Say What You Meme, Meme What You Say
How memes born of the black diaspora first came to represent a form of cultural belonging, and then betrayal.
In May 2015, a photograph of Denzel Washington at a high-profile boxing event surfaced online. Except something was off. The Oscar-winning actor didn’t look like his naturally suave self; the emblem of pristine black cool he had come to embody was entirely unrecognizable. The photograph instead depicted Washington as pure exclamation: he was dressed in a navy blue adidas sweat suit and a black Yankees fitted cap. In what ended up being the most atypically surprising attribute, the normally smoothed-faced star sported a salt-and-pepper handlebar mustache with dusty sideburns. The image captured Washington mid-laugh, and it exaggerated the effect of his signature Cheshire smile; as a result, a gate of white teeth poured from his upper lip as if to give the impression of an overbite or dentures. To many black Americans, the likeness was unmistakable.
In an instant, Washington was fashioned into the meme Uncle Denzel. “He looks like he says ‘Whatchu know bout that there _____’ at least 4 times a day,” one tweet cracked. Twitter user @jujoffer added an equally cheeky caption to the photo: “So your momma doing good? She seein anybody?” The website The Root later joked of Washington’s outfit, “It’s almost as if his ear beckons for a Bluetooth earpiece.” Black communities across social-sharing platforms like Instagram and Facebook were in collective accord: the image of Washington was that of the classically beloved black uncle — you know, the one who cheats at Spades, is at every family BBQ, and enjoys a good two-step to Maze and Frankie Beverly’s perennial ballad “Before I Let You Go.”
In the last decade, as technologies like Twitter have ballooned into self-sustaining ecosystems and emojis have allowed for radically sentient methods of correspondence, we have made our way across the digital “Black Atlantic.” (The term “Black Atlantic” was first coined in 1993 by Paul Gilroy to describe the movement of people of African heritage from Africa to Europe, the Americas, and the Caribbean, which ultimately resulted in a hybridization of identities.) Think about it. Culture is consumed and repurposed at a maddeningly exponential rate, and because black identity informs just about every crook of popular culture, our histories, languages, and experiences chiefly migrate on the internet. The writer and artist Aria Dean said as much in Real Life magazine last year: “The most concrete location we can find for this collective being of blackness is the digital, on social media platforms in the form of viral content.”
If memes are best realized from a “communication-oriented perspective,” as Limor Shifman contended in 2013’s Memes in Digital Culture, then they have become the most contemporary understanding of how language has evolved, and how blackness continues to find new ways to remake itself online. It begs the question: what does it mean to speak? And what does it mean to be heard in return?
In the early days of the American experiment, music was the chief reflection of black life in the mainstream, and bluesicians like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Lead Belly were the primary vessels of transmission. Literary historian Houston A. Baker once referred to the blues as a “multiplex, enabling script in which Afro-American cultural discourse is inscribed.” The blues, he said, operated like a matrix — “a point of ceaseless input and output, a web of intersecting, crisscrossing impulses, always in productive transit.” The internet now functions in a similar manner; it is the sea of information on which we voyage.
“I worry how the translation of black culture can sometimes feel like a betrayal as it courses from the confines of our communities, onto the internet, and into the hands of outsiders, ever ready for co-optation.”
Out of this movement, memes have become a coded form of communication, a knowing head nod cloaked as digitized vernacular (the “intersecting, crisscrossing impulses, always in productive transit” that Baker referred to). Among the black diaspora this is especially significant, particularly in spaces like Black Twitter where the use of memes in conversations surrounding holiday pastimes (#ThanksgivingWithBlackFamilies) or lifestyle customs (#DuragHistoryWeek) are reflective of specific social and political modes that inform — by speaking to, from, and expanding on — black identity.
