Art by Breanna Wright

How Black Women Made GIFs Into a Language of Self-Expression

GIFs give voice to Black women who, because of their shared erasure and oppression, often communicate in a silent dialogue.

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Feb 20 2019, 5:01pm

Art by Breanna Wright

In Browsing Black History, we celebrate Black History Month by exploring the origins of internet trends and icons popularized by Black cultural producers, too often left uncredited for their work.

Natalie Cole stepped onto the stage in a sequined dress with matching gloves to accept her 1992 Adult Contemporary Artist honor during the American Music Awards. Before she thanked her proverbial list of supporters, she addressed Whitney Houston who was nominated in the same category. “I don’t know how many times that Whitney and I have been in the same category together,” she says looking directly at the singer, “but I’m gonna enjoy this one!” Cole points to a seated Houston in the aisle and Houston points back, both laughing hysterically.

They weren’t just powerhouse music contemporaries, they were two friends who were winning awards and defying the odds as incredibly successful Black women. In a way, it was a win for both of them, which made the moment all the more sweeter. The camaraderie and the instinctual connection between the two icons felt familiar; so familiar that 27 years later in GIF form that single moment is used time and time again to describe the unspeakable, unbreakable bond between Black women.

It’s no secret that Black women are influential, especially online. Movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have been created by Black women on social media. Yet, Black women are 84 percent more likely to be targeted than white women online and are consistent arbiters of culture, despite not being given proper credit. Because of this, many Black women have utilized the internet to find support in the form of a digital sisterhood.

“When I think of sisterhood, the GIF that always comes to mind is the one where Whitney Houston and Natalie Cole are pointing at each other, like that excitement,” Sylvia Obell, host and producer of Buzzfeed News’ Hella Opinions tells Broadly. “That’s us whenever anyone puts off anything fire online, whether it’s a tweet, a story, or picture, it’s like, ‘Yas!’ because we want to see each other win.”

There are countless GIFs that work as a silent dialogue between Black women, who in their intersectionality deal with a level of erasure and oppression often not felt by other marginalized groups. Digitally, this plays out in public conversations that feel intimate. Certain GIFs used by Black women directly reveal emotions, thoughts, or intentions not immediately recognizable to others.

“We know only what we know, and nobody else knows that. And as much as they want to be a part of this sisterhood, it’s not theirs,” says Obell. “It’s like we’re used to having to find each other in the world, in real life, and I think that’s not a skill set that you have when you’re not a minority of any kind because you’re used to being in the room with people who look like you so it’s not surprising how fast we’re able to find each other online and build that kinship because we’re doing it every place we go.”

It could be Issa Rae’s “I’m rooting for everybody Black” GIF at a majority-white award show or Oprah Winfrey curling her lip during an emotional moment from her talk show, but there’s a familiarity in these moments—even with the most famous of women—that reveal a universal connection untouched by socio-economic background or clout.

“One of the things that we’re often aware of is that we’re all we got,” Britni Danielle, author and culture writer, tells Broadly about the connection Black women share, even on digital platforms.

Danielle adds, “History tells us [that] if there’s stuff about race, it’s mostly geared toward Black men. If there’s stuff about feminism, it’s geared toward white women. So I think we understand that we stand at a unique crossroads of race and gender and our experiences are inherently different, particularly when it comes to our white female counterparts and from our Black male peers. Too often times throughout history Black women always relied on each other.”

On February 13, Twitter user Darian Symoné Harvin posted a photo of herself at the Louvre standing in front of the Mona Lisa. She encouraged other Black women to reply with photos of themselves in the same spot. It was a way to challenge beauty standards and to garner that same digital sisterhood regularly expressed through shared GIFs—and the replies came flooding in. The tweet garnered 9.7K retweets, 65K likes, and 1.8K replies. It was a digital makidada that was picked up by Daily Mail, and even had one Twitter user commenting, “Black History Month may not be canceled after all,” after a month of bad news. But it also spoke to the parallel experience of being a Black woman in a traditionally white space, while unapologetically having a clear sense of agency.

“This was not meant to be a Black elitist traveler thread,” Harvin tweeted. “I just feel like Mona Lisa has been fed as this ‘traditionally beautiful’ woman, and when I see Black women stand confidently in front of it, I think it pushes back against this notion of who is beautiful.”

For Kelechi Okafor a London-based actor, director, and personal trainer, unexpected support from a digital sisterhood in the fitness community actually helped her open her own fitness studio. Three years ago, she pitched her twerkshops to a predominately white studio only to be told that her style was “too basic.” Okafor references the Viola Davis handbag GIF from How to Get Away With Murder as one of her favorite GIFs to use when reacting to the critique. That GIF is the perfect summation of how Okafor and the women who showed up to support her felt. However, instead of posting a GIF, Okafor ranted on Twitter about the ridiculousness of the situation. She caught the attention of Black Girl Long Hair, who posted a news story about her plight, leading to a viral conversation about ownership.

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“I realized just how intimidated some white people get when Black women attempt to take up space in a conversation that they essentially created,” Okafor says. “The story went viral and it was beautiful to see other Black women come to affirm my personhood when the white women simultaneously wanted to be both aggressor and victim [the studio owner accused her of sending a “gang of haters” to attack], so I could be the ‘angry Black woman.’”

On the importance of kinship, Okafor adds, “The digital space is a lucrative space and can be a healing space. It is therefore important for Black women to support each other to heighten our visibility and as a way to collectively begin healing from the trauma inflicted by this society.”