The Digital Souls of Black Folk

by Rob Henderson

On how we find safety and solace online

Rob Henderson
Rob Henderson is a writer of creative nonfiction whose intellectual influences range from bell hooks to Søren Kierkegaard. He is interested in moral and political philosophy, feminism, pop culture and critical race theory. On Twitter he is @ChldlikeEmperor.

My best friend is white and last year, we lived together. It happened fast— my relationship with my mom had been toxic for a while and one day, in the heat of argument, I couldn’t stop myself from giving voice to the things I carry around. Things she gave me. And when you’re 23 and finally say those things to your mother, things like You made it hard for me to be open about being gay because you made your love conditional on me pretending otherwise, it really is time to go. So at around 9 in the morning one day in June, I left my home in West Philadelphia for the last time, got on a train, and went to stay with my friend in Malvern.

The implications of leaving the only place I’d ever understood as home – where everyone looked like me – and going to live with my white best friend in a dizzyingly white suburb didn’t escape me for a moment. I rode the train terrified, because this place I’d often come to visit her, a place my friend and I would both make jokes about – its blandness, the one-dimensionality of everyone and everything – was the only place I had to go. It had been easy to believe, though never in purely good faith, that race wasn’t a significant factor in our friendship whenever we hung out in downtown Philly, but the blaze of summer would see this comfortable charade turned to ashes.     

Almost immediately, I missed black space. I missed it when I walked through the neighborhood to catch the train and dogs who barely ever saw black people barked madly at me, their owners pulling the double duty of nervously apologizing and trying to keep them quiet. I missed it when I stepped onto the platform, preparing myself for the inevitable stares that continued when, at each station, white people who probably had reasonable health insurance plans and 401ks and pensions got on. Or when I was pulling 12-hour days making smoothies and scrubbing dishes for 8 dollars an hour; trying, in quiet desperation, to reassure myself that hard is only hard for a little while.

I missed knowing that being the only black person in a room – at school, at work, at a party – was just temporary because I could always go home. In the last six months, home has meant dramatically different things to me than ever before. In these last few chaotic years – the kind of years in your early twenties where you understand yourself as fundamentally unsafe for the first time – so has being black.

Before I left for work in the morning, I’d have my coffee and do something that I’m beginning to see has been an indispensable resource for me during the painful process of deciding who I am in a world that, when not hostile, is hopelessly indifferent. I’d get on the internet.

Like friendship, love and sex, my relationship with my mother, or my politics, the internet has shifted meaning and purpose for me throughout the course of my life. First, it was simply entertainment. Pre-wifi, when my mother would suffer the hour’s worth of missed calls for me to fuck around online, I’d cherish every moment where from the safety of a swivel chair, all that could be known in the world presented itself for my inspection and my delight. The internet is the 21st century’s continuation of humanity’s quest toward absolute knowledge, but when you’re nine, it’s just fun.

Different things become fun and interesting to us as we get older. Instant messaging, porn, the news, keeping up with old friends, tracking unrequited loves. The internet never loses its crystal ball function, but over time, what we ask to see changes.

With me, too, were my questions and each identity begged a different one. Christianity asked why it was the only path to righteousness and so to God. Homosexuality asked whether it would always be this lonely. Blackness asked, pleaded, demanded to be defined.

“If it can be said that Heaven is a state of mind, the internet can take you there” tweet

We live in an age where the search engine promises salvation, however fleeting, and if it can be said that Heaven is a state of mind, the internet can take you there. With the advent of social media, the internet has become one of the means by which we seek to understand, create, and project ourselves onto the world. And it is particularly true that the question of who one will be – the project of self-creation – is of life or death importance for those of us who are other.

 

I made my first Tumblr blog in 2012 because it seemed like a fun enough distraction. I’d have it open in a tab while I worked and, initially, it served its intended purpose. But I made little friends who liked the same things I liked. They felt more akin to neighbors, because, with goodwill, we’d borrow things from one another. You like that quote? Reblog it, sure. What a quality gif of Mary J. Blige hitting some dance no one on earth but Mary J. Blige would do. That’ll look great on my blog.

