Redrafting African American History through Social Media

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 led many citizens to believe the United States had entered a post-racial society in which African Americans were no longer subject to white prejudice and discrimination. Yet the recent deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner confirm the persistence of unbridled racism in contemporary America. These unpunished abuses of power summon the image of Radio Raheem being choked to death in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and the memory of fourteen year-old Emmett Till, whose body was mutilated with barbed wire and thrown into the Tallahatchie River along with a seventy-pound cotton gin fan.

The crimes committed against these individuals are among the most visceral manifestations of racism imaginable. Although well intentioned, the hailing of a post-racial America demonstrates that whites in the United States are still incapable of perceiving and thus, denouncing the daily discrimination that African Americans endure on a daily basis. This is especially true for milder, though equally disturbing, forms of racism. High schools across the country, for instance, continue to utilize textbooks that underreport and whitewash the historical role of African Americans. The worst offenders are often privatized Christian schools in southern states. In Louisiana, in particular, some charter schools rely on Bob Jones University Press textbooks to teach the history of racial politics. Students are tested on their ability to assimilate the following information:

 Few slaveholders were undeniably cruel. Examples of slaves beaten to death were not common…the majority of slaveholders treated their slaves well.

The [Ku Klux] Klan in some areas of the country tried to be a means of reform, fighting the decline in morality and using the symbol of the cross. The Klan’s targets were bootleggers, wife-beaters, and immoral movies. In some communities it achieved a certain respectability as it worked with politicians.

Despite the racist motive of such textbooks, America’s public curriculum is arguably the worst offender in preserving black history. Most Americans, for instance, are familiar with the horrors of slavery and the KKK and would publicly condemn the textbooks being used in Louisiana’s private Christian schools. That is unsurprising given that most Americans attended schools that sought to communicate an unbiased interpretation of history. Public schools and, as a result, the masses are powerless, however, in policing accurate historicism if something was omitted from the historical narrative altogether.

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Throughout history, white supremacists have made a conscious effort to remove the achievements and efforts of black leaders from the national consciousness in an effort to both dismiss the African Americans of that time and to dictate how historical events were retold to subsequent generations. As a result, many African Americans were never honored for their actions. This form of whitewashing, then, has a far greater potential for disempowering minorities than the blatant distorting of common knowledge events. Today, most well educated people would argue, for instance, that Abraham Lincoln, and his mostly white Union Army, was largely responsible for abolishing slavery in the United States. In reality, however, blacks living along the Eastern seaboard participated in a series of “Gullah Wars” for over a century that helped precipitate the abolishment of slavery:

One such Gullah War occurred in Florida during the 1830’s and was led by an extraordinary group of black men named Abraham, John Caesar, and John Horse. Yet rather than acknowledge the true nature of the event, the conflict was termed the Second Seminole War. Most newspapers from that time attempted to portray the conflict as a Native American war due a very rational fear of inspiring widespread, regional slave unrest. In addition, by minimizing the participation of plantation slaves, and instead claiming that Indians kidnapped runaways, white plantation owners could seek restitution from the U.S. government for war damages. The war ultimately involved more than three hundred slaves and nearly a thousand Black Indians.

It is difficult to believe that an event as important as the Florida Gullah War is still not being taught in American schools today. It is equally difficult to assign blame to any modern entity centuries after African Americans were deliberately removed from the historical record. On one hand, for instance, the U.S. Department of Education is absolved from any blame associated with the discriminatory processes that whitewashed American history because it was not created until 1979. On the other hand, however, the public must now hold the department accountable for revising the inherited version of events.

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Social media is quickly becoming the preferred means of expressing discontent with the current curriculum. In some cases, social media is replacing the regulatory role of the U.S. Department of Education altogether and inserting itself as the primary repository of African American history. Applications like YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram, in particular, are now being utilized to disseminate vast quantities of information to the wider public. Given the increasingly growing presence of African Americans on these social media applications, the strategy could potentially alter popular perception of blacks in U.S. history. Online community forums, though far less prominent, are also striving to accomplish the same goal.

