Black Power In Cyberspace
In an immaculately clean home in Compton with a Leave It to Beaver front yard that faces north to Watts and the 105 Freeway -- a world away from the gang-infested stereotype of the inner city -- James Liggins and Charles Brister are doing cartwheels on the Internet. "The freedom of the Internet is that I didn't have to go to somebody white and ask them, 'Please put this on,'" says Brister, founder of 1-800-Unite Us, an African-American business referral firm. African-Americans have heretofore been an invisible presence on the Internet, the computer phenomenon whose cyberfollowing is mostly male, mostly white. Less than 15 percent of African-Americans own computers, according to the Inner City Computer Society (ICCS). But Liggins and dozens of other African-Americans are paving their own lanes on the InfoBahn. Liggins organized the ICCS a year ago. Some 175 members, most of them black, meet at an Lutheran church in Los Angeles once a month. The organization's diverse members include father-and-son computer dweebs and a widowed mother of five who wants to sell her store's pies online. Liggins, a thirty-six-year-old computer consultant, started ICCS so blacks could have their own place to be black. Eschewing chat rooms, members design things like a "virtual Crenshaw." Says Liggins, "It's a black experience, and it's something we need. You can't run away from who you are." "The Internet's about the individual having a place to go, and if it doesn't exist, they can create that place," says Kenneth Wyrick, a forty-two- year-old computer consultant, who is also the art critic for one of the Internet pages of Drum, a seven-year-old, 150-member national black computer group. Other black-oriented pages and World Wide Web sites include Melanet, Search for Internet in Africa, Blackpages, Black History, U.S. Black On-Line, AfroNet, and sites from the University of Virginia library and Washington, D.C.'s Howard University. Drum has a civil-rights page. Melanet has an online guide for Kwanzaa, the twenty-nine-year-old African- American celebration held between Christmas and New Year's. Data was also available on African-American-oriented Web pages for Million Man March in Washington, D.C. Another prominent African-American computer pioneer is Vincent Hollier, a bullish visionary who believes blacks will change computers like they've changed music. "The Net is almost all white," says Hollier, forty-seven, president of the eight-employee Urban Interactive company. "We are DOS!" he says, feverishly. "We are to the U.S. what DOS is to Intel machines -- it tells everything how to relate to everything else. And any fad that's worth a damn comes outta us." Hollier envisions a global overhaul of the Internet, putting the black spin on everything moving through a hard drive. "It has to be some way to be individually welded out," he explains. "It has to put the funk into it. Black people have got to put their imprint on it." Less strident but just as confident is Grady Williams. He and his son, nineteen-year-old Grady III, ignore the Internet's chat rooms, even those that are black-specific. "What you see on TV, I don't do, like those chat rooms," says Williams. "I don't talk to everybody on the Internet. I have specific places to go. And If you come to my house and you see my computer system, you go, 'In Watts?'" But, for all the rhetoric of a brave new black world, blacks online also know they are their culture's computer elite -- a minority within a minority. Wyrick says the NAACP and the Urban League don't use the Internet, nor do black churches, historically a community backbone. "Many African-Americans are computer- phobic," Wyrick says. "The children are the ones who are the driving force because of computers in schools." The Internet, says Liggins, "is not that well known. We don't have the big computer shops [in our neighborhoods]." Adds Brister, "The issue of empowerment is part of our own ability to communicate. It's still the haves and have- nots. See, black people don't see themselves in this. They think, 'That's the white boy's thing.'" Grady Williams recalls the imprint one artist put on the Internet. He never thought about the artist's race, but subconsciously assumed he was white. When he discovered the artist was black, Williams says, it woke something up in himself. Think about how small the world is, he muses, how his computer allows him to travel across the country and hook up with people who are just like him. He calls the Internet "a big god right there and you say, 'God, what's on the other side of the world?"