- Most Cited Canonical African American Authors
- 2014-2015 Timeline
- Top Tweets and Quotations
- Most Quoted Source Texts
- Explore For Yourself
It’s almost as if the lights have been turned on, and he’s been brought back into the spotlight. So for example, he is the person who gets quoted on Twitter all the time, on social media. He is the go-to quote factory for those who are woke.
During a May 2017 episode of the podcast Open Source, Teju Cole—the writer and formerly prolific tweeter—described civil rights literary icon James Baldwin as the “go-to quote factory for those who are woke” on social media. Scholars such as Zandria Robinson, William J. Maxwell, Magdalena Zaborowska, Douglas Field, and Eddie Glaude Jr have said similar things—albeit in different words.
Many people, not just writers and scholars, have noticed that Baldwin’s words keep showing up on their Twitter newsfeeds. Many people, myself included, have felt the impulse to tweet Baldwin’s words, especially in relationship to the climate of racism in 21st-century America and the #BlackLivesMatter movement that protests against it.
The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was first started by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi in 2013 after Trayvon Martin’s killing. Then, in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri, and the protests that followed his death, #BlackLivesMatter became a banner for a national protest movement against racism, police brutality, and the American criminal justice system. As the hashtag suggests, the #BlackLivesMatter movement used and contines to use social media, especially Twitter, as one of its major platforms: to document and organize protests, to facilitate conversations, to build communities, and more.
Because tweets are computationally tractable–that is, because tweets are digital objects that can be archived and studied with digital tools—I decided to analyze how people were tweeting about James Baldwin with digital tools and a massive Twitter archive. This archive was first purchased from Twitter by Deen Freelon, Charlton D. McIlwain, and Meredith D. Clark for their own report, and then generously shared with the public. It contains every tweet that mentioned Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, or the names of twenty individuals killed by the police between June 2014 and May 2015.1
I published an essay about my analysis in the September 2018 issue of American Quarterly. This page is a digital companion to my essay, as well as an expansion. I wanted to share some of the interesting data that I couldn’t squeeze into the essay and also let others explore the data for themselves. This project is, most fundamentally, about how the “public”—thousands of readers and tweeters—used James Baldwin in an urgent political moment. And so this page is dedicated to the public.
Most Cited Canonical African American Authors
How often did people talk about James Baldwin in Ferguson and Black Lives Matter tweets during 2014-2015? And how did the number of Baldwin citations compare to other similarly “canonical” 2 African American authors?
The visualization above displays the top 12 most tweeted about African American authors, who also appeared in the Norton Anthology of African American Literature and were born after 1900 (Baldwin was born in 1924). You can hover over the pictures to see how many tweets mentioned each figure and find a link to the most retweeted citation of that figure.
The only person more cited than Barack Obama (the then-sitting President), Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X was, it turns out, James Baldwin. The words “James Baldwin” were mentioned in at least 7,326 tweets and retweets.
Now, that’s a lot, comparatively speaking, but it might not sound like a lot, generally speaking. You may have seen a single Baldwin tweet with more than 7,000 retweets show up on your phone just the other day. In fact, I recently archived all tweets that mentioned James Baldwin during the month of August 2018 (his birthday month), and it exceeded 90,000!
There are a lot of factors that probably contribute to this seemingly low-ish number of tweets and retweets, such as missing tweets that may have been deleted by the time I accessed the archive (a product of the way that Twitter data sets are shared)3 and tweets that mentioned Baldwin implicitly in relationship to #BlackLivesMatter and racial justice. There’s also the possibility that Baldwin simply wasn’t as popular during 2014-2015 as he is today. For example, the debut of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015), Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated I Am Not Your Negro (2017), and Barry Jenkins’s forthcoming If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) have all helped launch Baldwin even further into the mainstream during the last few years.
The question remains, however: Why was Baldwin more cited than the authors with whom he competed during his lifetime—like his older mentor and adversary Richard Wright or his contemporary Ralph Ellison—or more cited than authors who are still alive and publishing today—like the Nobel Prize–winning novelist Toni Morrison or the New York Times best-selling poet Claudia Rankine?
