#FreeBree: Witnessing Black Artivism Online – Sarah Brophy

June 27, 2015.  It is early morning at the South Carolina State Capitol Building in Columbia, ten days after the horrific murders in Charleston. Mourners are preparing to hold funerals for Tywanza Sanders, Susie Jackson, and Cynthia Graham Hurd, three of the nine churchgoers and community leaders who were fatally gunned down by white supremacist Dylann Roof after they had welcomed him into their prayer meeting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Jarringly, although another of the murdered, pastor and State Senator Clementa C. Pinckney, had lain in state at the Capitol prior to his burial on June 26, the battle flag of the Confederacy remains at full mast, as it has continuously since it was erected in 1962, at the height of the Civil Rights movement. An African American woman, equipped with a safety helmet and harness, ascends 30 feet to unhook the flag, and, as security and maintenance personnel and passersby gather, she recites Psalm 27 and the Lord’s prayer and announces: “You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today!” Her companion, a white man, waits below, negotiating with the authorities, as the climber makes her descent.

The two activists, Brittany (Bree) Newsome and James Ian Tyson, are subsequently arrested, and forty-five minutes later the Confederate flag is hoisted high again.

What kind of cultural artefact or event is this? What legacies does it bequeath? That Newsome and Tyson were charged with defacing a public monument clearly places their action in the category of a direct action protest. At the same time, as visual communication scholar Colette Gaiter has noted, Newsome’s flagpole climb demands consideration as “a work of performance art” because “even though it happened in real life and in real time, it acted as a metaphor for the dismantling of institutionalized racism.” My contention is that, since Newsome’s flagpole climb was distributed simultaneously across multiple media platforms and leveraged the interactive, collaborative dynamics of Web 2.0, attending more closely to the event’s multimodality is necessary in order to elucidate its fierce (and ultimately more than metaphorical) contending with anti-blackness in digital mediascapes,

Taking a cue from the timing of the event, enacted as it was alongside the funerals for the Charleston dead, my interpretation of Newsome’s multimodal artivism pivots on Christina Sharpe’s transformative 2016 book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being.  Sharpe, in interweaving a personal account of grieving the untimely deaths of her kinfolk with a history of the Black Atlantic and ongoing anti-blackness and white supremacy in the U.S., Haiti, and the Mediterranean, understands herself, her family and community, indeed, all post-slavery subjects, as living “in the wake.” The wake is imagined by Sharpe in three registers: first, it is the aftermath of slavery, symbolized in the traces and motions left behind as a ship travels through water; second, it is the act of gathering to mourn and celebrate the dead; and, third, it is a coming to consciousness (3-5). Media accounts of “quotidian catastrophic events” reproduce, Sharpe argues, “the orthography of the wake”: online images and narratives of death, dehumanization, containment, and regulation that perpetuate the anti-blackness and white supremacy of the slave trade and the plantation economy in the present (20).

What does “wake work”—defined by Sharpe as the ongoing labour of kinkeeping, of care, and of critical consciousness—look like, feel like on social media? Is it even possible?  Brendesha Tynes, Joshua Schuschke, and Saifya Umoja Noble maintain that while “social media is not the movement [for Black Lives] itself,” “it certainly amplifies and clarifies the work of organizers and offers a means for disrupting silences and erasures” (37), and Leigh Gilmore links Newsome’s action to the “testimonial form” of Black feminist witness that circulates via #BlackLivesMatter” (167-8). But, Sharpe is sobering and insistent in reminding us that “disasters arrive by way of the rapid, deliberate, repetitive, and wide circulation on television and social media of Black social material and psychic death. This orthography makes domination in/visible and not/visceral […] it registers and produces the conventions of antiblackness in the present and the future” (21). Consider that a 7-day matching image search on Google of a TV footage still of Newsome’s climb yields over 600,000 hits, and a non-date delimited search results in the billions. My point is that the iconography of Newsome’s climb coexists and contends online with circulations of the Confederate flag to insist on white supremacy and hate, or in its routine reproduction in the hats, bumper stickers, and bikinis on offer in the tourism and heritage industries. The perpetrator of the terrorist assault on “Mother Emanuel,” an historic site of community refuge, organizing, and resistance, Dylann Roof, a young white man from an affluent background, had used his social media accounts to affiliate himself, repeatedly, to the Confederate flag as an icon of hate (Robles). This is the “orthography of the wake” in a guise at once banal and blatant, with the August 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville an especially glaring but far from insolated or surprising reiteration.

Yet, if “wakes are processes,” as Sharpe emphasizes, then might social media facilitate new forms of “resistance to that imposition of non/being” even as it also reproduces dehumanization (21)?  If caring responses to “the iconic power of the mourned black body” (Gilmore 164) are far from guaranteed, as Sharpe warns—the circulation of these images always at risk of repeating patterns of dehumanization— then how might “wake work” proceed otherwise?  Multimodality and interactivity hold some promise here: Newsome’s viral online self-iconization has generated (and actively removed or withheld) images and sounds that show how it may be possible to steer around the reinforcement of anti-blackness, the unmooring of the dead from relations of care and kin, that Sharpe teaches us to worry about.

