For the second time in as many weeks I’ve been asked to write about Black Twitter. And at first, I thought that I might have been too close to the subject to see what might be exciting about it to outsiders (read: white folks) in places like Slate, Gawker, HuffPo.
Then I realized that this topic makes folks feel like apparently they’ve uncovered something decadent and salacious, when what’s really happening is intra-group culture in real-time.
And they don’t understand it.
Mainstream outlets have applied a National Geographic-style gaze in these pieces that at times border on the offensive and written awkwardly, such as Choire Sicha’s mind-numbing, “At the risk of getting randomly harshed on by the Internet, I cannot keep quiet about my obsession with Late Night Black People Twitter, an obsession I know some of you other white people share, because it is awesome.”
(I used this quote in my other piece, too, because I can’t believe he committed this thought to print.)
(Read the screen-grab tweets from bottom to top)
For Philadelphia Magazine, I wrote, “Black Twitter continues to capture the interest of mainstream media, largely because those outside of black culture are getting a closer view of that culture in real time. South by Southwest 2012 had a panel on The Bombastic Brilliance of ‘Black Twitter.’ Slate, Gawker, The Huffington Post and others have also tried to crystallize an understanding of Black Twitter, black culture and, by extension, black cool.”
Here, I’ll say it a bit more directly: Black people are awesome, our culture is innovative and Black Twitter, should you choose to accept its existence as fact, is like a digital unfolding of cultural blackness. The stoop. The back tables in the cafeteria during lunch period. The corner. Ball courts. Barbershops. Church. Technology is reconstituting the traditions embedded in the history of black rhetoric. The anonymity of the Internet provided a new gathering space.
Can you hold your own in the game of the dozens? Do you know what signifying is? Do you understand hyperbole? If you can and if do, you can see our language history reflected in trending topics, the hashtags we use, the way we’ve got “wayment” saved as an acceptable spelling against the better judgment of autocorrect.
Black speech traditions developed in response to the censure of black intellectualism as a matter of domestic policy. Language became coded, a tactic of resistance. For years, the social segregation of this country has kept folks separate; our nuances kept within the confines of our safe spaces.
When I started Montessori school in the mid '80s, I was what my family called “the only cookie in the milk.” The single person of color in my Catholic school class until I started first grade, I stood out among the white kids, and disappeared in the dark pixelated backgrounds of the black-and-white photos used to advertise the school’s competitive academic offerings.
Being the only person in my class in my early years of school forced me to learn my own blackness quickly. On a regular school day, I could confront a question asking about my hair, the width of my nose, tanning and other things about my very existence that I never thought to think about.
Confused and sometimes browbeaten, I’d ask my parents for answers. Once they reassured me that there was nothing wrong with me, they would launch their own discussion amongst themselves about white people, the world and our role in it.
In the safe space of my home, my friend’s home, my parents’ home, the homes of my parents’ friends and my friends’ parents, I have watched black folks take off their cool and talk candidly about race and identity with folks who shared their experiences, nimbly navigating the world through what DuBois’ coined double consciousness, making ourselves boundless in our social dexterity thanks to our ability to code-switch.
That duality is now available for the world to see, in 140 characters or less.
My name is Maya Francis. I’m Black and I use Twitter. Most of my friends are black, and they also use Twitter, so I have found myself deep within the digital depths of Black Twitter. (I also traverse through Media Twitter, where I am sure to “cut” the Code Switch on.)
Though it seems novel to other people, my friends and I use our Twitter accounts to talk about our lives the way we have always talked about our lives, the way we’ve been taught to about our lives. This bears some degree of intrigue for reporters who hop on Twitter to visit the other side of town, like a new-age Cotton club.
And if there is going be an audience, like culture genius Dave Chappelle said, “I want to make sure I'm dancing and not shuffling.”