Before trying to answer what made Baldwin unique, it’s important to understand which kinds of tweets were mentioning Baldwin, and when they were mentioning Baldwin.
The above timeline displays—week by week—when Ferguson and Black Lives Matter tweets that mentioned “James Baldwin” were tweeted throughout 2014 and 2015. The Baldwin citations ebbed and flowed in response to some of the major injustices and periods of unrest during the year: in August 2014 after the death of 18-year-old Mike Brown in Ferguson; in late November 2014 after police officer Darren Wilson was not indicted in the fatal shooting of Brown; and in April 2015 after 25-old Freddie Gray died from spinal injuries sustained while in police custody in Baltimore.
The timeline also delineates which kinds of tweets were mentioning Baldwin: whether it was an original tweet (that is, just a regular tweet), a retweet (when someone reshared a regular tweet), a quote tweet (when someone reshared a regular tweet but also added their own content), or a reply tweet (when someone replied to a regular tweet).
As the timeline demonstrates, retweets abounded. They made up about 82% of the total tweets. This is relatively consistent with, though even slightly higher than, the pattern of retweeting across the larger 40 million Ferguson and Black Lives Matter tweets (75.3 percent).4 It emphasizes that “virality”—the qualities that might make someone want to share and recirculate a Baldwin tweet, not just mention him in the first place—is an essential consideration for thinking about these #BlackLivesMatter-Baldwin tweets.
*Interesting tid bit: The number of “quote” tweets is exceptionally low in this timeline because the quote tweet was only invented in April 2015.
Top Tweets and Quotations
The following list displays the top 10 most retweeted Baldwin tweets that also mentioned Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, or the names of black individuals killed by the police during 2014 and 2015:
"To be Black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage." - James Baldwin #Ferguson— zellie (@zellieimani) August 14, 2014
We live in "a civilization which has always glorified violence--unless the Negro had the gun."--James Baldwin circa 1963 #Ferguson— Jose Antonio Vargas (@joseiswriting) November 25, 2014
There are a few important patterns to note across these top 10 tweets:
First, many (though not all) of these Twitter users are artists and activists of color, who already had significant Twitter followings when they tweeted about Baldwin. These users, and the networks that they built, played a central role in spreading James Baldwin’s words throughout Twitter during this time period.
Second, most of these tweets did, in fact, quote Baldwin’s words. Though Occupy Wall Street (@OccupyWallStNYC) merely mentioned Baldwin and included an archival photo of him, and Musa Okwonga (@Okwonga) shared an article that purported to quote him, the rest of the tweets spoke through and for Baldwin in the tweet itself.
Four of the top ten tweets in fact included the same Baldwin quotation—“To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” If you look closely, however, you’ll notice that these quotations are not exactly the same. They appear in slightly different forms in each tweet:
“To be black in America is to be in a constant state of rage.”
“To be Black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.”
"To be Black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage." - James Baldwin #Ferguson— zellie (@zellieimani) August 14, 2014
“To be black and conscious in america is a constant state of rage”
These minor mutations are likely accidental, a slippage of small words that fade into the background behind the more important equation of American blackness with rage. But these differences powerfully reveal the fingerprints of these Twitter users, who reshaped Baldwin’s words as they typed them out with their own hands. Even if they are mistakes, they are mistakes with meaning—indeed, meanings, plural—perpetuating subtly splintered reimaginations and reinterpretations of Baldwin.
These disparities are further ironized by the fact that this quotation was already a departure from what Baldwin said during a radio discussion in 19615—“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time”—an irony that I discuss in more detail in the next section and in my American Quarterly essay.
Overall, the pattern of quoting Baldwin’s words held up across the larger archive, as more than 76% of the Baldwin references were quotations:
The above timeline now delineates between whether the #BlackLivesMatter-Baldwin tweet included a quotation of his words or included some other reference to Baldwin. If you click on any section of the timeline, you can see a sampling of the tweets from that given week and category. If you click on the text of any sample tweet, you can follow a link to the actual tweet itself and the user who authored the tweet.
