Legacy Russell’s ‘Black Meme’ Critiques Representations of Black Culture—But Doesn’t Chart a Way Forward

Who gets to profit from the TikTok-famous Renegade Dance? Or the viral catchphrase “on fleek”? When memes are by their very nature hyper-transmitted and endlessly remixed, is there any opportunity to “own” one’s innovations in the online cultural field? The problem of how to compensate digital labor and goods has animated scholars and popular thinkers for more than two decades now. Meanwhile, questions of appropriation as they relate to Black creators and subjects have been part of this discourse for nearly as long—time enough that a reviewer of Lauren Michele Jackson’s 2019 book White Negroes, about Black virality and appropriation, wrote that the topic might already have been “exhausted.” But Legacy Russell, author of the 2020 book Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto as well as executive director and chief curator of the Kitchen art space in New York, believes there is more to be mined, as per her new book, Black Meme: The History of the Images that Make Us.

Russell’s book is not really about the internet, and it’s not really about appropriation. Black Meme is about virality, dispossession, and the complexities of being visible while Black. Russell asks what it is about Blackness that travels so far and wide. And why is it that images and videos of Black people dominate the visual field in such a way that white content creators feint at being Black to promote audience engagement? To answer these questions, Russell constructs a history that spans 19th-century postcards that commemorate lynchings to the first viral GIF.

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Animating each of Russell’s case studies is her multifaceted definition of the “Black meme” as “the mediation, copying, and carrying of Blackness itself as a viral agent” predicated on the “promise of violence” and perpetual performance. The Black meme, she writes, is “as much about the transmission of Blackness as it is about the sight and viewership of Whiteness.” The Black meme shows us “that being seen and consumed does not correlate with being compensated.”

Russell’s Black meme does a lot of work to survey the point at which two major phenomena converge: debates about appropriation and the circulation of images and videos of Black people, often in moments of death or trauma. In Russell’s conception, to be perceived while Black is to be seen in pain, a pain that often acts as a trigger for justice. (She writes about well-known social crises surrounding figures such as Emmett Till, Rodney King, and Philando Castile.) What is agonizing about this is that images of Black pain continue to perform long after their political or social inflection point, in the sense that they continue to circulate and cannot reenter the communities from which they came and become private again.

A grainy video still from footage of police beating a man on the street with a baton.
A still from an amateur video by George Holliday showing Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney King in 1991.

The controversy over Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket (2016) at the 2017 Whitney Biennial is a prime example (and, like nearly all of Russell’s case studies, has been extensively picked over already). Who was Schutz, as a white painter, to claim the image of Till, and to recirculate such a moment of pain and mourning? Referring to the context in which Till’s image was first published in 1955 in Jet, a magazine that had a majority Black readership, Russell writes, “the circulation of Till’s image within a site intended to be engaged for and by Black readers established a radical enclosure of collective intimacy.” But that isn’t necessarily a definitive view. In White Negroes, Jackson argues that, after the white press refused to publish Till’s image, Jet took on the charge “to force America to witness the gruesomeness it had wrought.” In Jackson’s telling, Jet was not an intimate enclosure but a launchpad for intentional virality.

It will always be terrible that suffering has to be put on display to prompt even a modicum of care. So, the question becomes: can images of the kind Russell writes about ever be taken back?

IT IS EVIDENT THAT RUSSELL longs for a controlled space of circulation to emerge within the media ecosystem. Black Meme is most exciting when she suggests paths that might change the way we circulate content, especially in online environments, and analyzes the factors that have led the internet to allow for unbounded transmission. Following the legal scholar K.J. Greene, who wrote extensively on reparations for Black musicians in the context of the illegal downloading mania of the early 2000s, Russell makes the connection between existing legal conceptions of intellectual property law, the public domain, and open-source culture.

A particularly effective example of the threads she weaves together is in her approach to the legal case Lanier v. President & Fellows of Harvard College. In 1850 Swiss zoologist and Harvard professor Louis Agassiz embarked on a research trip to the slave plantations of South Carolina, in search of what he called racially “pure” Africans to support the pseudoscientific theory of polygenism that claims different racial groups do not share common ancestry. Among the enslaved people that Agassiz visited were a man named Renty and his daughter Delia, both of whom Agassiz photographed. Agassiz used the resulting daguerreotypes in his report about polygenism, and they were later transferred to Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology; they were used to decorate brochures and other promotional and educational materials. More than 170 years later, in 2019, Renty’s descendant Tamara Lanier sued Harvard for unlawful possession of the daguerreotypes, claiming they had been taken without consent in the context of enslavement. Her demand was that the photos, thought to be the earliest known photographs of American slaves, be returned to Renty’s surviving family.

A Black woman holding up a photograph of a shirtless Black man of evident early vintage.
Tamara Lanier holds a photograph of Renty Taylor taken in 1850.

