This article examines humor as it intersects with race and gender in digital media. It takes up the idea of laughter to explore how Black expressive culture emerges online, both individually and collectively, in the contemporary moment, arguing that web-based objects such as blogs and podcasts as well as tweets, hashtags, and memes that exist and circulate on social media produce racialized and gendered humor predicated on ridicule. Such ridicule is tied to a genealogy of Black feminist and Black queer enactments of “sass” and “shade” as affective strategies of social scrutiny. By detailing the humor associated with the popular viral personalities Luvvie Ajayi and Crissle West as well as the social networking platform Twitter, this article begins the work of archiving Black women's daily comedic performances on the Internet.
In August 2015, members of the San Francisco East Bay–based book club Sistahs on the Reading Edge were told to exit a Napa Valley Wine Train for purportedly disrupting the ride due to their gregarious displays of fun. Group member Lisa Renee Johnson utilized the hashtag #LaughingWhileBlack while live-posting on Facebook the experience of being escorted off the train, and soon after, the hashtag flooded the social media platform Twitter (fig. 1). Numerous tweets by individuals recounted personal travel woes due to racial bias while also critiquing the harsh and humiliating treatment of the African American women on their Napa trip. Social media is often now utilized to draw attention to issues concerning the aesthetics and politics of racial Blackness. This essay takes up the idea of laughter and explores how digital objects such as blogs and podcasts as well as tweets, hashtags, and memes created by Black folk on social media can cultivate racialized and gendered humor predicated on comedic ridicule. I argue that Black expressive cultural techniques of “sass” and “shade” are deployed in these web artifacts and operate as affective strategies of social scrutiny. Sass and shade are signifyin(g) acts that comprise a performative repertoire of Black expressive culture. Such daily enactments of playful rudeness and unruliness survive at the margins of what is understood as popular social critique and are sustained by the laughter that is evoked from them in virtual settings.
An exploration of the sass and shade that exudes from digital objects helps to elucidate what Blackness does online—the modes of its enunciation and its circulation—and reveals how a Black feminist and Black queer critical imagination of truth telling animates social media humor.1 Here, I am also emphasizing how social media Blackness is a networked paradigm that is always already intersectional.2 While cisgender Black women in the digital landscape are the focus of this essay, online social networking allows for fluid forms of interactivity across a multiplicity of gender and sexual identities. Social media has the ability to “alter the conditions in which culture is made, revised, and contested.”3 In the case of Black popular culture, traditional practices of expressivity encounter transformations in digital technology at the dynamic intersection of race and interface.4 Thus, it is necessary to create an archive that documents African American daily performativity in Internet culture.
This essay, then, begins the work of chronicling how Black women in particular engage with social media as both users of a variety of web-based platforms and producers of content that is spread across these platforms. I examine the comediennes Luvvie Ajayi and Crissle West, who have cultivated substantial online followings that can be attributed to their humorous use of social media. Nigerian-born Ajayi has built a successful enterprise due to her unique brand of petty commentary on her website AwesomelyLuvvie.com, which is marketed with the tagline “Best Humor Blog EVER. Serving Pop Culture Tea.” West is an African American lesbian writer who cohosts the comedy podcast The Read with Kid Fury, a Black gay man who took the Internet by storm with his unapologetic weekly rants on YouTube. I discuss both Ajayi and West's articulations of sass and shade in their cultural productions, paying attention to the creative practices by which they incite laughter in order to interrogate current media, culture, and society. Further, I take up how individual Black girl comic acts manifest communally through the phenomenon known as Black Twitter and come to orient an understanding of Black social media humor whereby tweets, hashtags, and memes are considered “an electronic translation of the eye-roll, the neck-roll, the sucking of the teeth, the arm akimbo, the raised eyebrow, and all other habits of our signifying culture.”5
I situate my analysis within theories of comedy and digital media studies as well as Black feminist and Black queer performance, thus contributing to a burgeoning racialized and gendered genealogy of social media techno-culture. Centering such culturally expressive acts of sass and shade allows for a move away from satire as the privileged discourse surrounding African American comedy and especially in what has been labeled a “post-soul” era.6 Satire in this vein seeks to expose individual and institutional folly and attempts to upend systems of power. These critiques of hegemony made through the use of ridicule, sarcasm, irony, and other comedic elements are rendered palatable in their absurdity for wide audience consumption in order to exact social and political change.7 In the exhibition of sass and shade, ridicule becomes tethered to Black vernacular in attitude and tone. Indeed, the signifyin(g) habits have a lineage in African American southern female as well as gay and lesbian social environments. They are performative accents embedded in the act of sipping “tea” as a form of judgment, which exists in an ambiguous liminal space between the gestural and the spoken as well as the written word.8 Ultimately, satire's emphasis on a politics of representation does not allow for a rigorous engagement with what Herman Gray determines are “Black structures of feeling,” which are often seen as illegible and thus more difficult to grasp.9 Such structures convey an imaginative and resilient “feel for life.”10 Comedic performances of sass and shade can be said to be a culturally specific mode of sociality that now pervades online media platforms.
