By Lillie Eastham, F/G Scholar
The term ‘safe space’ became widely known and debated after the 2016 presidential election when many said that they required such a space because they felt targeted in the political climate. Others feel that safe spaces act as a shield that protects people from any ideas that conflict with their own and overly-sensitizes society. Before it became the subject of a mainstream cultural debate one definition of a safe space was a, “classroom climate that allows students to feel secure enough to take risks, honestly express their views, and share and explore their knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors.” (Holley & Steiner 2005)
The purpose of this paper is not to explore the pros and cons of safe spaces as they are generally discussed. Instead, it is to take a look at how minorities, particularly African-Americans, have naturally created their own safe spaces throughout time, long before hundreds of think pieces were published on their validity. Many of these safe spaces served as not only a place of comradery and like-minded values, but also became the bedrock of some of America’s most well-known and effective protests.
The Invisible Institution
Surprisingly, in the midst of slavery, slaves were not only allowed to attend church services, they often outnumbered the white people in attendance by large numbers. (Raboteau p. 211) In fact, many of the slave masters must have believed that their attendance would only contribute to further submission, considering these churches interpreted the bible in a way that justified and encouraged the practice of slavery. A particular favorite verse came from Ephesians:
“5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people” Ephesians 6:5-7
Often, it was even preached that slavery was the perfect vehicle for ‘helping’ the slaves embrace religion and gain entry into Heaven. (Rae 2018)
Despite these efforts, the slaves were unimpressed with the teachings of the churches and clearly saw that the teachings were designed to encourage obedience and had little to do with religion. Soon, they began to hold their own “prayer meetings” where they could worship however they chose, despite the punishment for this being severe. (Raboteau p. 213) In order to keep these meetings a secret the slaves were forced to use codes to communicate when and where they would be held. Often, they met in the swamps.
The slaves risked the dangers of being caught because their prayers brought them comfort and a sense of community. (Raboteau p. 218) Their most frequent prayers were for freedom from their oppressors.
This is important because the majority of slaves did not solely seek out religion as a means of rebellion or as a source of physical escape. Instead, it served as a reprieve from their daily struggles and provided them with a genuine relationship with religion that gave them hope for their future. Many scholars believe that although this religion did not provide them with physical protection, their ability to create a culture for themselves despite their enslavement helped them to survive. (White 2009)
While religion undoubtedly served as a mental comfort, it did lead to acts of physical rebellion. In the summer of 1831, Nat Turner led the deadliest slave revolt in the history of the United States, that would later be dubbed, “Nat Turner’s Rebellion”. The rebellion was squashed quickly but not until Turner and his rebels had killed at least 55 white people. (Breen 2018) The rebellion inevitably led to a great backlash against the black community in Virginia, and Turner himself was eventually captured and put to death. Armed with the knowledge that this would most likely be the fate of such a revolt, what motivated him to make such a risky move?
His simple answer was religion. He cited one passage as having a particular influence on him, ““Seek ye the kingdom of Heaven and all things shall be added unto you.” (Gray p. 9) Turner’s religious influences, however, did not end with scripture. He believed himself to be a prophet of sorts and claimed to receive visions from the “Spirit” instructing him on what he should do. He also baptized fellow slaves at the behest of the “Spirit”, which he ultimately claimed instructed him to carry out the rebellion. (Gray p. 10-11)
Clearly, Nat Turner is something of an anti-hero. His story is bloody and whether his motives actually stemmed from the command of a “Spirit” is certainly questionable. However, his story, and the fact that he was able to rally others behind his cause despite the inevitable danger, serves as proof that access to a religious space not only gave slaves hope of freedom but also provided them with the boldness to seize freedom for themselves.
Black churches and the Civil Rights Movement
The “Invisible Institution” that was the churches of slaves evolved into the prominent black churches of the civil rights movement. Like the prayer meetings in the time of slavery, black churches served the function of providing a space where it’s patrons could not only be safe, but actually celebrate their culture and be proud to be black. At the services, the church’s members were among friends and were able to thrive in an environment where they were not considered second-class citizens. It provided a haven for the people in attendance, and many of the services focused around the idea that, “God sanctions protest aimed at eradicating social evils.” (Morris p. 4)
As this message would suggest, these churches took their role in activism a step further than their predecessor, providing not only emotional support, but also serving as the hub of the movement. Although a church being a source of political activism might seem odd, the black churches in the civil rights movement took on multiple roles out of necessity. It was one of the few spaces that was fully controlled by blacks and since they were unwelcome in the white institutions that dominated society they began to shape the churches into multi-faceted operations. (Morris p. 5)
Many of the great civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., were ministers and this was not a coincidence. The leaders of these churches were trained to have charismatic personalities and to move crowds with their passion. Like Nat Turner, many of the ministers claimed to have been instructed personally by God. (Moore p. 8) Additionally, the ministers operated in a completely black environment, which meant that they were not at economic risk by becoming the face of a movement. (Fairclough p. 405) Organizations such as King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference showed just how much religion and political activism had begun to intertwine. The qualities that allowed ministers to stir passion and maintain order in their own congregations transferred easily into the civil rights movement.
