Cultural Dialogue and Critical Discussion Among Black Women in the Digital Media Age

by Terri Prettyman Bowles

Building upon the legacy carved by a storied vanguard of writers and intellectuals, black female writers and critics today have multimodal platforms for their work, including traditional print publishing outlets, online magazines and websites. Most recently, social media such as Twitter and other digital platforms offer new arenas for robust debate, critique and discussion of topics of interest to black women not regularly broached by mainstream media. The multiplatform media landscape is dominated by Gen X and millennial writers and often draws upon the rhetoric and theories of scholarly work, but is situated within contemporary popular culture and driven by themes of visual aesthetics, identity, culture and activism. Some of the key figures include professors Melissa Harris-Perry and Brittney Cooper and writer Jamilah Lemieux. Prolific scholars such as bell hooks remain vital contributors to digital conversations on feminism. The content is often shaped by the greater visibility of black female cultural figures, their treatment by mainstream media, and responses to the backlash against their success and visibility.

The multimodal platforms originally called “new media,” encompassing blogs, social media, and digital writing outlets, have evolved to become important spaces for journalists, essayists, critics, and social media commenters. In the last several years, content generated within the social media realm, such as Twitter hashtags, has jumpstarted political movements, halted advertising campaigns and sparked debates that alerted broader outlets to news and topics of interest to black women and diverse communities. Inspired by, and existing alongside, the content areas of cinema and television, podcasts, web series and YouTube channels offer new modes for transmitting information, conducting interviews, and presenting creative content. This article will focus mainly on the digital outlets emerging from the print journalism field and social media.

The Black Female Journalism Vanguard and Essence Magazine’s Post-Civil Rights Mediation of Black Womanhood

There is a history of nearly two centuries that includes groundbreaking black female journalists such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Dori Maynard, Mary Church Terrell, Ethel Payne and Mary McLeod Bethune, among others—women who made vital, society-changing contributions to the fields of journalism and publishing and to African Americans’ fight for racial equality.1 Historic black newspapers and periodicals such as The Chicago Defender, the Baltimore Afro-American, the Pittsburgh Courier and the New York Amsterdam News offered African Americans the first opportunities for journalistic writing, editing and publishing.2 Venerated award-winning journalists and authors of the last 50 years, such as Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Gwen Ifill and Isabel Wilkerson, among others, represent the black female face of success in media and journalism. These women broke color and gender barriers and set a standard for excellence in the field, covering topics including the Civil Rights Movement, the Great Migration, and women’s rights, to name a few content areas.

By the post-Civil Rights era, black women writers found greater opportunities for scholarly writing in professional and academic journals, and in popular culture magazines such as Essence, the groundbreaking monthly periodical catering to a black female audience first published in 1970.3 Essence stood apart as a defined space for black women writers to engage in introspective and communal discussion of subjects for which they seldom had a public forum. Essence published fiction, poetry, essays and profiles by renowned and fledgling authors, poets and journalists. Over the years, the magazine has featured the work of an illustrious cohort of black female writers, including Bebe Moore Campbell, Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, Nikki Giovanni, June Jordan, Jill Nelson and Edwidge Danticat.4 In later years, other magazines targeting black women would appear on the landscape, including Heart & Soul and Honey.

Although it is no longer black-owned (it was sold to Time Inc. in 2005)5, and while it no longer typically features long-form reporting, fiction or poetry, Essence remains one of the few print publications devoted to black female–oriented news and grounded in promoting black beauty ideals in a culture that frequently has degraded and excluded black phenotypical traits. Essence has showcased a diversity of African-American beauty aesthetics—its variety of skin tones, hair textures and styles, and body types—and championed black models, who found limited prospects in mainstream fashion magazines, as well as achievers from film and television, music, sports and politics. Cover subjects have included Grace Jones, Beverly Johnson, Iman, Naomi Campbell, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and Serena Williams. Despite the glut of photographic imagery soaking digital platforms and social media, those covers, glossy, full-color celebrations of black beauty and fashion and a counterportrait to cultural mythologies about black female inferiority, remain vital, powerful documents.