To engage in a project that traces forms of humor on social media—especially as routed through racial Blackness—requires an attentiveness to a shifting archive of viral content that moves across such sites as Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube, and Facebook, as well as among individual users. The content itself “trends,” a designation that is contingent upon the interests of the vox populi, making it a complex task to trace these virtual ephemera. Additionally, Bambi Haggins suggests that parts of Black comedic discourse reside in “safe communal space” (or “enclaves,” per Catherine R. Squires) that can be hidden from the mainstream.11 Attentiveness to these fluid online archives showcases digital counter-publicity at the intersection of race and gender that is grounded in the ongoing practice of ordinary humorous performance, and in particular Black girl humor.12 My use of the phrase “Black girl humor” is in reference to the popular Twitter hashtag #BlackGirlMagic. The existence and naming of Black girl magic is irrespective of age and points to the unique power that all Black females hold to captivate through their expressive brilliance in every facet of professional and personal life. Black women are conjurers of comedic ridicule on social media and bring forth laughter and humorous sentiment online through the twinning of sassiness and shadiness, which are vital sources of energy for Black joy in the contemporary moment.
SASS, SHADE, AND SIGNIFYIN(G)
Humor within African American culture has often been understood as a practice of signifyin(g) steeped in diasporic oral tradition. As a form of “black double-voicedness,” signifyin(g) is a rhetorical strategy that allows for the multiplicity of textual meaning and embodies “the ambiguities of language.”13 In terms of comedy, what is known within Black communities as “playing the dozens”—most popularly exemplified by “your mama” jokes—is a game of ritual insult. Yet such a game is often framed as a masculinized and heterosexual practice. I suggest that acts of signifyin(g) can be extended to include feminist and queer performances of sass and shade within Black cultural expression.
Sass has its origins in relation to the divine trickster and linguistic interpreter known as Esu or Exu. The West African sasswood tree's bark was used as “an ordeal poison in the trial of accused witches, women spoken of as being wives of Exu, the trickster god.”14 The gendering of sass combined with its poisonous attributes inform contemporary uses of the term. Indeed, it is defined as a defiant attitude that is reflected in speech and gesture. Joyce West Stevens understands it as a “willful forthrightness in demeanor that expresses a spirited behavioral expressive style of boldness, independence, and courage, which Black adolescent girls learn early to deal with everyday hassles.”15 Though the “sassy Black friend” is thought to be a negative trope in mainstream media representation, sass itself can be a survival tool—a source of strength that serves as a line of defense against potential racial injury. A host of comediennes from Jackie “Moms” Mabley (fig. 2) to Wanda Sykes perform their own brand of Black feminism that makes use of such a performative program. Indeed, Mabley was renowned as the “Queen of Sass” during her career on the Chitlin' Circuit in the early to mid-twentieth century, with her familiar jokes that were indebted to African American folk culture.
