Black Lives Matter lives on digital oxygen. Since the movements broad inception in July 2013, the reliance on social media has been an important component of the movement. The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter predates any particular organized group bearing that name, and the usage of Twitter, Instagram, and Change.org to spread information and garner support have always been central to the movements survival.
Yet in 2020, something shifted. In the months following the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, a younger generation of the American public became more involved than ever in fighting against the plights of Black, Indigenous, and people of color. And while in general this has resulted in new air for the movement, there have been those who have expressed concern over what broader implications this aestheticization has had.
Now, putting #BLM and #ACAB in ones Twitter bio is as commonplace as putting ones astrology signs there. The posting of black squares on Instagram on and after June 2nd, as well as the obligatory protest selfie, have become staples in our visual-heavy culture. TikTok perhaps the largest new platform to emerge between BLMs inception and today became the site of numerous sounds, skits, and other short visual media dedicated to the movement. Some have begun to voice concern that these actions have turned the movement and its aims into an aesthetic as opposed to a movement of pure ideology.
It absolutely has, but theres a silver lining to be seen here. In America, ideas and political movements have two fates: They either become aesthetics, or they die.
Americas Always Been A Circus
It is important to recognize that this phenomenon is nothing new. The aestheticization of political movements in America both in the sense of creating visual artwork in reference to political movements and in the sense of a group banding together under commonly held aesthetic signifiers in reference to that movement, such as mottos dates back to the movements that started this country. As the Stamp Act was enacted and then quickly repealed by the British parliament in the 1760s, teapots were made and sold to reference and show support for the anti-Parliament cause. Considering the broadly important social aspect of tea drinking in colonial America, the parallels to modern-day activist aesthetics are closer than one may initially think.
We see this pattern repeat throughout American history. The phrase Votes for Women and related pieces of wearable propaganda surrounding it, from sashes to pins to buttons, had become so synonymous with the idea of womens suffrage that the suffragette and her related clothing had become an actual character in the public zeitgeist. Abolitionism also shared in this usage of public images by private citizens, such as in the case of William Hackwoods kneeling slave cameo and related images being placed on everything from pinholders to sugar bowls; similar images and slogans appeared during the Black civil rights movements of the 20th century. This happens again and again, from 1960s Black civil rights movements to 1970s queer liberation to modern day leftist movements and queer movements.
There are, of course, reasons for this. It allows people to unite easier, under common signifiers of cause. In general, catchy images and slogans work better than long, wordy, purist arguments, and this political aestheticization became increasingly effective as our nation became more image-heavy and image-conscious, especially during times when it was fashionable to be in favor of these movements and their adherents, just like today.
Trumpism vs. Romneyism
For a modern-day example, we can look at the difference in aesthetic viability and longevity between President Donald Trump and Sen. Mitt Romneys followings. The circumstances surrounding eachs presidential bidsare relatively similar. Neither one of them was necessarily the most popular pick heading into the Republican primaries, and neither had held federal office before. Furthermore, both had previously run for president, and both had downplayed their party affiliation, putting themselves as candidates for a broader American populace Most importantly, however, both Trump and Romney ran for president in the age of Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and Instagram the same environment that ignited the Black Lives Matter movement..
Yet for some reason, President Trump was able to cultivate an aesthetic around his campaign. From #MakeAmericaGreatAgain to the red MAGA hat to catchy, repeatable slogans like Fake News, the president was able to create such a powerful aesthetic around his movement to the point that the Trump supporter, much like the suffragette in decades past, is an identifiable character in the American zeitgeist. This aesthetic, perhaps as much as the presidents ideas, has allowed vastly different kinds of people to unite under one flag, even when the presidents concrete legislative initiatives remain unclear. Even the Trump rally selfie has become a nationwide phenomenon, not to mention the increasingly frequent Instagram bio tagline of #MakeAmericaGreatAgain.
There is no analogue to this within the Romney campaign. Romneys campaign slogan, Believe in America, is technically more original than Trumps Make America Great Again (which was used in the past by Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and even Bill Clinton), but it does not nearly have the longevity that MAGA boasts. The Romney supporter or the Romney campaign as aesthetic beings may exist within the broader aesthetic of moderate conservatism, but theyre not as ubiquitous or as well known as their Trumpist counterparts.
This difference shows in their longevity. When Romney lost, he had no steam to keep him in politics and didnt re-enter office until 2019. Trump, by contrast, has enough sustainable support now that he could simply run in the primaries again in 2024 and have a good chance at winning. One could say that Trump is a more interesting candidate than Romney, or that he had an easier opponent, but the Trump aesthetic has gone a long way towards keeping the movement alive, regardless or whether everyone who wears a red hat truly believes all that its inventor says.
A Silver Lining
Do not misunderstand: Turning Black Lives Matter into an aesthetic has had a lot of negative consequences. It has resulted in people being more preoccupied with how they are perceived by the digital public than their impact on the movement itself. It has resulted in some protestors not really knowing or caring about why they march and other protestors feeling like their voices are being stifled. The supreme aesthetic signifier of Black Lives Matter, the black square on your Instagram feed, actually ended up being detrimental to the activists trying to spread information. All of these effects need to be mitigated as soon as possible.
There is, however, a silver lining to all this. It means the movement survives. In our cancel-culture world, people, especially celebrities, posting black squares to seem woke retroactively reinforces in the public consciousness the idea that Black Lives Matter is correct and should be supported. It means that #BlackLivesMatter gets that much more widespread airplay. It means that more and more people will be forced to reckon with their biases and racist beliefs they hold because they have no choice but to see it. It means we are able to hold people accountable when they simply pretend to fight for equality and further engage in conversations about that equality.
We live in a nation where, for better or for worse, the image is mightier than the word. We live in a decade where, even more so than before, the country has begun to recognize the plight of the African-American in particular, and of American Black, Indigenous and people of colour in general. Black Lives Matter, as a movement, came into existence at the confluence of that nation and that decade. One could argue, as was the case with previous movements that attempted to solve the racism, sexism, bigotry, and aggression that has pervaded this nation, that Black Lives Matter was going to end up as an aestheticized ideal from the get go. The nature of the American activist, however, is that of unrelenting resilience. Hopefully, the aesthetic along with hard work of activists and protestors will allow the movements aims to eventually be more fully realized.
Image by Clay Banks is licensed under theUnsplashed License.
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