#BlackStudy the Past to Find Hope in the Future

Column by
Stephanie Jones

I see the future of Black Studies as a project to celebrate Black language practices, diversity, and history by disrupting normalized cultural hegemony. Within the Black collective consciousness are the emergent strategies[1] that will bring us towards a more inclusive future—if you dare to look in the right place. One such strategy is the use of hashtags. A hashtag is an intersection. This bit of code is a tool for creating safe yet subversive spaces, connecting advocates who are fighting for freedom, cementing a digital footprint that archives our collective actions, and an analytical lens that allows us to deliberately code the multiplicity of Black perspectives.

As intersectional praxis, a hashtag holds the space for those whose intersecting identities requires crossing boundaries and creating common ground in a world where Black people are not afforded the privilege of recognition (Royster, 1996). Those who benefit from white privilege can use their fragility as a weapon to take down #BLM protest posters, close off city streets to protect confederate monuments, and threaten minority movements with violent over-policing, but white fragility cannot stop hashtags. In this current political moment, I believe Black studies is ready to check racist foolishness—both in an overt resistance to assertions of Black value and in covert reactions of surprise amidst such violence. None of this violence and oppression is a surprise to us. We need white people to stop being surprised and start resisting with us. As Jacqueline Jones Royster explains “When the First Voice Your Hear is Not Your Own,” “what I suspect is that this type of surprise rather ‘naturally’ emerges in a society that so obviously has the habit of expecting nothing of value, nothing of consequence, nothing of importance, nothing at all positive from its Others, so that anything is a surprise” (Royster, 1996).

An attention to the complexity of hashtags as an expression of Black freedom within social media is an important place to look if we want to stop spinning our wheels and recognize the work of Black scholars and activists. I am motivated by the same reasons Royster (1996) explored the subject position of her voice in “When the First Voice Your Hear is Not Your Own” where she explores safe spaces that value our voices are even more imperative in the current political moment. As Royster (1996) explained “[w]e speak within systems that we know significantly through our abilities to negotiate noise and to construct within that noise sense and sensibility” (Royster, 1996, p. 38). Black sense and sensibility sees the field from the bottom up.[2] When considering what the future of Black studies is in relation to its place within the field of Rhetoric and Composition, I am drawn to hashtags as sites that archive, produce, and disseminate Black voice that solidifies our identity and place in the field. Reclamation of the authority over our own voices through hashtag technology disrupts the matrix of whiteness and solidifies Black voice into the future. By solidifying spaces within conversations that highlight Black sense and sensibilities, hashtags provide a kind of permanence to otherwise invisible histories. This future, a Black Feminist Afrofuture, builds intersectional collective and organizational histories through acts of digital resistance.  

We are always already in charge of our own stories. Similar to Royster (1996), I call myself a storyteller and find collective meaning in the work of Black women writing speculative fiction because of the need to escape the search for validity in this world by defining my voice in the future. By practicing this kind of radical imagination, we can centralize the activism, art, and authentic voice of our community—through which Black genius emerges from historical and technological hybridity. I see my work as a way to deconstruct how my personhood is a politicized object by disrupting normalized definitions of futurity to engage critical consciousness and imagine methods of social action in the future. Afrofuturist feminism allows us to speak on and talk back to what we are seeing in America that makes us feel helpless or excluded. I define Afrofuturist feminist work as disruptive practice grounded in African American history that unapologetically reclaims the bits of Black history that have been stolen from African American people and create beauty once more. This definition follows Susana M. Morris’ (2012) work, which explains that

Afrofuturist feminism is a reflection of the shared central tenets of Afrofuturism and black feminist thought and reflects a literary tradition in which people of African descent and transgressive, feminist practices born of or from across the Afrodiaspora are key to a progressive future… [and] a critical epistemology that illuminates the working of black speculative fiction in vital ways” (p. 154).

For us, those who practice a Black Feminist Afrofuture and “who, over the course of time and circumstance, have come to dream in English” (Royster, 1996, p. 37), it is necessary to say that all our futures are authentic expressions of invisible histories.