Lived black female experiences in the areas of work, family, relationships, motherhood, sexuality, culture and politics, as well as the Black Is Beautiful ethos, were important elements of the content Essence presented. As the magazine evolved, its vision and tone were shaped by a group of bold contributors and editors including Marcia Ann Gillespie and Susan L. Taylor—who came to represent the regal, intellectual and culturally astute Essence woman (woman, in contrast with, perhaps, the Cosmo girl). Yet, while Essence’s content today, particularly on its website, focuses more on topical news and fashion, commentary related to politics and the black community are appearing more regularly on other digital platforms open to multicultural topics.

Struggles of Black Print Outlets, the Shift to Digital and Diversity Challenges in the Newsroom

Compounding, and coinciding with, the popularity and growth of digital platforms is the downturn of traditional print media outlets targeting African American readers. While newspapers in general have experienced an overall decline in both circulation and advertising figures in recent years, according to The Pew Research Center, black outlets—including radio, newspapers, magazines, and television stations—overall have declined dramatically in number and reach.6 Black-interest magazines including Ebony, Essence, Vibe, Emerge, Savoy, Heart & Soul and Honey offered opportunities during the 1990s through the 2000s for black women writers to discuss culture, religion, art, work, politics, feminism, sex, music and cinema. Advertising struggles, and the difficulties of adapting quickly and efficiently in the digital era, have contributed to the demise of many of these titles. The New York Times in 2016 described the challenges the surviving entities face:

Traditional media companies have struggled for years to adapt to a digital world, but the pressure on black-owned media has been even more acute. Many are smaller and lack the financial resources to compete in an increasingly consolidated media landscape. Advertisers have turned away from black-oriented media, owners say, under the belief that they can now reach minorities in other ways.7

Coupled with the narrowing of the field for black print outlets is the stagnation of growth in newsroom numbers overall for journalists of color. In June 2016, Pew also revealed data that indicated a pervasive newsroom racial disparity at the country’s newspapers, and raised the issue of lack of newsroom diversity as a significant problem in promoting fair and balanced coverage of people of color in the news.8 The American Society of News Editors, in its 2016 ASNE Diversity Survey, found that minority journalists comprised 17 percent of the workforce and women about a third in newsrooms surveyed (737 news organizations, including 91 digital-only).9

In response to the need for greater opportunities for black journalists in digital journalism, The Poynter Institute for Media Studies last year partnered with the National Association of Black Journalists to create a program for training black journalists seeking to build careers in digital media.10 Digital outlets for black news and entertainment, including blackamericaweb.com, blackpressusa.com, theroot.com, and the digital versions of black newspapers and smaller-circulation periodicals around the country continue to feature localized coverage of black community news and offer opportunities in publishing to black journalists in a number of markets.

Digital Media Matters: Tech-Savvy Millennials and the New Media Landscape

While the stark realities for traditional print media and newsroom diversity signify one aspect of the current media landscape for African Americans, digital mediums and technology use among black consumers represents another. The Nielson Company, reporting in its October 2016 “Young, Connected and Black” report, showed that black millennials (ages 18-34), about 11.5 million in number, “are using technology and social media to amplify their voices about how they consume information, entertainment and products.”11 The report revealed that this group not only represents a significant user population of digital products, they are “early adopters” of new technologies, spend more time on devices, and consume more digital content in a number of areas than their millennial counterparts of the general population. The report also showed that African Americans ages 35-49 watch video on PCs and smartphones at rates “higher than their total market counterparts.”

Nielson’s report also indicated a narrowing of the digital divide, or lack of access to technology (in the form of mobile Internet access), among black technology consumers and the general population, and high numbers of daily social media use among black millennials:

Fifty-five percent of black millennials say they spend an hour or more daily on social networking sites, which is 11% higher than the total millennial population. Additionally, 29% of black millennials say they spend three or more hours daily on social networking sites, an amount that is 44% higher than that of the total millennial population.12

There may be a complex host of reasons for the high rates of use of digital technologies among black consumers, but a key factor may be the issue of image control. In an interview in the Journal of African Media Studies with photojournalist Peter DiCampo, a founder of Everyday Africa, a project which documents daily life in Africa, Sean Jacobs, a scholar of media and international affairs on the faculty at The New School, described the factors contributing to the importance of Instagram and other social media outlets among Africans, concluding that they are using these technologies effectively to combat “one-dimensional, highly constructed images” of their people.13 Likewise, African Americans may be drawn to digital tools as a means to exercise control over their media images, reshaping hollow, false or racist narratives about what black families, black bodies and everyday black experiences look like.

