About Catherine Knight Steele, Ph.D.: Catherine Knight Steele is Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Maryland – College Park where her research focuses on media with respect to issues of race, gender, and class, and pays particular attention to Black women’s relationship with innovative engagements with media and communications technologies, both in contemporary and historical contexts.
Dr. Steele’s debut book, Digital Black Feminism, won the 2022 Nancy Baym Book Award from the Association of Internet Researchers and the National Communication Association’s Diamond Anniversary Book Award. Her essays have been published in important journals including Women’s Studies in Communication, Feminist Media Studies, and Social Media + Society.
At the University of Maryland – College Park, Dr. Steele is Director of the Black Communication and Technology Lab (BCAT), a part of the Digital Inquiry, Speculation, Collaboration, & Optimism (DISCO) Network, which is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. She was also founding director of the African American Digital and Experimental Humanities (AADHum) Initiative, which is the subject of her forthcoming collaborative book, Doing Black Digital Humanities: Radical Intentionality and the Praxis of Care.
Dr. Steele received her Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Illinois Chicago and her M.A. in Multicultural Communication from DePaul University. She received her B.A. in Speech Communication (now Communication Studies) from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Prior to joining the faculty at the University of Maryland, she taught at Colorado State University.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you first become interested in media studies, cultural studies, and Black feminist thought, and come to apply these perspectives to understanding the complex, innovative, and resistant ways African Americans, and Black women in particular, engage with different forms of media?
[Dr. Catherine Knight Steele] I have been in communication since undergrad. I did my Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Ph.D. in communication. I figured out pretty early on in my undergraduate years that I was particularly interested in media studies and race while I was taking a class from Travis Dixon at University of Illinois. That led me to want to go on to graduate school at University of Illinois Chicago.
I was fortunate to enter that program as they were transitioning to being one of the first programs in the country to offer expertise in digital studies. That’s not why I originally went, though. I went to get my Ph.D. in Race and Media because I was interested in the work of Andrew Rojecki who wrote, with Robert Entman, The Black Image in the White Mind. I thought I would be doing more traditional qualitative research on television and news media. Instead, my interest in digital studies aligned perfectly with the beginning of that program offering expertise in that area.
I began studying race and specifically Black culture and Black discursive practices online as a way of thinking through what I was witnessing online at the time, which was Black folks in the blogosphere transitioning into social media spaces. This was largely absent from much of the literature that we were reading.
Most of our literature at that time still ascribed notions of the digital divide to how they studied Black folks’ relationship with digital media. There were not a lot of robust studies and inquiries about the collective creativity of Black people in these spaces. I started researching to explore and understand what I was experiencing with digital culture and digital technology. It ended up being a really advantageous time to start that research and to really think about Black feminist thought in those spaces, in the vein that scholars like André Brock, Alondra Nelson, and others were writing earlier work about Black folks more generally in digital spaces. I honed in on Black feminism and Black women in those spaces.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your most recent book is Digital Black Feminism, which received the Diamond Anniversary Book of the Year Award from the National Communication Association this year. Would you provide us some background on the inspiration for this book, and your main objectives in writing it?
[Dr. Catherine Knight Steele] This book, depending on how you trace it, started a really long time ago when I was getting my Master’s degree at DePaul. I was working simultaneously in advertising and marketing, and the transition from undergrad into that workspace was kind of a shock to my sensibility. For the first time, I was around a group of people that had very different cultural backgrounds than I did, and a very different way of engaging with the world. I felt a lot of isolation during that period, both in school and at work. The place that I turned to during that time was the Black blogosphere, and that started my thinking and my research about that space.
The book itself, I often say, was the book that I wished that I had when I was in graduate school to help navigate understanding the long history of Black women’s relationship with technology. Rather than starting where I was at the time with social media, I wanted to think about how our very ideas of technology had been intentionally misconstrued, such that we could miss entire swaths of our history of how Black women interacted with, created, and used technology in the American experiment.
I think a lot about that throughout the text, and my objective is twofold. One is to reinsert Black women into the center of the way that we think about technology. The second piece of that is to unsettle what I saw happening in Black feminist thought, which was the treatment of those who did their work online in a superficial or dismissive manner. This meant many people whom I would call the public scholars and intellectuals of our time, who are Black feminist thinkers, were not being taken as seriously. I thought that we were missing something really key: an important moment in history, where a lot of Black women writers’ work was not being treated the way that it should, and I hope that this text sends up a flag that we need to pay more attention to this scholarship.
That happens in a variety of ways and through a variety of sources. Just because folks are doing interesting things with memes and GIFs, or telling funny stories, or starting hair blogs, doesn’t mean they also are not doing really important critical work around Black feminist thought.