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With its constant activism in revising African American history and policing modern attempts to distort the role of blacks, the Twitter account @BlackCognizance merits individual analysis. Founded in November 2011 with the tagline “Once you have been awakened from mental slavery, it’s hard to go back to sleep,” the account now has nearly eight thousand tweets and over sixteen thousand followers. Moreover, its creators are also responsible for the Instagram account BlackHistory, which has nearly twenty-five thousand followers. Both accounts seek to demonstrate that “there is more to [black] history than Egypt and slavery.” The Twitter account also provides African American users with a platform to voice educational injustices—facilitating a grassroots cultural renaissance.

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A recent trending topic on the account focused on boycotting the upcoming film “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” which features an almost all-white cast. Director Ridley Scott, for instance, chose to portray Moses and Rhamses with actors Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton. Twitter followers such as @Dr_Asrat, featured above, and @Sharifkadir protested, “Hollywood could have easily funded Afar people who closely resembled Egyptians to star in Exodus #BoycottExodusMovie.” As a result, other, more traditional outlets, such as ThinkProgress, which carry millions of daily viewers, have joined the movement online. Likewise, Sojourners, a progressive monthly publication of Christian social justice, has decried the film for whitewashing Middle Eastern and African history:

When retelling a Biblical story, the effects of whitewashing are amplified. In the case of the movies Noah and Exodus, whitewashing continues a well-established practice of white sacralization through religious indoctrination. Throughout the history of European imperialism and colonialism this type of indoctrination was present. Depictions of white only Biblical figures (including prophets, angels, Jesus, etc.) were intentionally used to subconsciously indoctrinate the false belief of white divinity (and therefore superiority) upon the minds of the oppressed and conquered.

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The amplifying power of social media in revising the historical record, as illustrated in the case of #BoycottExodusMovie, must not be understated. Yet, unsurprisingly, academic research on the topic is almost nonexistent. In order to determine the effectiveness of social media in disseminating minority-based history in the United States, I designed a survey study that was conducted on five college campuses around the country. The survey was distributed through former high school friends who are now attending school at each location.

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At each school, the survey study was designed to target members of different backgrounds in order to capture the diversity found on social media. At the same time, however, the survey controlled for self-selection bias through an online randomization process. In order to do this, my friends obtained a student roster at each school through their class year’s Facebook page. A computer program selected fifteen names at random which my friends later emailed me. I subsequently messaged each individual through Facebook and asked him or her if they would be willing to participate in the study. If not, the randomization process was once again conducted in order to arrive at a total fifteen willing participants per school. The schools were also chosen based on geographic location in order to control for regional variations in the data.

The use of Facebook in the survey study ensured that I could easily contact potential participants and that I was reaching people who were actively engaged with social media. Out of the seventy-five college students surveyed, for instance, more than 80% reported an online presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The inclusion of different cultural backgrounds, moreover, allowed the study to create benchmarks with which to compare black educational social media accounts. The study was able to gauge, for instance, whether black accounts like @BlackCognizance were truly the most engaged with revisionist historicism or whether this was simply an illusion caused through the overrepresentation of African Americans on Twitter.

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In attempting to conduct the study, I was particularly worried that the tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner would skew the results to show a temporary anomaly in the amount of people following black social media accounts, such as @YesWeRise. After speaking to African American participants in the study, however, I realized this fear was unfounded. Once people start following these accounts, they explained to me, they generally become long-term users. The study, therefore, represents accurate demographic trends despite a turbulent sociopolitical atmosphere. Below, I have included the racial breakdown of the students who participated in the survey by school:

In the Southeast region, I surveyed 4 African Americans, 5 Hispanics, and 6 Caucasians at the University of Miami.

In the Southwest region, I surveyed 4 African Americans, 2 Hispanics, and 9 Caucasians at the University of Texas.

In the West region, I surveyed 5 African Americans, 6 Hispanics, and 4 Caucasians at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In the Midwest region, I surveyed 5 African Americans, 4 Hispanics, and 6 Caucasians at the University of Michigan.

In the Northwest region, I surveyed 7 African Americans, 1 Hispanic, and 7 Caucasians at the University of Oregon.

