Black Meme

Black Meme:A History of the Images that Make Us

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A history of Black imagery that recasts our understanding of visual culture and technology

In BLACK MEME, Legacy Russell, awardwinning author of the groundbreaking GLITCH FEMINISM, explores the “meme” as mapped to Black visual culture from 1900 to the present, mining both archival and contemporary media.

Russell argues that without the contributions of Black people, digital culture would not exist in its current form. These meditations include the circulation of lynching postcards; why a mother allowed JET magazine to publish a picture of her dead son, Emmett Till; and how the televised broadcast of protesters in Selma changed the debate on civil rights. Questions of the media representation of Blackness come to the fore as Russell considers how citizen-recorded footage of the LAPD beating Rodney King became the first viral video. Why the Anita Hill hearings shed light on the media’s creation of the Black icon. The ownership of Black imagery and death is considered in the story of Tamara Lanier’s fight to reclaim the daguerreotypes of her enslaved ancestors from Harvard. Meanwhile the live broadcast on Facebook of the murder of Philando Castile by the police after he was stopped for a broken taillight forces us to bear witness to the persistent legacy of the Black meme.

Through imagery, memory, and technology, BLACK MEME shows us how images of Blackness have always been central to our understanding of the modern world.


  • A riveting history of the images that have made and maimed Black people in an omnivorous white culture, one that stretches across centuries and technologies, from street to cyberspace; from the violence we suffer to the virtuosity we invent. You will be galvanized by Legacy Russell’s analytic brilliance and visceral eloquence.

    Margo Jefferson, author of Constructing a Nervous System
  • Unsettles, expands and deepens our understanding of the black meme. At the center of this book is work. How black bodies, divorced from context and circulating, are made to do all kinds of cultural work in perpetuity. Throughout, Russell stays with black/ness as viral material, encourages us to consider memes with "slowness," and wonders what might intervene in and end this perpetual labor. Black Meme is necessary reading; brilliant and utterly convincing

    Christina Sharpe, author of Ordinary Notes
  • What is a meme? Legacy Russell's provocative answer takes readers on an unexpected journey that loops back to the early twentieth century, then propels us forward to see our hyper-digitized twenty-first century through new eyes. Mapping the trajectory of pivotal conjunctures in the history of digital media and visual culture, her incisive insights and compelling prose show us that Black virality is fundamentally constitutive of the internet, as well as the ongoing predicament of Black life past, present and future.

    Tina Campt, author of Listening to Images