[MastersinCommunications.com] While the focus of your book is digital politics, you draw upon a much longer history to reveal that Black women have long been at the forefront of innovative and subversive engagements with communication and media technologies. What does this history help us understand about Black digital politics and help disrupt about dominant understandings of how Black women relate to media?
[Dr. Catherine Knight Steele] I think if I had written this book some years before I did, it probably would not have had such a robust focus on history. The program that I ran on African-American Digital Humanities at Maryland [AADHum, discussed in more detail below] gave me the opportunity to sit for long periods of time with historians and archivists and other folks whose work was not as rooted in presentism and instead was looking at long histories.
It recalled my thinking from my dissertation work and elsewhere. Every time I want to write about digital culture, I end up writing about the long history of Black folks’ relationship to discourse and technology. This book was no different: in order to actually place Black women at the center of our discussion of technology, we needed to have a new relationship with the term and idea of technology that did not do that really damaging work of removing Black women in the first place. I had to begin with a history that looked a little bit different than what many of us are taught about what technology is and who the people with technological expertise are in our society.
I also built heavily on the work of Steve Jones, who was my Professor at University of Illinois, Chicago, and who always taught us that if we were going to study digital things then we had to look at long histories because the digital things would go away but the reasons that people used them and created them remain a part of our society. It was important to me that I did not write a book about Twitter, Instagram, or any other app that would be gone in maybe five or ten years, but about the relationship that people formed with those tools. We will continue to form relationships with our tools even though the tools themselves might change.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You discuss digital Black feminism as a having multiple dimensions: it is a critical perspective that challenges mainstream white feminism and white cyberfeminism, an ethos or orientation with respect to feminist praxis, and as a cultural product similar to a brand. Could you discuss the significance of these different dimensions of digital Black feminism? How does your book engage with the critical and political possibilities of digital Black feminism alongside its increasing digital commodification?
[Dr. Catherine Knight Steele] I speak at length in the last substantive chapter in the book about that process of commodification, but it was important to me to begin with the descriptive work of showing what it was that Black women were doing in this moment without the need to suggest that their work was simply a byproduct of hypercapitalism. Again, I started out wanting to push back on the perception that, in part because it happened on these private platforms, digital Black feminism should not be taken seriously.
Some of the reviewer pushback that I got initially on the text was that there was not enough critical engagement in the early chapters with Black women’s use of these tools. While I agree, it is very important that as a critical scholar, I retain a critical lens in tracing that history. I thought it important to begin with what actually was different about what Black women were doing online and how they were engaging with technology in ways that shifted the arguments that they were making about Black feminism and about Black feminist praxis.
In order to do that critical work of looking at those shifts and those arguments, and how that entanglement with technology could ultimately lead us to a place of commodification, I felt the need to trace that kind of legacy first. I spent some of the earlier chapters thinking first about the principles of Black women engagement in this new context and how they are making arguments for themselves and for liberation using a Black feminist ethos.
The digital Black feminist ethos is highly connected to their relationship to technology in the same way that previous generations of hip-hop feminism were connected to hip-hop. The argument being that our relationship with these things that are ubiquitous in our life naturally will change the way that we engage with Black feminist praxis. It will naturally change the way that we articulate principles, work to change spaces, and the kinds of arguments that we can make within those spaces.
But, yes, I think that, like everyone else in our society, contemporary Black feminists are highly connected to hypercapitalism. I think that digital culture promotes this as a feature and not a bug. That means that, if we are going to engage with digital culture, if that is the way that we get our messaging out, if that is the way that we engage in critical dialogue, things like branding necessarily become a part of that.
The commodification of ideas, purchasing, and subscription services are all also linked to the way that we engage online. I finish out the book with a little bit of a warning or a reminder that we are not immune to this as Black feminist scholars, and that in fact, sometimes when we think that it is advantageous to engage in those practices, we are inviting the possibility of that commodification process.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In Digital Black Feminism and throughout your work, you have developed the metaphors of “digital barbershops” and “virtual beauty shops” to describe the unique forms of public space that African American communities create online. Would you introduce us to the digital barbershop, the virtual beauty shop, and the value of these terms for reformulating traditional conceptions of the public sphere and political discourse?
[Dr. Catherine Knight Steele] I started writing about the digital barber shop in graduate school as a way of thinking about the Black blogosphere in relation to the offline, physical spaces that marginalized communities, and more specifically Black folks, developed as a way to engage in different kinds of discursive practices for different reasons at different times. Citing and harkening back to Catherine Squires’ work on counterpublics, enclaves, and satellite publics, I wanted to know how those spaces were replicating online, when we no longer were in geographic proximity to each other but we were finding new ways to engage in the same kinds of discursive practices of the past.
