Photo by Carletta Girma

Renina Jarmon On The Power Of Black Girls On And Off The Internet


In celebration of Black History Month, NYLON is running a spotlight series called UNAPOLOGETIC. Every day, we’ll celebrate different aspects of black culture through profiles, interviews, roundtables, reviews, videos, and op-eds. #Blacklivesmatter and we hold that truth to be self-evident.

You may not know Renina Jarmon by name, but there's no doubt that you've stumbled across her work. In addition to working full-time as both an artist and doctoral candidate, Jarmon is the creator of #Blackgirlsarefromthefuture, a viral hashtag that snowballed into a movement and global community. For Jarmon, the hashtag goes deeper than social media though—it's the essence of her life.

Prior to this buzz, Jarmon was a member of the Crunk Feminist Collective from 2010 to 2013, and has been running the site New Model Minority for the past 10 years. She is also the author of Black Girls Are From the Future: Essays on Race, Digital Creativity and Pop Culture and the children's book Niama's Adventures.

All of Jarmon's research focuses on race, identity, and the internet. She initially developed an interest in these subjects when she started blogging. 

"My first-hand experience as a blogger showed me that there were vital, unstable, and intellectually rigorous worlds within worlds online," she says. "There are worlds, archives, and communities embedded in social media spaces that evolved to support black women’s creative work online."

When Jarmon moved on to her graduate school studies, it dawned on her that "it would be both dynamic and rewarding to study what black women were doing within social media spaces." She adds, "I was initially reluctant to study communities that I was a part of, but I am happy with my choice."

Jarmon is currently a lecturer at the University of Maryland College Park and resides in Washington, D.C. Learn more about her in the interview, below.

Tell me about your childhood and growing up. How has your culture or heritage shaped the person you are today? 

I am from East Oakland, California. Oakland played a very special role in shaping me in that it is a space that cultivates independent, entrepreneurial spirits. Oakland is colorful, vital, authentic and a world into itself in many ways. I am proud that it is my home.

What has your experience been like teaching at the University of Maryland? What subjects are you covering in your courses?

I love teaching. At the University of Maryland College Park, I have taught 'Black Culture in the U.S.,' 'Black Women in Pop Culture: From the Blues to Beyonce,' and 'Introduction to Women’s Studies.'  In 'Black Culture in the U.S.' we cover black art and culture in the U.S. from chattel slavery up until the election of President Barack Obama. I use a variety of books, films, documentaries, and photographs to explore the black culture over a 100-year period. Furthermore, the course explores how black people have responded creatively to racial oppression and domination. We examine how black history is central to U.S. history. I created 'Black Women in Pop Culture: From the Blues to Beyonce.' It is a very popular class, in that I often have former students who elect to take the course with me. We explore a variety of creative forms where we see immense contributions from black women such as jazz, the blues, visual art, photography, filmmaking, and writing. Students are always really interested in learning about black women hidden figures within the realms of art and activism. We cover Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Hazel Carby, Michelle Wallace, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Julie Dash, Kasi Lemons, Anita Hill, Kara Walker, Dee Barnes, and Beyoncé Knowles Carter.

Do you think that the internet is a useful and powerful space for black women creatives?

I think that that internet is a powerful place for a few reasons. First, it allows for instant publishing of ideas globally via social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram as well as on blogs. Second, it allows for people to support artists that they otherwise would not have access to. There is a way in which for black women to garner support from people all over the world. For example, I have had people purchase Black Girls Are From the Future books, stickers, and tote bags in the U.S., and in London, South Africa, and Canada as well. However the internet can be a treacherous place in that people are often inclined to think that work created on the internet is not created by a human being, thus it does not deserve to be credited. Add this to the fact that black women have historically had their work stolen, uncredited, and erased and it makes for a hostile environment for making creative work. Social media spaces, in the age of the smartphone, act as a huge copying machine. Artists and other creative individuals have to be intentional about protecting their work. It is not a game.

There are several hashtags that embody black womanhood such as #QuirkyBlackGirls, #Blackgirlsarefromthefuture and #BlackGirlMagic. Which hashtags inspire you and what do they tell us about black women on the internet?

#QuirkyBlackGirls was started by Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Moya Bailey and was maintained by a collective of 10 writers in 2008 as an online space to 'maintain the bravery' of self-identified quirky black girls. I was immensely influenced by Quirky Black Girls. I felt seen on my own terms within the Quirky Black Girl community. Consequently, I created #Blackgirlsarefromthefuture in 2010 in order to affirm how black women and girls are always ahead of our time, that we are beyond assimilation. #CareFreeBlackGirl was first used by Zeba Blay in 2013, and according to Blay, #carefreeblackgirl is not only a tag that marks fun and cute spiritedness of black women, but it is also about survival. #BlackGirlMagic was created in 2013 by Cashawn Thompson to mark 'how black women’s achievements seem to come out of thin air' and to affirm black women’s achievements and accomplishments.

Hashtags allow black women and girls to search and find each other in a global culture that often marks them as being invisible. Hashtags are powerful in how they allow for community members to find one another through the usage of a tag, perhaps most significantly in how hashtags can be threaded to search on various social media platforms and blogs. Oftentimes black women’s voices are not depicted in mainstream media in ways that are affirming or flattering, so hashtags allow for black women and girls to refashion, reimagine and reaffirm how they see themselves from their own perspective, from a black girl gaze.