In 2021, after a county court granted Harvard’s motion to dismiss Lanier’s claims, she appealed, and the case was brought to the Supreme Court of Massachusetts. As Renty and Delia were subjects and not authors, the court ruled that they had no property interest in the photo that Lanier could inherit. As it now stands, the physical daguerreotypes remain in the hands of Harvard, which has thus far made the images, both in physical and copied manifestations, available to the public.

The Harvard Law Review (HLR) suggested that the aim of the court was to allow the images of Renty and Delia to continue circulating, even as the judges recognized the context of slavery and expressed a wish for redress. As was stated in an HLR essay on the case, “what likely made the court wary to recognize some sort of property interest in Lanier was its fear that privatization of the daguerreotypes will result in lack of public access to all sorts of historical images.” But public access as a standard of fairness is something that Russell pushes back on, writing, “this exercise of ‘collective ownership,’ made possible by Harvard placing Renty and Delia’s images into the public domain, echoes the model of ‘open source’ that doubles down as a tactic of dispossession.”

Some internet history: In the early aughts, open-source movements popularized the norm of making code available for public use, and much of the development of Web 1.0 was credited to the free sharing of important knowledge. At the time, it was easy to position the open-source ethos as inherently radical, such that thinkers could write all moon-eyed about a budding high-tech gift economy founded on free labor, and free content as well. But this belief ignored the fact that preexisting power structures dictate who ultimately gets to profit from what is freely shared.

Greene wrote about this issue in the context of how innovations in music by Black musicians went unprotected and uncompensated while white musicians made financial killings. This was possible because Black musicians created wholly new styles, a category that is not covered by copyright law. In his 2008 legal article “‘Copynorms,’ Black Cultural Production, and the Debate Over African-American Reparations,” Greene wrote, “the work of Black artists was so extensively appropriated as to essentially dedicate Black innovation in cultural production into the public domain.”

A photograph of Michael Jackson surrounded by zombie creatures from the video for "Thriller."
Michael Jackson in the video for “Thriller,” which Russell calls an important turning point in the history of the Black meme.

In Black Meme, Russell applies this thinking beyond cultural production to Blackness in all its viral and visible manifestations. “When we engage Blackness as mythology,” the author writes, “it becomes open-source material, meaning that it can be hacked, circulated, gamified, memed, and reproduced. It is this open-source model that drives what social scientist Kwame Holmes expands on as a form of ‘necrocapitalism’—an extension of political theorist Achille Mbembe’s necropolitics—that makes ‘the value of Black death’ a fungible commodity, worthy of exchange.”

In a country where rights follow property relations, to claim distress without such relations is to be without recourse, grasping at what is “owned” but never recognized. The project of Black scholarship has often been to create a sense of boundedness around Black cultural production such that it might be recognized as something that can be not just compensated but claimed and protected beyond commercial ends. Factor in the internet, and the complexity of the situation soars.

As Russell writes, “To adequately address the economy of unpaid labor triggered by these transmissions on loop necessitates a breaking and remaking of digitality, one predicated on new definitions of authorship. The internet now is the largest institution of visual culture on earth. If this is the case, our very definitions of provenance must be better stipulated and restructured to encompass the study of Black movement and sound as they travel digitally.”

Russell’s plea is powerful, but she more or less stops there, at the point where such work could really begin. Black Meme mentions potential solutions, but mostly in passing. The book references but does not really explain writer Harmony Holiday’s concept of “mimetic emancipation.” And artist Rashaad Newsome’s FUBU (for us, by us) model of viral voguing, meant to renegotiate what Russell describes as “the exposure of queer and Black space as an encrypted third place,” isn’t developed in relation to the idea of the Black meme.

Instead, Russell mentions some of the obstacles to compensation for Black memes, among them the fact that experiences online are valued less than ones offline, even as the potential audience online is far greater. Moreover, certain creators like TikTok dance choreographers argue that they help popularize the music they use, such that these creators are “doubly overlooked” in terms of compensation.

NFTs are dismissed as a potential solution, for they represent “the master’s tools of capitalist monetization in minting their virality.” Because blockchain technologies merely reward attention and are not rooted in “Black, Brown, and queer movement or language,” they merely replicate the existing issue of white creators profiting from Black contributions to the meme pool.

Russell writes that creators of Black memes must “strike, rebel, refuse, mutiny.” She ends the book with powerful commands—“Reparations now! Free the Black meme!”—but these exhortations feel somewhat hollow in the absence of any action that could be connected to such phrases or any new adaptations to the fundamentally unique ways that the internet has changed how we circulate media, the kinds of pain we see, the effects of that pain, and the way we value (or fail to value) cultural production as it exists online. Russell’s contribution is to provide a clear history of how Black performance and pain have consistently molded cultural transmission and hyper-transmission. So yes, “Free the Black meme!” But how?  

Source: artnews.com

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