History has made being black into a ‘thing’. A polarising existence that seems to be perpetually at odds, to be defended, to be questioned, to be probed and to be constantly (self)aware all the while wrapped up in stereotypes. The black body has long served as a canvas on which some of the darkest moments of human existence have been captured in immaculate detail. Broad brush strokes paint a picture that society at large generally tends cringe at the sight of. For one reason or another, throughout history, there have moments where black people sought not only put up this gruesome image for the world to see, but also to paint a different picture, one where the holder of the brush doesn’t not seek to white wash all the beauty and ugliness below. There have been civil rights movements in America and, in South Africa, the struggle against Apartheid.
Social media has, by far, had the biggest impact on freedom of speech/expression in recent human history. With it, comes a platform of unprecedented scale that allows us to shape ourselves, our identities however we choose. Does it then, become a viable channel through which the black identity can be progressively re-imagined? Has this process already begun?
Enter the Afro-Militants. Decked out in camouflage dashikis, armed to the teeth with hashtags, Malcom X memes and Minister Farrakhan clips. You know them, wiggling a condescending finger at anyone who doesn’t know the chemical make-up of melanin or ancient Kemetic texts, dropping ‘knowledge’ from balled up pages from Fanon, telling the people to ‘Wake up’ while deeming anyone who disagrees with their views as some kind of house nigger. The racial bias is blatant and intolerant; a double-edged command to either be ‘with us or against us’.
But truth be told, if one took the time to peel back some of the history we’ve been taught and looked at what actually happened to black, you’d need a denim heart for it not to bring you to tears. Also, you learn how so much of what is deemed a normal and progressive ‘western’ society – commerce, science, philosophy, medicine and religion – is actually built on knowledge that was literally plundered from ancient Africa. The one fundamental notion you come to understand when relearning black history is that racism is not based on hatred; racism is based on fear. A fear so primal and visceral that grants it’s ‘tamer’ a god-complex. Such knowledge does make one angry and, you can sympathise with the afro-militants because so much of this information is based on truth. So, their presence is necessary to a great extent and…to a degree, quite annoying.
From the early 90’s onwards, television brought to the world, black American pop-culture. Through rap music, stand up comedy and sitcoms, it introduced to the broader collective black psyche, amongst other things, the humour of vulgarity and the lure of self-deprecation. We learnt new swear words, started calling women bitches and hoes, terms like whips, glocks, 5-0 and dime bags entered our vocabulary, we gleefully laid claim to title of nigger, we picked sides in the West Coast vs. West coast war, we all cried when Ricky got shot in Boyz in the Hood, but we all loved Martin, especially when Jerome was in the house. With this, we adopted racial complexes that we may or may not have fully understood and it can be debated what is it that we loved so much about this culture: was it because we genuinely thought it was funny/entertaining or was it because we felt that we could relate to the need to ‘laugh at our pain’ as a kind of placebo from a hostile existence that seemed to be universal to black people everywhere, or maybe it’s both and more. One can also look back and wonder: whom did this way of thinking benefit, in the long run?
Nonetheless, youth from all around the world latched on to and sucked in the culture of self-destruction and mass media shoved the nipple deep in their mouth. Again, the effects of this will always be debatable and probably unquantifiable but there is no denying that impact that black American pop-culture has had on mainstream media and it’s global appeal. But there is also no denying the damage it has caused in the self-perception of black youth globally. Up until those images appeared on screen, black children had never really seen themselves depicted as the main character, in any narrative. But, that’s a story for another day. Also, this is not to say that black American pop-culture is the only entity to have an impact on global black youth or that it was entirely negative. Far from it. Black youth in every part of the world have faced their own struggles unique to their geographical, socio-economic and political situation.
What has emerged lately though, via social media, is a contrasting narrative: that is the romanticisation of the black image. You’ve seen it: ubiquitous images of a black woman with striking features, her mahogany skin gleaming in a beautifully crafted photograph, simple yet elegant. The caption that usually follows is one that describes the black woman as being endowed with a beauty so profound as to be a divine entity, adorned with dignity and poised with strength. Similarly, you find the image of a black man, usually bare chested, with hulking muscles and chiselled abs with a deadlocked mane and manicured beard. His caption likens him to some ancient presence, imbued with a god-like character, warrior blood pumping through his veins, regal in his lion like mannerism but still gentle enough to count the stars with his cubs. The hashtags with usually go along the lines of #Queen, #King, #God, #Goddess, #blackexcellence #Melanin or other titles that refer to royalty and majesty. The premise of this unofficial ‘movement’ is clear, to redirect the perpetuation of negative about black men and women. To change the narrative into one more constructive, celebratory and inspiring. This imagery is not new by any measure, I mean…beautiful black women and handsome black men done been around. But social media allows for re-purposing of the imagery into a new approach.
This push for a positive black narrative does not, however, seem to just pertain to physicality and looks. Many of these memes and captions tend to extend more into interpersonal relationships between men and women and…there’s a slight whiff of feminist undertones in this part of the game. But, by and large, what comes across is the ‘ideal’ manner in which men and women should relate to each, especially within relationships: how #Queens should only submit to #Kings, etc. One can conclude that the terms of reference serve then, as a way for men and women to begin honouring themselves and each other and thereby lay a foundation based on mutual and self respect, while building legacy through how one unapologetically carries themselves in society.
But, as the pendulum swings, even from negative to positive, it can reach extremes: that of turning the black body into a fetish. Unchecked, we could find ourselves romanticising the black ideal to the point of turning it into a creature of myth, only ‘attainable’ by a select few. The fairy-tale connotations to this way of thinking can give it a frivolous after-taste, indigestible in its childlike escapism. This narrative also tends to come across as prescriptive: this is the only (good) way of being a black person vs. this is an example of what is possible.
On either side of the fence there’s always someone waiting to hand out free tickets to a guilt trip, should you not agree with them and like many ‘movements’ it calls one to use their own discretion and flex their freedom of association. The truth is that hashtags may or may not really translate into much in ‘real life’ and the rants may disappear when people log off. That said, the comments section of virtually any news site in South Africa will always remind any black person of ‘their place’ online. At that moment you will realise that the choice to ‘fight’ or not, has already been made for you.