The internet, as a digital looking glass, can normalize violence for Black boys
Visual media still operates as the preeminent social looking glass for which identity is negotiated between self and reflection.
by Donnie Moreland
I’m entering my apartment lot, around 9:45 PM, having returned from the gym. My vision often obscured around this time, I’m hurried to brake as two figures creep along in front of me. The two feel my headlights on their backs, thus they oblige my curiosity, and turn around. They are Black boys. No older than seventeen or eighteen. I notice they are sharing a cellular device to watch some sort of video, I’d assume. They walk with a quicker pace, eyes back to that device, and into a neighborhood, of which is too poorly lit for me to observe their route.
Tension builds, in me, when I see Black boys walking with just themselves, in still Suburban neighborhoods that, to us, may as well be the 9th Circle of Hell. I make out a light, from what I assume to be that same device which holds more of their courtesies than my moving vehicle. I think of those boys, well boys like them, often. Black boys. How far away I am from them. I don’t recognize their eyes as my own at their age and with that I often wrestle.
As someone who spends much of their waking life in front of Black boys in classrooms, often islands among seas of white faces, I feel it is my duty to see them. More so, to make sure they see me. But I am unsure, anymore, of what they see. There are parts of how Black boys are socialized, now, which has created a chasm in transgenerational relating, I think. Though in similar historically spatial proximities as one another, the evolution of information consumption has done the job of severing experiential awareness between even intermeshing generations i.e, myself and those boys. But this age shares no empathy for those unable to keep up, and with little effort to interrupt its progressions, our children are more vulnerable to visions of Blackness to which they submit, are maimed and abandoned.
Native Sons: Through the Looking Glass
Make no mistake, though the medium through which we confront its conditions has changed, this is still a conversation about representation. How seeing a measure of your own person in another affects self-impressions. Think Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s baby doll test of the 1940’s. Related to race, it has been proven time immemorial, the psycho-emotional effects of how the look of the Other can impede progressions of self-identity and cultural esteem.
Meanings of self, in society, are constantly shifting and the more exposure to negative components of racial identity one investigates, the easier for that meaning to become corrupted. This is effectively the theory of the Looking Glass Self. That I am because of what I see. Repeating imagery can dampen sensations to subvert what seems cultural inevitabilities.
Of Black male-ness, the iconography of the Tom, Sambo and Coon in Antebellum conceptions of Black masculinity have continued to translate ideas of inherent socio-behavioral dysfunction, for even contemporary Black American male identified persons, as visual information morphs to capture contemporary aesthetics. Of these ideas, bell hooks in Black Looks: Race and Representation states, “In popular culture, representations of black masculinity equate it with brute phallocentrism, woman-hating, a pugilistic ‘rapist’ sexuality, and fragrant disregard for individual rights.”
These “ethnic notions,” so to speak, pertain to a type of race science which postures fictitious claims of objective racially oriented assessments as biocultural anthropological fact. To put it simply, of the sex of Black men beneath these markers, a theory would surmise that as male slaves were used as tools to breed, were molested by slave owners and had their penises put on literal display, while standing naked on auction blocks, this somehow endorses some type of genetic hypersexuality on part of victims of transgenerational sexual violence.
When schools of thought, such as this and other forms of eugenic science, then begin to influence how information is translated, into public domain, these wayward theories become gospel. And when the first Major Motion Picture in World’s history, D.W. Griffith’s, Birth of A Nation (1915), is predicated on race science, more specifically, the feral rapist sexualities of Black Men (and is successful), there is an unspoken, cultural affirmation of something which is factually inaccurate morphing into a type of cultural truth.
This bend of reality can cause a type of cognitive dissonance in the subject of scrutiny, as one is aware of their inability to associate with these fallacious identifiers but is so exposed to a type of iconography related to these descriptors that affirming such ideas seems easier than to tussle, intellectually. One becomes susceptible to assimilation, taking on qualifiers which degrades their psycho-emotional development, endorsing self injurious behaviors which impedes the quality of their lived experience. A self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will.
Today, modern cultural performances are observed primarily online. WorldStarHipHop.com, I’ll use as a reference. World Star’s primary aesthetic is ostensibly urban young adult. Urban being a stand in for any type of performative expressions of misappropriated “inner city” Blackness. This website’s success is predicated on entertainment via authenticity.
The problem of World Star, which features a scope of Blackness skewed towards expressions of violence, is that there is no barrier, no disbelief to suspend between the audience and the subject of interest. As the site’s aesthetic often draws an obtusely young adult, obtusely Black American male audience, there is consideration of a slippery slope as exposure to “authentic” performances of Black male-ness may influence behaviors of the same degrees of violence. Visual media still operates as the preeminent social looking glass for which identity is negotiated between self and reflection.
An evolution, so to speak, of that same self-fulfilling prophecy identified, prior. What’s more haunting is how real violence cycles as a consequence of these digital imports of Black masculinity. Violence in performance, or in mimicry, may incite violence, as a response, leading to the destruction of usually more than one Black body, often of other Black boys. Ritually, these expressions are often recorded, uploaded to sites such as World Star and consumed by other Black boys susceptible to impression, mimicry and destruction, thus the wheel turns.
Often, one can observe a prelude to such violent engagements, in social forums i.e., Facebook, as Black boys will communicate their intentions, and inner hurts, only to be engaged by other users, other boys, looking to escalate or de-legitimize their expressions of concern, spurring more acute risks of violence in physical spaces. These expressions now oscillating between multiple digital spaces, isolate these boys in a type of digital ghetto, eroticized by voyeurs perverting their violence as consumptive.
In writing this, I think to those boys walking off into the night. I think of them, in observance of a history of how their bodies have been twisted and mangled, used against them and continue to be so, in ways even those who are a few years their senior may not understand. I think of the distance between myself, them and whatever consumed their interest, on that small screen, and I wonder if them moving into darkness, away from me, was more a metaphor for a coming crisis we are ill equipped to quarrel and overcome.
Donnie Denkins Moreland Jr is a Minnesota based youth violence prevention educator and writer. Donnie holds a Master’s Degree, in Film Studies, from National University and a Bachelor’s Degree, in Sociology, from Prairie View A&M University. Donnie has contributed to Black Youth Project, A Gathering of the Tribes and Sage Group Publishing.