Black Avatars and African American CB Use
What does it mean to listen to the skies when conditions are favorable and tune in to fleeting but familiar chunks of Black personality, wit, and verbal stylings, all wrapped in the whines and staticky textures of the electromagnetic spectrum?
So asks David Goldberg in his innovative new University of Hawaiʻi Digital Arts and Humanities Initiative project, Black Avatars, Analog and Digital. The 1970s saw the popular explosion of citizens band (CB) radio. It was unruly, chaotic, and eventually birthed the Super Bowl: an informal oral and aural competition created by African American CB operators who “shoot skip.” Shooting skip is the art and technique of exploiting the reflective capacity of the Earth’s ionosphere to achieve long distance communication. African American CB operators are not the only ones to shoot skip but the Super Bowl is distinguished by its concentration of Black voices. In recordings of Super Bowl sessions one can hear voices cut and slide in and out, on and through, waves of static, blasts of reverberating noise, piercing whistles, and harsh tones. They bear regional accents, cadences and diction, unified by standards of performance descended from a shared vernacular of preaching, rapping, “jive” or “soul” talking, and stand-up comedy.
“Black Avatars” broadens and extends Art M. Blake’s groundbreaking research on the Super Bowl (JSTOR: paywalled). Goldberg argues that Super Bowl operators have developed a novel means of communication and socialization that figuratively and literally transmits beyond the racialized politics of space and mobility. Though none of these Black men lose their positions of race, class and gender by shooting skip, they are not as strictly bound to those positions as a result of the act: Ionospheric congregation does not produce an ideological or commoditized Blackness.
The graphics creatively bring structure and meaning to the project. Audio excerpts that contextualize the Super Bowl within the sonic–not just verbal–traditions and textures of Jamaican dub, Rap, Blues and Black preaching. Time-based transcriptions of Super Bowl dialog, allow the unique combination of Black vernacular speech, CB slang, regional idioms and distortion caused by the transmissions themselves to be more readily accessible.
This project was presented at 2016 American Studies Association conference on a panel about “Maker Culture,” and is also part of Goldberg’s dissertation work around the cross-sections of race, technology and cultural fallout of the Anthropocene.