Rising Up, 2012–2016
Following the death of Trayvon Martin, Black Twitter launched an online campaign in support of Martin and his family. As outcry swelled, George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who fatally shot Martin, was arrested—laying the groundwork for what would become the biggest social justice movement of our time.
André Brock, author of Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures: A lot of early Black tech adopters were really skeptical of what Twitter could do. Even Black folk were like, this is not a serious place.
Tracy Clayton, host of the podcast Strong Black Legends: Once the newness of the platform wore off, I think it was more like, OK, what do we do with our voices now that we found them? The murder of Trayvon Martin is when I first saw Black Twitter’s potential, and the potential of Twitter, to create actual offline change.
Wesley Lowery, 60 Minutes+ correspondent: My first tweet about Trayvon Martin said, “Until a 17-year-old black boy can walk into any store in America to buy Skittles without being gunned down, we can’t stop talking about race.” It was one of those first instances of getting used to the idea that I could say things and those messages could find like-minded people to participate in this dialog that was bigger than myself.
Jamilah Lemieux, Slate columnist: If it weren’t for Black Twitter, George Zimmerman would not have been arrested.
Clayton: I remember watching the trial with Twitter. I remember watching Rachel Jeantel testify and my heart breaking for the situation that she was in. It was a great vehicle not only for social change but also for healing—being able to mourn and grieve and process with people. That’s what really changed my mind about what Twitter was for. I guess, for me, it was entertainment before.
Naima Cochrane, music and culture journalist: That was probably the beginning of what we now consider hashtag activism, if you want to call it that.
A year later, on August 9, 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown, who had graduated from high school the week prior, was killed in Ferguson, Missouri. He was shot six times.
Sarah J. Jackson, coauthor of #Hashtag Activism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice: One of the very first tweets to use “Ferguson”—people hadn’t even started using the hashtag #Ferguson, they were just using the word—was from a young woman who was one of Michael Brown’s neighbors. She stepped out on her doorstep, took a picture, and basically described what she saw. She didn’t have a lot of followers. She wasn’t an influencer. She wasn’t an activist. She was just a community member.
Johnetta Elzie, St. Louis activist: I was out running errands, and I remember being on Twitter cracking jokes. Then a woman DMs me. She was like, “Netta, I just saw this picture float down my timeline. I think you should see it.”
April Reign, diversity and inclusion advocate: I saw someone post something like, Damn, I think they just shot somebody outside my window. And he posted a picture of Mike Brown’s lifeless body on the ground. He had taken the picture, I guess, from the inside of his apartment.
Judnick Mayard, TV writer and producer: For the first time in one of these shootings, information was getting to us, from us. There was visual evidence.
Reign: There was also a lot of emotion involved, and people started to mobilize almost immediately.
Sylvia Obell, host of the podcast OK Now Listen!: People were like, I’m being sent to Ferguson. It was becoming a story because of Twitter.
Lowery: One of the first things I did as I got on the airplane was, I tweeted, “Hey I’m gonna head down to Ferguson who should I talk to?” And my mentions just filled up with the @s of all of these activists on the ground, people who lived in the area, and local politicians. It very much felt like it was this story that was playing out on the internet.
Denver Sean, editor of LoveBScott.com: The Trayvon situation was more, I guess, reactive. With Ferguson, I realized that Twitter was a place for raw, unfiltered, in-the-moment reporting. That was the first time I saw Black Twitter in the streets in real time.
Kashmir Thompson, visual artist: I remember Johnetta [Elzie] being one of the first people that I really saw tweeting about it. When it happened, it was like, oh shit, now I need to follow her. She was really there.
Elzie: It wasn’t like I was shocked that the St. Louis police had killed someone. The police had just shot and killed one of my closest friends in February.
Obell: Police brutality didn’t start when Twitter started. The difference was that Twitter made it so that it was no longer just local news that could be snuffed out. We were able to watch ourselves collectively grieve.
Mayard: I don’t think other people have ever been privy to our in-real-time pain. I don’t think people have ever been privy to how widespread the knowledge was that we were being killed. It’s one thing to see every Black person in your life be like, why did they kill that boy? It’s another thing to see in real time millions of Black people say—let’s keep it a buck—they murdered that boy.
Sean: There were a lot of people trying to figure out exactly what happened. There were a lot of conflicting views of what should be shared, what should be shown, what should be retweeted.
Did it matter that certain participants in that conversation were not, as critics liked to point out at the time, “real journalists”?
Reign: There were over a thousand tweets about Mike Brown and his murder before any national news outlet picked it up.
Cochrane: As much as three days before national news outlets were in Ferguson, people from Black Twitter were in Ferguson.
Jackson: We knew Michael Brown was a teenager, and we knew that he wasn’t armed. We knew all these things that we felt with our intuition. But they were validated by the fact that members of our community were there with firsthand accounts giving us that information.
Sean: We didn’t have to rely on major news outlets like CNN or MSNBC. We could hear live from people who were there. We could see it. We could feel it.