In the Summer of 2019, I was a student of Dr. Royster’s working on a project about archiving and witnessing campus community voices when they are silenced by campus administration. Today, I find myself on a campus fraught with hate crimes that are being erased and silenced in similar ways. One thing that stands out to me is the derogatory mischaracterization of the voices of those who dissent from the administration’s messaging. Hate crimes are old news—an established part of America’s unreconciled past—but antiracist practice and pedagogy are still not central to our responses. What I mean by this is that I am always aware of my proximity to whiteness because I need to in order to survive—it’s a base level instinct. However, I also know that I will never truly be seen by school administration. Black Studies is in that same position within the field of Rhetoric and Composition—we’ve always been doing the work, but does the field recognize this?

Simply put: when is the toxic inability to see Black contributions to the field as anything beyond surprising going to stop? I believe we are seeing a lot of willful ignorance at the same time we see performativity around #BlackLivesMatter. I attempt to trace the threads of these questions by studying the slogans #BlackLivesMatter and “Make America Great Again” as sites of rhetorical movement when defiance is met with hatred. Beyond the radically different movements these phrases represent, most of us have some felt sense of how we should interpret, reject, or embrace each hashtag. Similarly, in Rhetoric and Composition we have an issue of tokenism and performativity around #BlackLivesMatter and “Make America Great Again” as chaotic moments that don’t warrant making substantive lasting change within our departments, conference, and journals. For example, understanding the hashtag for the movement #BlackLivesMatter is always already bound to a place of forced recognition—that in order to ask for help and understanding to move us towards collective change, we must first be seen by our colleagues on our terms. But we, Black studies, Black people, already know reciprocal recognition doesn’t live here—that’s why the #BLM hashtag was created. The hashtag artfully frames injustices against Black people as central to dismantling oppression and makes the slogan a mantra instead of a question. You see the hashtag, and you say it in the voice of the three women who created the movement. #BLM is the intersection of Black identity and American life. Support it or not, understand it or not, it exists, and its digital footprint allows us to see the conversation as it is defined by Black women. Using hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter allows a non-Black scholar to perform recognition and solidarity, but as we continue to learn, that hashtag is not enough. Understanding hashtags as intersectional practice means that within the spaces they make, the tensions between our intersecting identities are also at their most vulnerable to white imagination. If retweets, collective statements, or the sharing of personal stories is motivated by the need to be seen as an ally, then those actions can be just as harsh and uncaring as the erasure caused by a slogan like “Make America Great Again.” That is to say, the one-sided? performative use of #BLM is just as grounded in racist practice as assuming the tone and tenor of someone’s voice to denote intelligence—just like Royster (1996) explained that her voice being heard in Rhetoric and Composition seems to be surprising. Empty gestures of solidarity are therefore not enough—in fact, they are dangerous.  

The Danger of Empty Gestures

On August 12th, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia a group called “Unite the Right,” which consists of alt-right, Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazi members, held a rally to protest the removal of Confederate War statues. To counter the hate speech of these domestic terrorist groups, community and social justice organizers from the Black Lives Matter Movement conducted a peaceful counterprotest. A violent riot ensued, and innocent people were injured and killed. In response to the day’s events, American President Donald Trump made the following statement broadcasted on national television: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides,” as reported by Ayesha Rascoe (2018), an NPR White House correspondent. There is a lot left for the audience to interpret from these words. In the media coverage to follow, the resounding response was centered on the phrase “many sides” and what Trump could have meant by that. Since he refused to answer questions about the phrase, I think some speculation is warranted. In an effort to organize the facts here, we must first understand that the alt-right is clearly a domestic terrorist group, but also that BLM has been called a terrorist group by alt-right supporters on many occasions. Unfortunately, this conflation of what domestic terrorism means is a common tactic used to discredit African American liberation movements. As Angela Davis (2018) explains:  

No white supremacist purveyor of violence has ever, to my knowledge, been labeled a terrorist by the state. Neither the slayers of Emmett Till nor the Ku Klux Klan bombers who extinguished the lives of Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, and Addie Mae Collins before they could emerge from girlhood were ever charged with terrorism or officially referred to as terrorists. But in the 1970s, President Richard Nixon instinctively hurled that label at me… the rhetoric of terrorism—not only, for example, the way in which it has occasioned and justified a global surge in Islamaphobia, and how it has impeded thoughtful reflection on the continued occupation of Palestine, but also how this rhetoric attempts to discredit anti-racist movements in the United States (xiii).

