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Tonia Sutherland: New Book Explores “Resurrecting the Black Body” and its Afterlife Legacies

By Joanie Harmon
UCLA Assistant Professor of Information Studies Tonia Sutherland
UCLA Assistant Professor of Information Studies Tonia Sutherland

While earning her MLIS at the University of Pittsburgh, Tonia Sutherland was assailed by the media images and footage of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and its surrounding areas in 2005. What stood out to her in the disaster’s coverage was the indifferent portrayal of the destruction and death that affected the Black communities.

This realization led Sutherland, an assistant professor in the UCLA Department of Information Studies, to write her new and first book ever, “Resurrecting the Black Body: Race and the Digital Afterlife,” which was released this month by the University of California Press, and recently featured on Ms. Magazine’s October list of “Reads for the Rest of Us.”  

Sutherland employs a lens of critical archival, digital, and cultural studies in her examination of the technology and societal mores around the ways that Black Americans are portrayed posthumously online, acknowledging historic bigotry, current forms of racialized aggression, and the unique ways that Black cultures continue to fight against the erasure or distortion of their histories.

Professor Sutherland joined the UCLA faculty in 2022. She serves as co-director of the UCLA Community Archives Lab, and is a member of Scholar Council for the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry (C2i2). An internationally recognized expert in the study of Black archival practices, Sutherland focuses her research on critical and liberatory in archival studies, digital studies, and science and technology studies, emphasizing the often-messy entanglements of memory, community, and technology.

Prior to arriving at UCLA, Sutherland was an assistant professor in the Department of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and in the College of Communication and Information Sciences at the University of Alabama. She is currently the co-founder and co-director of AfterLab at the University of Washington iSchool and serves on the Advisory Board of the Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies at New York University.

Professor Sutherland has been a member of the American Studies Association, the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S), the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, the Society of American Archivists and the Association for Library and Information Science Education. She is the author or co-author of more than two dozen articles and book chapters, with her work appearing in journals such as The International Journal of Information, Diversity, & Inclusion; New Media and Society; The Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies; The American Archivist; The Black Scholar; Open Information Science; Preservation, Digital Technology & Culture; Archival Science; The Annual Review of Cultural Heritage Informatics; and Radical History Review. 

Sutherland holds both her PhD and MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh, and her bachelor’s degree in history, performance studies, and cultural studies from Hampshire College.

What inspired “Resurrecting the Black Body”?

The first kernels of inspiration came from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I was earning my master's in library and information studies at the time. I was working on a paper and the television was on, and I could see all of the bodies of the deceased floating in the flood waters in New Orleans. I was shocked by the callousness with which the news media were displaying dead bodies, and these bodies were primarily Black people's bodies, because the toll of the storm really impacted Black communities [or they were] hit the hardest.

It reminded me of the footage I saw as a child, where you would see TV campaigns with emaciated children with distended bellies from Africa. No specific country was named, except maybe Ethiopia. There were flies flying around them and again, [they were] all Black children. I started to think at the time what is it about us culturally and as a society that we feel comfortable displaying Black bodies, Black people in pain or in death, with such callousness.

That was the root of my thinking as an information studies scholar about this project: when we die, do we have a right to say what is done with our image, which expanded over time to [asking] do we have a right to to say what happens to any of our data after we die? We live in this very digital world. Do we have a right to say what happens to our Facebook profile… our Twitter? What happens to our email, what happens to all the data that other companies have collected about us?

Thinking through all of that, and then also seeing the increasing use of technologies such as holograms, and the way that people were being reanimated after death using data and a variety of digital practices - like the Tupac hologram - were the the main impetus for writing this book.

What were the avenues you traveled to dig deeper on this very timely topic?

The book reads as a series of case studies. For each case, it was actually a very different kind of research process. The first part is framed around records, because I'm trained as an archival scholar. The next part is framed around resurrection, and I look at digital resurrection processes and a couple of cases of digital afterlife practices. The third part is framed around rights.

The first case looks at the digitization of records from the slavery era, really focusing on what it means for those records to circulate in new contexts. Slavery ended almost 150 years ago. What does it mean for those records to now circulate online - for the images and even some of the nomenclature that's used in and to describe these records - for them to just pop up in your Instagram feed, with no context? What people are doing is imposing context where they don't have the education or knowledge to fill in the context for what it is that they're seeing. So, there's a strong visual literacy component to the research.

The second chapter looks at lynching era photographs and images and postcards and how they correlate to [current] images like the video of of George Floyd's murder in 2020. I wouldn't call them bookends, but they're points on the same timeline. There is also a visual literacy component to what happens when there is distancing between someone actually experiencing pain and us watching someone experience pain; and what kinds of emotional agency those images are then allowed to kind of convey.

There is a chapter on Henrietta Lacks, whose family has been in the news again recently for suing Thermo Fisher. That is a historical analysis of Henrietta Lacks, a retelling of her story, and then looking at what happened when German researchers put her genome online and all of a sudden, she became a digital body. Her genome became something people could download and read, even though this woman died in 1951. Her cells – HeLa cells - have become part of of curing so many diseases, including being part of the development of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The research there was about trying to understand what someone can do with a genome and what we are doing with DNA. It's a little scary. We have created synthetic DNA, and we are now storing information data in it, because it's a stable storage medium. That chapter is grappling DNA in digital environments, the kinds of things we are doing with DNA, and how we understand bodies and embodiment, especially in the case of this woman who died in the 1950s, and yet is still very much present today.