*These sample tweets only include tweets that had more than 100 retweets or were tweeted by users with more than 10,000 followers because I don’t want to expose any of the users in this archive to unwanted or potentially harmful publicity.
Most Quoted Source Texts
Where did all these quotations come from? From which texts and parts of Baldwin’s career?
The above dashboard displays the most quoted Baldwin source texts in #BlackLivesMatter-related tweets. If you hover over the title of any source text, you can see how many tweets and retweets quoted that source, find out more information about the source, and follow links to the top tweeted quotation from that source as well as go to the souce text itself. If you click on any title, you can also see an excerpt of the top quotation from that source at the bottom of the page.
The most quoted James Baldwin source text was, surprisingly, not authored by James Baldwin. The Baldwin-attributed quotation that appeared in 4 of the top 10 tweets—“To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage”—was the most frequent quotation in the archive. This version of the quotation first appeared and was likely popularized, as far as I can tell, when the Black Panther Huey Newton (mis)quoted Baldwin’s words in a 1968 essay by the writer Joan Didion, an essay that later became part of her famous collection The White Album (1979).
Huey Newton was almost certainly quoting or revising—it’s difficult, if not impossible, to tell if Newton purposefully changed the words—something Baldwin said in a 1961 radio discussion: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” I place Huey Newton and Joan Didion at the top of this list to call attention to the circuitous ways in which Baldwin’s words have traveled, changed, and morphed on their way to the 21st-century Twittersphere, but I want to emphasize that Baldwin is, of course, the person who originally spoke them, and that this list could easily place “The Negro and the American Culture” at the top of the list.
It was especially ironic that Huey Newton, a Black Panther, turned to these words in 1968, because Baldwin had a very freighted relationship with the Black Panthers, who sometimes homophobically attacked and condemned him. For example, the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, who was also in the room with Didion and Newtown, had written a homophobic screed about Baldwin just a few years earlier.6
First Publication Date
Another pattern emerges when you look at the most quoted Baldwin source texts, which is that they were all published during the 1960s and early 1970s—despite the fact that Baldwin published throughout the 1950s (Giovanni’s Room, Notes of a Native Son) and continued to publish in the late 1970s and 1980s (Just Above My Head, The Evidence of Things Not Seen).
The above timeline displays how many #BlackLivesMatter-related tweets quoted from a Baldwin source text that was first published in a given year. If you hover over any year, you can see how many tweets quoted from a source published during that year, as well as the most cited source from that year.
This perspective also reveals just how many of the quotations were drawn from Baldwin’s career during the 1960s. This is significant because Baldwin was at the height of his mass media celebrity during the 1960s, when he frequently appeared on television shows and radio programs, and wrote for major magazines and national newspapers.
This was a period, in other words, when Baldwin was carefully crafting his language for mass media audiences, often embedding simple, clear, and seemingly autonomous bits of rhetoric within it. During these 1960s essays, speeches, radio interviews, and television appearances, Baldwin frequently addressed subjects like race and police violence head-on—“We live in “a civilization which has always glorified violence–unless the Negro had the gun”. But Baldwin also frequently discussed less explicitly political subjects, like literary fiction, with a level of abstraction and rhetorical concision such that it could be adapted and applied to political protest—“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” This is a body of material that I think think was (and is) ripe for remediation onto new media platforms.
Genre and Medium
The significance of the many different genres and media that Baldwin was creatively involved in during his career can also be seen when you break down the quoted source texts by type:
The above chart displays the source type of the Baldwin source texts that were quoted in Ferguson and Black Lives Matter tweets. Though Baldwin considered himself, first and foremost, a literary writer, and though Baldwin often claimed that his public speaking and mass media celebrity were distractions from his literary production, his fiction and poetry were hardly quoted from at all.
Republication and Collection Date
Because this story is so much about how people encounter and share texts at different moments in time, it’s also important to consider when Baldwin’s texts were republished and collected, especially because many of his major works, such as Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time, were collections of essays that had been published earlier.