There is a pernicious and violent tendency to not credit black women as creators of hashtags. Oftentimes when people encounter a work on the internet there is a tendency to screencap, reblog, or repost without linking back to or citing the creator. Last fall while conducting research for my dissertation I found two scholarly articles that mention #Blackgirlsarearefromthefuture but they do not cite me or the origins. Social media can be violent in that way, in that it can allow you to be seen, but erase you from your work at the same time.

Why did you write Black Girls Are From the Future: Essays on Race, Digital Creativity and Pop Culture? Who does it appeal to and how was it received? 

I have always been a writer. I wrote and published a zine titled Five Zine when I was a college student at Eugene Lang College. I wrote a blog consistently for many years. While writing the blog, people would often say that they would read a book if I wrote one. So I put together a collection of essays, many of which were based on blog posts and published Black Girls Are From the Future: Essays on Race, Digital Creativity and Pop Culture on Amazon in 2013. It was a grueling and rewarding experience. Grueling because when you are in the middle of a large project, it can seem like there is no light at the end of the tunnel. It is rewarding because I learned that if I can write a book, I can complete any large project. Full stop. It was invigorating. The book is taught in colleges across the country, and it was also used as teaching tool for a prisoner education project in Illinois. It is gratifying to see how people come to the project.

Not only are you a doctoral candidate, but you are also an artist. What do you see as being your responsibility as an artist in 2017 and beyond?

This is a huge question. I think that we all have our contribution to make in our society. My responsibility is to figure out my contribution, and the extent to which I can try and fulfill it. That is the price that we pay for being alive. Now, the work is to figure out exactly what my own personal contribution is. For me, it is imperative that I leave my story, that I leave breadcrumbs for future generations to find not only my work, but the work that has inspired me. It is vital that I write about the kinds of questions that I am asking myself about how society is organized, and about how art is being created. If you read my work you will see all of my influences. I am influenced by cultural critics, bell hooks, and Michelle Wallace, filmmakers Julie Dash, Kathleen Collins, and Kasi Lemons, activists Malcolm X and Grace Lee Boggs, and visual artists Kara Walker and Jean-Michel Basquiat. When you learn about the work of an artist you are also learning about the worlds the shaped and molded them. We never do anything alone. We have a short amount of time to make our contributions. I always think about that. Always.

Working on the internet has its ups and downs, so what keeps you motivated to keep exploring the digital landscape? Also, how do you stay sane amidst all the craziness?

I move with the understanding that the social media spaces can make a creative work go viral, but it does not mean that the creator will be rewarded. In fact, I assume that the more viral your work is the more likely you will be uncredited or erased. I move very carefully for this reason.

People of color are responsible for a majority of the content that is popular culture on the Internet. How can they take better advantage of preserving this? 

Your previous question speaks to this. You can take advantage by having an understanding how you will leverage your influence once it goes viral. You have to have a post-viral plan. Otherwise as a creative person you open yourself up to someone stealing your momentum, your steam, your shine.

You previously described your brand Black Girls Are the Future as your life's work. Can you elaborate more on that? Also, why did you feel it was important to get a registered trademark for it?

#Blackgirlsarefromthefuture literally is based on my lived experience. In 2009, I had just moved to Washington, D.C., and rather than stay here alone on New Years Eve, I went to New York to visit my friends. When I arrived to the New Years Eve party, my homegirl looked at me, wearing my silver leggings, and asked, “Girl, where did you come from, the future?” I started using the hashtag #Blackgirlsarefromthefuture on my blog in February 2010. For me, black girls are from the future means that black women are ahead of their time, and often hidden in plain sight.

I had to trademark #Blackgirlsarefromthefuture because it was very clear that it would be popular, and I knew that I needed as much legal protection as possible. I came to hip-hop and feminism at the same time as a teenager, so I literally grew up learning about rappers with very terrible deals that were not in their best interest. The RZA from WuTang and Master P from No Limit Records created groundbreaking distribution deals that protected the interests of their artists. I studied them, and how they moved. I paid attention.

Tell me about your book Niama's Adventures. When did the idea for this story come to mind, and what was the process that went into getting it published? What is the book about?

Niama’s Adventures is my newly published children’s book. In the book, Niama time travels to various places such as Harlem, outer space as well as to Egypt to visit various black women artists and trailblazers. For instance, Niama visits Ms. Zora Neale Hurston in Harlem, Ms. Ella Fitzgerald in Harlem, Queen Nefertiti in Egypt, and she flies in outer space with the astronaut. Dr. Mae Jemison. The book is colorful, rich, warm and inviting. Niama is a time traveling superhero and she is also one of my major accomplishments.

What else are you currently working on that you can discuss? What would you like to work on in the future?

I am working on my dissertation which explores black women’s online storytelling. I am working on a book proposal that explores being black in the U.S. I am also thinking about the sequel to Niama’s Adventures.

What is one piece of advice that you would you give to a younger version of yourself?

You have to hone your writing voice. It all starts with your voice. Write, give yourself permission to write and read other authors. If you want to blog, blog. If you want to write professionally then you must write, study the career trajectories of people who you admire and obtain access to gatekeepers who can help to get you published professionally. Professional worlds are maintained by gatekeepers, it is a fact of life. Writing is world building and world building is powerful because once you become known as a person who can execute ideas people will begin to look at you as a leader. There is nothing wrong with that. Own it.