It has been said that at the end of the Civil War, Black Americans were a race of people all learning to read. From that very encouraging moment in American history, people of African descent -slaves and descendents of slaves- have been in search of a space to cultivate an intellectual community. Limited from traditional academia, divergent Black thought has trickled into the mainstream as evidenced by the debates of Washington and Du Bois and the explosive creativity of the Harlem Renaissance. Black Americans have once again taken mainstream culture and flipped it with the advent of social media technology. In 140 characters, liked, tagged, and streamed, Black thought leaders are taking to the net for challenge and change in the 21st century.
It is an understatement to say that this nation has not always encouraged Black intellect. The Black Codes of slavery, Jim Crow, and modern institutionalized inequality have all placed a wedge between Blacks and books- sometimes by law and other times by intimidation. Yet, Black Americans have entered academia in sharply increasing numbers since Alexander Lucius Twilight became the first Black college graduate in 1823. A mere 28 years after emancipation reached every state; the nation’s oldest Historically Black College was founded. Other milestones in education followed. In 1869, Howard University established the first Black law school and then came Meharry Medical in 1876. In 1954, Brown v. Board made segregation of schools unlawful and in 1968, San Francisco State University became the first four-year institution to establish a Black studies department.
Despite common notions of Black anti-intellectualism and academic failure, the meme is still alive. According to a 2010 report from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, the number of associate’s degrees conferred to Black Americans rose from 55,314 to 95,702 between 1998 and 2008. In the same period, bachelor’s conferred to the group rose from 98,251 to 152,457, master’s- 30,155 to 65,062, first-professional- 78,598 to 91,309, and doctoral- from 46,010 to 63,712.
Many advances, celebrated and unnoticed, have taken place over the years. Modern Black history is punctuated by “firsts” and the undercurrent of them all has been the desire to spread our intellectual wings- whether it be as an act of expression or revolution. Stories of these acts are well documented but of prominence should be the social networks and relationships that were fostered through the process. A wonderful collection of personal and public letters of prominent Black thinkers is found in "Letters from Black America", an anthology edited by Pamela Newkirk.
The arrangement of nearly 200 letters details the conflicts between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, among other critical conversation. Morehouse President John Hope writes to Du Bois, in one correspondence,
“Have we not required such severe alignments that it has been sometimes as much a lack of courage as a mark of courage to stand by wither Du Bois or Washington to the absolute exclusion of one or the other in any sort of intercourse?" This he asks it seems after taking some ribbing from peers at a dinner hosted by Du Bois.
In a rare demonstration of the friendship between Harlem Renaissance writers Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy West, a letter from Hurston details the arrangements of the two women when becoming roommates. In a humorous tone typical of her work, Hurston writes to West,
"I'll take you up on the proposition on two conditions. #1-please don't expect me to keep a very tidy kitchen. I aint that kind of person. Sometimes I clean it up beautifully & often I walk out on it." The second condition was that West's father send a can of asparagus along with her.
The letters uncover information about the relationships that gird Black social networks. They highlight the fine line between the scholarly and the personal and make one feel a little bit better about spending hours watching a timeline.
“How Black People Use Twitter,” an August article from Slate magazine upset many with its questionable treatment of Black Twitter users as a monolith but also suggested some interesting data around how those studied used social networking. The article included figures from an Edison Media Research study, which found that “one-quarter of people on Twitter are African-American.” That is to say that their Twitter profiles featured pictures of Black people, since Twitter does not solicit demographic information.
A separate study, featured in the article, noted “a cluster of hundreds of users whose profiles were connected to one another.” Many of these highly connected users were identified as Black. The article goes on to detail that among the large communities of connected Black Twitter users was a tendency to have “reciprocal” online connections, with the users following each other and enabling them to have conversations in lieu of broadcasting a message. What is communicated in these conversations is perhaps most important. While Slate magazine takes an interest in “blacktags” and other trivial exchanges, there is an argument for the presence of legitimate scholarly discourse. In addition, while all types of folks use social media and the internet in general to publish work and encourage dialog, it is the back and forth informed by Black worldview and culture that is critical.
There are countless Black educators, artists, activists and professionals on Twitter and Facebook ,engaging in conversation everyday. What they tweet enters the ether and becomes accessible and relevant to people who may not otherwise encounter their voice. In a sense, academia is opening up and becoming concise and immediate.
Take for example, the Twitter account of Princeton Center for African American Studies Professor Imani Perry. From @imaniperry, the professor has messaged everything from her weekend breakfast to a celebration of Esperanza Spalding’s Grammy win. She recently shared, “The cross burning case was Virginia v. Black (2003) Article [Clarence] Thomas cited: "Crimes w/o Punishment" is on my website www.imaniperry.com,” in reference to work of hers cited in a Supreme Court opinion. Although I have never met Dr. Perry, she and I follow 15 of the same Twitter profiles, people from feminist heroine bell hooks to singer Janelle Monáe. What those individuals tweet goes directly to Perry. What she tweets goes out to her 2,818 followers, including myself.
Platforms like Twitter and Facebook have become invaluable in generating interest around topics for writers, educators and activists, arguably the most important group: activists. Environmental justice leader Majora Carter has pioneered green-collar job training in the South Bronx and other areas. She is now the president of her own consulting firm but maintains a Facebook fan page where she promotes things like free conferences on environmental issues and tougher hate crime legislation.
Gerren Gaynor, senior at Morehouse College and managing editor of the school’s student newspaper said, “Twitter and Facebook have become the primary forms of communication for The Maroon Tiger. I think it is more effective for our audience because students are always on the go. It’s the best and most effective way to get information to the masses."
Accordingly, Morehouse’s 86-year-old paper was recently given a wider audience when its site was added to a Huffington Post page for college news and opinions.
The need to connect with like minds and new ideas is especially valuable for particular segments of the Black population. Social media has been a way for recent college graduates to stay connected in debates and discussion they may not outside the classroom. For others, it is a tool to discover new information and vet ideas in an instant. Online platforms are essential in carving out a space of their own for the Black community, especially around scholarship that is often marginalized and ignored. They highlight what Black people have been doing forever but moving forward it is important that we use the technology more purposefully, regularly and mindful of the weight of what we type. The community is watching and ready to retweet.