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I've spent my career explaining race, but hit a wall with Montgomery brawl memes

When you've built a career around explaining race and racism to people, what happens when you find a moment you just don't want to explain?

That time came for me this week, as memes were rocketing around social media connected to the brawl in Montgomery, Ala., where a crowd of mostly-Black bystanders ran to help a Black riverboat co-captain who was being assaulted by a group of white people. He had been attempting to move their pontoon boat, since it was blocking the ferry from docking in its regular space.

Video from various bystanders around the dock captured it all: The co-captain throwing his hat in the air, once a white man pushed him harshly; a different Black man whaling on people with a folding chair, including a white woman who was just sitting on the ground by then; a young Black man on a boat close by who jumped into the water and swam with amazing speed to the scene, jumping up to throw hands.

And, in moments, Black Twitter jumped to life (I know the social media platform is renamed X, but — for the purposes of this piece — I'm using the term to describe people being Black across lots of social media platforms. Harrumph).

There were images of people carrying folding chairs like holstered weapons. There was the graphic pointing out that an early design of the folding chair was patented by a Black man (seems to be true). The photoshopped picture showing glowing rings around Black folks rushing into the fight, mimicking the climax of Avengers: Endgame, where superheroes rushed in to save the day. A spirited re-enactment of the fight around someone's backyard pool which amped up the absurd humor of it all. Images dubbing the young swimmer Black Aquaman, Aquamayne and Blaquaman.

And two of my personal faves: A photoshopped image of the Martin Luther King Jr. statue holding a folding chair. And a version of the video remade as the opening to classic Black sitcom Good Times, with acerbic credits noting the show was "created by Consequences & Repercussions."

I was blown away by how quickly folks across social media — especially Black folks — were converting horror over a narrowly-averted, racialized beat down into funny memes celebrating the reflex of Black folks to stand up for one another, especially when we're faced with danger from white people.

But when I posted the photo of MLK's statue with the folding chair on my social media feeds, I just added one word: Wow.

I wanted the image to speak for itself. And I wanted people who had questions about what it meant to jump into social media and find out for themselves. I felt the image and its implied humor – that the nation's most revered civil rights leader might be hoisting a folding chair to defend Black folks in the modern age – was most powerful when not explained.

Unfortunately, some people on my social media platforms insisted on an explanation. One was pretty persistent about it. And I realized I just didn't want to explain the image, for some reason I couldn't quite put my finger on.

When explaining becomes too much of a burden

Yeah, it's sometimes tiring to always be asked to explain your cultural nuances to the world. But that's the gig I signed up for, many years ago, when I decided to write about race and media regularly. And yes, all the social media joking was hiding a fear that today's political climate has left racists emboldened to attack a Black man in broad daylight for doing his job. So explaining the memes only resurfaced those darker feelings in ways I wasn't quite ready to process right away.

Still, something else was also at play.

Social media is often like a giant dinner party, where people forget they are sometimes listening in on conversations between other people. In this case, being asked to explain the folding chair memes felt like having someone barge into an ongoing conversation to ask for an explanation.

I always say social media is often like a giant dinner party, where people forget they are sometimes listening in on conversations between other people. In this case, being asked to explain the folding chair memes felt like having someone barge into an ongoing conversation to ask for an explanation.

As I traded messages with people and retweeted the best memes, this felt like a moment where folks could be hilariously Black online and we could all share the experience together, laughing and consoling each other in one viral social media moment.

Someone popping up to demand an explanation felt like they were re-centering the conversation in a way I just wasn't willing to do right away.

Sometimes, in situations like that, understanding comes best by sitting back, listening widely, and learning. Even for me.

I originally wrote a version of this column for my personal Tumblr page, mostly as a way of processing a response that was new and unfamiliar for me. I don't know if this reaction is fair – especially given how much I've encouraged discussion about race over the years.

But it's all I have left, in a world where I increasingly feel like a frog in pot of steadily heating water, watching racists and racism get bolder — wondering when the heat will begin to burn me, my loved ones, my family, my friends and my people.

Or when I'll need to reach out for aid from a helpful brother with a folding chair.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.