In Reply to Tim Cook’s “Speaking Up On Racism.”

To the Black community — we see you. You matter and your lives matter.

—Tim Cook

Your letter —“Speaking Up On Racism,” June 4 2021 —spoke to the pain and sadness that overcame all of us after the tragic death of George Floyd.

We, the black community, thank you for your feeling response.

I began writing this letter —my own Open Letter to you—in spring, 2019, when you gave the Commencement speech at Stanford University.

That Father’s Day, as I watched your presentation, I had just experienced Stanford’s Black graduation the night before.

The auditorium that housed the black graduation was filled, so to speak, to the brim with black students and faculty. White presence was conspicuously absent. But the next day, with the celebration of the Stanford graduation, black presence was conspicuously absent. As hard as you looked you couldn’t find one black face in the sea of White that filled the Stanford campus.

Our black graduation was swallowed up by the white speculative Stanford Graduation. The only remnant of Back culture was in the fact that the white marching band played Duke Ellington’s “A Train,” but I doubt anyone really heard it in a meaningful way. It was background music to a visual spectacle commemorating education at its best.

“Good morning, Class of 2019!” You began. “Thank you, President Tessier-Lavigne, for that generous introduction. I’ll do my best to earn it.”

You began by thanking everybody who made it possible: including the groundskeepers, ushers, volunteers and crew. You were honored, you said, and frankly a little astonished to be invited to join us for “this most meaningful of occasions.”

 

You, then, praised Stanford and the Silicon Valley for their creative genius.

“Silicon Valley is responsible for some of the most revolutionary inventions in modern history,” From the first oscillator built in the Hewlett-Packard garage, to the iPhones that I know you’re holding in your hands .Social media, shareable video, snaps and stories that connect half the people on Earth. They all trace their roots to Stanford’s backyard.”

Then you pivoted to the sharp intersection of technology and social justice movements:

“But lately, it seems, this industry is becoming better known for a less noble innovation: the belief that you can claim credit without accepting responsibility.”

In the middle of his speech, you told us a wonderful story  about the Stonewall Riots that took place in 1969, when police stormed a gay club in the Greenwich Village:

“I was 8 years old and a thousand miles away when Stonewall happened. There were no news alerts, no way for photos to go viral, no mechanism for a kid on the Gulf Coast to hear these unlikely heroes tell their stories…Greenwich Village may as well have been a different planet, though I can tell you that the slurs and hatreds were the same.”

It was an encouraging speech, and enthusiastically delivered; I later began writing my own speech, but never finished it — until now. Because before I got around to my open letter, the pandemic happened.

It was right on time!

Your letter brings before us the much needed discussion about the cultural divide between race and technology.

Above all, you recognized and emphasized the connection between racism and technology. George Floyd’s murder signified the failure of technology to heal the schism between the races.

“To stand together,” you wrote,  “We must stand up for one another, and recognize the fear, hurt, and outrage rightly provoked by the senseless killing of George Floyd and a much longer history of racism… That painful past is still present today — not only in the form of violence, but in the everyday experience of deeply rooted discrimination.”

We thank you so deeply for those sympathetic feelings. For as you write, Black people, “…see it in the everyday discrimination against blacks in all institutions on the police to the University academia.”

“We see it in our criminal justice system, in the disproportionate toll of disease on Black and Brown communities, in the inequalities in neighborhood services and the educations our children receive.”

We see the connection between the black communities and Apple.

Your letter even expressed concern about our fear in our own communities:

“I have heard from so many that you feel afraid — afraid in your communities, afraid in your daily lives, and, most cruelly of all, afraid in your own skin. We can have no society worth celebrating unless we can guarantee freedom from fear for every person who gives this country their love, labor, and life.”

Your response to the George Floyd death reminded me of the interview that Marshall McLuhan gave to a Playboy interviewer in 1969 when asked about the rise of racial troubles in the late sixties.

In the first place, McLuhan didn’t see the problems of societies in terms of the races—black against white. He saw the conflict through the lens of a media analyst. For McLuhan, the conflict was between literate white society and tribalism. Marshall McLuhan felt that the literate world created a world of detached, fragmented, soulless people.

Most of us grow up not thinking much about the alphabet we use every day, but McLuhan had a different take. For him—and other media scholars, Walter Ong, for example—the alphabet was the reason why we are so schizophrenic. For linguists, the alphabet is responsible for ripping us out of our tribal worlds that existed back in 5 century BC —back when Homer couldn’t read (writing had not been invented) and back when he was forced to free-style his yarns about Ulysses. From the point of view of history, the conflict is not only racial but a question of tribalization as well.