As the churches became more politically active, they also became a target of violence. In 1963, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed and four young girls, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair were killed while attending Sunday school. The church was known for being a meeting place for civil rights activists and many marches had started on its front steps. (History.com editors 2010) Martin Luther King Jr. gave the eulogy for the four girls and declared them, “martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.” His speech emphasized that the girls did not die in vain, and in fact the bombing caused outrage throughout the nation and helped to propel the civil rights movement forward. Mary Beth Tinker, of Tinker v. Des Moines, cited the four young girls as part of her inspiration for her protest that would become a landmark Supreme Court case.
In modern times, laws have changed and thankfully the days of legal segregation have ended. This begs the question, since black people no longer face the hardships of slavery and legally enforced discrimination, do they still require cultural safe spaces? If so, does it still take the form of churches or has it evolved with the times? In today’s world, “Black Twitter” has become an online form of these spaces.
Urban dictionary defines black twitter as, “noun.) the portion of twitter where most African Americans and minorities are focused in. The social area of the black community. There is considered to be two sides of “dark” twitter because of all the jokes, profanity, and nudes that are on one spectrum, and the activism, and intellect on the other.” Although this is an unconventional source for an academic paper, it is important to understand how black twitter is defined by the younger generation that is more active on the platform, as opposed to the more respected outlets that attempt to analyze it from an outside perspective.
While black twitter is known in the mainstream as a source of activism, it serves a much larger purpose than that. It is a constantly active space where black people are able to celebrate their culture without fear of retribution from the outside world. Here are some examples of how black twitter operates outside of protest:
This tweet with the hashtag #BlackExcellence is one example of how the social media platform has become important to the black community. On the app, black people can brag about their accomplishments, and they have the freedom to not only be unashamed of their skin color but celebrate it.
This tweet serves as an example of how the users of Black Twitter use humor to address social issues. When Kanye West made comments on TMZ about how he felt that slavery was a choice, the hashtag exploded providing humorous examples of what life would have been like if slavery was “a choice.” In today’s tension-filled and sensitive climate, this provides an outlet for black people to talk about race in a lighthearted way that is true to their own narrative, without worrying about the sensitivities of others.
A third example is when black twitter declared the 2018 Super Bowl, ‘Janet Jackson Appreciation Day’. This was due to the fact that during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime performance, Jackson suffered a nipple slip while performing with Justin Timberlake when he accidentally tore off a piece of her outfit. Jackson’s career took a major hit, while Timberlake’s star continued to rise. When it was announced that he would be performing at the 2018 Super Bowl many, including black twitter, felt that it was a perfect example of the combination of misogyny and racism that black women face. In this way, black twitter shined a light on an instance of hypocrisy that otherwise would have gone unnoticed.
The more serious and well-known side of black twitter is the side that gave rise to #BlackLivesMatter. The movement was sparked after George Zimmerman, the man that shot and killed unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, was acquitted after claiming self-defense. Garza posted to Facebook saying, ““Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.” (Day 2015) The hashtag grew from this post and gained traction as more killings of unarmed black men occurred. When 18-year-old Mike Brown, again unarmed, was killed by a white police officer with 12 rounds of gunfire. The hashtag quickly came to life as protesters took to the streets in Ferguson, Missouri to protest the shooting. (Day 2015)
In the age of social media, many protest movements come and go quickly, but Black Lives Matter has maintained a strong presence throughout years. This can be attributed to many factors. The movement was able to gain national attention, forcing candidates for political office to acknowledge it in their campaigns, including during the 2016 presidential race. The election of Donald Trump, who was endorsed by white supremacists, contradicted the belief by some that racism could not continue to exist in a country that elected a black president and further empowered the movement. Finally, the existence of black twitter allowed the community to continue to communicate even when not in the midst of political activism, which meant it could easily mobilize when necessary.
A Pew study from July found that the recent rise in political activism on social media is particularly important to black people, roughly 50% of black users said that it is personally important to them, only a third of white users felt this way. The black Americans polled pointed out that social media gives a voice to underrepresented groups. (Anderson p.1) Like the churches of the past, black twitter is a place where people whose voices are ignored in America cannot only be heard but become leaders of a movement. While these spaces are sources of activism, the fact that they provide support in all areas of life through humor, religion, etc. gives the people that are members a sense of comfort that’s importance cannot be underestimated. By reminding them that they are not alone and that their struggles are shared, these cultural safe spaces sow the seeds of protest.
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