The next chapter is about Tupac Shakur and understanding the technology [behind his] hologram that was presented at Coachella in 2012, digging into the technology and trying to also understand--from the hip-hop, Black community perspective--why this hologram might have been a thing that was valued or wanted. It was kind of a jarring and disorienting experience for people to see this reanimated rapper on stage, years after he had died.

Finally, the last two chapters are about our right to be forgotten. Do we have a right to be forgotten? Do we have the right to be remembered, and if so, do we get to say under what conditions?

How can individuals have their say on the option to be remembered or forgotten while they are still with us?

Right now, folks in Hollywood - actors and other performers - are fighting for [their rights to autonomy]. This remains a big part of the SAG-AFTRA strike. People don't want to be turned into AI and then have that image be able to be used in perpetuity. We are already seeing a huge pushback here. Carrie Fisher stated very explicitly that she did not want to be reanimated in any way. Prince also had something in his will saying he did not want to be reanimated. This is a very small but growing area of the law - afterlife services and practices.

A lot of [social media] companies are also coming around to this idea. For a long time, Facebook has had memorial pages. You can, before you die, designate someone to be the inheritor of your Facebook page and you can choose to have it turned into a memorial page. I have a cousin who passed away, and her [Facebook] page is now one of these memorial pages.

In terms of the data itself though, we don't have control over what third parties do. We don't have control over what will happen to that data or what can be can be done with [it] when we die. I know that for some organizations, some governmental institutions, some companies, it's going to eventually become a huge concern because we create so much data every day, each of us individually, and all of it is being gathered and stored.

A recent study noted that there are more dead people than living people on Facebook. When your living customer base is exceeded by [the] deceased, what do you do with all the data from the deceased? Are you going to maintain it in perpetuity? Our data is surviving us and for companies, there may be reasons they want this data to survive. But at what point do we lay a body of data to rest?

We are approaching a crisis point where people are going to have to start grappling with this because, it’s been just long enough that this data has been allowed to build up and we haven't really thought it through it as a society. All this data has been collected and then what happens when the person dies? It’s a legal issue; it’s a social issue; it’s an information issue; it’s a technology issue. It’s going to take all of us coming together from these different perspectives and having these conversations.

How did your background in history and performance studies inform the creation of this book? 

One of the things that I think is really beautiful about this book, just for myself, is that it really is a lovely coming together of a lifetime of training. Being able to think interdisciplinarily and having an opportunity to pull from all these fields and ways of seeing the world, I think, actually gives the book a lot of depth and and richness.

As the book is focused on Black people and their afterlife images in history and digital history, what are some of the main racial issues and implications you examine?

Black people in the United States have long had our bodies be both subject and object. When you are enslaved, you don't get to make decisions about your body. When you are imprisoned or incarcerated in the high numbers that Black people are, you don't get to make decisions about your body. We have a history in this country of denying and depriving Black people of bodily autonomy, and to see this continue into the afterlife is particularly galling.

I really wanted to sit with what that means for the Black community and what it means for all of us. If you look at how you treat the the people that are least respected in your society, it will tell you a lot about yourselves. What I learned is there is a very callous disregard – and maybe a thoughtless disregard as well – for how these digital afterlife practices impact Black communities in particular… this sort of continuation of of the slavery project, the carceral state, where you are constantly imprisoned by your Blackness. And if we allow these practices to become acceptable, if they become the baseline for policy, then we're all in trouble.

How does your work in this area enhance your teaching?

Right now, I teach “Values and Communities in the Information Professions,” and we’ve had some conversations about DNA. We’ve talked about information as a public good, about access to information and what's appropriate and what's not appropriate. I also teach in our archival studies area, so there are a lot of resonances there.

I'm teaching a class this year called “Community Engagement,” a doctoral seminar. That class focuses on getting students to engage with communities where rather than imposing the researchers’ needs, desires, thoughts, or beliefs [about] the community, [we are] really allowing communities to speak for themselves which is an important aspect of this work. Last year, I taught an undergraduate class on “Information and Power,” where we talked about a lot of these things as well.

How does your research strengthen your role as co-director of the Community Archives Lab?

The Community Archives Lab is co-directed by my colleagues, Michelle Caswell, Thuy Vo Dang, and myself. I have a grant through the Institute of Museum and Library Services, to study descriptive practices in archives, the language that we use to describe people and things and events, but mostly people. The grant is to look at the way this move from analog into digital has shifted some of those practices and we're going to spend some time talking to community members about how they would like to see themselves represented or, if they would like to see themselves represented in archives and if so, what language would they like to be used when someone is talking about them, or describing them or describing their community.

I feel like with the Lab we're actually connecting with local communities and thinking more broadly about what it means to document [them] and to be in partnership with communities who wish to document themselves.


Professor Sutherland will speak on “Resurrecting the Black Body” in an Online Network Book Forum titled, “Caring for Digital Remains.” The event will be presented by Data & Society on Thursday, Nov. 16 at 1 p.m., EST. To register and attend, visit this linkvisit this link.

Photo by Ilana Turner