This genre of meme to which Uncle Denzel belongs pulls its cultural ethos from a strand of racial familiarity. Within this profuse ecosystem, there also exists Instagram accounts like @gothshakira and @goldnosering, which constitute a meme genre largely focused on magnifying intersectional feminism and queer rights; the feel-good oriented @wholesomememes that is intended as a balm “4 the soul”; and, among dozens and dozens more, a brand of meme that points to the contours of modern relationships (using an image of Apple’s characteristically white in-ear headphones, one such meme detailed: “True Sacrifice? Giving Bae Your Extra Headbuds.”)
Memes born of the black diaspora and intended for black audiences — truly, for us and by us — personify a language composed of tongues unburdened by whiteness. They reflect how black folk speak when white people are not in the room; they are at once validation, historical revisionism, and an act of disalienation. They hue toward what, in the 2003 book Swinging The Machine, Joel Dinerstein described as the “techno-dialogic,” which refers to the black stylization of machine rhythms and aesthetics. The techo-dialogic, he wrote, was the fusion of social experiences into cultural forms.
Dinerstein’s argument was about Depression-era black swing music and dance, but a similar thinking applies to contemporary meme culture. “Who gave President Obama that old church suit from my dad’s closet?” one Twitter user bantered of Obama’s irregular (but still very smooth) style choice during a news conference in August 2014. Another Round’s Tracy Clayton responded in kind, drawing on the connective symbolism such an image holds for people who grew up in the black church: “And now for our church announcements. Whoever boxed in Sister Cora’s Pinto, you’re being towed,” she tweeted. It is the same good-natured kinship found in discussions about jollof on Instagram among Ghanaians and Nigerians (the hashtag #jollofwars is a well of secret handshakes, disses, and jokes). It’s also why I instantly identify with an image of three dancing bats, legs twisted and wings held high (the tweet reads: “*YG song comes on*”), as if to mimic the feeling West Coast gangsta music imbues in people who were raised on the bounce and bravado of Warren G, 2Pac, and Snoop Dogg. I don’t just feel seen, I feel understood. I feel heard.
Still, as much as memes permit unfiltered communication and allow for an echo of recognition, they just as easily offer an entry point into spaces outsiders should not be given access to. The internet can foster a false sense of belonging — open, free, for everybody. But not everybody needs to be a part of the conversation. Or more to the point: Not everybody needs to be part of my conversation. Solange expressed a similar sentiment to non-black listeners on 2016’s “F.U.B.U.”: “Don’t feel bad if you can’t sing along,” she intoned, “Just be glad you got the whole wide world.”
The catch-22 of this: the viral nature of the internet amplifies black images, carving out space for such narratives to exist where they did not before, but in turn allows for instances of what Laur M. Jackson rightly termed “digital blackface,” in which the narrative becomes about performance and less about meaning (earlier this year, a small uproar was caused when it was revealed that the popular Instagram account @grapejuiceboys, which largely post memes about black culture, actually had a nonblack administrator).
I now wonder if we shouldn’t be even more protective of the identities that shape us: the inside jokes, the cherished family stories, the slang that really isn’t slang but instead new modes we’ve created to speak to one another. Memes are our most forward-facing cultural markers on the internet. And because memes seek to translate, in the sense that they make public what for so long has been private, I worry how the translation of black culture can sometimes feel like a betrayal as it courses from the confines of our communities, onto the internet, and into the hands of outsiders, ever ready for co-optation. (Even my acknowledgement of all of this feels like an airing of secrets.) This betrayal, of course, is sometimes out of our hands. No one can possess absolute control on the internet. Instances of digital blackface will always permeate dark corners of the web. Trolls will continue to respond with venom to conversations about why Congresswoman Maxine Waters has the perfect side-eye. Out in the open, our culture is no longer just ours.
Fortunately, blackness has always been innately futurist. To be better than it was previously. To modify and remix. It has always searched for ways to survive and push forward, to live outside the confined projections of whiteness. I suppose what I am trying to say is: blackness has always sought a newer self. Memes, to me, were such a mode and a language until suddenly they seemed less so. I don’t yet know what will happen next, how we will learn to speak anew, only that we will continue to make our way across the digital Black Atlantic, eyes ever forward.