Symposium

Narrative extraction, #BlackPantherSoLIT, and signifyin': Black Panther fandom and transformative social practices

Tracy Deonn Walker

Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, United States

[0.1] Abstract—This article examines the history, creative labor, and social practices around the #BlackPantherSoLIT hashtag on Twitter. Two years before the Black Panther movie event, the hashtag created a fandom of Blackness itself. Once the film was released, Black audiences experienced freedom from fan labor practices typically used when consuming content without significant Black representation.

[0.2] Keywords—Black American culture; Fan labor; Fans of color; Race; Transformative works; Twitter

Walker, Tracy Deonn. 2019. "Narrative Extraction, #BlackPantherSoLIT, and Signifyin': Black Panther Fandom and Transformative Social Practices." In "Fans of Color, Fandoms of Color," edited by Abigail De Kosnik and andré carrington, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 29. https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2019.1643.

1. Narrative extraction as Black fan labor

[1.1] Science fiction and fantasy fans are adept at stretching their imaginations to include fictional concepts in science fiction, technology, and human abilities. This sometimes takes a bit of effort, depending on how the narrative is presented, but that is what fans sign up for. That stretching, imaginative labor is part of our fun. What nonmarginalized fans may not realize is that marginalized audiences take on additional yokes of labor in order to enjoy and identify with content that does not present their lives and/or lived experiences in full dimension. We not only stretch our imaginations, but we mine and extend the narrative itself in order to see ourselves in it, like Tony Stark manipulating a hologram to gain new understandings (figure 1).

A man in a laboratory stands behind a semi-transparent wall of glowing holographic images and uses his hands to manipulate them.

Figure 1. Screen capture GIF of Tony Stark manipulating a hologram in the Marvel Studios film Iron Man 2 (2010).

[1.2] I call this labor "narrative extraction." I define narrative extraction as the process and labor that audience members undertake when engaging with narratives that don't represent them as protagonists or fully realized characters. By fully realized, I mean round characters instead of flat ones, characters with agency, characters whose actions affect the story's plot. Narrative extraction is the work of finding, creating, and translating identification—and meaning—when one is not represented. For the purposes of this article, I am focusing on this concept as it relates to Black fan consumption and labor.

[1.3] An example of narrative extraction is the practice of Black fans claiming cartoon characters as Black. In these cases, the animated characters are either racially ambiguous, nonracially defined, or even nonhuman, and yet Black fans and children find a way to pull the narrative closer to themselves by assigning Blackness where it fits. For me, that list includes Patti Mayonnaise and Skeeter from Doug (1991–99), Arthur and D. W. from Arthur (1996–present), Goofy and his son Max from A Goofy Movie (1995), and the Pink Panther from The Pink Panther Show (1969–80). Some of the characters had darker complexions, sure, but others just felt Black to me. They were Black by behavior. Black by their humor, their resilience, their style, and their cleverness. It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized I wasn't the only one who pulled cartoons closer to me by racializing the characters. Sarah Hagi (2017), noting that many Black people share this practice, finds support in the work of Lisa Nakamura, a professor at the University of Michigan whose work focuses on how race is portrayed online: "Nakamura also believes a big part of finding these non-human characters black has to do with 'finding yourself in places where you're not supposed to be.' It's almost an act of resistance. We didn't see ourselves reflected in what we loved to watch as a child, so we created our own narratives despite being showed our representation didn't matter."

[1.4] Narrative extraction is about digging through the narrative to claim what can be claimed. Another manifestation is in claiming and owning the individual elements of a story that feel most identifiable and true. Once those are found, they become our point of access. Salamishah Tillet (2018) describes her experience of reading the classic book A Wrinkle in Time (1962) prior to seeing the 2017 movie starring Storm Reid, a Black actress, as Meg. Tillet explains: "But for African-American girls like me, identification with Meg was not as easy. Even as we saw parts of ourselves in Meg's heroism, we also had to resist our own invisibility in a novel that was unable or unwilling to imagine any people of color as inhabitants of the many planets, including Earth, to which its characters traveled."

[1.5] I deeply understand Tillet's experience here, because I also had similar feelings when reading the novel as a teenager. This work required digging into the earth of the story to pull out the things that belonged to me. Like Tillet, I mined the character of Meg. Tillet writes, "So instead of seeing my full self in Meg, I ended up cherry-picking the traits to which I could relate: her bravery and intelligence, or even more rare her feelings of abandonment and anger caused by her father's absence" (2018). Beyond these traits, I felt a kinship with Meg's stubborn nature. (My mother had once described me as stubborn and so did my teachers, as Meg's did.) I extracted and synthesized and cowrote a mental narrative of Meg that was separate from her physical appearance. Meg was enough of me that I could make that story my own and not feel ignored by it. Meg was me-enough.

