One day in the fall of 2021, I received a voicemail message at work. The caller announced, “This is Cecil Brown from Stanford University.” I knew the name—we had met at an academic conference a decade earlier, where we spoke about his 2003 book Stagolee Shot Billy, but we hadn’t kept in touch. This time, Brown was calling about something else.
He was interested in my recent book, The Black Romantic Revolution, about the poets involved in the U.S. abolition movement—in particular the chapter focused on the enslaved poet George Moses Horton. Brown told me that he had learned about Horton when he was a child in rural North Carolina and that he’d been thinking about Horton for more than seventy years. I was excited to get the call and fascinated by the connection between Horton, the antebellum poet, and Brown, the postmodern novelist and critic. We agreed to talk again soon. Sure enough, a week or so went by, and he called again; after another week or so, we talked again; and on and on. As I was writing this piece, I dug up that initial voicemail and had a sweet laugh. Now I know Cecil’s voice well, but on the recording, he sounds different, more business-like, “from Stanford University”—which of course he is, in a sense, but he’s also much more.
In the course of our conversations, Cecil let me know that he was at work on a digital project about Horton. His idea was to use virtual reality and artificial intelligence technology to restage the experience of encountering Horton in antebellum Chapel Hill, where he had improbably made a name for himself as a poet from the 1820s until the Civil War.
I had some doubts about this effort: I have seen my fair share of ed-tech scams and overhyped digital humanities projects, after all. But against my qualms, Cecil kept arguing the necessity of a fully realized digital Horton. I came to see that his approach to digital development was an outgrowth of his participation in avant-garde aesthetic experiments across media since the 1960s and his decades of experience teaching in the Bay Area, which has made him fluent in the language of education and technology. The project is partly intended to help students find connections between the long history of Black oral culture and hip-hop. Cecil also hopes that it will make for an exemplary instance of “Black tech” and inspire more Black young people to develop technology. But there is more to it: a grander vision, one might say. Reviving Horton is an example of what Cecil’s old friend Ishmael Reed once called “Neo-Hoodoo,” an African diasporic ritual intervention on contemporary American life.
One day, Cecil told me he calls this project the Hortonizer, and I was helplessly charmed: it sounded like an appliance brand from the 1950s, a trademark retro-Afrofuturism. When the artificial intelligence software built on large language models first became available in the fall of 2022, the Hortonizer suddenly came into clearer focus. Cecil enlisted Stanford University’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis and UC Berkeley’s Research, Teaching, and Learning Services. He got a designer on board, Kathy Wang, who set to work realizing his vision, albeit under the more respectable heading of “The George Moses Horton Project.” I set aside my reservations and went to California.
Cecil Brown hardly has the standard backstory of a Silicon Valley founder. He has lived long enough to have seen both Jim Crow and what Ruha Benjamin calls the “New Jim Code”: the way racism is embedded in digital technology. Cecil learned the story of Horton, the “Black Bard of North Carolina,” in a segregated elementary school. “In first or second grade, our teacher, Ms. Mitchell, told us that George Moses Horton was a poet. What I remember was that white people respected him—I didn’t even know what a poet was yet, but I knew what respect was,” he said.
Cecil’s idea was to use virtual reality and artificial intelligence technology to restage the experience of encountering Horton in antebellum Chapel Hill.
Cecil grew to find a vocation as a writer. In the early 1960s, he started college at the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina at Greensboro, where the historically decisive sit-ins at the F. W. Woolworth lunch counter had taken place. It is also where he first became a serious student of African American literature, reading Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin, whose masterpiece Another Country appeared in 1962. After Greensboro, Cecil entered some of the most elite institutions of higher education, finishing his undergraduate degree at Columbia University and completing an MA in English at the University of Chicago before making his way to Berkeley. There, he got his first teaching job at Merritt College, the birthplace of the Black Panther Party. In 1969, he became a literary celebrity at age twenty-five with the publication of a riotous first novel entitled The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger that was quickly translated into French, German, Dutch, Italian, and Japanese.