Rembert Browne, writer: A lot of publications just sent photographers down, and the reports that were coming back felt very ruin-porny, very look at how bad things are. It felt like it wasn’t telling the full story.
Clayton: I knew that I couldn’t trust white media for shit. The importance of people at the protests being able to capture footage and document what was actually going on—it’s priceless. Priceless because the media has such influence over how people think and how people feel and how people see Black people.
Brandon Jenkins, TV and podcast host: It became inarguable, like, whoa, there are people on the ground that maybe aren’t trained as journalists, but they have truth and emotion behind them.
Meredith Clark, author of a forthcoming book on Black Twitter: There were people that the news media ignored for years, for decades, who were saying these things are problems—the oversurveillance of our communities is a problem, the brutality of the police is a problem.
Lemieux: I started my writing career as a blogger. I went to school for theater. I was not trained as a reporter. My first real reporting assignment, I find myself in a fucking war zone where the state of Missouri and the city of Ferguson have declared war on their Black citizens.
Reign: I remember sharing information about if you get tear-gassed or pepper-sprayed, don’t use water, use milk; or this is where people are going to be meeting and protesting today. Everybody who was on the ground could look to Black Twitter to get the most up-to-date information.
Compounded by the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner that same year, a national movement for racial justice, fueled by hashtags, caught fire.
Kozza Babumba, head of social at Genius: That was just a terrible, wild summer.
Mayard: It was the beginning of everything we argue about now. All of it started with watching some people die and saying Black Lives Matter, y’all are murdering us.
Ashley Weatherspoon, founder of DearYoungQueen.com: I think that period started a bit of the pressure for other communities to participate in Black issues. Other races would go on their social media accounts and see something like Black Lives Matter trending. And if you didn’t participate, then you didn’t fuck with Black lives. All of a sudden we—as a Black Twitter and a community—were able to say, hey, this is what we are doing. This is how we are fighting over here. What’s up?
Clayton: Once the realization was made that Twitter should be a tool for social justice, we had the responsibility to use it for that.
Weatherspoon: I remember for the first time seeing that a hashtag could represent a movement. And that the hashtag could build a movement.
Reign: There’s Snapchat and Facebook and Instagram and all the rest of them, but everything now has a hashtag. Everything! That came from Twitter.
Cochrane: A hashtag could be an emphasis. A hashtag could be a slogan. A hashtag could be a tagline or a mantra.
Lowery: #BlackLivesMatter had staying power because it captured the ideology of the street protests and of this moment. It wasn’t just justice in a specific case or specific thing. It was a bigger critique of our society and our structure.
Mayard: A friend had a really great tweet where he was like, “Saying ‘BLM’ defeats the purpose of Black Lives Matter. Because it was always intended for you to have to say out loud the words ‘Black lives matter.’” That’s why it was the hashtag that changed the world—because it sounded like a radical thing to say and write.
Beyond #BlackLivesMatter, Black users—particularly women—were using other notable hashtags, adding dimension and complexity to a growing demand for change.
Lemieux: #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen opened up a conversation that went on for quite a while [started by the essayist and feminist Mikki Kendall]. It helped put that stake in the ground and inform people that Black feminists do not get our shit from white women. This is around the time that “white feminism” became a term that entered the internet cultural zeitgeist.
Jackson: Way before anyone ever hashtagged the phrase “Me too,” there were Black women who were members of Black Twitter using this whole corpus of hashtags—ones like #SurvivorPrivilege, #FastTailedGirls, and #WhyIStayed—to talk about things ranging from in-group street harassment to intimate partner abuse to stereotypes about how Black girls are sexualized.
Brock: I’m thinking of Feminista Jones’ #YouOKSis hashtag. Black women really congregated to lift each other up.
CaShawn Thompson, educator: #BlackGirlMagic started as #BlackGirlsAreMagic. It was an exciting utterance. What I saw in Black women—my mom, my aunts, and my grandmas—was magic. Literally. The stuff that I was hearing about Black women just didn’t line up with my understanding. So I said it.
God-is Rivera, global director of culture and community at Twitter: #SayHerName was just tough. I mean, I’m a Black woman raising a Black little girl. The idea that even in our own community, we weren’t screaming loud enough for those Black women. You know, I think that’s the beauty of #SayHerName. It showed that we’re not always of one accord because we’re Black or we’re part of Black Twitter. It’s calling out the work that we have to do as well.
Reign: #MeToo was started by a Black woman, Tarana Burke. It was popularized by Alyssa Milano, who overstepped. She needed to be checked, and Black Twitter did that.
Jackson: When people tell the story of #MeToo, if they don’t tell the story of the work that preceded it, that made it possible, that made the space one where those networks were connected by Black women who were already tweeting about these topics, then they’re not telling the whole story.
But even as it demanded action and change, Black Twitter continued to be a site for collective joy and nostalgia.