While sassiness is a style of speaking truth to power in explicit form, “shadiness” is oftentimes an implicit form of judgment that has its roots within gay communities of color. In Jennie Livingston's Paris Is Burning (1990), a seminal documentary about the New York ball scene, drag queen Dorian Corey famously conceptualizes the notion of “shade.” Corey states to the camera: “Shade comes from reading. Reading came first. Reading is the real art form of insult. You get in a smart crack and everyone laughs and ki-kis because you found a flaw and exaggerated it. Then you've got a good read going.” Here, reading is an analytical act that involves a calculation for the most impact to the individual positioned at the end of the read. It is a mode of criticism that is playful yet biting. Corey comments further that the more developed form of reading is shade: “I don't tell you you're ugly but I don't have to tell you because you know you're ugly. And that's shade.” In this way, the linguistic act of “throwing” shade is reading but between the lines. It is a maneuver that is hurled at an object of ridicule that exposes the weakness of the opponent in a veiled manner to humorous effect and affect. Shade concerns disrespect as a way to approach the truth.16
The cultural expressive techniques of sass and shade bring to mind the spectacular figure of the contemporary diva, a culturally significant character of subversive excess.17 Yet the ingenuity of sass and shade are also steeped in the tradition of trickster troping mentioned earlier. As L. H. Stallings notes, “Tricksterism offers a fundamental understanding of the foundations for Black female comedy,” and the “performance of comedy, with its play between public and private spaces, becomes one such means in which Black females' self-invention and desire can flourish.”18 Through a feminist and queer praxis of uncensored humorous interrogation, Black women can eschew the politics of respectability in favor of expressivity afforded by an embrace of the cleverly vulgar. While Stallings examines the stand-up comedy event in her work, I seek to document how the theatrics of such an event can manifest in the daily digital theatrics of social media comedy.
SISTAHS GO DIGITAL
Before exploring the online circulation of Black girl humor predicated on mediations of sass and shade, it is necessary to provide brief context for how the Internet has been utilized more broadly by marginalized communities in the past. Web 2.0 has played an integral role in energizing Black folk—and especially Black women—both socially and politically.19 Scholars such as Lisa Nakamura and Anna Everett have critiqued studies of digital media culture that neglect intersectional analysis, and especially with respect to the intersections of race and gender. In particular, Everett argues against the impulse to consider Black folk as pre-technological—in other words, devoid of a mastery of computer technology—and instead examines the fact of what she terms as “Black technophilia.”20 By exploring the early history of the World Wide Web in the form of chat rooms, listservs, bulletin boards, websites, and web rings, Everett elucidates how an African diasporic consciousness is cultivated through advanced connectivity in cyberspace.
For Black women, such online connectivity has aided offline activist efforts. The October 1997 Million Woman March (MWM) in Philadelphia successfully utilized the Internet as a tool for political organizing. Held in response to the 1995 Million Man March that gathered African American men in Washington, DC, to raise awareness about urban conditions, the MWM event united a diverse array of more than one million women and rendered visible their concerns about the Black family and Black neighborhoods, both domestic and abroad. The Internet served to answer the problem of the “mainstream media's lack of interest” in MWM's social, political, and economic agenda.21 Everett's use of the term “cyberwomanist” to describe MWM participants speaks to the growing importance of womanism as a standpoint position for Black women. Womanism can be understood as a vernacular worldview rooted in the everyday lives of Black women. Most notably evoked by the author Alice Walker, it refers to a holistic philosophy that combines intuition with action. Layli Phillips suggests that “womanist methods of social transformation” include “harmonizing and coordinating” in order to find creative natural solutions to various types of obstacles.22 Womanism strives to make a way out of no way, and the MWM participants adopted such a tactic in their activism by making the most of Internet technology—such as downloading posters for the event to print out during their workday—in order to circulate information about the march widely. Indeed, Everett suggests that cyberspace afforded these cyberwomanists the chance to utilize “the master's tools to tear down barriers to mass publicity for their cause.”23
The momentum from the Million Woman March coupled with the 1999 release of Joan Morgan's book When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as a Hip Hop Feminist ushered in a new crop of young Black women dedicated to improving the lives of Black folk by interrogating patriarchal ideology and misogynoir, that is, misogyny specifically directed at Black women and especially in US popular media.24 Thus, hip-hop feminism came to prominence in the midst of changing conceptions of Black womanhood in the realm of arts and culture (specifically in relation to rap music) and gained traction through its savvy use of the Internet in millennial digital culture. The Crunk Feminist Collective (CFC) website was launched in 2010. In their mission statement its members write:
As part of a larger women-of-color feminist politic, crunkness, in its insistence on the primacy of the beat, contains a notion of movement, timing, and of meaning making through sound, that is especially productive for our work together… . We resist others' attempts to stifle our voices, acting belligerent when necessary and getting buck when we have to. Crunk feminists don't take no mess from nobody!25
This “crunk” stance is emblematic of their belief in the percussive—an animated resistance to the status quo that “allows for the creativity that ensues from placing modes or objects of inquiry together that might not traditionally fit.”26 The contradictions associated with the embrace of hip-hop culture and feminism produce a tension that is both “disruptive and generative.”27 This tension reflected in the percussive style can be linked to the mode of confrontation that undergirds ridicule through the cultivation of an attitude that coolly agitates for social change.