In total, I surveyed 25 African Americans, 18 Hispanics, and 32 Caucasians across the country—for a total of 75 students. The presence of Caucasians, which make up nearly half of the data set, may initially seem contrary to the aims of the study. In reality, however, the population breakdown of the survey follows that of the larger student population at each of the schools in the study—a welcomed byproduct of eliminating self-selection bias. Additionally, the presence of white students enabled the study to gauge the penetration of minority-based social media accounts in the larger population, outside African American and Hispanic communities.

Among African American students, nearly 65% reported following some form of black history on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. Within that group 80% reported Twitter as their primary source of historical information. On the other hand, only 40% of Hispanic students reported some form of engagement with Latino history on social media. Again, Twitter dominated the competition—claiming 75% of all Hispanics who actively sought to read such information online.

Within the white surveyed population, less than 20% of students reported following any form of social media associated with American history. Within that group of students, half said they followed minority-based cultural accounts in order to obtain a more expansive version of historical events. Within the group of students who were not associated with historical social media accounts, only one was able to name an African American or Hispanic focused Twitter or Instagram account.

Within the 35% of African Americans and 60% of Hispanics who claimed to not follow any forms of minority-based social media accounts, an overwhelming proportion (80% of African Americans and 75% of Hispanics) claimed they had never heard of accounts like @BlackCognizance or @LatinoHistory, but planned on following them as a result of the survey.

I also showed all non-participating students a wide variety of tweets in order to better understand why some accounts were more successful than others in drawing in new members. Students were not necessarily attracted to the most radical retellings of history. Instead, they were interested in reading novel accounts grounded in fact. This is unsurprising because the second-most cited reason for not following these accounts in the first place was an inherent distrust for information found on the Internet. Below, I have listed the three most popular tweets in order. Whether through an image or link, all three tweets provide users with varying degrees of authenticity:

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In the case of the third tweet, for instance, users are redirected to an educational segment featuring Rick Steves, a well-respected American author and television personality. The video segment informs users:

The story of Granada is all about the Islamic Moors. In the year 711, these North African Muslims crossed the straits of Gilbratar and quickly conquered the entire Iberian Peninsula. For over 700 years, Spain was a predominantly Muslim society living under Muslim rule. For two centuries, until 1492, Alhambra reigned as the capital of Grenada. While the rest of Europe slumbered through much of the Middle Ages, the Moorish civilization was wide awake. The math necessary to construct this palace would have dazzled Europeans at that age. The Moors made great gains in engineering, medicine, and even classical Greek studies. In fact, some of the great thinking of Ancient Greece had been forgotten by Europe but was absorbed into Africa and actually given back to Europe via scholars here in Spain.

These Twitter accounts thus provide an authentic and verifiable version of events that is rarely if ever portrayed from an Afro-centric point of view in classrooms. The survey revealed that this process of investigative, multimedia learning is not only highly informative, but something that college students enjoy doing in their free time. The engaging presentation of information, moreover, helps explain why African American accounts are more popular than their Hispanic counterparts, which for the most part tend to only include static text.

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In addition, the survey revealed that despite the overall popularity of African American accounts, the people utilizing them as educational instruments are also overwhelming black. In other words the burden of revising whitewashed American textbooks is disproportionally falling on the blacks that are producing and consuming this type of revisionist work. One caveat, however, concerns my inability to incorporate Native American online accounts and students into the study—something that may or may not displace African Americans as the distinguished leader of this online movement.

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In order for this movement to succeed, however, the public must, as mentioned earlier, hold American institutions accountable for what is being taught in public schools. At a certain point, the online community must transition from an information gathering entity to a politically active constituency, willing to exert pressure on the government. My interest in this topic stems from my own research on the Gullah Wars, which I am writing about in a thesis entitled “Restless Liberty: Territorial East Florida’s Maroon Haven and the Largest Slave Rebellion in US History, 1835-1836.” As I read through military documents detailing the lives of slaves in Florida throughout the antebellum period, I grew increasingly frustrated that few people outside of Harvard would learn about this crucial part of African American history. Consequently, I decided to reach out to one of the curators at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is set to open next year. I talked about what I was researching and how I hoped to someday turn it into a book. In the meantime, I explained that there were certain things the museum could incorporate into their exhibits to rectify historical inaccuracies. Among other things, I explained that the Underground Railroad flowed not only to the northern border of the United States with Canada, but also to the south where slaves were able escape to the Bahamas via Florida.

