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Bearing Witness While Black

African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism

Allissa V. Richardson

Publication Date - 15 May 2020

ISBN: 9780190935535

296 pages
6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

In Stock


Bearing Witness While Black tells the story of this century's most powerful Black social movement through the eyes of 15 activists who documented it. At the height of the Black Lives Matter uprisings, African Americans filmed and tweeted evidence of fatal police encounters in dozens of US cities--using little more than the device in their pockets. Their urgent dispatches from the frontlines spurred a global debate on excessive police force, which claimed the lives of African American men, women, and children at disproportionate rates.

This groundbreaking book reveals how the perfect storm of smartphones, social media, and social justice empowered Black activists to create their own news outlets, which continued a centuries-long, African American tradition of using the news to challenge racism. Bearing Witness While Black is the first book of its kind to identify three overlapping eras of domestic terror against African American people--slavery, lynching, and police brutality--and explain how storytellers during each period documented its atrocities through journalism. What results is a stunning genealogy--of how the slave narratives of the 1700s inspired the Abolitionist movement; how the black newspapers of the 1800s galvanized the anti-lynching and Civil Rights movements; and how the smartphones of today have powered the anti-police brutality movement. This lineage of black witnessing, Allissa V. Richardson argues, is formidable and forever evolving.

Richardson's own activism, as an award-winning pioneer of smartphone journalism, informs this text. Weaving in personal accounts of her teaching in the US and Africa, and of her own brushes with police brutality, Richardson shares how she has inspired black youth to use mobile devices, to speak up from the margins. It is from this vantage point, as participant-observer, that she urges us not to become numb to the tragic imagery that African Americans have documented. Instead, Bearing Witness While Black conveys a crucial need to protect our right to look into the forbidden space of violence against black bodies, and to continue to regard the smartphone as an instrument of moral suasion and social change.


  • First book-length treatment to establish links between media witnessing theory and Critical Race Theory
  • Introduces the concept of "black witnessing"
  • Examines why black people are utilizing mobile and social media to self-publish news at higher rates than other ethnic groups
  • Includes interviews with anti-police brutality activists who work as black witnesses

About the Author(s)

Allissa V. Richardson is Assistant Professor of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School.


"This is a thought-provoking, sometimes illuminating treatment of a vitally important subject." -- R. C. Cottrell, CHOICE

"A significant contribution." -- Kelli Moore, International Journal of Communication

"A love letter to the Black Press" -- Dr. Kelli Moore, Assistant Professor, Media, Culture, Communication, New York University, International Journal of Communication

"...well researched and engagingly written, the book offers a fresh critical lens on the Black Lives Matter movement and on the possibilities and perils of efforts for social change more generally, adding significantly to both scholarly and broader public conversations. It will be of particular interest not only to media and journalism scholars, but also scholars of race/ethnicity, social movements, technology and history, as well as social activists and organizers for whom it bears lessons." -- Elizabeth E. Sine, Boom California

"Allissa Richardson's impeccably researched book provides an eye-opening account of how African American citizen-journalists have harnessed the power of cell phones and social media to document the deeply entrenched nature of anti-Black racism in the U.S. Impeccably researched and engagingly written, Bearing Witness While Black raises the bar for studying how ordinary people work for social justice in their everyday lives." -- Patricia Hill Collins, author of Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory

"This book weaves together compelling arguments about contemporary digital media use for racial justice activism, rich context about historical antecedents, and theoretical sophistication that enriches both theory and our understanding of digital witnessing. This is a rare combination for academic works, which makes Richardson's work unique and meritorious." -- Charlton D. McIlwain, author of Black Software

"Richardson offers a compelling inquiry into how activism and journalism work together for Black communities intent upon articulating the inequities of racial and civil discrimination. The author's careful work in interviewing significant figures in Black activism over the last half decade provide a substantial resource for scholars interested in hearing the voices of change." -- André Brock, author of Distributed Blackness

Table of Contents


    Part I - Smartphones

    Chapter 1: Looking as Rebellion: The Concept of Black Witnessing
    Chapter 2: The Origins of Bearing Witness While Black
    Chapter 3: The New Protest #Journalism: Black Witnessing as Counternarrative

    Part II - Slogans

    Chapter 4: #StayWoke: A Day in the Life of an Activist
    Chapter 5: #WorkWoke: The Movement as a Labor of Love
    Chapter 6: #BeforeYouWatch: Activist Reports from the Field

    Part III - Selfies

    Chapter 7: Shooting Back: The Making of a Black Visual Public Sphere
    Chapter 8: #NoFilter: Exploring the Trauma of Black Witnessing
    Chapter 9: Black Witnessing, Body cams, and the Enduring Fight for the Whole Truth


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