About Talia Whyte

Posts by Talia Whyte:

How W.E.B. Du Bois Used Innovative Communication To Advance Social Justice

W.E.B Du Bois

I receive a lot of free books to review for this site, but I don’t always have the time to read them unless I find a book that really speaks to me.  I recently read A People’s Art History of the United States by Nicolas Lampert, which documents how art and visual communication shaped American social movements over the last four hundred years.

One chapter that caught my attention was one about civil rights activist and journalist W.E.B. Du Bois.  In 1910 when Du Bois became the director of publicity and research for the NAACP, he also became the editor for its monthly magazine The Crisis.  At the time, a growing number of lynchings were taking place throughout the South. According to the Tuskegee Institute, an estimated 4,724 people were lynched in the United States from 1882 to 1968, and two-thirds of them were African-American.  Blacks were lynched for pretty much any “suspected” reason.

Du Bois used his platform at The Crisis to speak out about the killings. Using photographs and eyewitness accounts, The Crisis became the leading publication in the country that regularly reported about lynchings.

a reply to mr holmes from alabama. cortesy of University of Wisconsin Milwaukee

This postcard was published in the January 1912 edition of The Crisis.  As was common at the time, photographers present at lynchings would process their images and print postcards on site to sell to the crowd as “souvenirs”.  This particular postcard was sent to anti-lynching advocate Rev. John Haynes Holmes as a way to intimidate him.  Du Bois reprinted the postcard in The Crisis to show the world the reality and prevalence of this horrific practice.  At the time it wasn’t common to see images of lynchings, even in the black press.

Du Bois also published lynching images of Jesse Washington (below), a mentally disabled black teenager in Waco, Texas who was found guilty for raping and murdering a white woman.  While Washington did confess to the murder, there was never any evidence that a rape had taken place.  Following his conviction, Washington was castrated, mutilated, stabbed and beaten before he was lynched.  His body was then lowered into a fire, cut into pieces and distributed as “souvenirs” to the crowd.  As a finale, his torso was dragged through the streets.

Jesse Washington. Image credit: Library of Congress

The images are truly shocking, to say the least.  But what is even more shocking is that photographers took pictures of the lynchings for profit, and then people would buy them to mail to friends like they were postcards from an exotic travel destination.  This practice became so popular that in 1908 the U.S. Postmaster General put a ban on mailing lynching postcards.  It also speaks volumes to the low value African-Americans had at the time.

This is why Du Bois was determined to publish and reappropriate the images.  This was truly a case where images speak louder than words.  “Let everyone read this and act,” Du Bois once said.

A Man Was Lynched Yesterday. Image Credit: Library of Congress

Du Bois also took his anti-lynching activism to the streets – literally.  This flag hung outside the New York NAACP offices on Fifth Avenue.  I think this image was the first thing that introduced me to the organization while learning about black history as a younger student.  It was a brilliant way to bring attention to the crime to those in the North, as well as establish an advocacy brand for the organization.

While he made a name for himself and The Crisis with the anti-lynching campaign, Du Bois also knew that in order to fight racism, he had to counter it with positive images of successful African-Americans as well.  This was largely driven by his controversial theory that the “talented tenth” percent of educated, middle-class blacks will guide the 90 percent of working class blacks.  He was also an early supporter of the Harlem Renaissance and frequently published work of the Langston Hughes, Laura Wheeler Waring, Alan LockeCountee Cullen, Claude McKay and Romare Bearden.

Whether he was publishing images of an affluent black couple that just got married or putting on a silent march in solidarity with the victims of the East St. Louis race riots, Du Bois not only helped to change the way whites viewed blacks but also how blacks viewed themselves.  Du Bois’ work at The Crisis is a major milestone for racial uplift for African-Americans and advocacy journalism.

Can Legalized Marijuana Save Jamaica’s Economy?

Authentic Jamaican Product

Last month the Jamaican parliament moved closer to decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana. This move also highlights the Caribbean island’s troubled economy and the now desperate measures to save it.

Contrary to common belief, marijuana use is illegal in Jamaica and has been since 1913.  However, there are a few factors that may have caused the change of heart among Jamaica’s political establishment recently, which is heavily swayed by the island’s religious lobby.

For one, earlier this year Uruguay moved to legalize the drug, being the first country to do so.  This was done largely to prevent the kind of organized drug violence happening in other Latin American countries.  However, marijuana use will be heavily regulated. Users have to be over 18 years old, can only buy 40 grams of it a month and no tourists will be allowed to buy and use it.

