By the evening of Jan. 6, after a day of breaking news coverage of unmasked and armed supporters of President Donald Trump storming the U.S. Capitol with little to no resistance from police or security, the phrase “Black Twitter” began trending with more than 1 million mentions amid an avalanche of jokes and clapbacks.
These tweets stem from the longstanding legacy and tradition of Black people laughing to keep from crying while just trying to survive in a country unapologetically founded on their violation and dehumanization.
Law enforcement criminalizes Black grief and liberation and celebrates and supports white rage.
Kevin Cokley, a professor of psychology and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin and former editor-in-chief of the Journal of Black Psychology, explained this by pointing to the widely regarded “godfather” of Black psychology, Joseph White, who names “gallows humor,” or dark comedy, as one of the seven psychological strengths of Black Americans.
A 2020 article titled “Laughing While Black: Resistance, Coping and the Use of Humor as a Pandemic Pastime Among Blacks” details this expression against the current backdrop of Covid-19. “Many Blacks use social media to deliberately confront the systems of power by inciting radical thought and critical discourse through resistance-type laughter and making people uncomfortable,” said co-author Corliss Outley, a professor and director of the Race, Ethnicity, Youth and Social Equity Collaboratory at Clemson University. “Humor in this sense strives to entertain and persuade by infiltrating the mind subtly compared to face-to-face conversation that may raise defenses.”
Later on the night of the insurrection, as I tried to find the most concise and impactful words to articulate my reaction to the day’s events, my mind kept returning to a recent meme of Raven-Symoné.
Like most memes, the context is not key (though here’s an explainer if you’re interested). Just know that the short video clip originated from a larger Instagram Live last April, during which the actress, singer and former Disney Channel legend of “That’s So Raven” and “Cheetah Girls” fame reunited with her former “Cheetah Girls” co-star and group member Kiely Williams to hash out their childhood beef.
The viral moment happens not during but immediately after the juicy exchange. We see Raven munching on the last of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in solitude, her facial expression and body language suggesting a careful, measured reflection on what just occurred. Then a hearty staccato chuckle tumbles out, breaking the silence and her composure before reaching a crescendo of pure unbridled cackling mirth. “Wow,” she manages to say before losing it again.
This clip, which has since gained 3 million views on Twitter, best illustrates the various stages I cycled through that day.
The gag is, this most certainly is America and white supremacy and all of its destructive trappings are the makers of its own tragic undoing.
Because I just think it’s funny how the officers’ response (or lack thereof) to the attack compares to law enforcement officers’ response to Black Lives Matter protestors months earlier; how people who are not Black, especially news reporters, continue to voice disbelief, surprise and shock about how it all went down; how political leaders insist that this is not who we are (partially correct), that this is not America.
Because the gag is, this most certainly is America and white supremacy and all of its destructive trappings are the makers of its own tragic, ironic undoing.
What’s even more revealing and empowering about the jokes circulating Black Twitter in this particular historic reckoning is the unapologetic Black schadenfreude.
Translating to damage (schaden) and joy (freude), the German word defines the experience of pleasure, satisfaction, or joy derived from another person’s misfortune, humiliation, or failings. (For context, Merriam-Webster reported a 30,500 percent spike in searches for the word when Trump revealed he had tested positive for Covid-19 after months of downplaying the deadly virus.)
Black schadenfreude is not petty or cruel or even shallow, but rather a valid psychological act of self-preservation and validation.
Tiffany Watt Smith offers an excellent example in her book “Schadefreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune” when she wrote, “The Hollywood villain gloating when Bond is caught by his dastardly plot is not experiencing Schadenfreude, but sadistic pleasure. By contrast, the sidekick who sniggers as a Hollywood villain is accidentally foiled by his own dastardly plot when he trips and presses the self-destruct button is enjoying Schadenfreude.”
Of course, neither coping through comedy nor schadenfreude are unique to Black people. Yet, as Cokley notes, the schadenfreude propagated on Black Twitter is unique in its intent to combat racial injustice and excoriate white supremacists from a relatively safe space. “This humor should not be misconstrued as callousness to human suffering, but rather a psychological strategy that Black people employ to cope with racism,” he said.
Similar instances of Black schadenfreude emerged earlier in the pandemic when Black Twitter users celebrated the fact that amid a history of racial health inequities caused by anti-Black systemic racism, Black people seemed to be immune to the coronavirus, with reports of cases and deaths focused solely on white people. But the inequity quickly appeared, in disproportionate rates of Covid-19 cases and deaths among the Black community that continue to this day.