While the CFC started as an academic venture committed to activism, it also helped to open up an online space for Black women to be inspired more generally by the idea of crunkness, and especially in media production. In the first scene of the premiere episode of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl (2011), a YouTube web series created by Issa Rae, protagonist J (played by Rae) pretends to be in a music video while blasting rap songs in her car.28 The scene is played for laughs when she is seen at a stop sign by a pesky colleague and former lover. The episode continues as J introduces herself via voice-over narration, which includes a discussion of her penchant for “writing violent rap lyrics in her bedroom.” As she excitedly recites bad lyrics in bed, her internal monologue quips: “It's been my secret way of coping with stress since the sixth grade. It gets me through my job, my relationships, and my life. It's odd but what can I say? I'm awkward.” Here, the source of humor is J's enactment of crunkness through her own clumsy hip-hop performance.
Awkward Black Girl became a web series sensation primarily due to Rae's mobilization of awkwardness as a form of racialized and gendered comedy. Regina N. Bradley notes how “Rae's use of humor to self-objectify her awkwardness renegotiates the terms through which her blackness and womanhood are read. Much of this is in part to her extensive and calculated use of social media to establish a persona that blurs social, political and cultural norms as they relate to popular culture and black women.”29 I am interested in how Bradley links such humor to Rae's professional engagement with different social media platforms. Indeed, Rae has parlayed her DIY online productions into a lucrative deal for her own television series, Insecure (HBO, 2016). Thus, she made her voice heard through her own assertiveness in navigating the race and gender politics of Hollywood. She helped to renew a conversation about what African American women can make and do with digital media, specifically through comedy.
Rather than focus on awkwardness, I look closely at the ways in which performances of sass and shade intertwine and become important modes of Black girl humor in social media networking. Two Black female digital divas stand out in such regard: Awesomely Luvvie and Crissle West. Though Luvvie and West are not “cross-over” comediennes in the customary sense, they circulate within various parts of the mediascape with a loyal audience.30 Entrepreneur Luvvie Ajayi launched her blog website AwesomelyLuvvie.com in August 2006, long before CFC's online presence (fig. 3). Since then she has amassed a large cult fandom with a media empire that spans the fields of comedy, technology, and social activism. She describes her blog as a space to discuss topics “in my little shadeful heart at the moment. I thoroughly enjoy doling out side-eyes and there is never a shortage of people and foolishness to judge. Trust me.”31
Her brand of ridicule centers on judgment as a form of amusement that augments her own vibrant self-fashioning. Her 2016 book I'm Judging You: The Do-Better Manual is a collection of humorous essays that focuses on how to “do better” based on her daily observations of social behavior both online and offline. She writes:
Here is where I dole out shade, side-eye, and basic-but-necessary advice for the needy—the logic-deficient who consistently come up short in this new world order of 140-character opinions, Facebook beefs, Instagram groupies, and pop-cultural idolization, i.e., the wasteland, where common sense has tragically become the rarest flower in the thought garden. I'm Judging You changes the game and snatches wigs one page at a time. It is a guide to getting some act-right online and in real life. All the shade that resides in my spirit, all the side-eye I've dispensed across my vast network, has led me here.32
Ajayi presents the reader with a kind of pedagogical pettiness that operates as comedic tough love. In a review of the book, Issa Rae comments: “I could NOT stop laughing. Luvvie has a way of tapping into the universal things that make us all suck at being people. EVERY person needs to keep I'm Judging You on them at all times just to avoid being terrible. I know I will.”33 Here, laughter is elicited from throwing shade as common sense or folk commentary on the general awfulness of people.
In addition to shade, Ajayi “uploads sass” on the web through her creative use of language.34 This creativity is exemplified by her own “glossary of random stuff” that she says serves as a reference tool for her readers to translate her posts, which include discussions of race, politics, and pop culture.35 The glossary comprises words that float around the web that she has adopted as well as amalgamations of phrases that serve as her own expressive lingo such as “allatahm” (“all of the time”) and “Leyomi drops” (a celebratory GIF referencing the signature dance move of trans-woman of color Leyomi Mizrahi). In an interview, she remarks: “My Nigerianess informs everything I am. Humor is sometimes cultural and who I am is very much influenced by my Nigerian-ness, so of course it's a part of my writing.”36 Her connection of comedy to the African diaspora provides an important lens for how she understands her transnational Black womanhood. Winner of the Women's Media Center 2012 Social Media Award, Luvvie's site reflects what Angela Y. Davis calls “quotidian expressions of feminist consciousness.”37 Her comedic talents have cultivated a community largely of women of color addicted to her fiercely funny narratives and polychromic commentary across social media platforms.