That book tells the story of a young Black man named George Washington living out a bohemian fantasy in Copenhagen, seducing a cast of white women, and becoming a writer. It is an irreverent philosophical novel, following its protagonist’s “conscious parody of Ecclesiastes’ famous dictum: ‘I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is jive and vexation of the spirit.’” The cover of the first edition was simply adorned with a cartoon Black fist, middle finger raised. Its outrageousness caught the temper of the time perfectly. Jiveass rhymed with the emergent, lurid sensibility of Iceberg Slim’s Pimp (1967) and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice (1968). It also bore the influence of Cecil’s time in New York, which had led him to take an interest in Jewish culture, then in its own process of transformation by the frank sexuality of Saul Bellow’s Herzog (1964) and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969).
Cecil has written many books since, including a luridly hilarious novel about Black comedians in Hollywood entitled Days Without Weather (1982) and a heartrending memoir of Southern childhood called Coming Up Down Home (1993). He has also worked as a screenwriter, notably collaborating, in different moments, with Richard Pryor and members the Fassbinder family. In the 1990s, he finished a PhD in folklore at Berkeley, and his dissertation became the Stagolee book. These days, in addition to the Hortonizer, Cecil is at work on a memoir of his friendship with James Baldwin and a historical novel about Horton. Throughout this long and varied career, what Cecil calls “the philosophy of jive” has defined his approach. Jive is a richly dialectical concept: it started out as the name for a style of jazz dance and came to denote both Black hipster code and white supremacist bullshit. The bandleader Cab Calloway styled himself the “Professor of Jive” in the swing era, and Cecil might well have laid claim to that mantle in his day. He maintains an impressive personal archive of Black vernacular wisdom, folktales, and humor, which forms the core of his considerable inspiration.
Cecil’s work on Horton is motivated by his belief in the importance of Black oral culture. “The oral tradition is what held us together as Black people, it’s what allowed us to express ourselves as humans,” he told me. He also believes that modern technological media has estranged us, both white and Black, from the crucial benefits of oral performance. He sees the Hortonizer first and foremost, then, as an act of recovery: “With this technology, it’s so important that we use it to discover what’s there in our history, in Black history, and to improve our power to understand where we are. It’s hard to make up what we’ve lost, but it’s important to be able take care of what we do have.” Cecil is aware of the contradictions involved in using media technology to reconnect ourselves to tradition; one day while we walked through the Spanish colonial-style campus of Stanford University, festooned with imported palm trees, he remarked: “We’re using all this technology to get back to the moment before technology!”
Horton is the perfect figure through which to explore these ironies. He combines two antiquated types—the West African griot and the Western European poet at the plow—both of whom were assumed by their traditional communities to bear spiritual and political as well as aesthetic wisdom. Unlike these rustic figures, Horton found himself on the campus of the first public research university in the United States. Descriptions of his early life suggest that he would “spout” improvised verses while bringing produce from the Horton plantation in Chatham, North Carolina, to the market in Chapel Hill. Once discovered by the students there, he began to sell them poems, often for use in seducing their sweethearts, like an enslaved Cyrano de Bergerac. This brisk business allowed Horton to hire out his time from his enslavers in order to focus on poetry. But his interactions with the white community of Chapel Hill were never carefully documented. The precarity of Horton’s life on campus exists in the institutional memory of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill mostly as rumor, allusion, and nostalgia.
Some of the more “liberal” of the college town elites took an interest in Horton; the young novelist Caroline Lee Hentz even transcribed the poems that would make up his first book, The Hope of Liberty in 1829. It was printed and sold by the local colonization society, in hopes of gaining Horton’s freedom under the condition he emigrated to Liberia. Such colonization schemes were popular among white antebellum bourgeoisie who were to some degree antislavery but could not imagine living as equals with free people of color.
