“Your eyebrows are on fleek, grandma!”
My eight year old cousin twirled around the house, with a pack of bubblegum in one hand and a Barbie doll in another. My grandmother raised her eyebrows and shifted her gaze to meet mine.
“Fleek?” she asked. “What on earth is that? Where did that come from?”
I shrugged, and thought back to the first time I’d ever heard that strange new word. Twitter. The first time I’d seen the word “fleek” had been years before, while I scrolled my Twitter timeline during one of my lecture halls in college. Struggling to make eye contact with my professor, I would often hop from tweet to tweet, and leave class with a detailed dose of the daily news, trends, slang, and viral videos. I would occasionally have to muffle my laughter when I stumbled across a hilarious thread, or trending topic.
Twitter felt less like a website, and more like a realm. A realm that you could enter, kick up your feet, and stay a while in the good company of like-minded people. There was a built in community, a place to discover the newest trends, fresh music, and dive into serious topics that impacted marginalized communities. Twitter was a sanctuary; a church built from the ground up with walls made of gifs, pulpits carved from trending topics and a bible made up of scriptures that were 140 characters or less.
The traits of Twitter remind me of the descriptors my grandparents would use to describe their experience with the black church. It was a safe place for black people to gather, after enduring a week of surviving in a country that rejected them in the racially charged ’60s. Women would walk up and down the isles, modeling their boisterous church hats and Sunday best. People would giggle and guffaw outside the church, sharing the latest gossip and catching up on the news. Church members lived their own lives, but always has a safe space to return to. That’s what Twitter became for me. When something outlandish happened on reality TV, when police brutality was on the news, when Moonlight won Best Picture at the Oscars, I couldn’t wait to return to the Twitter timeline to see what the community had to say about it.
In addition to a sense of community for the marginalized, the black church and Twitter have two major things in common. Firstly, they both assist in the creation of American culture. Whitney Houston, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, and John Legend are just a few examples of powerhouse singers who got their start on the stage of a black church. These individuals have since gone on to impact their respective genres and shift music culture as a whole. Similarly, Twitter has provided America with pop-culture gems including “fleek” by Peaches Monroee, the “Damn Daniel” trend, #OscarsSoWhite trending topic that was instrumental in starting conversation around lack of diversity at the Oscars, #IfIDieInPoliceCustody, and #DabOnThemFolks that had everyone from Cam Newton to Paul Ryan dabbing in photographs.
Secondly, Twitter and the black church have both played a conducive role in propelling forth social justice movements. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke, brainstormed, and organized much of the civil rights movement within the walls of Ebenezer Baptist Church. The black church became the meeting ground for local resistance efforts, and a safe place to process the terrors of the fight for equality. That was for my grandparents, in the 1960s.
For millennials, Twitter became the source for firsthand information regarding modern racial injustice. When Michael Brown was shot dead 10 minutes from my childhood home in North County St. Louis, I rushed to Twitter to find out details of upcoming protests, first hand accounts from my friends, and for trustworthy information. Twitter is where I found out that Darren Wilson was legally vindicated in the killing of Michael Brown. Twitter is where I rushed to in order to mourn the fact that Donald Trump would indeed be the 45th president of the United States. Twitter is the place I’ve learned and processed life changing events in real time. It’s the much needed sanctuary I’ve needed as a queer woman of color living in a tense racial and political climate. The Twitter community has been the congregation that offers prayers and bible study groups in the form of supportive tweets and educational threads.
I never quite found my home within the physical walls of a black church like my parents or grandparents did. I don’t own any loud church hats (though if you find any, feel free to send them my way). Gospel music that shakes the earth with the stomping and praising of a congregation, has not been my life for quite sometime. Being queer, my place in the black church has always been a difficult topic to tackle. As long as my phone is charged though, all I have to do is click on a little blue bird, and I’m welcomed into a digital space that provides the sense of culture, community, and support that any church could.
Whether it’s talking with college students around the country through the #blackoncampus thread, live tweeting the entirety of #thewizlive, or even reviewing Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, Twitter is a sanctuary like no other. It may as well be called Mt. Zion Church of Digital Fellowship or St. Twitter Missionary. Something, anything to signify how important the social network has become for marginalized groups everywhere. My grandparents had their pastor, shouting on stage and invigorating the crowd with hope and a sense of community. For Twitter users such as myself, we have digital sermons of pop culture and social justice lead by Twitter favorites like Ijeoma Oluo, Khaled Beydoun, Samuel Sinyangwe, and Roxane Gay.
I look forward to the day that my kids open their history book, point to a little blue cartoon bird and ask “Mom, what’s a Twitter?” Hopefully, they’ll ask what “fleek” means too.