In exploring the impact of digital tools on young African Americans, Howard University professors Drs. Bishetta D. Merritt and Paula Whatley Matabane in “Media Use, Gender and African American College Attendance: The Cosby Show Effect,” a study published by the Howard Journal of Communications, found data correlating “media consumption and values and behavior of black students (specifically choice of college)” and determined “the importance of assessing the positive effects of digital media consumption on behavior patterns of college-age African Americans, a significant digital media audience.” 14 The effect of media, it would appear, is reciprocal—the users are affected by the platforms and vice versa, a phenomenon seen most currently with digital media.

Twitter is popular across racial categories within the millennial generation—48 percent of black millennials use Twitter versus 46 percent for the total population, according to Nielson. While more surveyed in the Nielson research indicated that they maintain Facebook profiles (84 percent), it is Twitter that has emerged as an especially popular platform for vocalizing political and social views and for making cultural observations that are hatching broader discussion and advancing previously unheard viewpoints in mainstream media. Jenna Wortham, writing for the Smithsonian magazine in September 2016, likewise likened Twitter to a “meeting place,” a virtual community that includes “black intellectuals, academics and satirists” and “everyday folk.”15 Feminista Jones, in Salon, asked in 2013, “Is Twitter the underground railroad of activism?”16 These spaces, especially valuable in a time of political unrest, have galvanized young African Americans—many new to large-scale, grassroots activism—engaged many of them in politics, and awakened them to the might of their voices. Hashtags such as BlackOnCampus (black student experiences on predominantly white college campuses), TakeItDown (the push for the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s grounds), OscarsSoWhite and BlackLivesMatter demonstrate social media’s power as a medium for bringing attention to issues often underreported in the broader media.

Perspectives: Popular Areas of Discussion and Key Voices

The language of scholarly black feminism has pervaded popular digital journalistic platforms and is also routinely employed by bloggers, Tweeters and social media commenters. Intersectionality (“intersecting oppressions,” as described by black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins)17 is a term that has become part of the broader conversation on women’s rights and has been adopted by mainstream feminists, particularly during and after Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign, and by other rights-advocacy groups. Professors Safiya Umoja Noble and Brendesha M. Tynes, editors of The Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, Class, and Culture Online, note that the term—the origins of which might be traced back to 19th-century abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth, and the essential meaning of which has long been advocated by activists such as Angela Y. Davis, they explain18—was coined by Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, a professor of law at UCLA School of Law and Columbia School of Law and a founder and leader in the intellectual movement called Critical Race Theory.19 It is now a “buzzword,” with Vox, USA Today (What is intersectional feminism? A look at the term you may be hearing a lot”), and the Huffington Post among a number of outlets writing about the concept in just the past few months amid the women’s marches and protests following Clinton’s defeat.20

In this vein, black women writers are likewise discussing topics related to intersectionality, agency, hierarchies of beauty, marginalization, feminism, and the fetishism and performance of blackness and black femaleness in the larger culture, as well as topics relevant to racial justice and politics. Digital spaces such as colorlines.com and crunkfeministcollective.com regularly feature topical discussion and sometimes interviews and live conversation between writers and critics such as scholar-author-professors bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry. On thefeministwire.com, multicultural contributors discuss subjects such as social justice and police brutality and emerging feminisms. Perspectives from authors such as Issa Rae, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Roxane Gay, and social science works such as Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America by Melissa Harris-Perry and The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander feed the discussions and introduce writers and scholars to younger generations. The Black Lives Matter movement, led by black women, has seeded a crop of digital activism and, in concert with various other social agendas, has contributed to the development of a number of media platforms for political and activist conversation.