Horton was enthusiastic about this extraordinary plan, and one of his early poems, entitled “Lines, on hearing of the intention of a gentleman to purchase the Poet’s freedom” takes it up explicitly:
Some philanthropic souls as from afar,
With pity strove to break the slavish bar;
To whom my floods of gratitude shall roll,
And yield with pleasure to their soft control.
He often exhibited this florid rhetoric; his work can sound solicitous, but that tone also conceals harder-edged ironies, like the “soft control” he here attributes to his would-be benefactors. Despite the periodic efforts of colonizationists and abolitionists both North and South, this plan did not materialize, but Horton held onto the dream of freedom in Africa.
He published a second book in 1845, with a short autobiographical preface, in which he makes clear that by then he had learned to write on his own. The Poetical Works of George M. Horton, The Colored Bard of North Carolina focuses on more humorous and romantic subjects than his earlier collection. Nonetheless it includes a beautifully strange and sad poem entitled “Division of an Estate,” describing the breakup of enslaved people’s families upon the death of wealthy enslavers: “The dark suspense in which poor vassals stand, / Each mind upon the spire of chance hangs, fluctuant; / The day of separation is at hand.”
When the Union Army passed through Chapel Hill in 1865, Horton followed, joining the contraband camps of fugitives from slavery which formed in the wake of Sherman’s March. There he met a Captain William H.S. Banks of Michigan, who arranged the publication of a third and final volume in Raleigh, North Carolina, titled Naked Genius (1865). At that point, Horton was in his later sixties. He traveled to Philadelphia, where he published a few more poems, including one about the segregation of the streetcar system. From there his whereabouts become opaque. Ship manifests suggest he may have finally made it to Liberia in 1866, but alumni of UNC claim to have encountered him on the streets of Philadelphia as late as the 1880s.
Given the spotty archive of his life and the extraordinary character of his achievements, representing Horton in any format would prove difficult, let alone the interactive, audio-visual animation which is the goal of the Hortonizer. For years I thought, with a tinge of melancholy, that the only person who could play him in a movie would be Cecil’s old friend Richard Pryor. But Cecil knows more about Horton than anyone I’ve ever met, and his work has already yielded a major archival discovery. One day, he came across a database of North Carolina Runaway Slave Notices, and, using the most rudimentary of digital humanities methods, searched for Horton’s name. Of the ten results, one from the January 23, 1849, issue of the Newbernian and North Carolina Advocate was for a George Horton who “says he belongs to Hall Horton, of Chatham County.” The description in the ad reads, “George is five feet five or six inches high, about fifty years of age, with some of his uper fore teeth gone, and a high forehead; had on when he was committed a dark over coat, and drab pantaloons, and black fur hat.” Cecil drew my attention to the teeth and insisted, “He had been fighting.”
Literary historians have not been aware that Horton made an attempt to escape prior to the Civil War. New Bern, where Horton was captured, is on a coastal inlet, about 140 miles from Chapel Hill; he had traveled for days toward the sea, as if enacting one of his poems, which often imagine escape to freedom in richly dreamlike terms. A few years later, Horton enclosed a poem in a letter to Horace Greeley that read, “He is an eagle void of wings / Aspiring to the mountains height; / Yet in the vale aloud he sings / For Pity’s aid to give him flight.” Sometimes Horton expressed a false modesty—he was not lacking for wings.
Doctor of Love
Soon after I arrived at Berkeley, Cecil and I sat down to have coffee and sandwiches at a café across from the UC campus. As a kind of warm-up, we got to talking about Horton’s poem “The Musical Chamber.” It is a short and self-referential lyric, an elaborate acoustic and symbolic construction, in which Horton invites the reader into the imagined space of his poetry:
I TRUST that my friends will remember,
Whilst I these my pleasures display,
Resort to my musical chamber,
The laurel crown’d desert in May.
We discussed the strange sweetness of this entreaty and its echoes of Edgar Allan Poe. Cecil reminded me of the archaic meaning of maying: the dancing and gathering of spring flowers during the fertility celebrations of European pagan ritual. Together, we puzzled over the metaphor of the desert. Horton reminds us of biblical scenes as if to orient our ethical compass on the way into his world. He insists, “This place is both pleasing and moral, / A chamber both lovely and gay,” as well as, “A place of a comical play.”