Secondly, Jamaica has pretty much exhausted all the IMF lending programs, and the island is on the brink of a real economic disaster.  The Jamaican government is now facing the new reality that it needs to be more creative and take better advantage of potential economic opportunities.  Jamaica is strategically located in the Caribbean and is closer to the United States than its competitors in Central and South America as far as food agribusiness is concerned.  This is particularly important as the Panama Canal expansion is completed next year.

Also, as more American businesses are moving their outsourcing (especially telemarketing) ventures out of Asia for locations closer to home, Jamaica, with the third largest English-speaking population in the Western hemisphere, should be poised to be a hotspot for new opportunities.

But back to the issue of weed.

Over the weekend I had a discussion with some family members about legalizing marijuana on the island.  I am a first generation Jamaican-American. My father came to the United States in the early 1970s, while my brother-in-law came here in 1998 to marry my sister.  When I brought up the topic of legalizing marijuana to them, they both objected on moral and health reasons.  My brother-in-law was especially concerned that legalized marijuana could actually create more violence.

Personally, I have never smoked marijuana and I am not really religious, so I can’t speak about the moral and health objections. But I will say that decriminalizing marijuana would take away the fear of getting a criminal record while reducing police bribery and corruption. Fewer people with criminal records means more able-bodied people who can work and contribute to the economy.  Of course, if regulated properly, legalized marijuana would be great for Jamaica.  Unlike Uruguay, allowing tourists to smoke weed while on holiday would bring in billions of dollars and put Jamaica on a positive financial path.

Why America Needs Broadband Reform

broadband-tv-phone package prices

We all know the price for internet access in the United States is getting out of control.  But this issue really came close to home a couple of months ago when a good friend of mine and longtime neighbor was laid off from her job.  She told me that in order for her to cut down on expenses, one of the first things she did was cancel her internet and cable TV package with her provider.

I can understand getting rid of cable TV, which mostly shows useless programming these days, but the internet seemed like an ironic decision.  She can’t afford to have internet access anymore because she lost her job; however, she needs internet access to search for her next job.  Of course, being a good friend, I offered to let her use my computer if she needed it.

However, even I wonder how much longer I will be able to afford my combo package.  I have a internet and land line phone package that costs roughly US$115 a month.  I considered dropping the phone and just getting an internet subscription recently.  When I contacted my provider, I was told it would cost US$39 just for the internet, but that doesn’t include all the other taxes and “hidden fees”, which jumps the price up to near US$90 a month.  So I ended up keeping my phone and internet package.

My friend is a single mother with two small children.  When she was working, she was barely making above minimum wage.  Not having internet access in her home is a burden for her in other ways too.  She has a desktop computer, so she doesn’t have the luxury of taking a portable computer to the local Starbucks or library to use the free WiFi.

She could use the computers for free at the library, but that comes with problems sometimes.  There is always a line of people waiting to use the computers.  Users are only given 30 minutes and can extend their time by another 30 minutes if there isn’t another person waiting, which is not very often.  Sometimes there is no guarantee that you will even get to use a computer before the library closes.

Even if you do get a computer, 30 minutes to do a job search is not enough time.  Most of the time, the connection speed is slow.  There are only four computers in the adult area for use, and two of them are either broken or down because of a virus most of the time.  There is no IT support guy in the library to fix the problem, and the staff librarians don’t know what to do with broken computers.

Luckily, there are programs like Technology Goes Home and other government subsidized programs she may qualify for, but even this is just a small band aid on a gushing wound.

My friend is like millions of other Americans who are being impacted by a new kind of digital divide.

I did a little research to see how other countries line up with the United States regarding cost and speed, and let me tell you, if more Americans knew what people in other countries pay for their internet service, there would be riots in the streets.

countries with high-speed broadband

As you can see in the top images, South Korea leads the world in both low cost and high broadband speeds.  Unlike in the United States, South Korea recognizes that internet access is a basic utility and not a luxury item.  Interestingly enough, this was the same exact conversation Americans were having 100 years ago; just replace internet with electricity.  Yes, there was a time in this country’s history when only rich people could afford to have electricity in their homes, while the rest of the country was price gouged.  Eventually, this country came to the realization that it was in society’s best interest that everyone have access to electricity.

Today we take electricity access for granted; we just expect it to be there when we switch on a light or recharge our mobiles.  At this time in our history internet access should also be seen as essential for our lives too.  There are not many things in life you can do anymore without internet access.  It is time to better regulate how private companies provide their internet service so people like my friend are not left behind in the new digital age.

