We used to have to explain, over and over, what it meant to ‘be black’

Kudos to the next generation for deciding not to bother


There’s been uproar of late about the phenomenon known as “Black Twitter”, an online community of, mostly young, black people engaged in a mass conversation with each other.

Black Twitter also happens to be one of the biggest breakouts for black thought and black expression in years. It is outrageous, angry, funny, scabrous, politically incorrect, sometimes plain wrong and unfortunately – in doses – what I’d certainly call racist. But above all, it is truth-telling; a generation talking to itself and showing itself in its own language and speed and rhythm. In other words, Black Twitter provides that rare thing: insight. When my fellow baby boomers and I were young we found ourselves explaining, over and over, what it meant to “be black”, etc. Black Twitter explains absolutely nothing. There is very little hand-wringing over “diversity”, minuscule angst over a world in which black people are counted as “the other”. Instead there are in-jokes. Stuff based on a deep knowledge of black American life: language, stance, tone, outlook, its past and present.

For example, “edges” – that phenomenon of black women’s hair that would take an entire book to explain—are discussed in minute detail in relation to black women on TV. And if you don’t know, sorry, but Black Twitter won’t explain.

Last year, Black Twitter reacted to a photo of the all-white cast of Girls by providing a space for the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen, a reaction to a tweet from Caitlin Moran saying that she “couldn’t give a shit” about the lack of diversity on the show. Black women begged to differ. Later, self-styled feminist singer Ani DiFranco announced that she was holding her “Righteous Retreat” at Nottoway Plantation in Louisiana, a pretty clear own goal. Black Twitter pointed this out by accusing the singer of what it called “Mistress Epps Feminism”, after the wife of the white slave owner in 12 Years a Slave. DiFranco saw the absurdity of her position, apologised and withdrew that concert date.

But Black Twitter often makes a point with the best of all weapons: ridicule. I’ve lived away from the US so long that I didn’t know that there’s a phenomenon called Southern cooking which is what used to be called “soul food” when I was a kid, but is now being done by white Southern chefs. When it was revealed that Paula Deen, Southern cook extraordinaire, had made racist statements, Black Twitter stepped up to the plate. It created #PaulasBestDishes, featuring such delights as “Let My People Go Gumbo” and “Swing Low, Sweet Cherry Pie”.

Then there’s a video of a young black man narrating his voyage down the aisles of his local shop. As he talks to camera, you can see a shop assistant lurking behind the shelves, watching him. The guy isn’t angry; he just finds it funny and fascinating .This is the first documentation I’ve ever seen of “Shopping While Black”, a phenomenon many black people are aware of. I wish I’d had my own camera last week when, in a shop in France, I walked around looking for wine glasses with my husband. After we left, my husband exploded in fury. He asked if I’d noticed that I’d been watched. I hadn’t at all, because I devised long ago my own rules of how to “Shop While Black”:  1) Catch the eye of the security person when you first enter. There always is one, no matter how discreet the shop. I always find this person, and connect right away.

2) When looking – especially at jewellery – stand away from the counter a bit, with hands behind your back.

3) Walk slowly around so that you don’t look as if you’ll do a smash and grab.

4) Always remember what I call the Obama Credo, what the President says he learned as a result of often being “the only black in the village” – that is, No Sudden Moves. No spontaneous reaching, touching, pointing. Always politely ask for assistance so that the server can handle things him or herself.

When, a black writer, under the hashtag #YesAllBlackPeople, collated tweets that defined for him the black experience they included: “#YesAllBlackPeople contend with whites dictating to us how we should talk about racism, instead of taking our lead in the conversation”; “YesAllBlackPeople encounter multiple anti-black indignities on a regular basis, regardless of how rich, educated or powerful we are”; “#YesAllBlackPeople are tired of having our lived experiences with racism undermined by white feelings, despite our decades of informed protest”; “#YesAllBlackPeople know better than Webster’s Dictionary what racism actually means. We’re living it. Don’t whitesplain it to us”; “#YesAllBlackPeople talk about race mostly in terms of black and white because that’s been our primary frame of reference for more than 400 years in America”; “#YesAllBlackPeople would love to have anti-racist white people in their lives, who listen and support their leadership, and not as saviour-esque allies”; “#YesAllBlackPeople live for authentic cultural exchanges with whites, without appropriation, mockery or wanton theft”.

Yes it’s harsh, maybe unfair. But think about this: there are not many spaces in which the black community can protest openly and successfully – as, for example, in last summer’s campaign to stop a juror on the Trayvon Martin case from profiting from a memoir of that trial. Black Twitter does the job of increasing the visibility of black people online, and offline too, dismantling the notion of “the standard” – that entity from which black people are meant to be diverse.

Black Twitter says that one of the most important things a people can do is to define itself in its own language and in its own way. This is why my generation took to the streets.

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