Here Venus attends with her lover,
Here Floras their suitors betray,
And uncommon secrets discover,
Which break from the bosom of May . . .
Walk in, little mistress, be steady,
You ‘r welcome a visit to pay;
All things in the chamber are ready,
Resolve to be married in May.
As Horton piles on classical references, the poem gets both sexier and funnier. By the end, his stabilizing instructions about married life seem absurd: Horton suggests that his poetry is a kind of boudoir. Cecil, who came to fame for a novel about interracial sex, well understands the outrage that might face an enslaved Black man teaching the art of seduction to the scions of the planter class.
The project is partly intended to help students find connections between the long history of Black oral culture and hip-hop.
With the bluesy innuendo of “The Musical Chamber” in mind, the parallels between Horton’s work and hip-hop become more clear. Over the years, Cecil has discussed Horton’s legacy with rappers, such as Common and Too Short, who are always unfamiliar with the poet: the cultural history behind contemporary hip-hop has never been widely taught in schools. Young people, both white and Black, on college campuses and in the street, rely on the genre as the soundtrack of social contact. But that contact is estranged, not only by the remnants of segregation and the forces of commodification, but also by our collective failure to acknowledge the longstanding importance of Black lyric and musical performance. When I joked that YouTube and Soundcloud allowed suburban kids easy access to hip-hop culture, Cecil insisted, “We don’t understand the vast impact of Black folk culture on all of our lives.”
In his view, Horton appears in the archive as a beginning for the role of Black poetics in the interracial romance of American life. He believes an AI/VR revival of Horton could illuminate and perhaps transform these dynamics for the digital age: “At Stanford, it’s kind of a racist institution, where even the liberals don’t want to risk even the slightest bit. Cyphering can help, because Horton had to stand up and spout, he had to have a face-to-face confrontation with the other. You can cut through so much with a good class about Horton.”
To understand the significance of this hypothetical improvised encounter with Horton, it helps to turn to Cecil’s other touchstone, James Baldwin, who argued that the root of American racism was white people’s “emotional poverty.” For Baldwin, the history of racial violence in the United States stemmed from white people’s unresolved, lustful, hateful, and finally inarticulate ambivalence about Black people. As a love doctor for the enslaved and slaveholding classes, Horton ministered to the pain wrought by the inequalities and prohibitions of patriarchy and slavery. His practice, unfolding over decades, made for an extraordinarily perverse enactment of interracial intimacy. In restaging his performance style, the Hortonizer could present an opportunity to think not just about the formal properties of oral poetry but also about the power dynamics that determine social and sexual encounters on campus, then and now.
Cecil’s trajectory from segregated schools to Greensboro A&T and then to Columbia, the University of Chicago, Berkeley, and Stanford, has made him especially sensitive to the problem of access to education. During my visit, we walked over to Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley, the site of countless protests since the 1960s. As we talked, a knee-high, box-shaped robot with a little glass-domed camera on top rolled past on four wheels and beeped at us. On what had been the university’s public square—just the sort of place, as Cecil pointed out, that Horton would meet the students at UNC—we were greeted instead by a cute little surveillance machine.
The bandleader Cab Calloway styled himself the “Professor of Jive” in the swing era, and Cecil Brown might well have laid claim to that mantle in his day.
Cecil hopes that the Hortonizer will soon credibly perform one of Horton’s richest expressions of alienation from the culture of UNC, his 1859 “Address to Collegiates of the University of N.C.: The Stream of Liberty and Science.” This is one of the most difficult and bizarre documents in the Horton archive, a transcription of an oral presentation he made to a large group of students. Researchers tend to find the transcript corrupted; some assume it is inaccurate, others claim Horton was drunk. Joan Sherman, editor of a modern edition of Horton’s work, calls it “pretentious, disorganized, rhetorically overblown, and even, in its visionary fancies, somewhat mad.” And yet I agree with Cecil that the thing is tantalizing: its syntax warped and jumpy, its ethical message veering, and its occasion dramatic, just two years before the Civil War.