Davis wrote this statement as part of her forward for When They Call You a Terrorist, a book by a co-creator of BLM, Patrisse Khan-Cullors. Davis, with her first-hand experience and considerable research in the area of race relations, makes it clear that our history shows how our government has always had a problem with Black protest. To further explain how Trump could so easily conflate the domestic terrorism of the alt-right with the liberation movement for Black lives, we need only look back to his personal history with fights for Black life. In 1989, after five teenagers were arrested for the rape of a woman in New York’s Central Park, Trump took out a full-page ad in The New York Times calling for their deaths before they were put to trial for the crime. In an interview with cable news host Larry King, Trump expressed his total lack of compassion for the teens and called the country to have more hatred stating: “maybe hate is what we need if we are going to get something done…I have absolutely no compassion” (King, 2016, CNN). The boys, four Black and one Latino, remained wrongfully accused of the crime until 2014. This fact pattern shows that, for Trump, it only takes the power of suggestion to end Black life. Therefore, to hear him say, in 2017, that there are “many sides” when it comes to domestic terrorism very likely could mean: what happened in Charlottesville was bad, but lest we forget Black life does not matter to this administration.

Even though political leaders on both sides of the aisle called for clarification on Trump’s statement, he remained silent. Even when the protesting stopped because of a hate crime, the American people did not hear from the White House what “many sides” meant. Of course, conclusions about what “many sides” may mean can be drawn from the content of Trump’s character. As a Black person who was once accidentally transported into a Trump rally through the social media app SnapChat while looking for Black Lives Matter content, I can say that being there among the crowd—even from the safety of my phone—when Trump calls a crowd to chant “Make America Great Again,” he is still suggesting “we” need more hate. To forget that the content of his character shows his disregard for the humanity of Others is tantamount to abandoning the fight for Black life in this country. “Many sides” means there is always room for more hate, and that the American President wants you to make space for that hate when considering what is right and what is wrong. As an example of the danger of empty gestures, his call for more hate is powerful and people are listening and taking heed. Snapchat transporting me to Trump’s rally because I was interested in content regarding Black Lives Matter protests is another instantiation of the digital as a space where tensions regarding the use of hashtags for recognition of Black life and an agent of change continue to play out. The erasure that happened to my intersecting identities while using that app was possible by conflating the intentions of Black Lives Matter and Make America Great Again as movements that represent our shared humanity—when that could not be farther from the truth.

Beyond Recognition, Beyond Performance, Black Studies Been Here

If our field is moving towards substantive change with how we respond to racism by dismantling white supremacist language practices, as suggested by Asao B. Inoue’s (2019) CCCC’s Chair’s Address, then we need to do much more than locating the problem within individuals. That is to say, we cannot stand civilly on the battlefield; you have to move your body with the intent to save, put that intention into every step, and actively move towards a better tomorrow because that tomorrow is not yet here. To extend the battle metaphor, when you see that a soldier-in-arms has fallen, you cannot only look to heal the wound in an effort to save them, you have to take in the damage in its totality, and then act with the intent of saving their life. To break it down simply: I matter to a great many people, but they would not, could not, and do not have to move for me. Rhetoric and Composition is still very much this way—if you have been forced to acknowledge Black studies, are you then capable of seeing it in its totality?

The knowledge that I carry with me through the darkness, as I learned from Dr. Royster’s piece, is that we do not need white spaces or their recognition. We can make our own. When the administration says no to your dreams, call them up with your history—it has happened before, it is happening now, and it always already exists in the future. To speak and write from a Black perspective is to be amongst a community beyond the white gaze. As racialized writers, our awareness starts with our Blackness because our Blackness is our art, our saving grace, our collective memory. We have defined ourselves in spite of systematic erasure. From the beginning of Black studies at a PWI to what university spaces could look like in the future, we still define ourselves. The question then is not why, when, or how Black studies will belong in the field—but when will the field turn around and recognize that we have always been here?