Ajayi's professed troublemaking online in her dynamic prose stands in contrast to Crissle West's mix of casual demeanor yet caustic tone in her digital stand-up comedy. West garnered mainstream attention for her voice-over narration of Harriet Tubman's days as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War on a 2015 episode of Comedy Central's “Drunk History” series, in which she brought sassy humor to Tubman's adventures to free slaves. Most notably, West is a creator and host of The Read, named one of the top comedy podcasts on iTunes. The podcast is the brainchild of West and her business partner, Kid Fury, whom she developed a personal friendship with after noticing a shared comedic spirit on Twitter (fig. 4).38 The podcast's title references the act of reading examined earlier and provides a clear connection between forms of queer relationality and social engagement during the 1980s and 1990s and West and Fury's own twenty-first-century perspectives as members of the Black lesbian and gay community, respectively.
Launched in 2013, The Read entertains audiences with its musings about pop superstar Beyoncé, Black celebrity gossip, and reality television. It also provides West and Fury with a raw and uncut forum for their observations and reflections on social justice and the politics of identity, which are peppered with profanity and “realness.” In discussing the goal of the podcast, Fury comments: “But the point is laughter… . Get all of that baggage, all that stuff off your shoulder and just laugh.”39 Here he articulates the emotional release that comes from the listening experience of The Read. The comedy is predicated on harsh banter between the two hosts that exists on a particular cultural frequency heard by Black audiences for the most impact. While Ajayi's comedy centers on her irreverent way with the written word, West's humor emanates from her voice and abrupt patterns of speech. Indeed, West felt that she was “too loud” for Oklahoma, where she was raised. She epitomizes a defiantly frank Black female performance in which she doesn't “make apologies” for content concerning race.40 Both West and Ajayi's humorous personalities are distinct from the stereotype of the “angry Black woman” and reflect the vitality of social media Blackness through their individual expressions of sass and shade as no-nonsense indictments of media, culture, and society.
The specter of mean-spiritedness in Black girl humor that calls out racial faux pas can be considered a form of “charged humor.”41 Indeed, Daryl Dance articulates how, for Black women, “Humor hasn't been for us so much the cute, the whimsical, and the delightfully funny. Humor for us has been a means of surviving as we struggled.”42 Women such as Ajayi, West, Rae, and others are motivated to collaborate and harness energy together to form a talented group of comic troublemakers. Audiences engage these comediennes online and redeploy their acts. The final part of this essay describes the communal impulse toward expressions of sass and shade as well as the Black joy that such scrutiny and ridicule regularly provides on the social networking platform Twitter.
JOY, JEST, AND BLACK TWITTER
The idea of “Black Twitter” emerged four years after the 2006 launch of the micro-blogging service Twitter, when the PEW Research Center reported the high percentage of social media use by African Americans, with Twitter being especially popular among black youth. The Root, a Black arts, culture, and politics website, first utilized the term “Black Twitter” in 2010 and provided readers with a “starter kit” to engage with the social network. The journalist Soraya Nadia McDonald offers: “There's no password. The only entry fee is knowledge.”43 That knowledge is frequently based on competency in the particularities of African American lived experience as well as the hyper-referential logics of Black popular and mass media culture. Indeed, Meredith Clark defines the digital network as “a temporally linked group of connectors that share culture, language and interest in specific issues and talking about specific topics with a Black frame of reference.”44 Sarah Florini comments that signifyin(g) on Twitter “allows Black users not only to reject colorblindness by actively performing their racial identities but also to connect with other Black users to create and reify a social space for their ‘Blackness.’”45 The signifyin(g) is practiced through the hashtag, which oftentimes transforms into an accompanying meme. Some hashtags are simply descriptive, while others rely heavily on the performative in the sense that their word-base is augmented by the graphic. André Brock argues that “the hashtag's evolution … led to the ‘discovery’ of Black Twitter” because it rendered visible in the mainstream predominantly African American discourse through the site's trending topics.46 The coupling of text (including hashtags within Twitter's 140-allotted-character updates) and image can be highly curated and provides viral messaging that is textured and gestures toward what Stuart Hall calls an “other form of life” that can emerge from different “traditions of representation”—especially as they are articulated online.47
