From the January/February 2017 issue of Unity Magazine®. This article is a finalist in the 2017 Folio: Magazine Eddie awards.
July 2016 was the hottest month in recorded history. However, I have to strain to remember the heat even though our air conditioning was on the fritz the Tuesday afternoon Alton Sterling was shot by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. What I remember is my outrage followed by inconsolable despair—feeling without hope.
The next day, Philando Castile was killed during a routine traffic stop in Minnesota. The nation reeled in the aftermath. Both shootings were caught on video, and the images quickly went viral. People were conversing and grieving and commentating in the main way they do these days—on social media. By Thursday evening, a sniper gunned down five police officers in Dallas during a Black Lives Matter protest that until then had been proceeding peacefully.
I didn’t sleep that night. I wept. I tossed and turned gearing up for increased hate and fearing the race-fueled violence would intensify. And I admit, I worried it could hit home. Lately, my husband had had more run-ins than usual with the police, and they’d been more charged. Imagine a well-dressed, friendly black guy. That’s him. A white woman, concerned he was “impersonating” a businessman, had recently called 9-1-1 on him. In minutes, he was surrounded by a dozen stern policemen—while doing his sales job. A few months before, during a traffic stop, an officer approached my husband’s car window with his gun drawn. As a black man, he was used to being profiled and harassed, but the tension was ramping up.
The night of the Dallas shooting, I mourned the senseless loss of life and the future of all our children. I also cried because I felt helpless.
Unexpectedly, by Friday afternoon I found a glimmer of healing—an antidote made all the more powerful because of its simplicity. It was a Twitter hashtag started by writer and activist Feminista Jones, who tweeted: “Where my brothers at? Twitpic your smile if you feel comfortable. Show us your self love and JOY!!” She asked her followers to tag their pictures using #BlackManJoy.
During a week when images of murdered black men circulated endlessly, Jones changed the conversation by harnessing the power of imagery and its connection to emotion. She changed the story from pain to joy.
As a nation, we’re used to seeing images of black people, especially black men, either as the victims of violence or, in popular movies and television, as the perpetrators. Negative stereotypes about black men abound. In fact, the history of American cinema interlaces with racism. Early short films portrayed blacks as criminals, buffoons, and animals. By the time we had our first “great” film, The Birth of a Nation in 1915, the stereotypes were set: Black men were rapists and villains, and violence against them was celebrated. The hugely popular film, a tribute to the Ku Klux Klan, instigated a new surge of lynching.
The inflammatory images were so powerful that they took root in the real world. Today, we feel far removed from this kind of ire, but a closer look at our culture reveals that we’re not far removed at all. Remember the protests when the newest Star Wars movie cast black actor John Boyega in a lead role or the controversies about award shows with so few minority nominations?
Of course, stereotypes aren’t limited to black men. Our larger culture sees and represents nonwhite cultures and people with an often limited, narrow view. This issue extends to all minorities whether racial, gender-based, ethnic, or otherwise. We need help seeing each other through new, unbiased lenses—as human beings. Jones’ hashtag wasn’t designed to exclude, but to comfort and raise up the particular group most hurt at the time. The same premise is necessary to revolutionize all of our false ways of seeing.
#BlackManJoy was so powerful because it arose not only as a positive counterforce to the prevailing stereotypes, but also as an elixir for the sorrow pervading the nation. The hashtag changed the picture. It made me see anew—with hope. I saw that there are positive, beautiful images of black men available—image after beautiful image, circulating right down my Twitter feed, busting the stereotype. They were changing the scene, as if I was witnessing an active, collective prayer.
Tweeting, Sharing, and Hearting
After Jones asked black men to share photos, women joined in. Moms, sisters, and wives shared images of their sons, brothers, and husbands. Generations of black men in photos together—embracing, caught in gladness, in joy, in exultation. The men were photographed in graduation caps, at weddings, and posing with kids, wives, girlfriends, and brothers. The pictures showed them cooking, traveling, playing music. Kissing. Living. Loving.
The result was a seemingly endless stream of pictures of black men—as they actually are. The images restored me as well as others. The stream was filled with happy comments. So many people wrote about the despair that was real and urgent and necessary, but not strong enough to win or to crush.
