We interrupt our regularly scheduled program to report that black people use twitter.
Yes, chile. And their use of twitter is so fascinating that some white folks even stay up late at night to peer into the heart of darkness and chuckle at the witticisms of these little nigs Negroes blacks and enjoy their “hilarious, bizarre or profane” midnight dances conversations into the wee hours of the morning.
I hope that paragraph above does all the work it needs to. I hope it shows how misguided Farhad Manjoo and the editors at Slate were to even post such an ill-informed and nineteenth-century-esque article. If it doesn’t then find your way over to Because, Really, the Black Snob or Instant Vintage for a much longer, funnier breakdown (@innyvinny even has a gallery of black twitter birds for your cutting, pasting and posting pleasure–see mine?).
If and when you read it, I hope the problems with the Slate article are more obvious to you than to @fmanjoo–problems like monolithic blackness, the rap-circa-2001-generically-brown twitterbird, the preoccupation with stats say nothing but do their best to mystify something very simple: that “black people are online:”
“Yet much like discovering a country where people are already living, anytime the mainstream picks up on something that black people have been doing since forever (wasting time on the internet, shooting the shit like everyone else) it is supposed to be indicative of some larger, big, mysterious thing.”
Turn your clinical digital spotlight upon me! Make me visible and by doing so make me real! Ahh! The power of the mainstream (which you could also read as white or as emanating from a legacy of whiteness and white privilege although Farhad himself is not white) gaze!
But I’m not writing to jump into the internet swarm that is headed straight for Farhad’s twitterfeed and Facebook page. I’m anti-swarming (peace and love, yall, peace and love). And I’m upset not at the piece itself but at the way its existence obscures and butchers a phenomenon that deserves a lot more attention–and a historical eye.
After all, why does the hashtag fun that occurs throughout the day–not just late at night, jeez talk about fantasies of the exotic–vibrate with a kind of diasporic and urban blackness even though the hashtags themselves are fairly innocuous (his examples included things like #annoyingquestion and #ilaugheverytime)? And why do ALL TYPES and so many people participate? You wouldn’t know that from the Slate article because there is no sense of diversity so there is no reason to question why that diversity exists. In fact, I’d wager Farhad’s most obvious #racefail is that he uses a monolithic blackness that obscures differences within the United States (let’s throw out some of the common dichotomies and even these are stupid simplistic and bound to be ripped apart by any given twitter including myself: urban vs. rural, young vs. old, blitterati Root writers vs. 2dopeboyz music pirates) while at the same time perpetuating and obscuring differences across global blackness. Even his first example (#wordsthatleadtotrouble) crosses the Atlantic at least once before hitting trending status and this gets barely a mention–it’s all put under the heading of “blacktag.” Because, ya know, we all the same in this piece.
What if we did? What would be a more sensible explanation or context to place the twitter hashtag game in than the one where all black people around the world are up late at night (one timezone yall) to go in on twitter? Maybe something that consider the global aesthetics of hip hop–which at this point is decidedly not limited to either the hip hop industry or people of the brown persuasion? Or the global politics of sex (which for me leads down the road of thinking about race but need not do the same for everyone)? Especially considering the examples he choose to use and his emphasis on the nastiness of it all. Or why not consider how twitter and other social media has created a public sphere, town hall AND insurgent lingua franca which people of ALL ages use to give voice to their own sexual agency, make political commentary and…oh wait, be social?
But I’ll admit, even these questions still shy away from the truly afro-diasporic resonance of the hashtag. And I don’t have the stats to “prove” that there are or aren’t legions of faceless and nameless black people using the hashtag late at night in creative and lurid ways so I won’t try. Still, a little bit of cultural literacy might have gotten Slate to the underlying–and much more interesting–query of why a social media like twitter might intersect very nicely with black expressive culture writ large.
Old wine = blues, jazz, street slang, jive, playing the dozens, 16 bars
New bottles = 140 characters, a worldwide audience, a hashtag to keep the beat
Zora Neale Hurston, while doing research in the 1920s era South, described what was called “playing the dozens”:
“…which also is a way of saying low-rate your enemy’s ancestors and him, down to the present moment for reference, and then go into his future as far as your imagination leads you. But if you have no faith in your personal courage and confidence in your arsenal, don’t try it. It is a risky pleasure.”
And Robin Kelley, doing the damn thing, wrote:
Storytelling as getting over, quips as verbal warfare, rhythmic and poly-rhythmic improvisational wordplay that has survived since SLAVERY in one form or another and has created one of the most controversial and lucrative industries in the world–besides helping generations of blacks survive the worst of the worst of the worst.
Are we surprised that it manifested again, with twitter hashtags as the clave? Well, I’m not. And I won’t be surprised when, now that the creative work of blackness has gone mainstream to the point of being RE-NAMED the “blacktag” (oh how clever), the creative juice that powers our (read: diasporic, global black Nanny maroon there if you wanna) resistance and survival re-emerges in a new form. On Tumblr perhaps? Doing its thing until the next enterprising traveler anthropologist scientist mainstream blogger or reporter decides to turn a corner down an alley they imagined in their head and see what the culluds is up to.
The fact that Farhad couldn’t see anything interesting in the hashtag phenomenon beyond its edgy sexual politics and the brown-faced twitter icons is frustrating beyond measure. His piece reeked of a kind of voyeuristic elitism and itinerant fascination that is better left in the 1920s. Especially considering there is nothing in this post that couldn’t be found online (even the quotes are courtesy of Google Books).
But ya know, that’s fine. That’s cool. After all, as Sheila Walker writes in “Are You Hip to the Jive? (Re)Writing/Righting the Pan-American Discourse:”
“Are you hip to the jive?” was a question I often heard my father, James Walker, and his friends ask when I was growing up in New Jersey. They were questioning whether or not you really understood what was really happening, as distinguished from what you only thought you understood about what might only appear to be happening–from the simplest to the most profound meanings of that understanding.”
The power of perception may not be wholly in our hands. Farhad’s piece is already circulating on twitter and along the interwebs as a work of “serious” journalism (must be all those pesky stats). But we can still release the pressure and have a nice, hearty laugh, Ellegua/Masking Sambo style, at his expense. #ifyouainthip #youainthip bruh.