While the range of topics on digital media covers a wide spectrum, few subjects have elicited more debate than Beyoncé and particularly her Lemonade album, which was lauded by music and culture critics as a landmark, revelatory and prismatic view of black female aesthetics and interior lives. In an assessment of Lemonade on bellhooksinstitute.com, hooks gave another perspective, writing in an essay titled “Moving Beyond Pain”:

Even though Beyoncé and her creative collaborators daringly offer multidimensional images of black female life, much of the album stays within a conventional stereotypical framework, where the black woman is always a victim. Although based on the real-life experiences of Beyoncé, Lemonade is a fantasy fictional narrative with Beyoncé starring as the lead character.21

The essay set off a protracted debate about the presentation of black female sexuality, the social responsibilities of black celebrities, and what should or should not be considered feminism. Jamilah Lemieux, a former senior editor at Ebony and currently the VP of News and Men’s Programming for Interactive One, responded in a piece titled “bell hooks and the Sour ‘Lemonade’ Review” on ebony.com:

The writer [hooks] seems to believe that Beyoncé’s self-ID as a feminist means that she is required to speak plainly about ending patriarchy, or offer nothing at all.22

Although the discussions about Lemonade were at times cacophonous, they opened a wider conversation about contemporary feminism and raised awareness among mainstream media of black cultural iconography, such as Julie Dash’s luminous, historical 1991 cinema masterwork, Daughters of the Dust (considered a template for Lemonade’s visual aesthetic and which was reissued post-Lemonade). That Beyoncé’s album also featured a companion syllabus (A Collection of Works Celebrating Black Womanhood) was itself a sign of the growing resonance of the scholarly study of black women’s lives within popular cultural criticism. One of the album’s early and key reviews, penned by Harris-Perry on elle.com, where she is the editor-at-large, highlighted quotes from black students, scholars and professionals expressing what the album means to them. The collective responses speak to Lemonade’s transmedial evocation of memory and history, a feat not often seen in a work of contemporary popular music.22

The most significant demonstration of the collective power of the multimedia platforms employed by black women is evident in the Tweets, blog posts, books, fan sites, and articles, print and digital, associated with former First Lady Michelle Obama. From Twitter to Facebook and magazine profiles to scholarly studies, the full force of black women’s media might (as journalists and writers or as casual social media users working as her unseen supporters) was harvested in service to the cause of presenting the first black FLOTUS in her full humanity—countering racist cartoons and degrading Twitter memes with images and words that highlight the facets of womanhood she embodies that are rarely seen as typical of black women: passionate motherhood, romantic partnership, educational achievement, professional success, vitality, compassion, optimism. This demonstration of media power also has a personal component. In studies published by Carmen Stavrositu of the University of Colorado Springs and S. Shyam Sundar of The Pennsylvania State University, USA & Sungkyunkwan University, Korea, “Does Blogging Empower Women? Exploring the Role of Agency and Community,” the authors showed evidence that blogging provides quantifiable benefits to women:

Through their “publicness,” bloggers’ thoughts and emotions become visible to others and can attract attention, sharing and participation. Witnessing the impact of their self-expression, bloggers may not only experience increased psychological well-being but ultimately a deep sense of empowerment.23 

Conclusion

Today the media modalities available to professional writers and critics as well as anyone with Internet access present both unprecedented opportunity for elevating the creative processes of cultural criticism and journalistic writing and the attendant risks associated with digital media’s culture of the instant response, and its immersive and peer-pressure potentialities. Certainly the ability of digital platforms and social media to rapidly—instantaneously—transmit messages of reaction or response to phenomena and events has changed the way we interact with media and has raised the bar for users’ technological savviness and their capacities to create, process and decode media. One clear drawback to social media is that its instant output can sometimes be rash, insensitive, divisive or reactionary and can inadvertently fan flames of intolerance, judgment or misunderstanding. Yet the value of digital media platforms and social media outlets as critical spaces for discussion, critique and remediation of multicultural and female identities cannot be understated, though these mediums do not negate the ongoing importance, relevance and necessity of traditional news and journalistic platforms. On the contrary, the comprehensive, multimodal media field offers an opportunity for a coalescence of media practices engendered by technological advances and encoded in the structures of traditional journalism and scholarly discourse. Collectively they offer diverse and evolving structures for elevating the contributions of black women in various media and represent a new semiotic framework, with ever-changing methodologies and techniques, for seeing and representing their perspectives and experiences.

