DAME talks with the activist-author about Black women’s loyalty to one another, their misrepresentation in media, and the power of online activism.
Feminista Jones was one of my first follows when I joined Twitter. Unapologetically, she offered vocal and consistent advocacy for Black women in clear and practical ways. In her new book, Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World From the Tweets to the Streets, she brings that same fearlessness in uplifting the creative ways that Black women are changing the game on and offline. Despite being frequent targets of online harassment, Black women have been consistent in their innovative use of social media for organizing, teaching, sharing, and just having fun. Before anyone knew how social media would be weaponized in U.S. elections, #YourSlipIsShowing outed fake troll accounts that were posing as women of color. #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen sparked an international conversation regarding the silencing of women of color and White women’s persistent focus on White women. Despite the online abuse she faces from trolls and detractors who scrutinize her every tweet, Jones remains undaunted and continues to stand up for Black girls and women. Reclaiming Our Space is a helpful primer on Black feminism as well as a much-needed history of Black feminist virtual and real-world organizing.
Nyasha Junior: It’s great to finally meet in person. I’ve been following you for a long time. The book is fabulous I really enjoyed it. I recognized a lot of people I follow, and a lot of things resonated with me as a Black woman on social media.
Feminista Jones: Good.
Junior: In the book, you talk about your own growth and development as a thinker as a writer. When did you decide that you wanted to create this in book form?
Jones: (laughs) That’s good I didn’t actually. Rakia Clark came to me from Beacon Press. She’d been following my work for a while and wanted to know if I was interested in writing a book. She asked, “If you were to write a book, what would it be about?” Initially, I said, “I don’t know.” (laughs) And then, I started thinking that I could write about Black feminism.
Junior: The book is written in a really accessible, unvarnished style. Who is your target audience?
Feminista Jones: I wanted it to function outside of the academy as well as within. I wanted it to be accessible to people in the streets. If I had to name three target audiences I would say college students who are really interested in learning about the complexities of feminism; Black women who never got a chance to study feminism; and the naysayers, who think that “Twitter feminism” is this fake, fly-by-night thing. I want the naysayers to read the book and read the history and then be able to see how it is that we are making history. That’s the connection I was trying to make.
Junior: You argue that allies do not exist. What, if anything, can white women do to support Black women?
Jones: White women can support Black women without having to rely on a label that tells the world I’m supporting Black women. I see allies as people who can extract themselves when things get too tough. There’s no part of my identity that I can extract that will make things easier for me. So, I’m in this. Black women—we’re in this. We wake up in this. We go to sleep in this. They have the choice to help or not. And when you call yourself an ally—and this is for any marginalized group—you’re reinforcing the fact that you sit outside of the experience. You want to be supportive, but we need you to get in it more rather than focusing so much on declaring yourself an ally. You don’t have to say anything. It’s kind of like when a guy says, “I’m a good guy.” Why you gotta say it? Just show it. Good people don’t have to announce that they’re good people. They just do good things. And they’re not even looking for people to recognize it. So when I say allies don’t exist, I’m trying to crush this idea that you need a label slapped on you in order to feel connected to a cause. You can feel connected to a cause by just being present and showing up and offering whatever it is that you can offer to further progress. What can White women do? Just be good people. And I guess they have to work out within themselves what it means to be a good person.
Junior: When I say “We all we got,” what does that mean to you?
Jones: That is the truth. (Laughs.) That is the way that I live my life. When I turned 35, I had this realization that the only people I can truly rely on in this world are Black women, even the ones that piss me off. I would trust them in a bar fight over anybody else. And that’s real. We can have as many conversations as we want about it. We can really dig deep into the ways, the reasons why people don’t rise up for Black women, but I don’t care anymore. We are reaching a point where we are going to need to rely on each other. We all we got. We the ones who are going to stand up for each other when we get killed, when we are beaten, when people slander us, when the media portrays us wrong. We are the only ones that really can be relied on 100 percent of the time to show up for us. If you have a problem with me saying that “Black women are all Black women got,” then prove me wrong.
