Black Meme Aria Dean

Legacy Russell traces the history of black representation in mainstream media and its leadup to 2010s black internet.

Black Meme: A History of the Images That Make Us, by Legacy Russell, Verso, 182 pages, $19.95

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You’d have to ask a specific kind of person to cogently explain the black internet of the 2010s and its attendant discourse—a time when not only was there a distinct “black internet,” but when everyone seemed to care about it, when discourse about blackness’s circulation in spheres of exchange old and new was perhaps the culture industry’s drug of choice, or at least the extremely online-millennial-dominated sector’s. In her new book, Black Meme, curator-writer Legacy Russell attempts such an account, offering both an homage to that moment in internet culture, and the many young artists, platform users, and writers who participated in it, and a critical revisitation of those conversations from this side of 2020’s Black Lives Matter interlude. Her project takes the long way to arrive at the present, detailing a popular history of blackness’s circulation in mainstream media over the last century or so in order to theorize the property relations of blackness in the context of a post-digital labor economy and culture industry.

Timing is everything, and Black Meme’s is fortuitous, arriving not too long after 2020’s pivotal reconfigurations of the market’s relationship to blackness—the apotheosis of “blackness as a business model,” as Russell puts it—and not too far into the tectonic shifts that are occurring now for readers to be unfamiliar with the changing landscape. As Russell recounts, while the summer of 2020’s uprisings seemed to hold some promise, gains at the level of policy or material social conditions were quickly outstripped by representational or—in her words—“decorative” ones. Russell does a good job tracing the commodification of black struggle through the literal commodification of the late Breonna Taylor’s likeness (on wallpaper, yard signs, and magazine covers), using online commentary from others and herself as primary source material. As she explains, 2020 introduced a different sort of value circulation. It’s the first time I’ve read a description of this unfortunate thread of 2020’s influence—from “value minus worth,” to borrow Charisse Burden-Stelly’s phrase, toward a mutated form of exploitation that recuperates a blackness previously valuable only for its representation of outsideness and deviance—and it was a relief to read one in print.

That said, Russell primarily looks backward, excavating moments in a pre-internet history of blackness in popular media. Her analysis begins with silent cinema and swiftly tugs us through decades, following technological developments in moving-image broadcast to television, VHS, and finally the internet. At each juncture, she supplies events from the public life of blackness as case studies, such as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video and Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas. It is irksome that Black Meme traces blackness largely through its biggest headlines; part of the beauty and the problem of the history of media is its unruliness, and here it feels rather clean. But ultimately, Russell’s choices work, perhaps because of the mass scale on which these “blue check” events and objects were interacted with. At the very least, we do know that they hugely influenced the American public.

The book is at its best in these moments, when Russell is focused on a historical task, explaining the public’s interactions with blackness in the media, using testimonies as well as facts and figures to sum up the pitiful lack of progress made since silent cinema’s early tangles with blackness—Russell chooses Bert Williams–led Lime Kiln Field Day (1913) and D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) as starting points—through 2020’s “Black Lives Matter” media storm. At every stage in this history, blackness is made “hypervisible” as well as “rendered invisible.” What Russell relays is an already verified and sadly age-old tale: black subjects are reduced to objects, value is appropriated, the real stories are left untold. But she’s at her most compelling when she strives for a sort of technological-determinist, materialist treatment in conveying all this. In her approach to each cultural moment, she suggests that we should examine blackness’s representations as contingent upon modes of circulation. For instance, Russell’s chapter on the “Thriller” video’s distribution as a VHS sketches an argument about the videotape’s creation of “new relations of alienability: it can be endlessly exchanged as property.” “Black material,” she says, could suddenly be “purchas[ed], own[ed], replicat[ed], and transferr[ed],” and therefore brought into the homes of viewers, black and non-black. One wishes that she would stay with this line of thinking. Instead, she falls back on discussing content—in this case, the music video’s depiction of zombies as a representation of “America’s greatest fears,” a “veiled critique of White supremacy,” and as related to both Reagan’s War on Drugs and the incipient HIV/AIDS crisis. This sort of move is repeated throughout—Russell nearly cracking open the gnarly relationships between blackness, property, and technology, only to change course at the last minute and head for the calmer waters of visual analysis.

These kinds of offerings map complicated philosophical issues regarding the semiotic structure of blackness, or the semiotic trouble blackness causes. For example, Russell’s working through of the problem of “becoming a symbol” via Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s protest at the 1968 Olympics and the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas trial result in solid, though jargony, case studies of how hard it is for black public figures and their meanings to stay immanent to themselves. Elsewhere, her discussion of internet-era icons like Trayvon Martin (via the awful meme “Trayvoning”) aptly describes how blackness is “worn as a conceptual skin to achieve the success of the image.” Here, Russell insightfully discusses online success in terms of efficiency, not just cultural or monetary value, positing important new questions about what blackness might do.

But these analyses and other would-be salient ones suffer when Russell maps contemporary language for media-objects—“meme,” “viral,” “data,” and so on—onto events, people, and objects from multiple decades, flattening her comparative analyses and creating false equivalences. “Lynching postcards are reaction GIFs” and “the first Black memes were those transmitted through the Middle Passage.” The Rodney King video is “viral.” The demonstrators who marched from Montgomery to Selma in 1965 are examples of “a pre-internet, media-generated ‘flash mob.’ ”

At the root of the confusion is Russell’s reliance on a definition of “meme” as, in her words, “an abbreviated form of the Greek word mimeme, which means, ‘something imitated.’ This book defines ‘Black meme’ through the notion of ‘transmission,’ quite literally the mediation, copying, and carrying of Blackness itself as a viral agent. . . . buoyed forth by modern media.” This definition is rather loose and abbreviated, and, moreover, its logic is circular. (Russell never defines the virality that is endemic to her definition of the “meme.”) This is not entirely her fault, but the result of the fact that “memes” were not well-defined at the peak of their relationship to blackness and the black internet in the mid-2010s, and their definition has not become any more stable since.

Further, memetic logic is the general condition of our cultural and financial economy at this point. Early on in the book, Russell notes a MoMA curator’s desire for Lime Kiln Field Day to, in his words, “go viral.” Anecdotes like this reveal a troubling paradigm where everyone’s goal is to seed products and ideas as far and wide as possible, even if it means attention is fleeting. Black Meme may lose its focus in the swirl of this—not to mention while tackling one hundred years of blackness on screens—but Russell’s effort is valiant, and a meaningful stake in the ground for further research into the realities of how blackness circulates in spheres of financial and cultural exchange, not just whether it is valued or not when it appears.

Aria Dean is an artist, writer, and filmmaker based in New York City. She has exhibited widely in the US and internationally; recent exhibitions include Figuer Sucia at Greene Naftali, New York; Abattoir, U.S.A! at the Renaissance Society, Chicago; and Quiet as It’s Kept: Whitney Biennial 2022. From 2016 to 2021 she was a curator at Rhizome. Her first book of collected writing is out via Sternberg Press.

Legacy Russell traces the history of black representation in mainstream media and its leadup to 2010s black internet.
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