Lowery: The reality is, the movement for Black lives broadly is a protest movement that has driven thousands, if not millions, of young Black people into the streets. There was no question that jokes were gonna be gotten off. This was a period that was very heavy, but Black people, as a means of finding levity, were also expressing this. That meme of the nerdy-looking Black guy with his arms crossed and the other one where he’s on the cell phone—that meme originated from an I Support Darren Wilson rally. There was a lot of funny stuff that happened in this weird way.
Babumba: We’re able to tell you what’s poppin’, what’s popular, what’s hot. The Zola story [the viral Twitter thread about a trip to Florida that is now a Hollywood film] is an example of We are culture. We make culture.
Brock: Zola’s story, “Meet me in Temecula” [@SnottieDrippen vs. @MyTweetsRealAF, and the fight that didn’t happen]—they weren’t hashtags, but they also became part of Black Twitter lore.
Obell: It’s the reprieve of joy and comedy that I get from Black Twitter that I love the most. And #ThanksgivingWithBlackFamilies are all so funny because it was everybody realizing: Did we all have the same upbringing?
Clayton: It was a celebration of the parts of Black culture that white people can’t access. They can pretend they know about it, but they don’t know nothing about throwing a plate away face down so Big Momma can’t see you didn’t like her macaroni and cheese. It was so affirming and so insidery.
K. Thompson: I didn’t see #ThanksgivingWithBlackFamilies until I created#ThanksgivingClapback. This was 2015. That’s the thing about Twitter: When stuff like this happens, it’s never because you planned it. I just remember tweeting about how Thanksgiving was coming up and having to deal with the microaggressions of your family members.
Elzie: That’s where we all started to realize we all live the same-ass life. Like, oh my God, these Black parents, these grandparents, these great grandparents, aunties and uncles, they all say the same shit, do the same shit.
Obell: When you guys opened the cookie tin, it didn’t have the cookies in it either? That wasn’t just me? Those types of relatable Black moments are my favorite on Twitter.
Another relatable Black moment: not seeing some of your biggest stars get the recognition they deserve.
Reign: In January 2015, I was still a practicing attorney at the time. I probably had around 8,000 followers. I was a huge movie fan. I was getting ready for work that morning and watching the Oscar nominations. And it just struck me. I picked up my phone and tweeted “#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair”—and that was it.
Obell: It wasn’t something I thought that people would care about in a public way, because we are not in the industry.
Reign: There was no “I’m going to strategize with my team about how we can shake up the industry.” There was none of that. I was half-dressed in my family room. 2015 meant 2014 films, so we had stuff like Beyond the Lights and Selma. There were a few other really strong performances that you think would have at least gotten a nomination.
Clark: Why would we sit through an award show where the people who are establishing the criteria of excellence have deemed that no person of color, let alone no Black person, is worthy of even a nomination? Like, what do you do with that?
Reign: Around lunchtime, I check back in on Twitter, and based on that one tweet, #OscarsSoWhite was trending around the world.
K. Thompson: There was a specific sector of Black Twitter that was interested in that, but there was a specific sector of Black Twitter that wasn’t. It was important to certain people, and it definitely had its impact.
Reign: In 2016, the one-year anniversary, once again there were no people of color nominated for any of the acting categories. It seemed like the media said, OK, you know, one time was a fluke, two times is a pattern. Maybe this woman actually has something here. #OscarsSoWhite actually took off more the second year.
Cochrane: To see it become a whole industry-acknowledged thing, to see April Reign invited to the Oscars—it’s one of those moments where you are like, wow, look at my people!
Finally, after years of hashtag activism and real-world change, even Twitter HQ began to take notice of what was happening on its platform.
Reign: It’s very, very clear that Twitter—the corporation—knows that it would be nothing without Black Twitter.
Brock: It’s really fascinating to see what we can do with tools that people thought were just throwaways and make them better or make them even more valuable.
Elzie: Jack would say himself, Ferguson taught them at Twitter how to maximize and how to use their platform.
Babumba: I’ve been in a room where Jack Dorsey was like, Twitter exists because of Black Twitter. He said it. He’s saying, we are as big as we are, and we are as relevant as we are, because of Black Twitter.
Rivera: Black culture is the driving force of culture globally. No matter what, pick a date and time, it has always been something that is filled with ingenuity and sets the tone. We don’t always get the credit for it, but naturally that phenomenon has continued in the digital space.
Lowery: But there is a commodification of Blackness. Like all things, once it becomes a commodity, it loses that original-recipe sauce.
That was what Black Twitter would have to figure out as it found its voice on the national stage: How to maintain its identity. How to be private and public at the same time. And how to protect its users from exploitation and abuse.
Part III will be published on July 29.
Images: Scott Olson/Getty Images; Bettman/Getty Images, David Madison/Getty Images, Sarah Morris/Getty Images; Heritage Art/Heritage Images/Getty Images; Joshua Lott/Getty Images; Ted Soqui/Corbis/Getty Images
Let us know what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor at [email protected].