurching forward and falling back. We live that and we understand that in our experience, even as we know that our bodies decay and decline over time. We grow old in a linear fashion. We see children grow before us in a way that is very linear, but we also know that there is a kernel or core of an adult person that is who they were as children. There’s this looping back and forward that is very much part of human experience. There is psychic comfort in linearity; it makes us feel like we’ve harnessed the world, that we’ve got control over the world. Linearity makes it possible for one to get caught up in a sense of inevitable social, political progress. In the moment we are living in now, I think part of the trauma of living under the raw racism, misogyny, and xenophobia of the Trump era derives from feelings of stalled progress and doused expectations. From an overinvestment in a progress narrative—particularly with regards to racial politics, issues of gender equality and equity—without sufficient attention to the fact that there’s the falling backward as much as there are leaps forward, and understanding that that is an inevitable part of the social dynamic. The great mythos of American life is the idea that we’re always improving, always moving forward. And the great story of science and technology is that it is also always leaping forward to good ends. To my mind, this political moment should be one of humility, of paying attention to looping back, and of acknowledging that sometimes looping back means failure, means going back to the woodshed, means throwing out what we thought we knew and thinking again.

1. WAVES is an acronym for Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service, the women’s branch of the US Naval Reserve that was established during World War II.
2. James Marion Sims (1813–1883) was an American physician and surgeon from South Carolina who revolutionized gynecology. He developed and refined his techniques on enslaved Black women and their children without the use of anesthetics, which produced a high mortality rate.
3. In his 2009 book, Inclusion: The Politics of Difference in Medical Research, Epstein defines this concept as “the research and policy focus on including diverse groups as participants in medical studies and in measuring differences across those groups.”
4. According to Edwin Black in his book IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation, “In the 1930s and 40s, IBM—through its German holding Dehomag—provided Hitler’s regime with electronic data processing machines and support. The Nazis used the machines to efficiently conduct censuses and identify ethnic populations.” ARPANET was a US government–funded project that provided the origins of today’s internet. It was designed to provide a network for the US Department of Defense’s computers, until it was decommissioned, in 1990, to allow for the creation of a global network.
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