McLuhan wrote: “The alphabet served to neutralize all these rich divergences of tribal cultures by translating their complexities into simple visual forms; and the visual sense, remember, is the only one that allows us to detach; all other senses involve us, but the detachment bred by literacy dis involves and detribalizes man… Whites have begun to re-tribalize, because they recognize that the tribal life is a richer experience than the literate life.”

McLuhan then told Playboy: “The cultural aggression of white America against Negroes and Indians is not based on skin color and belief in racial superiority. Whatever ideological clothing may be used to rationalize it, but on the white man’s inchoate awareness that the Negro and Indian – as men with deep roots in the resonating echo chamber of the discontinuous, interrelated tribal world – are actually psychically and socially superior to the fragmented, alienated and dissociated man of Western civilization. Such a recognition, which stabs at the heart of the white man’s entire social value system, inevitably generates violence and genocide.”

McLuhan would be alarmed, as you are, by the George Floyd murder.  He would see it as an example of extermination.  In fact, the Playboy interviewee became alert and asked for clarification. “Well,” McLuhan went on ironically, “It has been the sad fate of the Negro and the Indian to be tribal men in a fragmented culture – men born ahead of rather than behind their time.”

“What, specifically, do you think will happen to him?” Playboy asked earnestly.

“At best, he will have to make a painful adjustment to two conflicting cultures and technologies, the visual-mechanical and the electric world; at worst, he will be exterminated.”

I think you understand this.

“The Negro should understand that the aspects of himself he has been conditioned to think of as inferior or ‘backward’ are actually superior attributes in the new environment. Western man is obsessed by the forward-motion folly of step-by-step ‘progress,’ and always views the discontinuous synaesthetic interrelationships of the tribe as primitive. If the Negro realizes the great advantages of his heritage, he will cease his lemming leap into the senescent mechanical world.”

***

With the 1960s Black Power Movement, black people made their “adjustments” between these two conflicting forces. Today, George Floyd is yet another example of us struggling between these two forces.

I have always wondered what it would be like to explore the mind of George Moses Horton, a slave, who lived from 1794 t0 1888. Because he was born in the height of slavery, he was denied literacy. Since Horton was forbidden to write his poems, he did what the ancient Homer did, he sang them, and improvised them.

Horton lived in a closed environment. How could I enter the world of a man who had no literacy? Because he didn’t have literacy Horton lived in what McLuhan called acoustic space.

Using the Apple software, you could create an Avatar that would simulate the acoustic world of an oral poet. I am building a project utilizing the insight given by the Oral tradition and the Apple world of AR and VR tools.

With the iPad technology, I could simulate Horton’s spontaneous, improvisation, in an acoustic world, his improvised lyrics to an attentive youth, some 170 years ago on the famous antebellum of North Caroline, in McCorkle Place. You can recreate the acoustic world of this oral poet as he performed. Through VR (Virtual Reality) technology, I could realize this new way of storytelling;  I  could—or can—perceive the word in which poems are flying through the Carolina azure sky. Through the new technology, I can retrieve the lost art of the oral poet George Moses Horton.

I can put the participant right next to the poet as he improvises a poem on Henry Clay, who might also be present. We are present with Horton in sound too.  We can hear the birds singing, and we hear the voices of students. You can touch the surface of the iPad and bring the image of birds in flight to a halt. We could touch the birds near Horton, and he can put them into his lyrics. Through the use of the scanning devices, I can capture the scene, as Horton would capture it in a rhyme.

“So what’s the problem?” you might ask. Using digital technology to retrieve an old poem sounds like a plan! The problem is that when I attempt to acquire the technology, I am confronted by the Gate-Keepers, the grandsons of the literate world.

When I bring my project up for funding, I am told “We don’t have any for that!” In academia the forces that hold back the inclusive world of digital technology is by the literate holdovers from the technological world.

So, Tim Cook, I want to return to your words, as you speak of doing more.

You wrote: “To create change, we have to reexamine our own views and actions in light of a pain that is deeply felt but too often ignored. Issues of human dignity will not abide standing on the sidelines… With every breath we take, we must commit to being that change, and to creating a better, more just world for everyone.”

And when you concluded that Stanford Commencement speech, you proclaimed: “whatever you do be a builder!”

I want to ask you if that applied to Blacks, too; are you sympathetic to Blacks who grew up under segregation, too? Are we builders?

I know that we are. If you believe so too, please give support to the George Moses Horton Project at Stanford University.

God Bless, and God Speed

Cecil Brown is the author of Dude, Where’s My Black Studies Department?. His latest book is Pryor Lives: How Richard Pryor Became Richard Pryor.

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