Digital barber shops were a really helpful metaphor in the work of thinking about those differentiated kinds of spaces. Later, I turned to the virtual beauty shop, because practically most of the blogs that I was actually studying during that time were run by Black women or for Black women, and it occurred to me that there was a distinction between the barber shop and the beauty shop. That was really the impetus for this work.
This idea came from my dissertation, but it was not the focus of that project. I was thinking about the digital barbershop in a broad contextual sense. Now, I see how this contributes to what we often do with marginalized communities, which is create homogenous groups within them. I was writing about Blackness and Black culture as if Black women did not have their own distinct ways of communicating or their own dialogue within those spaces.
Another thing that the beauty shop does for us is get to that moment of monetization [discussed in the previous question]. It helps us think about the way that we engage with one another as an act of entrepreneurship. Black women’s beauty shop spaces often serve the dual purposes of helping to enliven a community, to keep folks safe and protect them, but also to act as money-making ventures for folks who did not have access to the tools of capitalist enterprise otherwise.
The beauty shop showcases the brilliance of Black women in multiple ways. It showcases their discursive brilliance, their brilliance in the manipulation of the tools and technologies of Black hair care, and the brilliance of actually owning and operating a business when you don’t have access to small business loans, when you don’t have access to the training that is provided in college settings, et cetera. It helped me show those multiple facets of brilliance, but also get to that last point of commodification. In the way we currently think about Black hair and Black hair care practices, an important point of contention concerns appropriation and the theft of ideas. The virtual beauty shop allowed for multiple ways to enter that conversation which I thought were useful.
I often use metaphors this way in my work. I am writing right now about the corner as a Black digital commons. My student, Alisa Hardy and I, are working with “the corner” as a metaphor that either takes the place of or does some of the same work of a “digital commons.” Rhetorical commonplaces are the ideas, artifacts, inventions, and knowledge that supply the materials for persuasion. The digital commons are comprised of the inworking of users and technologies that create openness within public communication. The digital commons also functions as a governing strategy different from the market-based approaches of a bureaucratic governmental organization where the users have domain.
The corner helps us think about ideas of ownership, how corners change through gentrification practices and shifting populations, how people make money from the use of the corner within their neighborhoods and communities. We are working to trace different sites online where Black folks were not the intended users but have become the users that folks turn to to understand how to use the site to its maximum capacities, and how, subsequently, Black folks get written out of those sites when they become profitable. We trace that over a few different online sites over the years to put that notion of the corner in conversation with a larger conversation about the commons.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Another important focus of your recent research has been Black joy and Black pleasure, which in your publications “Defying Death: Black Joy as Resistance Online,” “‘Joy is Resistance: Cross-platform Resilience and (Re)invention of Black Oral Culture Online,” and “Black Feminist Pleasure on TikTok: An Ode to Hurston’s ‘Characteristics of Negro Expression,’” you argue constitute important forms of political resistance. Would you explore some of the political possibilities your research locates in the forms of joy and pleasure that Black activists and communities have cultivated in online spaces?
[Dr. Catherine Knight Steele] Some of my work from a few years back with my colleague Jessica Lu centered on notions of Black joy, and my next book project will also look at ideas about Black joy in two ways. First, thinking about joy as active resistance — the way that we, as parts of marginalized communities, can activate ideas of joy as intentional mechanisms to push back against all of the vitriol and violence that we receive regularly.
But, secondly, I also took a little bit of a turn to think about pleasure spaces. Part of that comes out of conversations that I have had after writing Digital Black Feminism. Many folks have seen the book as being about Black activism and Black political culture. I think that’s interesting because most of the work that I study there has to do with happy places online, where people are engaging with things about popular culture, or about their hair, or about music. Yet they get marked as activist spaces and they get marked as political spaces. That was what my dissertation research was primarily about: how these spaces get thought of in a political light, even though no one there is highlighting them as being political spaces.
After the book, what I really was interested in was turning my attention to spaces where people were actively not engaging in public acts of resistance but were simply engaging in the fullness of their humanity publicly. I think that there is a lot of value in turning our framework around and not assuming that people are or are not doing certain things with their bodies or with their words for political reasons. Rather, we should be exploring what it would mean if we gave everyone the possibility of just experiencing pleasure and just experiencing joy without it being connected to an act of political resistance.
What would it mean if Black women were simply expressing and experiencing their pleasure publicly? What would that mean about how we would have to treat folks? We would have to think of people as full human beings with full capacities. We would have to recognize that, even if something centered on pushing back against violence, that the totality of Blackness is not about reaction to white supremacy, that so much of Black culture and history and artifacts is not about its reference point being to whiteness. Further, much about Black femininity is not about Black masculinity.
