Black Visuality in the Digital Age

Dr. Jonathan Michael Square
Barker Center 122
12 Quincy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138

Course Description

One of the defining characteristics of the African Diaspora is that its members are visually marked as othered. Digital storytelling of the black experience necessitates the visual, as opposed to the haptic (what can be touched and felt) or the audial (what is heard). In our current digital age, vision is, thus, a mechanism by which to understand and fully unpack the meaning of blackness. “Black Visuality in the Digital Age” will cover memes and mimetic communication, digital blackface, black Twitter, Worldstar Hip Hop, hair and makeup tutorials on YouTube, racist Snapchat filters, algorithmic biases, Beyoncé and Solange’s visual albums, among other topics. The syllabus will include the work of scholars of André L. Brock, Simone Browne, and Elizabeth Alexander, among others.

Policy on Academic Integrity

You are responsible for understanding Harvard Extension School policies on academic integrity ( and how to use sources responsibly. Not knowing the rules, misunderstanding the rules, running out of time, submitting the wrong draft, or being overwhelmed with multiple demands are not acceptable excuses. There are no excuses for failure to uphold academic integrity. To support your learning about academic citation rules, please visit the Harvard Extension School Tips to Avoid Plagiarism (, where you'll find links to the Harvard Guide to Using Sources and two free online 15-minute tutorials to test your knowledge of academic citation policy. The tutorials are anonymous open-learning tools.


The Extension School is committed to providing an accessible academic community. The Accessibility Office offers a variety of accommodations and services to students with documented disabilities. Please visit for more information.

Expectations and Assignments

The grading of the course is broken into two major components:

  1. Attendance and participation (60%)

    a. Attendance (30%)

    b. Paragraph-long reflections (30%)

  2. Preparation and submission of a 10-page research paper

    a. Paragraph-long proposal with an annotated bibliography (10%)

    b. Final paper (30%)

The class will be a seminar with a high expectation of participation. Please come to class prepared to participate actively in class discussions and discuss the assigned readings. The Zoom link to our class is Your attendance at each class meeting will be recorded. Unexcused absences will count against your participation grade. A separate grade that falls under “Attendance and participation” are paragraph-long reflections on each week’s readings. Please email your reflections to me at least an hour before each meeting time.

You will be asked to write a final research paper that explores some aspect of black visuality. Strive to write clearly and persuasively. Your writing should make an argument with each sentence and paragraph supporting your central thesis. Be sure to support your claims and analysis with relevant secondary literature. When you quote or refer to specific information from a text, you should cite it using Chicago style. In preparation for final papers, you will also be asked to submit a paragraph-long proposal with an annotated bibliography of at least five primary and/or secondary sources that relevant to your chosen topic of study.

Course Schedule

Week 1 / Pictures & Progress

Week 2 / A Dark Horse in Low Light

Week 3 / The Spectacle of Violence and the Persistence of Racial Terror

Week 4 / Black YouTubers, IGers, and Bloggers and the Democratization of Beauty

Week 5 / Breaking the Internet and Going Viral

Week 6 / Algorithmic Bias, or When They Don’t See Us*

Week 7 / Branding and the Surveillance of Blackness

Week 8 / Race Play and Reclaiming the Erotic

Week 9 / Computer Love

Week 10 / The Beyoncé Effect and The Rise of the Visual Album

Watch one of the following visual albums:

  • Beyoncé, Lemonade

  • Solange, When I Get Home (including her Black Planet site)

  • Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer


Week 11 / Black Twitterati

Week 12 / Blackfishing and the Persistence of Blackface

Week 13 / Cracking the Code of Race

Week 14 / #BlackLivesMatter Beyond the Hashtag

Week 15 / Afro-futurism and Imagining Black Futures