Color Outside the Lines wants to talk about Montgomery.

This started simply enough. One of my cousins lit up cousin chat (there are 11 of us in there, give or take some cousin spouses) with this-

After that, it was mostly skull and LOL emojis. Someone added a top hat like ‘yo, the signal went out!’ We all know what happened, by now, and in the year of our lord 2023 it seems like ancient history. I hadn’t watched a single video, relying on cousin chat as my only reference, until I read this:

‘Large brawl in Alabama as people defend Black riverboat worker against white assailants’:

Meanwhile, the names started coming in: Scuba Gooding Jr, Aqua Mane, Lil’ Namor, Seadris Elba, OJ Swimpson. One of my cousins said ‘Y’all done lost y’alls mind-I’m turning my phone off before I get fired LOL’

Another cousin sent this image:

I realized something significant was happening. This was a clear, incredible example of Witnessing While Black. In my own efforts to understand the import of social media (and specifically, Black Twitter) and its role in not only mobilizing protests but asserting a right to discursive authority, I came across an extraordinary article entitled ‘Bearing Witness While Black’ . This work thinks about how selfies, tweets, and mobile video contributes to a specific form of media witnessing, use of social media, and the black public sphere. The idea of ‘bearing witness’ is an essential aspect of how we talk about injustice against marginalized groups.

In the first video I saw of the incident, the most interesting thing was the disembodied narration from the person taking the video. You can clearly hear a woman saying ‘they wrong for that!’ and encouraging the young man who swam over to help the Black man who was being assaulted. I don’t have to explain the rest of it to y’all. You’ve probably seen it, several times. All I want to point to here is what bell hooks called the ‘oppositional gaze’. That is, this is citizen journalism and reporting done by and for Black people. This gaze, Alissa Richardson writes, ‘is afforded by the ubiquity of mobile devices and social networking sites.’ The Black witnessing of this incident and its filming/proliferation on social media functions as stark rebuttal to people who assert that racism and attacks against Black bodies for the slightest of perceived slights are limited to something like the pathetic pageantry of the Charlottesville demonstrations or the Jan 6 riots. Scholars doing this work have made incredible strides in presenting the Black public sphere as not only a distinctive area of discourse and concern, but a ‘network of outrage and hope’. In an era where the press has declined nearly everywhere (and is struggling to survive devastating attacks in America) , Black media witnessing persists as a kind of advocacy journalism that exists without apology.

The Wakanda references were funny, but also deeply moving, invoking images of Black solidarity and collective triumph as seen in ‘Black Panther’. The distinct references to Montgomery and Selma were also on point; Black folks know their history and know what it means to distinguish between the two places. “Do you comprehend the historic gravity of a Black man swimming from a riverboat to a Montgomery Alabama dock to help his fellow man run some white men’s fade?!”-someone said on Black twitter, and yes, I definitely do. I think about the reaction to the young man who swam over to offer assistance; the wonder and joy at his adept swimming a reminder of the legacy of segregated swimming pools, depriving untold numbers of Black folks of the opportunity to even learn to swim. And of course, in the aftermath, with Cheryl Lee Ralph, who had done a stirring version of ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing’ at the Super Bowl earlier this year, singing ‘Lift ev’ry chair and swing’– using a song that speaks to Black pride and perseverance to refer to an event that in some ways was cause to look to these very things for joy and humor.

I was heartened to read Touré’s op-ed on The Grio the day I came across the news articles about the incident because I’d had the same reaction he did. The videos depicted very real violence, something no one should be celebrating, but it also concluded with a kind of justice that Black people understood as the best possible outcome. In other words, in a world where Black folks have to shield ourselves from images of Black death and suffering as they mindlessly proliferate around a media landscape where these injustices are mere referent, this was a merciful sigh of relief. We did not have to brace for inevitable horror, steel ourselves to go out into the streets to protest, protect our own sense of safety and well-being while others told and re-told stories they didn’t have the right to tell, in service of their own conception of ‘justice’. We just got to think ‘Happy fuck around and find out day.’ I encourage you to read his piece, it’s short but great:

It was confusing to me, in the subsequent days, to see white people posting images of a folding chair. We all know what the chair is, we’ve seen the Black memes, etc. In my mind, this was an example of the necessity of Black witnessing, because if we had started with the ‘local news’ version of this story, we would’ve missed the solidarity, the relief, the humor, the regionality (hearing the accents and turns of phrase in the early videos was meaningful!) and the historical significance that was immediately referenced in the Black public sphere. Instead, we would’ve gotten ‘gosh, they made like the WWE’ and lots of chair jokes. This was no longer ‘chair as symbol of resistance’ as with Cheryl Lee Ralph, but instead ‘chair as reference to chaos and silly internet thing’, and while it wasn’t surprising, it was disheartening.

Having read the Black British writer Renni Eddo-Lodge’s essay (but not the entire book, sadly, though I’ve been meaning to!) entitled ‘Why I am no longer talking to white people about race’, I decided to not engage in the PT about the incident at all, other than to offer objective context. I’ll quote her here: “At best, white people have been taught not to mention that people of colour are “different” in case it offends us. They truly believe that the experiences of their life as a result of their skin colour can and should be universal. I just can’t engage with the bewilderment and the defensiveness as they try to grapple with the fact that not everyone experiences the world in the way that they do. ” It was clear to me that there was a way in which the eagerness to make memes meant a kind of denial of race and the narrative Black folks had clearly established in the aftermath of the ‘Montgomery riverboat uprising’. In a non-serious way, it reminded me of the way white people were more excited to talk about the mysterious identity of ‘Becky with the good hair’ than they were to grapple with the intersectionality of ‘Lemonade’. In a serious way, it reminded me of the psychically harmful way that ‘well-meaning’ white people whispered that maybe if Mike Brown ‘had just complied’ he might not have been murdered.

My point in this whole long damn thing is that the stakes of who is telling the story have always been high, and this incident provided a powerful example of how and why. Please use the space below to reflect on what I’ve said, if you like, or to talk about other events that have effected you and your community that have had a similar kind of shift in discourse. Peace, thanks for reading all this if you made it!🙂

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