As Royster (1996) explained: “[a]nalytical lenses include the process, results, and impact of negotiating identity, establishing authority, developing strategies for action, carrying forth intent with a particular type of agency, and being compelled by external factors and internal sensibilities to adjust belief and act” (p. 29). The limits of Standardized English are not our own. AAVE is infinite. You can check it in the work of Gwendolyn Pough, relate to it in the stories persevered by Shirley Wilson Logan, witness it in the work of Rhea Lathan, hear it in the praise songs sung by Elaine Richardson, traverse it in the digital landscapes held down for us by Carmen Kynard, understand how to protect future generations in the classroom from Staci Perryman-Clark, and then find yourself again right where Royster welcomed us all in. With that history at our backs, many of their contemporaries are continuing to do the work. Black language speaks with the radical imagination our ancestors fought and often died for. Words spoken across the aspiration bridge that is our forgotten history are woven together with our Afrofuture. It is a violent attack against my personhood when you hear and willfully manipulate my pleas for help or understanding as a threat. Your misunderstanding wants me dead—be it by a call to the police or a bullet shadowed in the 2nd Amendment. At AAVE’s center I am seen and unseen, but never-the-less beautifully and powerfully made.

White words are weapons.

We can see this in the diametrical opposition of #BLM and the slogan “Make America Great Again.” The privilege of understanding is the foundation in which the phrase “Make America Great Again” exercises its violence on marginalized people. Octavia Butler sketched out the lasting effects of what a political tyrannical dictator whose slogan was “Make America Great Again” might have on America in her Parables series. It is a choice to see the pain of minorities and read it as dissent. The coding for the language of pain is still bound to the white gaze. “Make America Great Again” means it is time to drag America back into its violent past. Impeached President Donald Trump has weaponized his language because he wants his followers to intellectualize internalize that violence and reenact it when considering what is right and what is wrong. But Black studies already knows this. Seeing white violence from the center has put African Americans in the crosshairs of weaponized language since our languages were stolen from us through the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. As Royster (1996) explained, inquiry and discovery into Black studies through writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies has to be deliberate and reciprocal—or true recognition cannot be achieved. That is to say, Black Studies scholars are here, we have always been here doing our work—telling our own stories, and we are not going anywhere. The question is, really, when you gonna recognize?


[1] Author and activist adrienne maree brown defines emergent strategies as fractal, adaptive, and intentional ways of living and being in the world in her book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Brown was inspired to formulate these strategies by reading the work of Octavia Butler. return

[2] Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice from the South. return


brown, adrienne maree. (2017). Emergent strategy: Shaping change, changing worlds. AK Press.

Cooper, Anna J. (1988) A Voice from the South. Oxford University Press.

Davis, Angela. (2018). Foreward. In Patrisse Khan-Cullors & asha bandele’s (Eds.), When they call you a terrorist: A Black Lives Matter memoir, pp. xii–xiv. St. Martin’s Press.

Inoue, Asao B. (14 March 2019) How do we language so people stop killing each other, or what do we do about white language supremacy? [Chair’s address]. Conference on College Composition and Communication, Annual Convention. . Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. https://tinyurl.com/4C19ChairAddress

James, Joy. (2014). Transcending the talented tenth: Black leaders and American intellectuals. Taylor and Francis.

Khan-Cullors, Patrisse, & bandele, asha. (2018). When they call you a terrorist: A Black Lives Matter memoir. St. Martin’s Press.

King, Larry. (7 Oct. 2016). Trump in 1989 Central Park Five interview: ‘Maybe hate Is what we need.’ CNN. www.cnn.com/videos/cnnmoney/2016/10/07/trump-1989-central-park-five-interview-cnnmoney.cnnmoney

Morris, Susana M. (2012). Black girls are from the future: Afrofuturist feminism in Octavia E. Butler’s ‘Fledgling.’ Women Studies Quarterly, 40(3/4), 146–166.

Rascoe, Ayesha. (11 Aug. 2018). A year after Charlottesville, not much has changed for Trump. NPR. www.npr.org/2018/08/11/637665414/a-year-after-charlottesville-not-much-has-changed-for-trump.

Royster, Jacqueline Jones. (1996). When the first voice you hear is not your own. College Composition and Communication, 47(1), 29–40.  

Author Bio

Photo of Stephanie JonesStephanie Jones is a PhD Candidate in Composition and Cultural Rhetoric at Syracuse University. She has a Certificate of Advance Study in Women and Gender Studies. She has been the Assistant Director of TA Education for the Syracuse University Writing Program. Her research interests include Afrofuturist feminisms, Black feminist rhetorical studies, antiracist and growth-mindset pedagogy, and radical race literacies that decodes to recode the multifaceted dimensions of student experiences within writing studies and the African Diaspora.