Tweets of a Native Son: James Baldwin, #BlackLivesMatter, and Networks of Textual Recirculation

Melanie Walsh (melanie.walsh@wustl.edu), Washington University in St. Louis, United States of America

In the wake of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014, and the non-indictment of police officer Darren Wilson on November 25, 2014, backlashing protests and riots took to the streets of Ferguson and to other major American cities across the country. They also took to the Twittersphere. A national conversation about police brutality and the American criminal justice system exploded on Twitter during this time period, eventually elevating the hashtag #Ferguson, tweeted over 27 million times, to the most frequent in Twitter’s ten-year history, and the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, tweeted over 12 million times, to third place (Sichynsky, 2016). First coined by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi in July 2013, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter became a banner for a national protest movement and an index for conversations about the systematic devaluing and elimination of black life. Over the last five years, literary scholars and historians have noted that, within this massive social media movement, the novelist, essayist, and civil rights literary icon James Baldwin seemed to be often and increasingly invoked (Maxwell, 2016). The perceived frequency of Baldwin-related tweets has been pointed to by many as evidence of the Harlem-born author’s 21 st-century resurrection and recent political resonance (Glaude Jr., 2016; Robinson, 2017). Because tweets can be digitally archived and made computationally tractable, they can be collected, measured, and analyzed at scale, and they can offer a picture of Baldwin’s social media reception that goes beyond perception and anecdotal evidence. This talk will share work-in-progress from my project Tweets of a Native Son ( http://www.tweetsofanativeson.com/), which brings large-scale social media data and computational methods to bear on Baldwin’s 21 st-century remediation, recirculation, and reimagination. This talk will discuss the methods and progress made in the project thus far, argue that social media analysis might usefully contribute to a growing body of computationally-assisted scholarship focused on readership, reception, and textual circulation, and finally gesture to how such an approach might change our understanding of how texts are shared between communities of people, namely through its emphasis on networks.

Methods, Analysis, Initial Findings

First I “hydrated,” that is, retrieved the full JSON information for, an archive of over 32 million tweets that were sent between June 1, 2014 and May 31, 2015 and that mentioned Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, and 20 other black individuals who were killed by the police during this time period, which was first purchased from Twitter and shared by Deen Freelon, Charlton McIlwain, and Meredith D. Clark (Freelon, McIlwain, Clark, 2016). I next searched for all the tweets that mentioned “James Baldwin” by his first and last names using the Python and command-line tool “twarc” and the command-line JSON processor “jq,” which returned 7,326 tweets and retweets. By using twarc utilities, a k-means clustering algorithm, and manual tagging, I then identified the most retweeted tweets in the archive and the text that appeared most often across all tweets in the archive, which revealed that the most frequent appeal to Baldwin during this time period was through quotation and overwhelmingly through the quotation of Baldwin’s 1960s-era essays, radio interviews, and television appearances.

By studying the text of the most retweeted and most frequently cited tweets, and by tracing tweeted Baldwin quotations back to their literary and historical origins, my project argues that Baldwin’s appeal as a #BlackLivesMatter muse comes, at least in part, from the remediation of much of his non-fictional work into YouTube videos and free online essays; from his aphorisms with deep roots in African American written and oral traditions; and from his sympathetic proximity to but never full embrace of black radicalism. Another goal of Tweets of a Native Son, however, is to let others explore, hypothesize, and learn about Baldwin’s #BlackLivesMatter-related social media reception through a series of interactive data visualizations on the project’s website. These interactive visualizations are meant to provide a perspective on Baldwin’s living legacy, a refracted vision of Baldwin’s life and career through those who actively called upon him in a moment of political and emotional urgency, a means by which others can come to their own conclusions about Baldwin’s resurrection.

DH Reception Studies and Networked Reading

Tweets of a Native Son most broadly hopes to join and affirm recent digital humanities work that is trained on readership, reception, and textual circulation, such as Lincoln Mullen’s American’s Public Bible and Ryan Cordell and David Smith’s Viral Texts, and to amplify Katherine Bode’s call that the digital humanities better attend to and account for the ways in which literary texts “circulated and generated meaning together at particular times and places” (Mullen, 2016; Cordell and Smith, 2017; Bode, 2017). Like the 19 th-century newspaper archives used by Mullen, Cordell, and Smith, social media archives offer a window into how texts travel, how texts are used and changed by individuals, and what these texts mean in context. Social media archives additionally offer massive amounts of (relatively) clean, recent data. Though of course with these advantages, they also present more ethical challenges, since this data is often tied to corporations and produced by still-living human beings whose consent, possible harm, and creative attribution must always be considered.

Finally, however, I believe that social media data might help us better theorize and make visible the networked structures of readership, reception, and textual circulation, because social media data, such as Twitter data, is often inherently networked in structure, recording retweets, replies, follower communities, hashtag communities, and more. This networked structure emphasizes the way that texts are not only engaged with by individuals but are shared between individuals, taking on social and communal meanings. For the particular case of Baldwin and #BlackLivesMatter in 2014-2015, the quotations of Baldwin’s words were often recirculated as coalition- and community-building material, helping to forge connections between individuals across space, time, and American history. During the future stages of this project, I hope to employ network science and network visualization to better understand Baldwin’s significance within #BlackLivesMatter.


Appendix A

Bibliography
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  2. Cordell, R. and Smith, D. (2017). Viral Texts: Mapping Networks of Reprinting in 19th-Century Newspapers and Magazines, http://viraltexts.org.
  3. Freelon, D., McIlwain, C. D., and Clark, M. D. (2016). Beyond the hashtags: #Ferguson, #Blacklivesmatter, and the online struggle for offline justice. Center for Media and Social Impact.
  4. Glaude Jr., E. S. (2016). James Baldwin and the Trap of Our History. Time.
  5. Maxwell, W. J. (2016). Born-Again, Seen-Again James Baldwin: Post-Postracial Criticism and the Literary History of Black Lives Matter. American Literary History, 28(4).
  6. Mullen, L. (2016). America’s Public Bible: Biblical Quotations in U.S. Newspapers, http://americaspublicbible.org.
  7. Robinson, Z. (2017). Ventriloquizing Black Feeling, Re-Voicing Black Life: Speaking Baldwin on the Internet. Communities in Conversation: Digital Baldwin, Rhodes College.
  8. Sichynsky, T. (2016). These 10 Twitter Hashtags Changed the Way We Talk about Social Issues. The Washington Post.