The Anthropology of Black Twitter: History and Culture

All the old folks who say that black people just aren’t united these days have clearly never been on Black Twitter. This realm of the internet is home to cultural phenomenons, protests, and social movements that has turned it into one of the platforms for black culture today. But it’s not their fault; the black community boasts a lot more diversity these days which is often mistaken for a lack of unity. The catalysts for unification and cultural definitions are much different than they were for our predecessors, but Black Twitter may be the best way to analyze the modern day culture and find out where the real strength and unity lies.

Earlier this week, the #AskRachel phenomenon became more than the public desecration of an identity confused woman. It was a comedic display of culture – questionnaires about classic hip hop and r&b, African American Vernacular, and the crazy fashions of decades past – that had the online community in laughter for hours.

But despite the pure comedy of these tweets and photos, this question of diversity within the black community came back into question. There were a few who felt that many portions of the #AskRachel hashtag continued to pigeon hole Black people and their culture while others struggled to answer all of the questions with precision despite being black. It went back to the age old, “what does it mean to be Black” debate. This generation has established that black is a multifaceted descriptor that doesn’t have to dictate what music you listen to or the clothes you wear or the way you speak English, poking holes in the validity of our examination of Rachel Dolezal.

But #AskRachel may have shown us where the community’s strongest point of solidarity is: Our parents.

Some of the funniest and most heavily retweeted #AskRachel posts were about the way black parents raised us and the way we grew up. Whether it was about punishments, bizarre uses of household items, or the crazy things our parents used to say, thousands favorited and shared posts because we all have experienced a shared history.

We were raised by a generation that claims more unity than us, and given the way society functioned back in their day, they were in many ways. Most parents of millennials were born and raised during the civil rights era, and came of age through out the black power movements of the 1970’s. Their culture was more confined because the white majority was more forcibly pushing them into the fringes of society.

Thus they raised us similarly, imposing their culture on us because that’s how they lived. So while we grew up beyond the boundaries of what once confined black culture, across socio-economic status and geographic location, many of us grew up hearing the same words come out of our Baby Boomer and Generation X parents:

We have a very present-minded look of culture and we tend to separate the history from it, especially when analyzing individuals. Culture is a multifaceted entity, that is the convergence of multiple elements. When we look at culture as just the current artistic movements of the times we limit ourselves and limit the way other people perceive us.

We fear for the commercialization of “black culture”  as we see hip hop being used in commercials and being watered down by white pop stars; we see high fashion magazines donning Tims and Bantu knots as the newest movement in fashion. We begin to qualify ourselves by these current cultural markers, turning black into a superlative based on participation in current cultural waves.

While music and fashion are factors that certainly contribute heavily to the shaping of a culture, it is important that we recognize the vastness of our cultural landscape. History is important – it matters as far back as it goes, from slave ancestors to our parents teachings, to the origins of hip hop. Black culture is not just a trend of the moment, it’s every thing that came before it and what’s to come next.

We should use our history to leverage the community, not to anchor ourselves to the past but to connect us and guide us through the present and future.

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