This understanding of a different “form of life” cultivated by Black Twitter is much more complex than interactive digital exchanges with an identified Black user demographic and the promotion of a racial zeitgeist. In his work on the phenomenon, Sanjay Sharma focuses on the materiality of the social media platform that emerges through how “the bodies of particular groupings of users machinically connect with the technocultural assemblage of Twitter.”48 Such an assemblage is constituted by informational logics concerning data and the speed with which it is propagated. Sharma's analysis is an anti-essentialist attempt to move away from the idea that the network is a cohesive representation of racialized sociality. Still, I suggest that despite its porosity, Black Twitter has “the capacity … to produce, package, circulate, and thereby cultivate points of identification and disidentification about Blackness that reverberate.”49 Like the beat of crunkness, reverberation is also a rhythmic process. What I term the “rhythm of ridicule” on the social media platform is a temporal designation for the ebb and flow of content afforded by participant expressions of sass and shade. Here, Black women are “essential in order to continue the site's functions of connectivity through antiestablishment community engagement.”50
Such community engagement on Black Twitter is many times fueled by user attachment to an object of derision. Steve Cross and Jo Littler conceptualize Schadenfreude as an instantiation of “a negative capacity in socially affective relations, one that desires equality, but is primarily unable to think it as anything other than ‘leveling through humiliation.’”51 Black Twitter deploys racial Schadenfreude as a primary form of “dragging” individuals or institutions through the virtual mud utilizing sass and shade. Notably, Rachel Dolezal, former president of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was humorously ridiculed in summer 2015 when she grabbed public attention for “faking” an African American racial identity. Dolezal's ostensibly virtual Blackness became a point of contention on social media. Black Twitter responded “like a chemical reaction” to the story and swiftly produced the hashtag #AskRachel.52 The trending hashtag and tweets that became a meme consisted of questions, some in multiple-choice format, that poked fun at Dolezal's dubious claims to Blackness (fig. 5). Her claim to Black womanhood complete with “ethnic” tresses such as braids and an afro became especially pernicious. In one meme, Twitter user Purify (@TheToast2016) tweeted a question: “Which one is the kitchen? #AskRachel.” In addition to the text, a stock image of a pristine home kitchen is juxtaposed with a photograph of the back of a Black woman's head. For African American women, the “kitchen” is a word used to describe the hair at the nape of one's neck. Thus the meme plays with signification in order to highlight and validate the cultural politics of Black hair while undermining Dolezal's racial authenticity.
Tweets, hashtags, and memes are powerful as digital expressions that facilitate Black laughter. Lawrence Levine argues that historically, “Black laughter provided a sense of the total black condition not only by putting whites and their racial system in perspective but also by supplying an important degree of self and group knowledge.”53 The chiding afforded by #AskRachel aims rhetorically to reveal potential gaps in Dolezal's experience that would serve to “out” her whiteness. Thus, the meme invited engagement with varying degrees of culturally specific knowledge as a means of collective social scrutiny in order to assert a minoritarian politics of inclusion and exclusion. Dolezal is not the only social media casualty of Black Twitter's ire. When University of Texas applicant Abigail Fisher filed a case with the Supreme Court concerning affirmative action when she was denied admission to the public institution, the winter 2015 confrontational hashtag #StayMadAbby was mobilized predominantly by Black female students to showcase their own academic achievements with sassy humor. From politics to popular culture, such digital content exposes the contours of white privilege through its mockery.
