In the latest episode of #LM2Talks, tune in for a conversation about black media using the foundation of a thesis I developed when writing a proposal for a paper exploring the civil rights movement in the social media era while I was pursuing my masters in communications and media. I’ll be exploring the shows Dear White People and Atlanta, as well as a recent Donald Glover project, This is America.
Read the original proposal the thesis grew from below.
Growing up as a Black American, race seemed to have played a part in many of the discourses in my life. From the challenging of my perceptions to coded language used to talk about me, extending even into the books I read and shows I watched. As I grew older, the discourse and representation of blacks in the media would be a lightning rod for me, drawing my attention to what movies were coming out, how we were represented, how many of us appeared on screen, and all of the debates and discussions surrounding these topics. There were times and places for these discussions though, much of it behind closed doors, hidden away so that we would not be judged, or stereotyped based on misperceptions of the popular opinion. In a way, it seemed like a type of underground movement for me and other blacks I knew as we often felt, and, in actuality, were, outnumbered.
In many senses, this seems to be a common theme for blacks not living in close proximity to each other. Without having an ample amount of other black faces around us, there is a perception for many that we have to fit into these stereotypical boxes or hide our thoughts and opinions to be accepted by the majority. This is a damaging fear as it often prevents the public discourse needed to discuss certain issues, and to explore the experiences and opinions of others.
Social networking sites seem to be a solution to this. Here we can see opinions from several different sectors represented and discussed, sometimes civilly, sometimes through heated debates, sometimes through humor, and in a number of other ways. Through these sites we can see a rise in Black American discourse and a gradual erosion of much of the fear that has kept many of us quiet. Twitter seems to be a key place where this is taking place, and #BlackTwitter is at the heart of it all.
#BlackTwitter can be a hard thing to explain to people. Some people have asked me if it is a separate service, or snide questions like “where is white twitter?” Urban Dictionary defines #BlackTwitter as such:
[…]the portion of twitter where most African Americans and minorities are focused in. The social area of the black community. There is considered to be two sides of “dark” twitter because of all the jokes, profanity, and nudes that are on one spectrum, and the activism, and intellect on the other.
Pretty much everything on Urban Dictionary needs to be taken with a grain of salt, but it does define it in a way that I feel is important. #BlackTwitter represents the multitude of faces that the Black community has. For me, there are three distinct aspects of #BlackTwitter: The Church, The Cipher, and The Minstrel Show.
The Black church, as described by Jeffery S. Levin, “has been the preserver and the perpetuator of the black ethos, the radix from which its defining values and norms have been generated, and the autonomous social institution that has provided order and meaning to the black experience in the United States.” (477) In this sense, #BlackTwitter as the church provides the safe space for the Black community to find shelter and support, seek reason, establish value, and create direction. In many ways, this is manifested through Twitter activism like what we see in cases like the killing of Trayvon Martin, or the uprising in Ferguson.
In a similar manner, #BlackTwitter can also be seen as a cipher. This can be interpreted in two ways. In a traditional sense, a cipher is a disguised form of writing or a code. We can see with language popularized on the internet, #BlackTwitter can have a heavy hand in creating new language that later gets adopted into mainstream culture. However, hip-hop culture proposes another definition of a cipher which Jeff Chang describes as:
“At the core of hip-hop is the notion of something called the “cipher.” Partly for competition and partly for community, the cipher is the circle of participants and onlookers that closes around battling rappers or dancers as they improvise for each other. If you have the guts to step into the cipher and tell your story and, above all, demonstrate your uniqueness, you might be accepted into the community. Here is where reputations are made and risked and stylistic change is fostered. That this communitarian honoring of merit — whether it’s called “style,” “hotness,” or whatever the latest slang for it is — can transcend geography, culture, and even skin color remains hip-hop’s central promise.”
In a sense, where the view of #BlackTwitter as the church helps find community direction, the cipher view helps dictate and determine direction in popular culture, entertainment, arts, and fashion.
Finally, on the darker side of things, we have #BlackTwitter as the Minstrel Show. In a sense, #BlackTwitter also provides a place for all of the negative interpretations and stereotypes to be put on full display, often serving as entertainment for others. Drawing from Wikipedia, “The minstrel show, or minstrelsy, was an American entertainment consisting of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music, performed by white people in blackface or, especially after the Civil War, black people in blackface.” It is this space of #BlackTwitter that is incredibly problematic and in many ways threatens this space. Here is where we can see people from outside races infiltrating this space and using “black voice” to make fun of or promote their own ends. Elements like the Daquan meme and twitter account, serve as examples here, showcasing deception online and what warranting can uncover.
It is my hope that by exploring and highlighting these distinct elements of #BlackTwitter and aspects of the black social experience online, we can work our way to a greater understanding of the discourses taking place in the black online community, as well as some of the issues surrounding legitimacy. It is an important space with quite a bit of complexity, and it seems that some light needs to be shed to help others understand it.
Chang, J. (2007, October 11). It’s a Hip-Hop World [Web log post].
Dickerson, J. (2014, September 11). Black Twitter Comes For Vogue Booty Article, Doesn’t Hold Back [Web log post].
Lemons, J. S. (1977). Black stereotypes as reflected in popular culture, 1880-1920. American Quarterly, 29(1), 102-116. doi:10.2307/2712263
Levin, J. S. (1984). The role of the black Church in Community Medicine. Journal of the National Medical Association, 76(5), 477-483.
Manjoo, F. (2010, August 10). How black people use Twitter [Web log post].
Marfo, A. (2014, August 16). Why #BlackTwitter was essential to media outrage over Ferguson [Web log post].
McDonald, S. N. (2014, January 20). Black Twitter: A virtual community ready to hashtag out a response to cultural issues – The Washington Post [Web log post].
Newitz, A. (2014, September 4). What Happens When Scientists Study “Black Twitter”? [Web log post].
Starr, T. J. (2014, February 24). #BlackTwitter Is America?s 21st Century Civil Rights Movement Group [Web log post].
Sydell, L. (2014, August 13). In hashtag protest, ‘Black Twitter’ shows its strength [Audio podcast].
Urban Dictionary: Black Twitter. (n.d.).