Junior: The title is Reclaiming Our Space. I immediately thought of Representative Maxine Waters and “reclaiming my time.” To me, it means that Black women in particular are defending themselves and refusing to be silenced. For you, who is included in “our” and why is it important to reclaim space?
Jones: Black women are the “our.” And if we were to have a subset it would be Black feminist women or womanist—however they choose to identify. I feel like Black women are waking up. There’s a consciousness that is just sweeping through us, an awakening that’s happening that we are just like “hell no” kind of like Miss Sophia [from Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple]. I think we are in a really important, pivotal moment in Black women’s history right now.
Junior: In the book, you talk about your own exposure to academic feminist thought from an early age. Do you see a divide between academic feminism and feminism of the people in the streets?
Jones: I think the only divide is access. Because I think everything that Black feminists have been saying in the academy came straight from their experiences being in the streets. We definitely are seeing a shift in how we exchange knowledge, and it’s no longer locked in the ivory towers. It is very much in the palm of your hand—literally. I think that we owe a lot to Black women who have been on social media for that. Those of us who have had that academic experience, we have decided to take that knowledge that we have and share it on media. That has made it more accessible to people who never had that chance. I think that that knowledge transfer is radical and transformative. I think that is where we are going with it. That’s why so many of us feel obligated to keep doing it. Because we were able to get that access, and we know that so many others could not. It is almost like a cultural obligation to share what we have learned. Very much like The Color Purple when Nettie went to school and came home and taught Celie how to read. That is exactly what I think Walker was getting at with that particular scene. That we have an obligation—those of us in the academy—to share with those who don’t have access.
Junior: A recent Amnesty International report found that Black women were most often targets of online abuse. Its Troll Patrol found that Black women were 84 percent more likely than White women to experience abusive or problematic tweets. What would you like for others to understand about the experiences of Black women online?
Jones: That it is such a mixed bag. You never know where it’s going to come from. You don’t know if you say something about race it’s going to bring the White supremacists. If you say something about gender it’s going to bring the Black patriarchs. You don’t know if you say something about queer identity and the racists in the queer community come after you. If you talk about feminism, the white women that don’t get it are mad at what you said. Or even just talking about makeup—people who don’t want you to talk about makeup get very upset at you talking about makeup. I don’t know what I could say anymore that won’t face some kind of criticism or attack.
Junior: As you discuss in the book, some Black women have been able to leverage their social media platforms to secure employment and other opportunities. Yet, it is still often the case that other people will take, repackage, and profit from Black women’s labor. For example, even if Black women are commissioned to do freelance work, they are not hired on staff. A recent Women’s Media Center report shows that only 3 percent of journalists are Black women. What do you see as the future of digital media given the changes in the media landscape? And what do you see in the future for Black women in digital spaces?
Jones: I think this pivot to video poses a severe limitation for Black women because people don’t like seeing our faces. One of the things—I touched on it in the book—is how some White followers don’t want to retweet us directly because they don’t want our Black faces showing up on their timeline. Or every time they retweet us they say they lose followers and things like that. When you think of the top social media influencers, the ones that get a quarter of a million dollars a post, they are not Black women. People read our image as negative. They see us as inherently abrasive, inherently attitudinal, and all these things that they feel so threatened by. The darker our skin, the worse it is. The more kinky our hair, the worse it is. The larger we are, the worse it is. My concern is that the ongoing devaluing of Black women will likely have an impact on the story.
You do see a bit of a caricature with these hot-take (cable news) programs. Why are we pushing Black women into these positions of the clap-backs and the smart quips and the sassy kind of responses? Why are Black women now being positioned in opposition to Trump in these ways? There is so much about this that is bothering me. It’s using Black womanhood in exploitative ways in my opinion. I don’t know where that’s going to go, but here’s what I do know is going to happen: Our creative control is increasing. I am putting out this multimedia project in which I am writing, producing, directing, editing… all with my iPhone, iPad, and a Canon camera—that’s it. The ability to create a narrative, to tell a story, to show Black people in different ways, it’s right at your fingertips.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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