The Negro Motorist Green Book, first published by Black postal worker Victor Green in New York in 1936, provided Black readers with guidance on which businesses welcomed African Americans in a segregated United States, expanding in subsequent years with editions across the world that offered information on how to resist discrimination and violent threats.
While the resource, often referred to simply as the Green Book, stopped publishing in 1966 after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, a University of Colorado Boulder researcher says the sentiment carried by that pivotal tool lives on in a modernized version: Black Twitter.
Black Twitter isn’t a separate version of the popular social media network, but a community of predominantly Black users and allies — and sometimes internet trolls — who use Twitter to talk amongst themselves about Black culture.
Doctoral student Shamika Klassen, along with CU colleagues and peers at Carnegie Mellon and Harvard universities, analyzed more than 75,000 tweets from April and May of 2020 and interviewed 18 Black Twitter users.
Their research is a deep dive on how Black Twitter — which Klassen describes as an “open secret waiting in plain sight for those who know how to find it” — serves as an important online meeting space to explore Black identity, history, culture, joy and pain.
“What was most interesting to me was the many different ways that Black Twitter was giving life to people,” Klassen said in an interview. “There are benefits, there’s empowerment, there were also people warning about racism, and it was so interesting to see all the different ways people were being fed in their spirit by Black Twitter. It’s more than just funny hot takes or getting entertained by the Verzuz battles happening, but a rich, deep, meaningful community of people.”
Orville Rawlins, a Denver resident with roots in the West Indies, said he never travels without first consulting with the community he’s formed on Black Twitter.
“I will say I’m going to be in so-and-so area, what should I do and where should I go,” Rawlins said.
He agreed that Black Twitter stood in as a modern-day Green Book in his life.
Rawlins said he learned his lesson two years ago when he went on a business trip to Houston without consulting anyone for safety tips and ended up getting robbed.
“I Tweeted about what happened to me, and people said, ‘Oh, I would have told you about that area,’” Rawlins said. “It’s an informal way of keeping each other safe.”
In addition to safety, Rawlins calls on his trusted sources within the social media platform to find food flavorful enough to satisfy his cravings.
“People will make jokes on Twitter that these are the restaurants in the area, but this one has spices and they know how to use them,” Rawlins said. “That might seem minor to other people, but spices are the things that make the food, spices are what counts for us. Whenever I see a review of some small restaurant, hole in the wall, a food truck with my followers, I put more worth in that.”
Klassen’s research noted the ways Black Twitter kept users informed about local activism and protests, particularly during Black Lives Matter movements.
“One interviewee was in school and watching Black Twitter as the protests were happening during the week, so when they were out of school, they knew where to go, what to bring, how to stay safe — because they had been watching up to that point,” Klassen said. “People were able to get this live information about the protests happening and then be able to engage in it themselves offline.”
Patricia Cameron, the Colorado Springs-based founder of Blackpackers, which focuses on economic equity in outdoor recreation, used Twitter to raise awareness about social justice issues like police brutality locally and nationally, bridging gaps she said she wouldn’t have otherwise been able to in her predominantly white Colorado city.
Cameron said the act of Black communities building a culture inside of white spaces has existed forever and she described the social media space as “our collective consciousness.”
“It’s like a big cafeteria for us,” Cameron said.
Cameron said if she wants to buy something online and shop from Black-owned businesses — whether it be for hair products, skincare products or something else entirely — she will go to Twitter to ask for a recommendation.
She also said she’s used the platform to promote her outdoor recreation organization and found support and empowerment from Black people across the country uplifting her successes and cheering her on.
“It doesn’t feel like I’m alone,” Cameron said.
Klassen said she hopes her research spurs more people to research Black Twitter and advocate for platforms like Twitter to better support communities of color.
“My hope is it encourages people to explore and research Black Twitter ethically and in a way that is honoring to the people in that space,” Klassen said.
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