As a white woman, I stand outside the black community. I can never know the lived experience of a person of color. As an ally, I can do whatever I can to stand beside that community in solidarity and support. I shared my husband’s picture twice. The first was an image of him with our son, capturing a moment after they caught a ball at a baseball game. Like so many cell phone pictures, it’s a little blurry, but their elation shines—not only over the lucky ball, but also over their love and togetherness.
I also shared a selfie my husband took with our daughter before school one day. The beauty of looking at selfies is that you’re seeing what the subject sees. You’re sharing the same view—in this case, my daughter’s joy as they gazed at themselves: the bright, simple rapture of a regular morning on the way to school.
One Twitter user wrote about the #BlackManJoy images: “Black men are funny, wise, hardworking & smart. We are sons, brothers, uncles and fathers. Black men are human.”
We should not need a reminder that black men are human, but #BlackManJoy made sure we did not forget in the aftermath of that devastating week in July. Negativity melts in that hashtag’s presence, stereotypes flatten in the wake of the realness. Go to Twitter, wherever you are, and check it out.
Social media is a metaphor, however simplistic, for our collective consciousness—the energy that connects our spirits and souls. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram bring us closer to these connections. We can hook into a world of like-minded souls. Distance shrinks and energy becomes immediate. We spark spiritual allies in unexpected forms.
Here Are a Few Ways to Tap in to That Power
Cat videos aren’t the only thing you can pass around. Share images, memes, and articles that speak to your soul. We worry so much about judgment or promoting our online persona. Instead, think of Facebook or your blog or your Instagram as a soul port—a haven for your real essence. That may sound potentially embarrassing, but it’s a key to being generous to yourself and others. Think of online sharing as breaking bread. Your post might fall upon a stranger at just the right time. Share with the intention that your post, tweet, or picture lands with serendipity where and when it is most needed.
2. Take a Stand
Use social media when a crisis hits or despair overtakes our collective conscious in some way. So much out there are rants at these times, and those loud voices can seem overwhelming. However, so many groups, especially minority communities, are regularly under attack, blamed, and battered. I’m not saying you should engage hatred with hatred. Instead, offer a positive alternative. Promote love. And be specific—talk about who or what you stand for. Say why. Create coalition. Don’t fret about counterarguments. Speak your truth. It matters.
3. Ask for Soul Connection
I recently wrote a blog asking people to “tell me what you love.” I was serious. It was inspired by a close friend who wrote a Facebook post asking friends to let her know what was currently “saving them,” adding, “Please don’t judge anyone’s answers.” I admit I froze. Her entreaty was so potentially embarrassing. I wasn’t used to sharing anything deep on Facebook. The question struck at my core. What was saving me—not in any grand way, just in the day-to-day sense of getting by? I decided to go with an open, honest, and true answer. When she responded, “I resonate with you,” my jitters fell away. Cultivate such connections. Ask for them. “What are you thankful for?” “What do you find beautiful today?” “What do you embrace?” “What is your shelter?” Ask. Respond. Thank.
4. Send Love
The tenets of spiritual activism recommend loving those you’re in conflict with. Sometimes it is vital to argue or take a stand rather than turning away. When the issues concern racism or human rights, silence is tantamount to violence because silence enables oppression. When you choose to make a point or to argue, don’t attack others. Remember, you are fighting against the issue, not the person. It’s important to offer a peaceful counterpoint. It’s also okay to send love and keep scrolling. Blocking and unfollowing are also gentle ways to disengage. If you’re not up to the potential negativity of a sensitive topic discussion, then offer a counterforce: Share, send love, and connect in positive directions.
Hashtag movements supporting several different marginalized groups exist. When this article went to press, hashtags similar in ideology to #BlackManJoy included: #BlackBoyJoy, #CarefreeBlackKids, #BlackGirlMagic, #BlackMenLove, #PraisetheAsian, #LaGenteUnida (united people), #LatinoPride, #QueerSelfLove, and others. This is certainly not a complete list, and social media memes being fairly ephemeral, these hashtags may no longer be active by the time you read this. Use a search engine to find activist hashtags for the groups you belong to or support. Even better, create a hashtag of your own.
Molly Pennington, Ph.D. is an award-winning writer whose work often aligns social justice and spirituality. She’s published articles on parenting, education, and popular culture (with an emphasis on race and gender) in print and online. Pennington is committed to cultivating optimism without ignoring the wounds of the world. Read her blog at mollypennington.com and engage with her on Twitter and Instagram (@docpennington) or on Facebook (@mollypenningtonphd).