To be clear, the humor lies in the comeuppance. This is not karmic payback, or anything based on deserved bad luck or some other force out of our control. What happened at the Capitol was a direct result of the values of white American supremacy that have forever reigned king.
A series of well-documented actions, particularly the silencing, criminalizing and erasure of anti-Black racism and pro-Black liberation, the transatlantic slave trade, the Jim Crow era, the civil rights movement, the war on drugs and even events as recent as the Black Lives Matter movement led right to this moment. Y’all have just clearly refused to ever listen to or believe Black people, too preoccupied with coddling (white) working-class voter bases threatened by social change and championing the figment that is both-sidesism.
Since their inception, both Black Lives Matter and the call to defund the police have merely demanded accountability and a reimagining of the institutions and systems that permitted the Jan. 6 attack to take place. But the liberation of the Black community for the liberation of all is apparently too steep of a price for even the most disenfranchised white American. Hence the rising Covid-19 cases and deaths, and hence the storming of the capitol.
It’s not just that we told white people so. It’s that we told y’all so persistently and pleadingly for the centuries we’ve risked our lives and sanity by trying to show and tell, rebelling and marching and protesting and teaching and kneeling and writing and filmmaking and researching and studying and singing and rapping and screaming and, yes, tweeting.
This all happened on a day that Black people, led by Black women, did the seemingly impossible. We flipped Georgia, delivered the Senate to Democrats and elected the state's first Black senator — a dark-skinned pastor with social justice roots, nonetheless. But more important, we stood up to unmitigated, ruthless and life-threatening voter suppression and won.
Yet it’s clear that even the most liberal white people and groups do not take our concerns seriously enough to mobilize among themselves and fight for their fellow disenfranchised citizens in a similar, urgent fashion.
For centuries, Black people have been gaslit, erased, ignored, punished, arrested, mocked, humiliated and killed trying to raise the alarms each and every time white supremacy threatened to wreak havoc on everyone — not just Black people.
So yes, there is satisfaction in very clear, indisputable proof that we weren’t wrong, or even crazy. That law enforcement criminalizes Black grief and liberation and celebrates and supports white rage. The most recent evidence is the officers who barely did anything to these people rampaging through the Capitol. As the NAACP recently reminded everyone, “They’ve killed us for less!”
That’s why “we told you so” feels so good, like breaking the surface of water after being held down and submerged, unable to breathe for lifetimes. Black schadenfreude is not petty or cruel or even shallow, but rather a valid psychological act of self-preservation and validation.
As Black people, we are not separated from the impacts of this mess; in fact, as the most vulnerable communities, we stand to bear the brunt of it.
“We may well be living in an age of schadenfreude, and fear that this emotion is leading us astray. But as with all emotions, condemning it only gets you so far,” Watt wrote about the complex makings of the psychological experience. “What we really need is to think afresh about the work this much-maligned emotion does for us, and what it tells us about our relationships with ourselves and each other.”
Cokley insisted that this schadenfreude is not unhealthy psychologically speaking, “unless of course it results in a complete indifference to the shared humanity and universal experience of pain and suffering.”
Schadenfreude and empathy aren’t mutually exclusive as some have posited. I completely understand why there is a sense of mourning of an imagined just Americanness, although I do not share those feelings because the America I know is rooted in white supremacy and the privilege of consciously and subconsciously choosing to ignore and silence Black people.
But more important, Black people don’t owe this country empathy. As author Kimberly Jones said in her own now-viral video from this summer, referring to Black Lives Matter protesters: "Far as I’m concerned, they could burn this bitch to the ground, and it still wouldn’t be enough. And they are lucky that what Black people are looking for is equality and not revenge.”
I didn’t want this to happen and neither did many of the Black people saying we told you so. And as Black people, we are not separated from the impact of this mess; in fact, as the most vulnerable communities, we stand to bear the brunt of it. But this evidently needed to happen to wake everyone up.
None of this is normal and yet it is the norm in the United States. How does that even work? That paradox is weird, it’s uncanny, it’s absurd as hell. But being proved right after being gaslit for forever feels good. Hopefully, this shared schadenfreude unites Black people and empowers us to recognize and employ the revolutionary and radical power in our foresight and collective knowledge.