Horton took the occasion to warn students about their excesses, the way they seemed to take their privilege as elites for granted, speaking in purple prose that contradicted his apologetics:
Nay while contemplating the divesture of collegiate pomp, I am brought to deplore my own unfortunate condition that those important advantages have never fallen in my way, otherwise perverts into spurious drop, that their academical flowers had never been scattered along my path, which witherd so early on the scholastic bosom of youth and liberty.
The diction is weird, and the symbolism borders on surreal: the “scholastic bosom of youth”? An incomprehensible clause, “perverts into spurious drop,” cuts through the middle of the sentence. At the same time, Horton clearly expresses his painful exclusion from grand civilizational progress he associates with the university; he also warns the students about how they risk failing to tend their intellectual inheritance. The Address thus makes an early entry into the genre of complaints against inequality in higher education.
The practical question raised by this text for the Hortonizer design team is: How could a computer render the subtle yet flamboyant rhetoric of an enslaved Black man speaking to a crowd of wealthy college boys? How could the compressed acoustics of the digital age capture the ample irony of Horton’s life in performance? Unfortunately, at present, the mechanistic vocals of contemporary AI struggle to credibly represent Horton’s loopy rhythms. I have to imagine the ironies of Horton’s speech would also be compounded by representation through AI, which itself promises to have a devastating effect on colleges and universities. In our conversations, Cecil has expressed worry about the so-called death of the humanities and its likely consequences for Black studies. This has been a longstanding concern: in 2007, he wrote a book entitled Dude, Where’s My Black Studies Department? But his jive perspective on this sort of question leads one to critical grandiosity. Could Horton’s faux-modest admonitions to the students in antebellum Chapel Hill really be turned against Silicon Valley narcissism?
How Do You Like Me Now?
In its unfinished state, the Hortonizer poses a range of problems with both practical and speculative implications. The designers struggled for some time with how to represent Horton himself: there are no known period visual depictions, no portraits, no engravings or daguerreotypes. Google Images mistakenly labels as Horton a portrait of his Northern abolitionist contemporary Martin Delany. Caroline Lee Hentz once described him in these vaguely demeaning terms: “He is faithful, grateful, and unpretending, and looks as superior to his tribe, as your imagination can picture him. Instead of the broad smile of the African, he has the mild gravity of a Grecian philosopher.”
How could a computer render the subtle, yet flamboyant rhetoric of an enslaved Black man speaking to a crowd of wealthy college boys?
Cecil spent some time feeding material like this into the AI image generator Midjourney, with predictably weird results. Later, he and the project’s designers arrived at a different solution for the Horton avatar. They composed the current version from images of Horton’s descendant Marion Horton, who is still living in North Carolina, blended with the image of Martin Delany, and an image of Cecil himself. This sly piece of identification between Cecil and Horton combines, in the spirit of both writers, a tossed-off humor and a forbidding prophecy about Black belonging in the halls of knowledge. The design team made similar choices with the audio rendering of Horton’s voice, starting from recordings of Marion Horton reading. These improvisations bridge research and design, genealogy, history, and creativity. Cecil’s approach to digital experimentation is fearless—he wants to teach not just young people but the algorithm itself about Black culture. Still, the project faces significant obstacles; the scale of Cecil’s vision bumps against its limited funding.
