It’s sexy and trendy to be "woke" these days. But the problem with trends is that they lack any real depth. Like any social justice movement, there are supporters who engage in social activism and those who play into what I'd like to refer to as social theater.
Black lives, and often the dehumanization of them, has been broadcasted, tweeted, Facebooked, Instagrammed, Memed, GIFed, written, and podcasted globally. Blackness is organic, but the nuances and expressions of blackness have changed over time. Currently, blackness is an “always on” stream of consciousness weaved around Black issues and culture. The emergence of social media has made the experiences of Black people more visible and shareable. Hashtagged movements have streamlined snackable support for Black lives and have given concise context as to why they matter.
According to Eddie S. Glaude Jr.’s Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves The American Soul, social activism exists to close the value gap between white and Black Americans. Social theater merely ignites hot breath. It’s the perception of any value-creating action. There are bullhorns, but nothing comes out of them. There are meetings with high-ranking civic leaders, but no follow-ups or accountability. It is simply theatrics.
Social theater has an ephemeral shelf life and contributes to what Glaude describes as an advocacy gap. In an advocacy gap, there’s a disconnect between front-runners miming for change and at-risk constituents who experience no real change. Although Black Lives Matter supports LGBT issues, how many times have we seen Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton speak out against the murderous epidemic plaguing Black transgender women? Zero. Social activism follows the needs, while social theater follows the spotlight. It exist purely for the sake of attention.
It’s a disservice to mask empty actions under the lens of "staying woke" or being unapologetically Black. Especially since being unapologetically Black wasn’t always a public-facing thing or anything new.
#Staywoke has been trending among Black folks long before it was a hashtag. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s didn’t start on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. In its infancy, the movement started in the privacy of people’s homes and other safe spaces. It was found in the conversations women had in their kitchens while cooking Sunday dinner. It was the ideas men spoke of during their commute to work. It was the sermon pastors shared with their congregation in church. It was playground talk for kids.
The Civil Rights Movement has been in the hearts of Black Americans long before it even had an official name. Black people forced the Civil Rights Movement into both segregated and public domains occupied by white Americans in the 1960s. Back then it wasn’t about being unapologetically Black, but about being unapologetically equal.
According to Toure’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What It Means to Be Black Now, during the Civil Rights era Black people shared a collective identity and agenda around efficiently fighting for equal rights. Social theater had no place because it didn’t serve a purpose as the Civil Rights Movement could not be sustained by mere theatrics.
For example, a series of marches, arrests, and meetings with dignitaries, even deaths, and King’s “Letter From A Selma, Alabama Jail”, which appeared in The New York Times, enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Throughout this entire ordeal, there was transparency, accountability, and follow through, all pillars of social activism. As Black Americans entered the Post-Blackness era coined during the 1990s by Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum of Harlem and Artist Glenn Ligon, the definitions around blackness changed.
Post-blackness placed the emphasis on individual identity rather than the group’s identity. Black people no longer had to represent the entire sum of their community. Unlike their parents, the Post-black generation doesn’t experience visceral segregation. Blackness has more fluidity to it, and the expressions of such blackness harbor less apologies. Social media has become the digital canvass for those expressions.
Social media is built around human experiences. Platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Periscope make those experiences, positive or negative, public, scaling its shareability. In the 60s, if an activist wanted to get the word out, they used a switchboard. Today’s activists tweet, Vine, stream, or post. Social activism in the digital age is diffusive, but still mobilized. In fact, social media has been on the forefront of many movements that have propelled change.
The social sphere exploded with outrage and put juror B37’s book deal to a halt when the juror spoke out in support of George Zimmerman on CNN. The key message here was that although Zimmerman was found not guilty of all the charges, it is morally reprehensible to profit from a Black teenager’s death.
Just after the Charleston church shooting in South Carolina, activists and supporters charged political and retail institutions to stop selling the Confederate flag. Retail giants such as Walmart, Amazon, Sears, and eBay all stopped selling the flag. Again, the key message behind this form of activism is that it is not OK to promote a symbol of hatred.
In November of 2015, University of Missouri-Columbia’s chancellor Tim Wolfe was forced to resign over how he handled racial incidents on the campus. Once again, the key message behind students protesting on campus is universities and colleges cannot get away with treating their students of color as second-class citizens.
Black Twitter is equally no chill and socially proactive. In response to Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and other fatal police shootings of Black bodies, Black Twitter has helped to bring Black Lives Matter to the global scene, which enforces transparency in how justice is dueled out for Black Americans. In each of these instances, social activism carried value-creating actions that led to change. Cashing in, rather through attention and/or money on being unapologetically black is a symptom of social theater.
Social theater is the press conference about racial injustices without the policy follow-up. It’s aimlessly tagging posts with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter to show “you’re down with the movement” without understanding how All Lives Matter discredits Black Lives Matter. Social theater is exclusively an engagement play, while social activism changes the game by which we all play or that some fall victim to.
Unapologetically Black doesn’t make the expressions, explorations, rights, and tragedies around Blackness digestible. It’s an uncut approach to racial identity. Unapologetically Black may be the new black for those that engage in social theatrics, but it has always been the only Black for social activists throughout time.
Terrence Chappell is a Chicago-based writer. He covers an array of topics from social justice to more brain candy content such as pop culture and infotainment. Terrence has been featured on Jetmag.com, Huffington Post, Advocate.com, Windy City Times, Vocalo 91.1FM, ChicagoPride.com and the Black Youth Project. When he isn't writing, Terrence works as a social media manager at Burrell Communications. He enjoys traveling, live DJ sets, and White Castle sliders.