[1.6] Every fan who creates a transformative work is creating something new from narrative content, but this labor typically begins after the initial engagement. Fans watch a television show and then go home to write a fic in that world. Fans play a video game, and then sew a costume to cosplay as their favorite character. A key difference with the conceptualization of narrative extraction as fan labor is that it is work that occurs in real time in order for marginalized fans to experience, identify with, and enjoy the non-POC-led work. It's an experiential and consumptive process done as we view the movie, as we watch the television show, as we read the book. This is the labor required in order to "resist our own invisibility" (Tillet 2018).

[1.7] So, what then is the result when Black fans don't need to do this work? What is the experience of viewing a film that does not require extractive analysis and synthesis in order to see oneself in the story? Or in order to identify with the protagonist or the characters with agency? The answer is, quite simply, relief. An immense feeling of relaxation and empowerment vis-à-vis representation. Familiar consumptive muscles were able to let go, because the story was not us-adjacent, it was us-direct.

2. Black Panther as a cultural event

[2.1] Black Panther think pieces have hailed the 2018 Marvel release as not just a movie, but a movement. Not just a theatrical film, but an event. Not just a superhero spectacle, but a cultural phenomenon. Black Panther embedded itself into my lived experience as a Black fan in ways that no other movie—MCU or not—had before. I found that I was carrying the film with me as I moved through the world; Black Panther came up in my conversations with Black people who were strangers, as if we were old friends. I once chatted about Black Panther with the parking attendant at my doctor's office garage. "You seen Black Panther yet?" was, for the month of February 2018, a perfectly adequate way to greet another Black person. It was our way of checking in. For a while, Black Panther was in the air we breathed.

[2.2] As an obsessed fangirl, I saw the movie in the theaters several times, not only to throw my fannish weight behind content I loved and wanted more of but also to seek out and relive the emotions generated by representation: affirmation, joy, hope, pride. Each time I went to the theater, I saw Black moviegoers in friend and family groups. Group photos of fans at theaters were common on social media (figure 2).

The tweet, which was posted on the opening weekend for the film, features an image of a family outside of a movie theater and in front of the <em>Black Panther</em> movie poster. They are wearing sweatshirts with images of the continent of Africa printed across them, and the children are wearing Black Panther character costume masks.

Figure 2. Screenshot of a February 15, 2018, tweet from Twitter user @eazy_jeezy. The tweet was posted on opening weekend for the film, and appears to show a photo taken by a family on that same weekend.

[2.3] As a fan-scholar, however, I watched in fascination both before the movie released and during its theatrical run as familiar fannish practices and fan labor, such as the production of fan content after media has been consumed, got flipped and deployed in ways I had never seen before.

3. #BlackPantherSoLIT: A fandom phenomenon almost two years in the making

[3.1] In May of 2016, casting announcements for the Black Panther film, which included multiple prominent Black actors such as Lupita N'yongo and Michael B. Jordan, moved Twitter user @BPSoLIT to create the hashtag, #BlackPantherSoLIT (note 1). The hashtag quickly went viral on Black Twitter, a term I'm using here to refer to both the digital community of Black Twitter users and the ecosystem of content created and circulated by and for Black Twitter users. Clicking hashtags allows users on Twitter to view related tweets by other users and, in some cases, track ongoing and/or trending conversations. Black Twitter's tweets leading up to the movie expanded the basic conversation-linking functionality of the social media hashtag by creatively integrating additional content in their hashtagged tweets. Examples of this additional content include images, GIFs, video clips, and in-community references.

[3.2] Prior to Black Panther, my experience of fan production had been that fans generate work in a postcontent setting. For example, a fan might go home to write fan fiction about favorite characters from a movie they've just seen in the theater, or they might draw fan art of a show they've been watching obsessively for months. The timeline of origin for #BlackPantherSoLIT is significant, because fans created their own often transformative content in an entirely precontent setting. Fans were generating creative content around and in response to the film not only before the film premiered but before we had seen a trailer, and even before filming began in January of 2017 (figure 3).