“Wake work” is conducted, argues Sharpe, through three particular visual and sonic rhetorics that intervene the prevailing “climate” of antiblackness and white supremacy: Black “redaction,” “annotation,” and “aspiration.” I read the removal of the flag by Newsome as a gesture of “Black redaction,” whereby historical amnesia is countered by a conspicuous act of deletion that draws attention to the ongoingness of resistance, consciousness, and survival (117). A tweet by Ferguson Action inviting viewers to dwell on the remarkable fact of the flag’s absence from the site underscores the spiritual and affective power of this simultaneously off and online removal tactic, investing it with the potential to reverberate beyond its limited interval.

While I refer to “Newsome’s project” by way of a shorthand for this untitled work, in her June 29 public written statement, Newsome herself emphasizes the collective planning as well as the practice that the climb entailed, but, in another tactical omission, withholds the names of those members of the activist group (Newsome; cf. “Extended”). Annotation is evident in the statement itself, which extends and resignifies the performance, amplifying Newsome’s “I” in the process of conveying the story of her spiritual and political crisis after Charleston, her “history” and “heritage,” and the story of her politicization since 2013 in the context of the Moral Mondays protests in North Carolina against voter suppression and the larger context of the Movement for Black Lives. Finally, aspiration, that form of “wake work” that involves “keeping breath in the Black Body” (109), Sharpe’s third and perhaps most crucial term, is not only metaphorized by Newsome through the visible action of climbing, but given a sonic register by her breathy recitations, and by her subsequent declaration, in her published statement: “I did it because I am free” (Newsome).

To Sharpe’s critical modalities of Black redaction, annotation, and aspiration, let me add a fourth dynamic to the discussion: that of a call and response, or relay. Reworking Gilmore’s observation that the material “density” of “testimonial reference” in #BlackLivesMatter is what “propel[s] these references forward,” I borrow the idea of the “witnessing relay” from Ross Chambers’s work on HIV/AIDS cultural production, including diary, film, and video. Chambers offers that “[w]itnessing, as the desire to send the message forward—an act of mediation—motivates the story of survival, but mourning’s sense of belatedness require[s] the response to become an act of relay in its turn” (126-7). Mediated testimony, Chambers thus reminds us, is fundamentally kinetic, demanding a response on the part of receivers; its belated and incomplete condition in turn calls forth new acts of circulation.

The relay dynamic built into Newsome’s removal of the Confederate flag from the SC Capitol encompass both on and offline interactions. In her statement, Newsome, a filmmaker, musician, activist, social media director for her local chapter of NAACP, situates the violent disaster of the shootings as demanding of her a response, in conversation with her community: “The day after the massacre I was asked what the next step was and I said I didn’t know. We’ve been here before and here we are again: black people slain simply for being black; an attack on the black church as a place of spiritual refuge and community organization.” Out of this space of feeling called to respond, but not knowing how to do so, an action is precipitated and planned. We can, then, see Newsome’s climb and descent, her handing of the flag to Tyson, their joint surrender to the police as real life actions coordinated for maximum, distributed mediation, a set of actions that in effect hacked the gathered cameras to broadcast the news of the climb and their arrest across multiple analogue and digital channels. Understanding the climb as relay, we can see how it puts into motion what Simone Browne theorizes as “dark sousveillance,” an evasion and repurposing of those surveillance technologies to police racialized bodies, so that the individual and the community can “look back” at the state that watches them (21). In quick succession, as the footage began to go viral, prominent social media accounts started taking up the cause. 7000 tweets were posted within a 24-hour period, with Newsome’s follower count rising from 2, 000 to 44, 500 over the course of the day as a tweet by @tamantha_5 noted.  At 7:32 am, celebrated film director Ava Duvernay tweeted “I hope I get the call to direct the motion picture about a black superhero I admire. Her name is @BreeNewsome.”1

Duvernay used her tweet to magnify the significance of Newsome’s act, aligning it with the time and sacrifices of Martin Luther King, Jr. after the Birmingham church bombing, and with radicalism of the Black Panthers a decade later, as well as with the futurity of Duvernay’s much anticipated film about the movement. Subsequent posts by prominent Civil Rights and left-progressive luminaries such as Jesse Jackson, Michael Moore, and Jesse Williams amplified the effect of Duvernay’s post, moving the image of the event into a broader range of political and cultural networks.

The imbrication of the “I” and the “we” in Newsome’s multimodal act of witnessing is encapsulated, visually, in the layout of the artist’s profile pages on both Instagram and Twitter. Her Instagram homepage features a photo of the flagpole climb as her profile picture, where it sits in relation to a set of images primarily of community events and speeches. This mode of micro-celebrity repurposes Instagram’s dominant aesthetic of glamourous self-promotion (Marwick 141). On Twitter, a still photo of the climb is flown as the header, a kind of virtual counteraction of the removed and replaced flag itself, one in which the Confederate flag is reduced in size and Newsome and her field of action are, in effect, scaled up.

