As an educator, scholar, journalist and filmmaker, my work has sat at the intersection of black digital humanities and creative scholarship for the last decade. A TV nerd, I spent the first half of my career examining the representation of black women in television. I was consumed by depictions of black women on the small screen and how those images impacted the lives of viewers.

One of my favorite shows, A Different World, has a second season episode that explores the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. Titled “A World Alike,” the episode aired on February 15, 1990, four days after liberation icon, Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island prison. As a photojournalist for Ebony Magazine, my father was in the crowd that historic day; at 10 years old I vividly understood the importance of not only Mandela’s release from 27 years of bondage, but also of A Different World’s depiction of black diasporic solidarity with the boycotts, divestment, sanctions, and non-violent protests against Apartheid.

A July 2018 humanitarian trip to Palestine, left me inspired by the region’s anti-Apartheid and occupation liberation movement and comparisons to similar struggles plaguing South Africa and Namibia—specifically, by the current land rights’ reform and water restrictions plaguing all three countries. As I draw comparisons that link these oppressive regimes to their military, economic and political support by the U.S. government, I’m outraged and empowered. Being a 2019 AADHum Scholar gave me time to both process my experiences in all three regions and to outline my current research project. 

Agricultural Apartheid: Land & Water Reform is my multimedia research endeavor examining the origins and operation of systems of Apartheid, contextualizing international freedom struggles with the black liberation movement in America and the U.S. government’s support of the colonial apartheid regimes from 1948 to present day. The project explores the systems of institutionalized racial segregation, terror, political disenfranchisement and economic exclusion ruling Namibia (1948-1990), South Africa (1948-1994), and Palestine (1948-present day). It also highlights several types of local, national and international solidarity campaigns including (e.g. boycotts, divestment and sanction policies). I am particularly interested in illuminating the relationships between majority liberation movements and minority colonization and occupation powers.

In collecting expert testimonies and interviews from Palestinians, black South Africans and Namibians who lived under apartheid regimes and were/are active in liberation movements, the project draws on photovoice as a methodology and theoretical framework. This participatory action research strategy, which Caroline Wang and Mary Ann Burris are credited with creating in the early 1990s, combines ethnographic techniques like photography, experiential knowledge and dialogue to engage with marginalized communities.

Highlighting and addressing the perspectives, concerns and challenges women face remains a central theme in my interdisciplinary work. So, I focus exclusively on women farmers in the project: farmers are the people most connected with land and water, and in these patriarchal societies, women farmers are often the most marginalized.

Can immersive virtual reality experiences inspire empathy and in-depth understanding of apartheid social, political and economic constructs?

This question is central to my project. Drawing on the expertise of scholars, journalists, digital storytellers and researchers such as Karim Ben Khelifa (The Enemy), D. Fox Harrell (The Avatar Dream) and Courtney G. Cogburn (1000 Cut Journey), I intend to create a hybrid interdisciplinary learning experience that uses virtual reality technology to situate viewers in historical and contemporary apartheid contexts.  Using cutting edge multimedia technology like virtual reality 360 and drone cameras, I’ll capture contemporary footage and interviews to juxtapose with historical archival content of four articles of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly those focusing on land ownership and water rights.

This AADHum Scholars experience has left me prepared to use my skill set to work with marginalized communities to share stories of liberation and life in regions struggling for equality and equity. I’m looking forward to five weeks of in-country research and sharing my findings in the fall. Stay tuned!

About the Author

Dr. Imani M. Cheers (@ImaniMCheers) is a 2019 AADHum Scholar, as well as an award-winning digital storyteller, director, producer and filmmaker. Dr. Cheers is also an Assistant Professor of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.