There’s a tweet by activist DeRay McKesson that pops up on my Twitter feed frequently enough for me to know it by heart. It reads: “Twitter is home. Facebook is grandma’s house. Snapchat is your best friend’s house. Tumblr is the lunch room. Instagram is 24/7 prom.”
It’s funny because it’s so accurate. Not only are Facebook’s conversations hilariously sluggish — do they even know that Frank Ocean finally dropped an album? Will they ever get around to The Get Down? — you have to be on your best behavior there. That’s not to be confused with shiny behavior, which is Instagram’s domain. Snaps are best shared rapid-fire between close friends. As for Tumblr, it's a glorious free-for-all, where teens can have meaningful run-ins with complicated discourse. But Twitter is home: a boisterous structure held together by spit and the skin of our teeth. Its messiness is staggering, as is the way the app makes it possible to zoom through news and zap through bullshit. It has many rooms, and Black Twitter — that loose collection of Black people tweeting, favoriting, meme-ing, and @-replying — feels like the dinner table. Black Twitter’s activism deserves its own historical record. Nowhere else can the powerless push up against the powerful, fact-checking and myth-busting in real time. But it's the speed of Twitter — the fact that it’s always on, always responding to something, always engaged — that makes it the breeding ground for a different response to the detritus of racism and bigotry that Black people engage with everyday: Black humor.
Remember last summer, when Rachel Dolezal’s afro-wig Black identity took the world by storm? What were we to make of this spectacle, a woman who was making and unmaking her own racial history before our eyes? Thinkpieces debated if she was Black, what that identity meant, if it had to be earned somehow. Was it the wig that made her race a performance, or was it the sustained lie? It was exhausting to read. But Black Twitter’s jokes were a respite, a safe port in a storm called Being Black in Public. Instead of poking and prodding at identities and definitions, #AskRachel answered every question. Blackness is a big word with a lot of definitions. But the act of being Black — growing up in a Black home, having Black aunties, going to a Black cookout — is sometimes as simple as asking whether your life has been touched by the gospel of Mary J. Blige and her dancery. There are certain nights when there’s nothing more important to me than furiously refreshing this app to see how other Black people respond to the same cultural moment. It’s not always praise — there are pockets of dissonance that mostly serve as a reminder that no identity group is a monolith. But whether it’s praise or patronization, it’s happening simultaneously. I can open this app and see a collection people who also joked that Kim Kardashian’s snapchat footage of Taylor Swift was a kind of reparations, a handful of responses to #FamousMelaniaTrumpQuotes, a platinum list of Vanessa Carlton-spoofing trap covers. These Black jokes are Black joy, written down on the web and transmitted among us. It's all disparate and ephemeral, but the fact that these gags and references are centralized makes a new home for narratives that otherwise feel solitary in a whitewashed world.
We know that Black Twitter has reshaped how activism happens online. Hashtags take on big institutions — #OscarsSoWhite, #BlackLivesMatter — and expose media bias in covering the stories that affect Black people. This is important work: #IfTheyGunnedMeDown was the most cutting example of media criticism in real time. As newspapers shared photos of Black victims of police shootings looking menacing and stoic, Black Twitter showed that there are two sides, suggesting that the media chooses the unsmiling portrayals when sharing news about Black victims. The way these movements reach virality has sparked a trend in other communities, even those seeking antithetical ends: #AllLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter are recent examples. To me, the way Black humor has taken up residence on Black Twitter is beautiful, and we ought to find some way to document it. In all the talk about archiving the internet, there must be a way to save this other vision of Black identity in America. These jokes are separate from the meme-based web humor that pervades. Instead, they pull from a uniquely Black American referent. This humor has a revolutionary kind of subversiveness, and it offers a certain solace. I grew up in conventionally white spaces, in classrooms that only addressed narrow experiences of youth or privilege. Seeing other Black people talk about being dragged to Sunday school or the first time they watched Love and Basketball broadens the understanding of what Blackness is and how it lives. Twitter is loud and messy. One day we'll all migrate to some other platform or some new technology. But this comedy is more than memes — there's an underlying subtext to all of these jokes, that Black people can log in and find pockets of the internet to just be together. It's hard for some people to understand why Black lives matter, but Black Twitter exists without this pretense of having to prove or explain our value. These jokes matter because they're us.