Perhaps the riskiest and most challenging component of the Hortonizer is its capacity not just to recite but to produce new poems after the manner of Horton. In this effort, it relies on the large language model ChatGPT, which has been directed to imitate Horton’s digitized body of work. As a good literary historian, Cecil insists that Horton’s published output is an incidental, possibly corrupted notation of his life’s work as a performer; ChatGPT cannot ever really know how Horton might have sounded when he improvised a lyric. A number of questions follow: Should the model be given other “tokens” (pieces of words that are prioritized to guide the output of a language model) to make it sound more realistic? If it is fed the white literary sources with which Horton was familiar—the works of Samuel Johnson and Lord Byron, periodicals like the Southern Literary Messenger—would it sound less like the Black vernacular in which Horton lived? More modern archives, such as the Federal Writers’ Project’s Slave Narrative Collection, oral histories of formerly enslaved people taken from 1936-1938, might come closer, but they risk other forms of anachronism. Inherently, then, the Hortonizer poses questions about how to authentically represent African American Vernacular English in digital contexts.
Cecil’s energetic enthusiasm for the Hortonizer is infectious, but he struggles against the constraints of the technology and the institutions which host it. Consequently, even as he pitches the project, he is attuned to critiques of racism in contemporary digital technology, especially those made by younger Black scholars like Benjamin, Safiya Umoja Noble, and Mutale Nkonde, who have been writing about the dangers posed to Black people by artificial intelligence for some time. Their critique is comprehensive: AI reproduces racial biases which proliferate online; it relies on energy-intensive processing whose consequences will be born disproportionately by people of color; it will replace human workers in jobs held disproportionately by people of color; and it is put to use in racist policing and surveillance. They frankly suggest the technology poses genocidal risks.
The Hortonizer dramatizes these concerns, and highlights the historical echo between contemporary tech culture and slavery: assigning contemporary college students to ask a digital Horton for poems restages the exploitative relations between the poet and the sons of the planter elite. In doing so, it should spur conversation about how racism obscured the humanity of enslaved Black people. It might prompt Afrofuturist dialogue about abolition as well. Were enslaved Black people a form of automaton? Was the end of slavery like a kind of antebellum Turing test? Horton’s poetic practice echoes the improvisation of AI chatbots—dubbed “stochastic parrots” by critics—in uncanny ways. When Google went to market with its AI product Bard in spring 2023, Cecil was thrilled to learn about their branding decision. One of the great appreciators of racism’s ironies in African American letters, Cecil could see that the Hortonizer, dedicated to the work of the “Colored Bard,” would fly like an arrow to the heart of Silicon Valley boosterism.
Some fifty years ago, Cecil theorized his philosophy of jive in an essay for the Evergreen Review. Purportedly an interview with Aretha Franklin, the piece transforms into a mad theory of Black expression. Amid riffs on the difficulty of getting past Franklin’s entourage and anecdotes about navigating the Bay Area scene made up of bohemians and Black Panthers, Cecil fires off a series of declamatory and oppositional definitions beginning, “Jive is . . .” There he writes, “Jive is being friendly with the contradictions but not really agreeing with them.” I think something like this is in Cecil’s approach to digital culture, in the way he wants to explore the potential of the digital revolution while keeping clear about the industry’s political and ethical shortcomings. He came to Berkeley in the late 1960s hoping it would provide a respite from the racism of the eastern United States, and to a certain extent it did. He also hoped it would permit the kind of aesthetic experimentation that interested him most.
He was, and still is, inspired by Marshall McLuhan, the visionary who anticipated the advent of a technological “global village.” Despite its occasionally anodyne recirculation in the context of internet culture, McLuhan meant the concept to highlight the dangers of media society as well: that more interconnection might highlight our collective alienation. Cecil cites McLuhan frequently in our conversations. In digitally reviving an enslaved man, the Hortonizer involves some darkly reflective optimism about technology as “the extension of man.”
McLuhan also warned that technological media could have a dangerously narcissistic effect by giving people an unrealistically enlarged sense of their capability and reach. Cecil has repeatedly suggested that the whiteness of Silicon Valley has had the consequence of making that narcissism white supremacist. The Hortonizer, as a McLuhanesque media experiment, is designed to combat this effect. Cecil recalls listening to the 1967 album version of The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects during his early years in Berkeley and being blown away when McLuhan asks, “How do you like it so far?” That a person could reappear and express themselves across different formats struck him then as a world of possibility. When Cecil was telling me about this encounter, he remembered the line as, “How do you like me now?” When I went to look up the McLuhan, I realized he had substituted a reference to Kool Moe Dee’s 1987 hit “How Ya Like Me Now.”