The interpretation and memory of the event (and indeed the archive itself) competes, more and more over time, with a lot of digital noise: e.g. her labelling by other Twitter users a “criminal” and a “cultural Marxist,” an imposter account created, the trending tag #freebree getting picked up for publicity purposes by users seeking commercial exposure for products. But in curating her home pages Newsome stakes her personal claim as a Black woman activist and artist to be counted as the event’s key actant and self-authoring subject, and as one with an ongoing relationship to the larger political project of the critical Black redaction that was the climb.

A larger-scale intersubjective and collective register inheres in the fact that Newsome’s performance has inspired a host of fan art, fan edits, and memes, as is well documented in the archive assembled by Black feminist blogger Franchesca Ramsay for Upworthy on June 29. This outpouring of digital folk art can be considered another expression of “wake work.” Graphic renderings of the climb name Newsome’s act as historic and layer it with embodied affects and points of view, lovingly tracing the details of her long dreadlocks in a sepia-toned image, or showing her in dramatic black and white, precariously poised above the menace of waiting police

Graphic illustration by Quinn McGowan (with permission of the artist)

These fan drawings depict Newsome’s scaling of the flagpole from multiple points of view that both iconize and humanize her, creating a dispersed, popular online manifestation of a modality of history writing that Pramod Nayar has described as “radical graphics” (147). Digital visual compositions by fans are built out of existing images and annotated with quotations from Newsome herself and other historic figures, as in the pairing of Newsome’s descent with a 1970s image and quote from Black radical icon, Angela Y. Davis, voicing the (here, transhistorical) imperative to enact change.

Gifs, in turn, remind us of the arduous, patient labour exerted by Newsome, and the miraculous and possible repeatability of her action of “tearing hate from the sky,” as she has titled her post-climb speaking engagements.

Black media studies scholar Laur M. Jackson has identified a logic of “openings” at work in memes, noting that, “in their survival [memes] latch onto Black cultural modes of improvisation to move through space and subsist in an ultra-competitive visual-verbal environment.”2 Fan art and edits, gifs, and memes of Newsome thus come into view as a form of aspiration, in Sharpe’s sense of collectively “keeping breath,” life, and autonomy in the Black body (109).

February 22, 2017. Evening. In the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s inauguration as President and the installation of white nationalist sympathizers in key federal cabinet posts, in the same month, January, that saw Roof convicted and sentenced for multiple hate crime and murder felonies (Cobb). Bree Newsome is scheduled to give a speech at the College of Charleston, and the Secessionist Party of South Carolina has arrived to protest, waving the Confederate battle flag aloft.  Black Lives Matter activist Muhiyidan d’Baha runs in front of the several TV cameras at the site and through the caution tape that’s been put up around the white nationalist demonstrators, seizing the flag and bringing it to the ground (Yee). Like Newsome and Tyson, d’Baha is arrested and promptly released on bail through crowdsourced funds. The memes once again multiply, the relay continues, this time traversing lines of gender and of religion. On d’Baha’s Twitter page, these elements are archived and become constitutive, embedded components of his online self-representation, through a pinned video clip of what he terms his “leap of faith” and a profile picture consisting of a graphic artist’s rendering of d’Baha’s downward plunge, with the removed Confederate flag, through the caution tape. Through the choreographed and self-curatorial online work of Newsome and of her emulators, the repeated image of the flag’s redaction becomes a critical force of resistance and survival, one that unites social media, direct action, and performance art, the individual and the collective, against the “orthography of the wake” (Sharpe 21), in the name of justice.

Acknowledgements:

Thank you to Paige Maylott for astute research assistance, to S. Trimble for incisive edits, and to my co-panelists and audience at the International Auto/Biography Association Symposium “Lives Outside the Lines” Symposium for helpful feedback on work in progress.

Notes

1. Social media users and critical commentators alike have emphasized the larger-than life, self-mythologizing stance adopted by Newsome. As Gaiter pithily notes, the “Superwoman-styled action added a collective exclamation point to the demands to remove the Confederate flag, while tapping into the deeply rooted American mythology of individual heroism.”

2. For a wider range of Black critical thinking about the expansive, critical, and contestatory work of memes, past and present, see also essays by Alondra Nelson and by Aria Dean.

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Sarah Brophy is Professor in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada. She is the author of Witnessing AIDS: Writing, Testimony, and the Work of Mourning, co-editor with Janice Hladki of Embodied Politics in Visual Autobiography, and contributor to journals such as PMLA, Literature and Medicine, Contemporary Women’s Writing, Interventions: Journal of Postcolonial Studies, and Cultural Critique (forthcoming). Her current SSHRC-funded research examines the convergence of visual self-portraiture, installation art, digital labour, and activism.

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