Her tweet includes a screen capture of the Black Panther characters Shuri and T

Figure 3. Screenshot of a February 9, 2018, tweet from Tananarive Due, an award-winning horror fiction author and educator. A few days before the film premiered, Due tweeted about the role of the #BlackPantherSoLIT hashtag in the film's fan community and the hashtag's timeline of origin.

4. Narrative insertion: Black fans call in media, pop culture, and history

[4.1] #BlackPantherSoLIT creators did referential, generative, intertextual work. Their tweets called in other popular media and history as much as they called out fans' excitement and anticipation for the film itself. I call this labor practice calling in because it is a practice in opposition to narrative extraction. Calling in is invitational instead of extractive. The end results are collage-like tweets that, like other types of transformative works, create a new end product with ingredients from the original text. These tweets relied on intertextualities to make meaning out of the very idea of a film no one had seen yet. By calling in outside narratives to help tell the story of the film, the tweets communicated claims about the film's cultural context and role.

[4.2] In one tweet by user @mnmtwinz, a momentous moment in Black history was called in. @mnmtwinz's tweet (figure 4) makes reference both to the 1965 civil rights march to Selma on the Edmund Pettus bridge and the dramatized version of this same march in director Ava DuVernay's 2014 historical film, Selma. This reference, read alongside #BlackPantherSoLIT, suggests that Black Panther is a historical event for the Black community, not just a pop culture event, and connects the act of viewing the film to a lineage of communal action.

This tweet includes the hashtag #BlackPantherSoLIT and a screen capture from <em>Selma,</em> the 2014 historical drama film directed by Ava DuVernay. The text of the tweet reads "#BlackPantherSoLIT we gon March to the theater on release day like."

Figure 4. Screenshot of a May 14, 2016, tweet from Twitter user @mnmtwinz. The tweet itself includes a screen capture from Ava DuVernay's historical drama, Selma.

[4.3] Some users drew a direct line between Black Panther and Coming to America (1988) starring Eddie Murphy, a film often cited as a milestone for Black representation. Coming to America and the Black Panther comic book the film is based on both tell stories of African royalty in and outside of the diaspora. They also both provide powerful and positive images of what Blackness and Africa could have been without colonization. The tweets below use Coming to America screen captures and clips alongside #BlackPantherSoLIT and suggest that fans will be dressing, attending, and/or leaving the theater not just as fans or audience members but as royalty themselves. Read together, the film imagery and the tweets suggest that the film will be transformative and empowering (figures 5, 6, 7, and 8).

The image includes a screen capture from the 1988 film <em>Coming to America.</em> The tweet reads "What y’all wearing to go see Black Panther movie? Me: ."

Figure 5. Screenshot of a tweet from within blogger MissMondayMonday's February 5, 2018, post titled "Black Panther. So. Lit." The tweet includes a screen capture from Coming to America (1998).

This tweet features a screen capture video clip from the 1988 film <em>Coming to America.</em> In this scene of the film, members of the royal family from the fictional wealthy African country of Zamunda exit their limousine and are greeted by servants tossing flower petals. The tweet text reads: "In 2018, I’ll be walking into the movie theater like this! #BlackPantherSoLIT."

Figure 6. Screenshot of a May 13, 2016, tweet from Twitter user @RyanMcBain. The tweet features a screen capture GIF from Coming to America in which members of the royal family from the fictional wealthy African country of Zamunda exit their limousine and are greeted by servants tossing flower petals.

This tweet features a screen capture video clip from the 1988 film <em>Coming to America</em> in which the main character, fictional Prince Akeem, arrives in the United States dressed extravagantly and with a full royal entourage. The tweet text reads: "How I’m gonna act as soon as I step out of the theatre #BlackPantherSoLIT."

Figure 7. Screenshot of a May 13, 2016, tweet from Twitter user @amzilla22. This tweet features a screen capture GIF from Coming to America in which the main character, fictional Prince Akeem, arrives in the United States dressed extravagantly and with a full royal entourage.

[4.4] One fan added a second pop culture reference to the use of Coming to America by quoting a lyric made popular from Beyoncé's Formation, a 2016 pop anthem and narrative video that celebrates and dramatizes aspects of Black culture in the United States. The layering of this Beyoncé reference into the tweet adds a call for solidarity among Black audiences and fans, suggesting that the community must come together to support the film (figure 8).

A screen capture from <em>Coming to America</em> is used alongside a lyric from "Formation," Beyoncé’s pop anthem. The tweet text reads: "Lets Get In Formation people...this is not a drill lol #BlackPantherSoLIT." A crowd of Black people in colorful celebration attire stand together.