While Tameka Bradley Hobbs suggests that Black folks' social media expression through tweets, hashtags, and memes is “the bitter residue of a people who have mastered the art of dismissing and humiliating others with humor and sarcasm after having been degraded for years ourselves,” I argue that the social scrutiny associated with sass and shade should not be seen simply as a negative remainder of communication.54 Rather, these antagonistic displays of truth telling serve as vital viral activity in the face of racism and other oppressions. The dynamic aggression of such online content generates a common joy among Black folk that is constitutive of the ways in which race and race relations are processed in digital culture. The forms of comedic ridicule are not always intelligible across publics, harkening to Levine's assertion that “A substantial percentage of Negro humor, even had it been revealed to whites, would simply not have struck them as funny … their humor with its incisive commentary upon reality from the vantage point of black consciousness was not easily comprehensible to whites.”55 The joy of Black Twitter comes from its position as a humor hub that propagates inside jokes at a rapid rate. Related to—yet distinct from—pleasure, Gina Dent comments that joy concerns “the potential for our coexistence within another sphere of knowledge” and “signals our more democratic hopes and dreams for the future.”56 In this way, joy emanates from what can be communally imagined, where meaning can be made in or even beyond signification. Communication, then, is fundamentally transformed due to the destabilizing force of reading and writing offered by social media Blackness as articulated on Twitter. The racialized and gendered sentiments that circulate energize social networking by tapping into the enjoyment produced by jest.
“To cope with mass disappointment and terrible things, we joke.”57 This statement by Ajayi is a reference to Black Twitter's #LifetimeBeLike and #LifetimeBiopics memes, which make fun of the Lifetime cable television network's casting blunders for African American celebrity made-for-TV movies. Yet such an insight is also helpful to understand how other race-related grievances—including those that involve state-sanctioned violence—can be collectively addressed. Here, social networking becomes a crucial platform for generating humor as a form of protest against systemic anti-Blackness in the United States.58 In this essay, I have sought to preliminarily document Black digital media user truth telling in social networking. In so doing, I have highlighted the virtual flows of Blackness that are predicated on Black girl performances of sass and shade. Combined, these expressive techniques provide a record of popular “clap backs”—in other words, rhythmic responses—to power and privilege as innovative forms of digital activity.
The network of Black cultural production online resonates through methods of ridicule that generate joy. The disparate web-based artifacts that I have analyzed all work together as a performative repertoire of social media Blackness. The repertoire's strength lies in the collective “noise” of the digital network in its transmission of sass and shade that is replicated and remixed within techno-culture. Participants create viral content that embodies slices of Black life, or ways to get by, in such a precarious environment of racial antagonism. This content contributes to an understanding of quotidian comedy that is informed by the Black feminist and Black queer imagination, and exceeds established bounds of propriety. In terms of the transgressive quality of Black women's humor, Daryl Dance comments:
It was not considered ladylike to tell jokes or to laugh too loud publicly… . One wonders if this could possibly have anything to do with the popularity of an almost formulaic response to jokes, witty remarks, signifying comments—“Honey, hush!” It really isn't a suggestion that the person stop talking, but rather a friendly encouragement … or a suggestion that one is telling truths that are prohibited.59
Here, the phrase “Honey, hush” is not a silencing but rather an anticipation of the revealing of certain social truths in a continuing conversation. With the deft ability to articulate meaning on different registers of speaking, Black women embrace the multivocality of their humor, allowing for the remediation of embodied laughter in digital culture.
While I have emphasized the autonomy of regular Black women in the virtual landscape as conjurers of comedy on social media through expressions of sass and shade, it is important to note the perils of ridicule, as the summer 2016 online bullying of Saturday Night Live African American funny female actress Leslie Jones indicates. Her traumatic navigation of cruel gibes directed at her by a demographic of white male Twitter “trolls” reveals the dangers inherent in occupying a racialized and gendered body with a marginalized mainstream presence in such an online environment.
Jones's struggles are not completely dissimilar from those of Johnson and her reading group. Both incidents reflect a legacy of African Americans being perceived as a threat to dominant white society by their sheer existence in spaces thought to be not for them—whether a wine train or the all-female reboot of Ghostbusters (2016). In both cases, a notion of Black female laughter became cause for punishment, and served to tether the Black women to a preconceived notion of racial excess that must be denigrated, displaced, and ultimately discarded. Yet as social media figures such as Ajayi and West suggest—and declare through their illustrated comic Internet representation—Black women can be re-animated online in a way that makes use of their important modes of humor as respite and redressal.60 In today's digital culture, Black women affirm the potential for social media to call into being an affective network of social scrutiny that erupts and disrupts through laughter.
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Brandy Monk-Payton is a 2016–17 Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in film and media studies through the Leslie Center for the Humanities at Dartmouth College. She obtained her PhD in modern culture and media at Brown University, where she was a Ford Foundation dissertation fellow and a graduate fellow at the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America. Her research interests include the history and theory of African American media representation, celebrity, television studies, and Black cultural studies. In fall 2017 she will begin a position as an assistant professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University.