Sometimes my conversations with Cecil have turned to New York and Columbia University, where he was a student in the 1960s and where I work now. He says I remind him of his Jewish classmates and professors from back then. One day, he made a startling argument about the Jewish idea of eruv: the allowances carved out to allow observant Jews to perform necessary activities ordinarily prohibited on Shabbat. “It’s like a loophole,” he suggested. “Black life is about finding and using loopholes.” We ran through a few examples. Harriet Jacobs called the attic where she hid for seven years from her enslavers “the loophole of retreat.” Cecil’s doctoral adviser, Alan Dundes, made much of the “laughing barrel” in which enslaved people would dunk their heads to disguise their laughter at white people. In the Jewish tradition, eruv allows the mixing of what is permitted in public and private spaces. The Hortonizer, like the internet as a whole, will have this effect as well: mixing up who has access to Black poetics.
To the extent that Horton’s work is a kind of hoodoo, or spirit-work, the spell he has cast on Cecil and me has been binding.
The Hortonizer is a machine for teaching oral poetry and for teaching the history of slavery, especially slavery in the university. But in Cecil’s eyes, it might also be something more; it might change us on some deeper, relational frequency. It might become a machine for making love and a machine for making friends. Horton appears in the archive as a result of his friendships: with the students at UNC, with the liberal white elites clustered around the campus, and later with Union Army officers. I know that Horton has already made friends of Cecil and me, improbably, over many conversations now unfolding over years. To the extent that Horton’s work is a kind of hoodoo, or spirit-work, the spell he has cast on us two has been binding. The wager of the Hortonizer is that it might have a similar effect for others, that it might be “scalable,” to borrow the language of contemporary business culture.
The project is still in its infancy; it is an experiment, and like most good experiments, it will fail to meet its most ambitious goals. As I reflect on my initial resistance to its promises, I remember thinking, “That’s never going to work.” Then one day I realized that I feel the same way about most digital products, and nearly every piece of educational software I’ve ever encountered. Why shouldn’t Cecil get to take advantage of the “minimum viable product” approach? Why shouldn’t he move fast and break things? Cecil and I have had more than one conversation about the word hustle, which like jive, has a richly dialectical significance in Black vernacular English. It means both earnest, intelligent effort and corner-cutting con-artistry. Cecil is sensitive about the prospect that the Hortonizer might be viewed as a hustle in the negative sense; he has worked too hard for too long for the result to seem like a fly-by-night fraud.
On the phone one Sunday, we talked about scam culture, especially the long history of Black culture’s appropriation by white people and recent scandals in the tech industry. Cecil is acutely sensitive to the notorious predations of media and technology. I told him our moment in history reminded me of Melville’s 1857 novel The Confidence-Man, in which the Devil appears in many guises to scam the rubes aboard the steamship Fidèle along the Mississippi. The Horton project has this kind of serious humor in it: what might from another view look like techno-optimism is always motivated by a deeply ethical response to the ironies of a culture in crisis. Cecil knows his Melville well, and he drew the connection to another riverboat novel of the nineteenth century: “Check this out man: we’re on the Mississippi now too, except it’s a digital Mississippi, made of numbers and bits, and we’re all n—–s.” A short pause for effect, and then he went on, “N—– Jim and N—– Huck, they’re coming for all of us.”
Twain never used the appellation “N—– Jim,” but Cecil knew that; he was making a point, and he was not playing. It’s hardly comforting to find oneself Huck in this moment—to know the global village has us all on the run, to know how we’re haunted and hunted by a form of capitalism forged in slavery. I had grown accustomed to our conversations building to a punchline, emphasis on the punch. I took a deep breath, “Well, shit, Cecil, that’s well said.”
“Alright?” he asked. And then, “I gotta go make my old lady some eggs Benedict, let’s talk again soon.”