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Six months later, the Smithsonian Museum posted the following message alongside the photo included above:

The Underground Railroad, the secret system that ferried thousands of enslaved people from bondage to freedom, had stops in cities across a wide expanse of our country – and some of the “stations” were in places that were not in a direct line from a slave state to a free one.

“While primary attention is given to the drama of slave escapes to the free states of the North and to Canada, there was also a flow of runaways into Spanish Florida and into Spanish Mexico and the subsequent Mexican Republic,” notes the National Park Service.

Whatever path an enslaved person took for their escape – wagons, boats, river crossings – they often found their way to hiding places within private homes, churches and barns. Helping them along were abolitionists, including free blacks and others sympathetic to their plight who risked fines and imprisonment for aiding them.

Look for upcoming posts about cities such as Atlanta, Cincinnati and New York – all known for their efforts to help enslaved persons become free men and women. Check out this link to see various routes of the Underground Railroad: http://1.usa.gov/1y4FCM4

This is only one small example of how an individual can exert pressure on a larger institution to help reunite people with their ancestors’ pasts. Going forward, I have maintained my relationship with the Smithsonian and hope to establish a temporary exhibit demonstrating the importance of the Gullah Wars in precipitating the abolishment of the domestic slave trade in the United States. I am confident that in the future other individuals will demand a redrafting of African American history too. I would not be surprised to see social media play a crucial role in that effort.

Works Cited

“#BoycottExodusMovie.” Twitter. Dr_Asrat. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. https://twitter.com/Dr_Asrat/status/541711660134985728

“BlackCognizance.” Twitter. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. https://twitter.com/blackcognizance

“BlackHistory.” Instagram. Web. 20 Oct. 2014. http://instagram.com/blackhistory

“Black History: John Horse And The Black Seminoles.” YouTube. Web. 20 Oct. 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TT2TthezYU

Brock, Andre. “From the Blackhand Side: Twitter as a Cultural Conversation.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media: 529-49. Print.

“Crushing White Supremacy (Part 3: The Gullah Wars).” YouTube. Web. 20 Oct. 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XoNTDABXBxU

Dawson, Michael C., and Lawrence D. Bobo. 2009. One year later and the myth of a post-racial society. Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 6(2): 247–249.

“Do The Right Thing: Radio Raheem’s Death.” YouTube. Phillip Branch. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGM5x1qQUOI

Ho, Pauline. “Twitter Post.” Twitter. Web. 20 Oct. 2014. https://twitter.com/paulineptho/status/523667354207932416

“King Henry VII and WWI.” Twitter. BlackPresence. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. https://twitter.com/blackpresence

“Largest Slave Rebellion.” Cocoa Lounge. 13 May 2013. Web. http://www.cocoalounge.org/viewthread.php?tid=61299&page=2

McLean, Nick. “Black Men and Depression, Part 2: PTSD.” Yes, We Rise. BlogSpot. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. http://yeswerise.blogspot.com/

Potter, Woodburne. The War in Florida. 1836. Reprint, Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1966.

“Ridley Scott on Exodus.” PageSay. ScreenRant. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. http://pagesay.com/ridley-scott-says-exodus-gods-and-kings-is-his-biggest-epic-yet/

“Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.” The Underground Railroad. Google. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. https://plus.google.com/u/0/116010930245123207334/posts

“Teaching African History.” Twitter. Racialicious. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. https://twitter.com/racialicious/status/540525431892750337

“The Alhambra.” Black History Heroes. Twitter. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. https://twitter.com/historyheroes

“The Murder of Emmett Till.” The American Experience. PBS. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/till/

United States History: Heritage of Freedom, 2nd ed., A Beka Book, 1996

United States History for Christian Schools, 3rd ed., Bob Jones University Press, 2001

“United States History For Christian Schools.” Amazon. Web. http://www.amazon.com/United-States-History-Christian-Schools/dp/1591664241

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