The gifs, vines, and screencaps of fire tweets alone would be enough to keep me coming back, but Tumblr is so much more than that. I currently follow a blog that takes screencaps of Saved By The Bell episodes and pairs them with snatches of bell hooks’ writing. It’s hard to imagine how Zack Morris would have felt about the words We have to constantly critique imperialist white supremacist patriarchal culture because it is normalized by mass media and rendered unproblematic appearing beneath his handsome, smiling visage.

I can comfortably say that hooks’ scholarship has facilitated a fundamental shift in my political thinking, and Tumblr was the first place I was able to engage with her ideas in a way that was accessible; free from the hopelessly elitist and Olympian detachment of academia.

Black musical expression also finds a rather unique home on Tumblr. Back in 2012, I knew of Frank Ocean only as a member of Odd Future and, because I wasn’t into them, I’d been sleeping on the kid. That July, he woke me up with one of the most interesting pieces of music I’d ever heard. I found the track on Tumblr shortly after it dropped. And I replayed it. And I replayed it, again. Pyramids was vast and prophetic, seedy and transcendent all in the space of 10 minutes.  

Frank Ocean would drop something else on Tumblr that month, something which would resonate with me far more. Late one night, I logged on to find a screenshot of a word document in which Frank talked – to the internet, the world – about having loved a man. And he did so at the risk of his own destruction; his life’s work coming to nothing because of the simple ignorance of those too afraid to appreciate it and all of its implications.

“To see him land safely seemed a sure sign that, someday, I would, too.” tweet

I took tremendous heart from this. I knew what it was to stand on the precipice that Frank so bravely leapt from, that night. To make that jump with no assurance of survival, but having judged it far better to perish with intention and integrity than to live with the guilt of hiding who you are. Whenever we endeavour to live fully, we make the choice to live on faith. And, more often than not, the faith is in the jump. To see him land safely seemed a sure sign that, someday, I would, too.

It seems counterintuitive that technology could facilitate these kinds of humanistic affirmations. That the voices of the oppressed could find not just a home, but an incredibly powerful platform, online. Yet, here we are reaching out, speaking out, and asserting our humanity in ways that could imperil our very lives, offline.

 

Last Fourth of July wasn’t the first time I’d skipped a family cookout, but it was the one I missed them the most. I was trapped in Malvern uncertain of where I’d be living in the coming weeks and, for the first time, feeling fully thrown into the world. I missed dodging relatives who’d talk my head off and ask intrusive questions. I missed the gossip and the vigorous sports debates, fought to a draw and nearly ending in blows. I missed watching my mother holding court in the center of a room full of women; the loudest, the funniest, the most beautiful. Queen of the pack.

So I poured myself a few strong drinks and logged onto Twitter. And I hollered. There was a hashtag, #CookoutNewsNetwork, both celebrating and poking fun at the near-religious ritual of the black family Summer cookout. That which is, in any sense, funny is so because it strikes an unmistakable cord of truth with our lived experiences. It was an inside joke that every black person on Twitter could be in on.

We were laughing our heads off, but we were also doing something else. We were implicitly acknowledging that to be black in America is to inherit many things; trauma, triumph, tradition, and a resilience unbowed by the might of a nation that could not subdue the force of our creative power – our laughter – even when our flesh was property.     

The internet is also the only somewhat-safe place for black people to engage with liberation struggle. We can be murdered in our communities. We can be murdered – methodically executed, bombed – even in our places of worship. In August, 2014 I watched a country that prides itself on protecting the right to peaceful assembly gas and, with militaristic force, disperse black people in Ferguson, Missouri just as it had in 1964 in Selma, Alabama. I suppose I’d known intuitively that America was capable of that, but to see it actualized for the first time was traumatic. To know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that to grieve our dead openly is forbidden and to ask whose hands the blood stains; that such a question can elicit further violence and more bloodshed – it was too much.

I needed to turn the television off because there are only so many times you can observe white talking heads on cable news channels debate whether or not we are entitled to the very space we inhabit without feeling nauseated. I got on Twitter.

