Jessica Johnson | Spike Lee and Black Studies in the Digital Age

A while ago I attended Jessica Johnson’s presentation on history and memory in the digital age, and struggled to think about what her presentation meant to me, and how I may interpret it in the context of this course. Levees has really been a turning point for me in Lee’s filmography, and has provided a way to think through a lot of concepts I’ve struggled with throughout the semester, including some of Johnson’s conclusions.

One of the most interesting concepts posed by Johnson is the role of statistics and data in understanding history and shaping memory of slavery. She discussed how statistics, to

some extent, are able to gloss over the realities of the human experience of slaves, as she was attempting to reconstruct. Her most interesting conclusion, however, was that perhaps it is possible to read between the lines of the statistics, or take note of what could be written in the margins, to gain a new understanding of what they could mean.

We have encountered the use of statistics in several Lee films in the past few months, most notably in Chiraq, where the introduction included the presentation of many statistics comparing Chicago to the war in Iraq, and in his documentary Levees. In the case of these films, the statistics offer a starting off point for a deeper exploration of individual experience, and it seems that Spike Lee is doing exactly what Johnson suggests– he reads between the lines of the statistics to not only undermine implicit assumptions of data itself but also impose names, faces, and stories onto statistics to force people to read between the lines. The difference here, of course, is that Johnson was exploring role of statistics in constructing the history/memory of slavery as it existed hundreds of years ago and Lee explores events in recent memory, which are still unfolding, but I think there remains a similarity in how data may be used, or perhaps misused, in the construction of the history and memory of those marginalized and oppressed.

We talked about this briefly in class, too, but I’m really interested if anyone was able to draw similarities between Johnson’s presentation and some of our recent discussions.

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