#BlackPoetsSpeakOut: poetry video as a tool for online activism

News coverage of the nationwide response to the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson, Missouri this week has focused on the protests in the streets, but reaction online has been just as intense. This is nowhere more visible than on Twitter, where hashtags such as #FergusonDecision and #BlackLivesMatter have been trending all week, shared by white and black users alike. One slightly less visible hashtag, #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, is continuing to gather steam, and really shows how people can mobilize on social media and online video hosting sites to share topical poetry and raise consciousness. According to the blog Cultural Front, it began with a group of Cave Canem poets on Facebook.

In solidarity with the movements to address racial injustices related to police brutality, including the killing of Michael Brown, poets have been reading poems online under the hashtag #BlackPoetsSpeakOut.

The project came about from a brainstorming session between Amanda Johnston, Mahogany “Mo” Browne, Jonterri Gadson, Jericho Brown, Sherina Rodriguez, & Maya Washington on a Cave Canem Facebook group. Together, they developed a posting strategy.

The readings open with the statement “I am a black poet who will not remain silent while this nation murders black people. I have a right to be angry.”

Click through for Cultural Front’s selection of links to some of the pieces.

It’s interesting to see Facebook (where some of the videos are also hosted), YouTube, and Twitter all being used in concert. Twitter has long had a high adoption rate among African Americans — so much so that “Black Twitter” has become a unique sociopolitical phenomenon.

Black Twitter is a cultural identity on the Twitter social network focused on issues of interest to the black community, particularly in the United States. Feminista Jones described it in Salon as “a collective of active, primarily African-American Twitter users who have created a virtual community … [and are] proving adept at bringing about a wide range of sociopolitical changes.” […]

According to a 2013 report by the Pew Research Center, 26 percent of African Americans who use the Internet use Twitter, compared to 14 percent of online white, non-Hispanic Americans. In addition, 11 percent of African American Twitter users say they use Twitter at least once a day, compared to 3 percent of white users.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Black Twitter would rally around a campaign to share poetry, given the value placed on the adroit use of language. Quoting again from the Wikipedia article:

Several writers see Black Twitter interaction as a form of signifyin’, wordplay involving tropes such as irony and hyperbole. André Brock states that the Black Tweeter is the signifier, while the hashtag is signifier, sign and signified, “marking … the concept to be signified, the cultural context within which the tweet should be understood, and the ‘call’ awaiting a response.” He writes: “Tweet-as-signifyin’, then, can be understood as a discursive, public performance of Black identity.”

Sarah Florini of UW-Madison also interprets Black Twitter within the context of signifyin’. She writes that race is normally “deeply tied to corporeal signifiers”; in the absence of the body, black users display their racial identities through wordplay and other language that shows knowledge of black culture. Black Twitter has become an important platform for this performance.

(Click through for more, including links and footnotes.)

For maximum viewing convenience, here’s a YouTube playlist. You can also search Facebook and Tumblr. (Decentralized movements are the best kind, but they can be challenging to keep up with!)

Dave Bonta

Dave is the founder of Moving Poems, and posts videos for his own poems (along with lots of other stuff) at Via Negativa. Here's a bio.