Figure 8. Screenshot of a May 13, 2016, tweet from Twitter user @sarcasticblerd.

5. #BlackPantherSoLIT as a form of signifyin'

[5.1] In her piece, "Tweets, Tweeps, and Signifyin': Communication and Cultural Performance on 'Black Twitter'," Sarah Florini (2014) describes the ways in which Black Twitter serves as a site for signifyin'. The phrase signifyin' operates alongside the meaning-making function of language, semiotics, and signs but is used as a broad umbrella term for certain types of African American rhetorical play and oral traditions. Common verbal practices under this umbrella include the use of figurative language, doublespeak, wordplay, and engaging in participatory verbal games or contests. Connecting signifyin' to Black Twitter, Florini says, "Signifyin' serves as an interactional framework that allows Black Twitter users to align themselves with Black oral traditions, to index Black cultural practices, to enact Black subjectivities, and to communicate shared knowledge and experiences" (224). In Florini's essay, she examines specific types or subgenres of the signifyin' as they play out on Twitter. Following in Florini's footsteps, I turned to the specific format and popularity of certain #BlackPantherSoLIT tweets to understand how they might be operating within this framework.

[5.2] As the imagery of the word viral suggests, viral web content is made popular due to rapid sharing between users and their networks. Web content can spread even further, even faster when shared by websites and blogs with large readerships. Within days of #BlackPantherSoLIT's creation, sites and blogs like Nerd Reactor, Mic, Collider, The Source, and HipHopWired published articles about the hashtag and its popularity, often with live, embedded tweets in their posts. But I believe that the framework of signifyin' on Black Twitter contributed to the popularity and virality of #BlackPantherSoLIT tweets because many of these tweets became a digitized version of the signifyin' game, playing the dozens.

[5.3] Playing the dozens or The Dozens is a rhetorical game of one-upmanship, sometimes performed in front of an audience. In this form of signifyin', participants compete by going back and forth with increasingly humorous and astute insults in order to one-up one another. Insults may poke fun at a competitor's mother, their appearance, their intelligence, or another personal topic. The typical sentence structure for the insults in this game is "Yo [possession] is so X that Y." Insults in a typical Dozens game escalate, with the goal being to make one's competitor give up the contest.

[5.4] In the hands of Black Twitter, this game became inverted during #BlackPantherSoLIT's early popularity; it didn't challenge a competitor to win, it asked a community of users to join. If we read the phrase #BlackPantherSoLIT as a condensed variation of the insult sentence structure of the Dozens ("Black Panther is so lit that…") each tweet challenges community members to offer up a new take on how lit, or how great, the movie will be. In this way, the hashtag used the Dozens to uplift, not tear down, and to bring the Black Twitter community together in the creation of these intertextual tweets. The examples below (figures 9, 10, and 11) can be read in the Dozens structure and rely on shared knowledge and what Florini calls "cultural competencies" for humorous effect (2014, 229).

The tweet text reads: "#BlackPantherSoLIT when they ask me for my ticket at the door imma tell em." Above that text is a screenshot of a GIF clip from the 1993 cult hip-hop movie <EM>CB4</EM> and overlaid on this image is a song lyric from the scene in the movie. The lyric reads: "I’m biggy-black-blackety-black and I’m black." In the GIF clip from the movie, a Black man is wearing traditional African kente cloth and staring at the camera as he raps.

Figure 9. Screenshot of a May 13, 2016, tweet from Twitter user @DubOnDaBeatz. Above the text is a screenshot of a GIF from the 1993 cult hip-hop movie CB4 and overlaid on this image is a song lyric from the scene in the movie. This GIF is a common meme and in-community reference within Black Twitter. If read in full Dozens structure, this tweet might become "Black Panther is so lit, that when they ask me for my ticket at the door imma tell em (I'm biggy-black-blackety-black and I'm black)." A culturally competent viewer of this tweet and GIF would be able to sing the lyrics as the end of the sentence.

This tweet includes the hashtag #BlackPantherSoLIT and features a GIF clip from <em>The Blues Brothers</em> (1980), in which James Brown is performing in front of a church choir. He is a Black man singing in a bright pink and purple choir robe in front of a choir and musician. The tweet text reads: "Opening night will be like #BlackPanther #BlackPantherSoLIT."