The above timeline displays how many #BlackLivesMatter-related tweets quoted from a Baldwin source text that was republished or collected in a given year. If you hover over any year, you can see how many tweets quoted from a source republished or collected during that year, as well as the most cited source from that year.
Two major collections of Baldwin’s works, The Price of the Ticket (1985) and the Library of America’s James Baldwin: Collected Essays (1998), are separately denoted by asterisks because so many of the quoted texts were also collected in those works. This perspective helps illuminate how Baldwin’s texts were reintroduced and repackaged to potential readers and tweeters at many different times and in many different forms.
It also begins to suggest the many messy, multiple ways that texts travel beyond prestigious, published books. It’s hard to think about quotations circulating on the internet without considering, for example, BrainyQuote.com or BuzzFeed or other platforms in the social media ecosystem like Tumblr.
So why Baldwin? What makes Baldwin such a powerful and eminently tweetable #BlackLivesMatter muse? In my AQ essay, I focus on a few key factors: the wealth of Baldwin’s mass-mediated material, crafted for mass audiences, easy to remediate into social media content; the masterful rhetorical structures of Baldwin’s many aphorisms, which have deep roots in African American written and oral traditions; as well as Baldwin’s sympathetic proximity to but never full embrace of black radicalism, his stark confrontation of anger, systemic racism, and violence, interpreted by many as a blended space between the philosophies of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
But there are so many other factors, so many other reasons. In this space, I haven’t even begun to discuss Baldwin’s sexuality, his “intersectionality before that was a thing,” as Thomas Chatterton Williams has phrased it, which has made Baldwin’s voice “an exemplar of the decidedly queer-inflected mood of the Black Lives Matter era now.” And so I encourage you to read Williams as well as Zandria Robinson, William J. Maxwell, Magdalena Zaborowska, Douglas Field, and Eddie Glaude Jr on the richness and complexity of the great James Baldwin and what he offers to us now.
Explore For Yourself
But this space is also about interpreting Baldwin for yourself, about making your own claims about Baldwin. The dashboard below combines the previous graphs into one interactive space and includes a searchable text table with the Baldwin sources quoted in 2014-2015 Ferguson and Black Lives Matter tweets. You can click on any source title and see its most tweeted quotation at the bottom of the page.
It’s a big dashboard, so I recommend exploring it full-screen, which you can do by scrolling to the very bottom right corner.
I’m sticking “canonical” in scare quotes here because the bodies of literature that are studied in the academy and that are considered valuable have historically been very freighted. Part of what is so powerful about how people tweeted about James Baldwin in 2014-2015 is that they seemed to be constructing their own canon of Baldwin’s words, through a community outside the academy, in the service of urgent political ends. But because I wanted to see how tweeted citations of Baldwin compared to tweeted citations of similar authors, and I needed some base-line search criteria, I decided to use the Norton Anthology of African American Literature. ↩
Basically, when researchers share Twitter data, they almost always share tweet IDs—unique identifers assigned to every tweet—not the tweets themselves. You then use the tweet IDs to “hydrate”–essentially, to download—the full tweet data. If any tweets have been deleted between the time when they were first collected and the time when they are subsequently hydrated, those tweets disappear from the data set. For more on deleted tweets and Twitter’s potentially ethical approach to deleted tweets, see Ed Summers, “On Forgetting.” ↩
Upon listening to this recording for the umpteenth time, after my essay had already gone to print, I realized that the transcription of this radio discussion, which appeared in the journal CrossCurrents the following summer, and which I had been relying on for my research, didn’t quite get the quotation right, either. It sounds as though Baldwin actually says something like: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost all of the time.” From the very beginning, then, this was a mutable textual object that was morphing and being misheard across mediums. ↩
I discuss this quotation and Baldwin’s tumultuous relationship with the Black Panthers more in my essay. See also Douglas Field, “Looking for Jimmy Baldwin: Sex, Privacy, and Black Nationalist Fervor.” ↩