In his song The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Gil Scott-Heron declares that “you will not be able to stay at home, brother … you will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out”. The recent international focus on Black Lives Matter protests has brought to attention the urgency of issues such as police and prison abolition, decolonisation and racial justice whilst simultaneously offering an insight into the future of activism and the role of social media in bringing about wider change. Looking beyond the saturation of black square images on platforms like Instagram, we can see an equal saturation of book recommendations as both individuals and businesses rush to show their support for the cause. The seemingly infinite number of books recommended is optimistic but overwhelming – yet another way in which actions transition from being well-intentioned support for BLM to performative allyship.
The urgent call for justice now takes the form of aesthetically pleasing infographics and emoji-filled captions, filtered and reposted to reach a huge audience. The sincerity of the message is diluted when we end up in a reality whereby Black people are protesting for their right not to be killed whilst privileged white influencers are seeking out relevant posts that will fit their colour scheme and boost their engagement. The problem with social-media-based activism becomes clear when people are more concerned about whether they’re posting enough rather than prioritising the essential (un)learning and decolonisation that must take place offline. Whilst social media provides a well-deserved platform for marginalised individuals to share activism posts, content is still dominated by more ‘palatable’ white influencers who frequently get credit for simply sharing the work of BIPOC. Who doesn’t love an Angela Davis quote reposted in a sans-serif font on a pastel background?
Black people are consistently underrepresented in the publishing industry and now more than ever we should be taking the opportunity to educate ourselves through Black-authored texts as well as supporting books by Black authors that deal with more than just their racial experience. Whilst social media activism has become competitive and superficial in many ways, books continue to offer insightful accounts of injustice, extending beyond the issue of racial inequality to depict broader contexts concerning capitalism, patriarchy and environmentalism. Getting through the vast number of books that constitute the required anti-racism reading is not a quick or easy feat and takes more engagement than a “like” or a “share”, forcing white allies to consider their own racism in a meaningful way whilst also supporting Black authors that have provided useful resources and knowledge. Buying these texts from independent booksellers further helps the industry produce more vital texts as well as compensating Black authors for their time and effort in a way that does not happen for them on social media. Whilst social media has power, “plugging in and cop[pping] out” is detrimental. Books continue to be invaluable resources as manifestos for change and justice.