Figure 10. Screenshot of a February 9, 2018, tweet from Twitter user Tananarive Due. The invocation of James Brown alongside the image of a Black church and choir is a powerful visual. It also serves as a layered in-community reference to a Black musical icon, Black spirituality, and the Black church community. If considered in full Dozens structure, this tweet might be read as "Black Panther is so lit that opening night will be like (Black church, the feeling of being in church, a spiritual experience, etc.)."

This tweet features a GIF clip from <em>Soul Train</em> (1971–2006), the long-running music and dance television show often featuring Black social dances and music popularized by Black artists, such as R&B, soul, and hip-hop. The tweet text reads: "#BlackPantherSoLIT there will be a soul train line when you enter the theater." The image is of two women in pink party outfits dancing down the open center of a soul train line, a format where dancers line up in two parallel rows and allow dancers to dance down the center to showcase their skills.

Figure 11. Screenshot of a May 13, 2016, tweet from Twitter user @KiraJW. This tweet features a GIF from Soul Train (1971–2006), the long-running music and dance television show often featuring Black social dances and music popularized by Black artists, such as R&B, soul, and hip-hop. If read in full Dozens structure, this tweet might become, "Black Panther is so lit, there will be a soul train line when you enter the theater."

[5.5] Florini's analysis of dissing, another game of verbal insults, as it operates on Twitter echoes my earlier thought about the Beyoncé/Coming to America tweet in figure 8 and its encouragement of solidarity. She says of dissing, "For Black users within this tradition, their performances are not only about them as individuals but also about encouraging others to participate, thereby generating a sense of solidarity." In the case of #BlackPantherSoLIT, community momentum around these types of Dozens tweets and their inclusion of escalating in-community references created a fandom of Blackness itself, alongside a fandom for Black Panther. So, when the film finally premiered, it felt to me like a culmination of community labor and shared enthusiasm. It felt like we helped make it.

6. Conclusion

[6.1] In the months following Black Panther, much has been made of its box-office earnings, its Oscar potential, and its cultural impact, but the examples of Black fan labor are what I find most meaningful.

[6.2] Black Panther's cultural significance is not just what it generated but what it removed. It removed the need for chronic narrative labor on the part of Black audiences, Black women, and Black fans. In place of that labor of viewing while Black or loving stories that didn't always love us back, there was relief. And Black Panther's offering of relief is part of what made it revolutionary.

[6.3] #BlackPantherSoLIT did not wait until the film had been released to call it an achievement. The hashtag did not wait until fans had passed judgment to generate a fandom. Black Twitter's signifyin', its joy and its incorporation of broader markers of Black culture and its confidence in the film's significance brought grassroots authenticity to the hype in a way that trailers couldn't.

[6.4] I watched Black Panther as a fangirl and as a scholar, but what will stick with me for years to come is the memory of watching it as a daughter. On my last viewing, I brought my seventy-one-year-old Black father to the theater, even though he'd never seen an MCU movie before and he doesn't go to the movies in general. I paid for his ticket, knowing he might not go if I didn't. I watched the movie for myself, but I kept peeking at my father beside me to see his reaction. He watched, rapt and engaged. He laughed when Shuri teased T'Challa, his eyes grew wide at the Wakandan tech. He also shook his head solemnly at N'Jobu's plight and the representation of civil rights in Oakland. I watched him sigh heavily at T'Challa's fight with his father on the ancestral plane. At the end, my father left the theater impressed and moved. He said, "Thank you for bringing me. I never thought they'd put us onscreen like that."

7. Acknowledgment

[7.1] This piece draws in part on related work I pursued while doing graduate coursework at Duke University under my former professor and friend Dr. Negar Mottahedeh. I'm thankful for her work on hashtag labor and online communities.

8. Note

1. When @BPSoLIT originated the hashtag #BlackPantherSoLIT, they spelled the word lit in all caps. However, after the hashtag went viral, it was sometimes spelled #BlackPantherSoLit by other users. I used both spellings in my searches and in this piece as they were used by content creators.

9. References

Florini, Sarah. 2014. "Tweets, Tweeps, and Signifyin': Communication and Cultural Performance on 'Black Twitter'." Television and New Media 15 (3): 223–37. https://doi.org/10.1177/1527476413480247.

Hagi, Sarah. 2017. "All Your Favorite Cartoon Characters are Black." Vice, April 21, 2017. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/bme7bq/all-your-favourite-cartoon-characters-are-black.

Tillet, Salamishah. 2018. "I Saw Myself in A Wrinkle in Time. But I Had to Work Hard." New York Times, March 9, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/09/movies/a-wrinkle-in-time-personal-essay.html.