Professor Discusses Intersection of Social Media, Social Justice

Analyzing imagery and rhetoric from Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” to President Barack Obama’s quotations of Jay Z, Duke University professor Mark Anthony Neal emphasized the relationship between social media and social justice at an event hosted by Harvard’s Hiphop Archive & Research Institute yesterday.

Neal, a professor of African and African American studies and fellow at the Hiphop Archive, argued that social media has played an essential role in social justice movements within black communities for centuries, contrary to the common understanding of social media as limited to modern technology like Facebook and Twitter.

“The inspiration for this talk and this line of work has to do with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King,” he said. “What would their relationship have been like if either one of them had access to a Blackberry? In so many ways, their conversations and who they were were mediated by mass media.”

Neal continued that social media has been integral to connectivity within black communities, playing a fundamental role in the structure of black culture and life. He highlighted as examples the various communication forms used by slave communities on southern plantations to stay connected, as well as the discourse of the 1980s hip-hop music scene.

Modern social media have allowed social justice movements to spread faster and more interactively, primarily as a result of access to technology and the internet, he said.

Jason C. B. Lee ’08, a student at Harvard Divinity School, said that Neal made him question his previous conceptions of the utility of “social media.”

“I came in somewhat skeptical on how we could use social media for social justice today,” he said. “But the idea that social media was just a new take on the ways in which black communities had already figured out how to communicate to each other resonated with me."

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