The power of Black culture is rooted in its creativity and constant evolution. Although the innovation of Black culture predates colonialism, certain aspects of it stem from attempting to overcome the oppressive system of white supremacy. These very aspects are linked to Black performance, the manifestation of Blackness. A powerful form of Black performance is Black expressive culture—African-American Vernacular English, comedy, and mannerisms, to be specific—because it is a medium through which Black folk can simultaneously appreciate each other and mock the very systems that oppress them. As pop culture infiltrates social media, however, Black expressive culture is overtly exploited in memes, which misconstrues the role of Black performance and perpetuates the long-standing stereotype that the only value of Black folk is to entertain.
GIFS and pictures of Black people—often Black women—dominate social media feeds, subtly bolstering misogynoir through the digital world. Physical and verbal expression provide comedic relief and silent communication within communities of Black people; when videos and pictures go viral, however, that very comedic relief over-represents the presence of Black folk in social media. Photos of Conceited, a rapper, holding a red solo cup and pursing his lip; Tanisha, from the show Bad Girls Club; and Beyonce, Rihanna, and Viola Davis are widespread photos that are often considered the staple for memes (Jackson). It’s important to note that Black women are often the faces in these photos, in which the stereotypes of the Loud, Angry, and Sassy Black Woman are abundant.
African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), another form of Black performance, is the language and dialect that creates a verbal space, in which various communities of Black folk can live and connect. Black queer and trans folk and Black women are the pioneers for AAVE because as Mikelle Street, eloquently says, “As black gay people, we are so othered at the essence of our being that it has demanded a new language to interact with the world.” (Street). AAVE was created by Black people for Black people; however, AAVE has become a large component of the overrepresentation in social media, and the language is used without understanding its historical and cultural context.
Despite the power AAVE holds for Black folk in the United States, it is used for memes and entertainment on social media, which creates a limiting space for Black folk to exist in. The richness of Black performance is understanding that no form of it represents all people of the African Diaspora, or to be more specific, all African-Americans in the United States. AAVE is a mode of communication for many Black folk but not for all. Therefore, when AAVE is employed by non-black people on social media it is used with two different understandings. First, it must represent the means of communication for all Black people, and second, it is exclusively on social media, therefore the language has no substantial value as a means of genuine communication.
Although meme culture is exploitative of Black creativity and thought, it is also a way in which Black folk connect, learn, and laugh with each other. From hairstyles to music, Black culture is often the foundation of cultural movements in the United States, and the culture of memes relies on Black folk as well. Phrases like “period,” “plug,” “bae,” “finesse,” and many other terms are commonly used in contemporary slang, but all of these sayings are rooted in the AAVE and Black culture. The use of these terms is impossible to confine only for the use of Black people, understanding how Black culture fundamentally shapes pop culture, however, AAVE should be understood as historically Black and recognized as a legitimate language, not one whose use only serves as entertainment.
Despite the naturally exploitative nature of meme culture, Black folk create spaces across all social media platforms to connect, create, laugh, and uplift each other. With the rise of Black Twitter and Black Tumblr, Black folk can freely express themselves and their heritage with comedic relief, a full circle back to the historical use of Black performance. Memes, many of which start in these new, Black online spaces, aren’t exploited in the same way that they are when they’re widespread and available for all to see. As pop culture shifts into a larger online presence, Black folk evolve the spaces in which they can create and collaborate.
The presence of Blackness in meme culture and social media, in general, has fostered good for Black communities through discussion, promotions, and collaboration. Black folk continue to face issues that affect the uniformity of the race, like misogynoir and homophobia. With the use of memes and online discussions, Black people find a way in which they can discuss these issues with each other. Online discussion and collaboration often result in activism. Many marches and protests regarding justice for Black people are organized and planned through social media. The inception of the Black Lives Matter movement began with a Facebook post. Further, Black folk on social media have contributed to the awareness of Black-owned businesses. Many Black-owned businesses promote each other, which increases Black capital. Blackness, online and in meme culture, fosters creativity, politically, economically, and socially.
Ultimately, Black performance and culture have evolved with the rise of social media; however, it is crucial to assess how social media and memes impact Black folk and their perception. Memes often promote the racist stereotypes of Black folk, which create a narrow and negative perception of Black people. Photos and GIFS of Black folk often go viral, which reflects the naturally exploitative nature of memes. By creating spaces for each other, however, allows Black folk to prosper on social media and relish and learn about their own cultures. Black folk in memes have helped understand the role of heritage, childhood, and the overarching idea of culture, and although the way in which Black culture is exploited online is devastating, Black creativity always fosters a space for Black folk to live and grow.
Cox, Tony. “A Short History of Black Comedy.” NPR. NPR, February 26, 2007. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=7601368.
Gabbara, Princess. “Cornrows and Sisterlocks and Their Long History.” EBONY, December 17, 2018. https://www.ebony.com/style/everything-you-need-know-about-cornrows/.
Jackson, Laur M. “The Blackness of Meme Movement.” Model View Culture, March 28, 2016. https://modelviewculture.com/pieces/the-blackness-of-meme-movement.
Jackson, Lauren Michele. “We Need to Talk About Digital Blackface in GIFs.” Teen Vogue. Teen Vogue, August 3, 2017. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/digital-blackface-reaction-gifs.
Jones, Ellen E. “Why Are Memes of Black People Reacting So Popular Online?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, July 8, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2018/jul/08/why-are-memes-of-black-people-reacting-so-popular-online.
Nichelle, Jae. “‘I’m Is Talking Right’: How the Stigma around Black Language Holds Us Back from Liberation.” AFROPUNK, January 17, 2018. https://afropunk.com/2018/01/im-talking-right-stigma-around-black-language-holds-us-back-liberation/.