For me, that August served as proof that the internet can be a sufficient, effective space for activism. I watched Johnetta Elzie and DeRay Mckesson – a black woman and a black, gay man – willingly take on the burden of speaking up for justice, both on and offline. It would be months before I’d even know what their voices sounded like, but as to the force of their minds and the fervor of their belief in a world where black people have a right to be, there was no doubt.

I didn’t refer to other black people as brothers and sisters as a way of expressing solidarity before the internet. I’d heard it done before, but such familiarity with strangers seemed like the mark of a time not my own.

I was born in 1991. We were colorblind and post-racial when I came into the world. Black people dominated sports and entertainment. We didn’t need to hold hands anymore because the content of our characters trumped the color of our skin.

When I log onto Twitter and see my brothers and sisters at #Mizzou and #Yale with their fists raised – when I see my brothers and sisters being murdered by the state – I’m reminded that when we are children, we understand as children. And I’m certain that history has given me many of the same things it gave to my grandmother, who, at 23, sat but a few hundred yards away from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he spoke at the Lincoln Memorial that day in August, 1963.

For much of my life, I’d lived under the belief that I inherited a drastically different blackness than my grandmother. That the impossibilities of her day would be the opportunities of mine. While there are many senses in which this is true, there is a point after which “racial progress” is little more than propaganda in the service of an American ideal that has never existed for black people. We were born 50 years apart and because of this, we may always view the world somewhat differently. But my grandmother and I are alike – we are human – in that injustice, irrespective of the times or the medium, has made itself known to us.

 

I fell into a YouTube rabbit hole a while back and listened to audio clips of George Yancy being interviewed about, among other things, whiteness. He referenced Jean-Paul Sartre’s contention that for 300 years, whiteness has been the seer without being seen. I think it stands to reason that when we gaze back at the white gaze, we, in some measure, disarm it. I believe that the internet is helping us to gaze back. Sure, sometimes we’re doing that in 140 characters and hashtags – things which, in and of themselves, are rightly thought of as useless. But there’s an overarching sense in which we’re gazing back.

One of the most spiritually and intellectually stifling abuses of postmodern sentiment is that we have evolved past our questions. That because we have our airplanes, we’ve no need of philosophy. While this could not be further from the truth, we have seemingly instituted in our daily lives a silent prohibition on asking ourselves the questions posed by the ancients and, as yet, unanswered. What is justice? How do we live together? How much space do we have to invent ourselves?

“For the oppressed, these uniquely human concerns are of nearly unimaginable importance.” tweet

Yet, the internet should serve as ample evidence of two things. First, that we are in no way whatsoever finished with those questions – we may never be. Second is that for the oppressed, these uniquely human concerns are of nearly unimaginable importance.

As black people, we inhabit a world that has, time and again, sought to silence us when we posed those questions, offline. Still we ask, but the internet has shown itself to be of great importance for us to observe this dialectic amongst ourselves.

Otherness is a continuous act of self-creation, and, as such, we require space – first to ask our questions, and second, to create. In a time wherein the world is falling in love online, making lasting friendships, praying, and, in the case of terrorism of all stripes, being inspired to treachery, can we not also continue on with the project of self-creation? Can we not ask our questions?

I’m asking my mine, online. Questions about reconciling identities. About what it means to be black and gay in 2016; to, at times, feel myself severed between two distinct experiences which are simultaneously embodied in one very young and very afraid person.

And it may be asserted that I’m being an escapist and running by choosing to deal with these things in a manner that will have little bearing on my life in “the real world.” I say pish-posh. I say that I am not an escapist. I am not running. I’m searching.
Artwork by Wrote/Flickr

    

About the Authors:
Published by Rob Henderson
Rob Henderson is a writer of creative nonfiction whose intellectual influences range from bell hooks to Søren Kierkegaard. He is interested in moral and political philosophy, feminism, pop culture and critical race theory. On Twitter he is @ChldlikeEmperor. View all posts by Rob Henderson

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