We’re living through a historical inflection point. Black Lives Matter has been described as the largest social movement in U.S. history—and will be discussed and dissected by historians for decades to come. But how will technology influence the ways this history is documented, disseminated, and taught in the future? And whose voices will be heard?
Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of History, Race and Public Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, examines broad intersections of race, democracy, inequality and criminal justice in modern U.S. history and thinks about questions like these regularly. As the former director of the Schomburg Center, the top Black history archive and library in the world, he’s also well positioned to dissect what smartphone video footage, Instagram memes, and YouTube channels mean for racial justice and Black freedom movements in the United States.
“Storytelling is nothing new,” Dr. Muhammad said. “But the speed and the ability with which people can harness a story about the past—with evidence—has [changed dramatically].”
From mimeograph to Instagram memes
Being able to capture and share historical examples, however recent, has long been pivotal to activists and organizers, Dr. Muhammad says. In the 1950s, civil rights leaders were using mimeograph machines, a low-cost duplicating machine, to produce fliers full of historical data to educate people on the legacy of slavery and other important events. Now that process happens much more quickly. Today, he said, his teenaged children often receive a similar message through memes on their Instagram accounts.
The official Black Lives Matter Instagram account is full of examples of how the movement uses social media to educate followers about Black history, such as a recent post about Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman to obtain a pilot’s license.
How movements use tech to teach history and change the future
“One of the things that people don’t often realize as students, before they become activists or organizers in their own right, is how much dedication movement-builders spend on teaching people about the history of the problem itself,” Dr. Muhammad said.
Organizers use technology in different ways, he points out. Some, like Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrisse Cullors, adeptly use platforms like YouTube, where she explores issues like COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on communities of color. Dr. Muhammad pointed out that civil rights activist host Deray McKesson’s media profile grew dramatically after the uprising in Ferguson, helping him reach the million Twitter followers he has today — and he now hosts a popular weekly podcast focused on social justice. Technology enables activists to speak directly to their audiences while sharing video and photos that help illustrate their cause. In addition, it also makes it easier for journalists to find the right people to interview and for activists to contact each other and organize, Dr. Muhammad said.