What Black Females Think About STEM Education

STEM careers

Lately there has been all this talk about the lack of racial and gender diversity in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.  This was spurred on by Google revealing a breakdown of their employees by race and gender.  And to no one’s surprise, the tech giant’s workforce is largely white and male.  Yahoo and LinkedIn followed suit with their own diversity reporting with similar findings.

I’ve been a web designer for about five years, and I interact with people on projects with a wide variety of computer programming skills, ranging from talented web developers who build databases to hardcore programmers who can build with C++ and Java in their sleep.  When I go to tech conferences or networking events, I am almost always the only black female in the room.

I recently went back to school to get more formal programming training, and, again, there were very few women and minorities in those classes.  Interestingly enough, the few women and minorities in my classes were all foreigners from India, Russia and Nigeria.

So I wasn’t actually surprised about the lack of workforce diversity at these companies.  Many people have insinuated that racism and sexism has caused this problem.  I’ve never worked for any of these companies, nor do I know anyone who currently works for Google, Yahoo or LinkedIn, so I don’t have any real insight into what is really going on in these respective human resources departments.  I also don’t have any solid proof that there is hiring discrimination.

I just don’t know.

But my initial guess is that there aren’t that many women and people of color working for these companies because there aren’t enough qualified applicants in the job pool because there aren’t enough women and people of color pursuing STEM careers in the first place.  Only 18 percent of women and less than 10 percent of African-Americans and Latinos pursue computer science college degrees.

Before there can be a serious discussion about STEM workforce diversity, we have to look at the state of STEM education in the United States.  From my vantage point, there are many reasons for the lack of non-white guys in STEM industries.  While these apply to all science, engineering and mathematics careers, for the purposes of this article, I will focus on technology education and careers.

1. Lack of role models and mentors – Simply if you don’t see anyone who looks like you working in that field, you are more likely to not want to consider a career in that field.

2. Gender stereotyping – As far as women are concerned, there has been this longstanding stereotype that computer science is a guy thing, geeky and not “feminine.”

3. Lack of training opportunities – Most people working in computer sciences are first introduced to the field while in K-12 schooling.  If you are a girl of color or a low income girl of any color, you most likely attend a crappy public school that probably doesn’t have computers, let alone computer science classes.  Even if you are lucky to have access to computer science classes at your school, most likely those classes don’t count towards your graduation requirements, so there is no incentive to take the classes in the first place.

I remember I had to take a computer science class in high school, and I really hated it because the teacher was an old guy who fell asleep in class and it seemed really hard with all that math.  I never had any real interest in technology until I was already into my journalism career.  By the time I started my career, the writing was on the wall and journalism was being turned upside down by the Internet.  I first got interested in technology when I started to see how the Internet was democratizing the media and making it possible to be your own publisher.

In my spare time, I mentor a couple of 15-year-old African-American girls – Cynthia and Keyshia – and I asked them the other day specifically if they had any interest in STEM classes or careers. Cynthia attends an public school in Boston.  She says she has to take a computer class at her school, but she hates it because her teacher is “soooooo borriiiiing.”  Keyshia attends a suburban public school outside of Boston that offers AP computer science.  She said she doesn’t want to take the class because it seems too hard, too much math and they’re only boys in the class.

Coincidentally, Cynthia and Keyshia are very tech savvy, as their eyes are always glued to their iPhones either texting or posting pictures on Instagram.  However, their tech consumption doesn’t seem to translate to any interest in pursuing a tech career or even finding out how the Instagram mobile app was built.

I recently showed Cynthia and Keyshia how I designed my new website Women Talking, and they were fascinated not only by the design, but how easy and fun it was to design it.  I showed them a little HTML and CSS and how they worked together.  I then helped them to create a slideshow using jQuery for a different website.   Both girls said they were really interested in these web design techniques because they could instantly see the results of their coding in a browser.

“Why don’t they teach stuff like this in my school?” Keyshia said.

Maybe schools should teach computer science in a way that makes it relevant with things we do and use in our daily lives.  Teenagers love to text, maybe there should be classes on how to develop mobile apps for texting.  Video games?  How about a class that not only teaches JavaScript and other game design tools, but also require students to design their own video game by the end of the semester.

Considering the fact that not many American high school students – regardless of race or gender – are taking AP computer science classes anymore, schools need to get more creative about how they teach technology. This would not only expose more kids to possible STEM careers, but also to other traditionally non-STEM careers that now heavily rely on technology (like journalism).  I know if I had learned how to design and develop a website in high school, my career trajectory probably would have been different.

I know there is a lot more to making STEM education and careers more inclusive than I can discuss in this piece, but at least we are starting to have that conversation.