We can think about [pleasure and resistance] as not being diametrically opposed, but rather simultaneously existing. We must recognize the power and agency of the people in bodies that engage in these activities. My last piece on pleasure was a fun one to write in some ways, because it referenced one of my favorite articles of all time by Zora Neale Hurston to think about how what she wrote in the 1930s applies to sites like TikTok today.
[MastersinCommunications.com] At the University of Maryland, you have directed two separate initiatives focused on advancing research on race and technology funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Currently, you direct the Black Communication and Technology Lab, as part of the Digital Inquiry, Speculation, Collaboration, & Optimism (DISCO) Network, and you previously worked as the Founding Director of the African American Digital Humanities Initiative (AADHum). Would you tell us a little bit about these ventures and your experience directing them?
[Dr. Catherine Knight Steele] In my first three years at Maryland I directed AADHum, or the African-American Digital Humanities Initiative. It was a first-of-its-kind initiative in the country with funding from the Mellon Foundation. Through that work, we were able to cultivate a community at Maryland of folks who were interested in the intersections between Black history, cultural theory, and digital technology in the form of digital humanities research. We hosted tons of different kinds of programs, some that were more focused on training and some that were focused more on building reading groups and collaborative spaces for discourse.
We welcomed folks who had almost no skill sets in digital technology, as well as folks who were very brand new to Black studies work and placed them in the same environment to have what we thought were really productive discussions over a period of about three years. We cultivated that community inside the campus of Maryland and then expanded to other sites around the Washington, DC area, like Howard University and the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. We’re really excited about that.
We are also very excited that our first AADHum project resulted in a new book, which we just submitted the manuscript for this week. It is about doing Black digital humanities with radical intentionality. I got to write this book with two of my former students who are now off doing amazing things. We are thinking through what it looks like to replicate these kinds of spaces and to do so by providing care to the actual human beings that are at the center of the work.
I am carrying over a lot of that in my new project, which is the Black Communication and Technology Lab (BCAT), which is part of the DISCO network. DISCO is the Digital Inquiry, Speculation, Collaboration, & Optimism Network. You might notice that last optimistic piece. I think that sense of optimism is what we are carrying forward at BCAT. We want to train folks to expand the profession for Black studies scholars who are interested in technology. Over the years, we noticed that many of us who started doing this work some time ago had to forge our own networks. We had to find advocates and allies where we could. We had to piece together coursework and figure out how to build some kind of curriculum around what we were interested in.
At BCAT, we want to demystify that process and help folks form collaborative mentoring networks across generations. We’re working with faculty, with graduate students, with undergrads, and we are hoping to expand into local high schools next year in order to showcase the possibilities for how to do this work in the humanities and social sciences.
We often find that Black students, particularly in urban spaces, are directed toward computer science and STEM when they show an interest in technology. We want to show them another possibility as well, where they can do work that they care about, that is connected to computing and technology, but that also focuses heavily on culture, history, and community — where they can do work that is relevant to themselves and to their community. They do not have to necessarily go into STEM to do that. We love STEM and our STEM folks on the other side of campus, but we want to show students that other possibilities exist in the field of communication.
We are really excited about BCAT, which just officially launched. We have a space on campus where students can hang out, we will have weekly lab writing sessions, we will have invited speakers, a workshop series, and professionalization and mentoring as well. We hope this will be a fun space and a space that continues to grow Black studies within the field of communication.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you might give to students interested in critical media studies, digital politics, or critical perspectives on race and gender who are considering pursuing a Ph.D. in Communication Studies?
[Dr. Catherine Knight Steele] First, please do. I think that there is lots of space for this kind of work, and there are increasingly places around the country that can help to center this work and provide support for it.
The biggest advice I give to anyone who is beginning a Ph.D. program is to find your people. Find the folks who are interested in similar things, who are pursuing similar things, whether they are at your institution or not, and learn alongside those folks for as many years as you can. Pursue conferences and writing opportunities with them. Go to the talks, go to the lectures, go to the seminars.
Also take the courses that you do not think fit neatly inside of your program. For me, it has been in those spaces that I have found my actual areas of interest and brought them back to communication. We need more people doing that: bringing things from other places back to enliven communication with new ways of thinking and new ways of approaching old ideas. I encourage people to stay curious and to go outside of their programs to find some of those places of curiosity.
Thank you, Dr. Steele, for sharing your insight on Black feminism, media and technology, the politics of Black joy and pleasure, and more!
Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.