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1 National Newspaper Publishers Association, www.nnpa.org.

2 The Network Journal, http://www.tnj.com/lists-resources/black-newspapers-listing.

3 Essence.com.

4 Samuels, Wilfred D., Encyclopedia of African-American Literature, Facts on File / Infobase Learning, 2013.

5 Time Warner Inc., “Time Inc. to Acquire Majority of Essence Communications Partners,” 4 Jan. 2005, http://www.timewarner.com/newsroom/press-releases/2005/01/04/time-inc-to-acquire-majority-of-essence-communications-partners.

6 Vogt, Nancy. “African American News Media: Fact Sheet,” Pew Research Center, journalism.org, 15 June 2016, http://www.journalism.org/2016/06/15/african-american-media-fact-sheet/.

7 Ember, Sydney and Fandos, Nicholas. “Pillars of Black Media, Once Vibrant, Now Fighting for Survival,” NYTimes.com, 2 July 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/03/business/media/black-owned-media-companies-struggle-to-adapt-to-a-digital-world.html.

8 Pew Research, “State of the News Media 2016,” http://www.journalism.org/2016/06/15/newspapers-fact-sheet/.

9 ASNE American Society of News Editors, 2016 Newsroom Diversity Survey, http://asne.org/content.asp?contentid=447.

10 Poynter Institute, “Poynter and National Association of Black Journalists Partner to Develop New Digital Leadership Program,” about.poynter.org, 29 March 2016, http://about.poynter.org/about-us/press-room/poynter-and-national-association-black-journalists-partner-develop-new-digital-l.

11, 12 Nielson, “African-American Millennials Art Tech-Savvy Leaders in Digital Advancement,” nielson.com, 26 Oct. 2016, http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2016/african-american-millennials-are-tech-savvy-leaders-in-digital-advancement.html.

13 Jacobs, Sean. “Instagramming Africa,” Journal of African Media Studies, Vol. 8, No. 1, 2016, pp 91-102.

14 Merritt, Bishetta D. and Whatley Matabane, Paula. “Media Use, Gender and African

American College Attendance: The Cosby Show Effect,” Howard Journal of Communications, Oct.-Dec. 2014, pp 452-471.

15 Wortham, Jenna. “Black Tweets Matter,” Smithsonian.com, Sept. 2016,

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/black-tweets-matter-180960117/.

16 Jones, Feminista. “Is Twitter the Underground Railroad of Activism,” Salon.com, 17 July 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/07/17/how_twitter_fuels_black_activism/.

17 Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought, Routledge, 2000.

18 Tynes, Brendesha M., Umoja Noble, Safiya. The Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, Class and Culture Online (Digital Formations). Peter Lang Inc., International Academic Publishers, 2016.

19 law.ucla.edu, Kimberlé W Crenshaw, Faculty Profile.

20 Dagstagir, Alia E. “What is intersectional feminism? A look at a term you may be hearing a lot,” USA Today, 19 Jan. 2017, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2017/01/19/feminism-intersectionality-racism-sexism-class/96633750/.

21 hooks, bell. “Moving Beyond Pain,” 9 May, 2016, bellhooksinstitute.com.

22 Harris-Perry, Melissa. “A Call and Response with Melissa Harris-Perry: The Pain and the Power of ‘Lemonade,” elle.com, 26 April 2016.

23 Stavrositu, Carmen and Sundar, S. Shyam. “Does Blogging Empower Women? Exploring  the Role of Agency and Community,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication,” 9 July 2012, pp. 369-386.


Terri Prettyman Bowles is a writer, editor and a cofounder of Daughters of Eve Media, which produces film screenings, panel discussions and related content for film festivals. As a journalist, Terri has worked as an editor at The History Channel Magazine, Entertainment Weekly and Vibe, among other publications. Terri holds a degree in journalism from Howard University, where she was a Walter P. Annenberg Scholar and Dow Jones Newspaper Fund Scholar.