INTERVIEW: Marissa Rei of #TheBlackout
This is the first in a series of interviews with young West Indian talent.
Can selfies be transgressive? We think so. At this point, there is no corner of the internet that hasn't been touched by #TheBlackout, a campaign for Black self-expression that is two years old this March. Lesser and Leeward sat down with one of #TheBlackout's founders, Marissa Rei of Antigua via Brooklyn and Atlanta.
LL: Mars, God of war! Just wanted to say, between starting the #Blackout campaign on Twitter and spreading #LoveForLeslieJ, and all of the many Tumblr posts you put out that cross my dash, it would seem to me that you run the internet! Or at least the parts of the internet that are relevant to me. What do you make of that accusation?
MR: (laughs) It’s pretty cool to hear. Like, I totally do not run the internet, but it’s pretty cool to hear that my impact is stretching to people who I had no idea knew who I was. Especially since all of it seemed to be kind of a lovely accident. We never expected Blackout to get as big as it did. And I never expected myself to have to, like, step into a leadership role in which I decided the direction of something so massive. (laughs) I don’t know! It’s still something I’m getting used to these two years, and I’m still getting used to my platform. But it’s super flattering to hear people say that.
LL: How has the internet or social media platforms helped shape your childhood or young adulthood up until this time?
MR: Oh man. Whew. It got to the point when I was little that I loved spending time on the internet, like, dial-up days where you couldn’t use the house phone. (laughs) Like, if you were online and my mom would yell at me constantly, “Off the internet!” Whether it was playing games on things like Nick.com or Barbie.com or whatever, to the point where I started to get older, mature, things like Bebo and MySpace that saw the birth of social media as we know it.
Which, of course, stranger danger is a huge deal, but I kind of have always known in my heart that what I really wanted to do was internet-based. And I wanna do social media and I wanna be in these spaces and curate these spaces for people to enjoy and connect with each other, and that’s why a large chunk of #Blackout stuff is to make sure you make friends! To look at these businesses, look at these artists, connect with people on that level... it’s amazing, you know?
LL: What seems to be the undercurrent of #Blackout is empowerment of the black community, expressed through love and admiration in a medium that we all know and love, the selfie. How has using social media been empowering for you?
MR: I mean, I’m generally outspoken in real life. (laughs) My parents will tell you that. But I think social media has really been the place where I’m like, you know what? I have complete control over what I put up on social media, I have control over how I’m presented there, and it empowers me because it’s a space where I don’t necessarily have to filter myself so much. Or like, it’s a space in which realities like racism or sexism are kind of, like, kind of lessened for me—the immediate impact of them for me are lessened. That, and being so good at it, having such good social media instincts have been empowering. I definitely would not have known that I had all these good instincts and good leadership skills if it hadn’t been for social media. And just working with social media as a professional has taught me so much, and in turn I feel empowered. So, you know, it’s more than just goofing off on Tumblr. I really really feel like I know what I’m talking about.
LL: What does it mean to be empowered, whether individually or part of a community, in this era that we’re living in where oppressive social forces are so present and so in our face all of the time?
MR: Excellence and empowerment kind of mingle together for me. To be empowered, I think, is to be encouraged and to be nurtured in a way that you can grow according to your need to grow. We’re radical and we’re out here and we’re militant, but we don’t always necessarily need to do that to empower people. I think just allowing people space to learn, space to grow, space to connect is a form of empowerment. I think that’s empowerment really means to me on the basest of levels… is allowing people space to become great. You know what I mean? I don’t know if that makes sense though. (laughs)
LL: On the flip side, how do you deal with people who take the #Blackout theme and appropriate it for their thing that’s derivative?
MR: We’ve been really transparent since the very beginning about, kind of—that we would do anything in our power to support any similar campaigns. One thing that we really enjoyed that was on Twitter was #PraisingTheAsian, that was fantastic. But we’ve been very very transparent about what is and is not co-opting our movement. And one thing that’s just really… I can’t believe I’m still having the conversation two years later, is that: don’t take the #Blackout tags and then the “Black” out and then replace it with something else. Oftentimes it doesn’t make very much sense anyway. (laughs) And it gets really offensive really fast! Somebody was like “We should do #Yellowout” and I don’t think… I don’t think you wanna do that. And then in the grander scheme of things it’s very… it’s in very bad taste because a lot of times what ends up happening is that black people get removed from their creations. And then it’ll get popular, and then black people are stuck looking like, “Well… why couldn’t you just leave us and let us have it?”
But we’ve been completely transparent about that. I’m not worried, you know. People be like, “Are you worried about #Whiteout getting popular?” Like, it’s been two years, I don’t really know if they have the organizational power to do it. This is not a challenge for them to try it... (laughs) But I’m not worried about it. Like I was telling somebody, we’re just trying to mind our business and stay in our lane and have fun.
LL: Just wanted to give you your props for it being two years. Saw that you were profiled in Ebony, that was amazing. Congratulations! What would Mars right now in this moment say to the Mars two years ago that had this idea and wanted to start this campaign?
MR: First of all, I was geeked at Ebony because I was looking at my Timehop — you know the little dinosaur thing, and it tells you what you posted a couple years ago? — Ebony tweeted our hashtag, “How exciting!”. And it was really cool to be like, yeah, two years later and I’m interviewing with Ebony and it’s amazing. It was a journey. I think if I could tell Mars from two years ago, I would probably say get ready to be really frustrated. Like… you’re gonna be frustrated, but it’s gonna be fine. Like, work through it. Because that initial year was a struggle. Just because I became very, very aware of my place. I had, you know, two co-creators with me, both were men, both were black men, and it became really apparent really fast that a lot of my work would go unnoticed for a huge chunk of time. And that was kind of like, “But!”
LL: And erasing women's contributions is not a new phenomenon. You know, BLM is what it is, but people don’t necessarily know that it was invented by three black lesbians or three black women in general. Or thinking about James Baldwin, people not knowing that he was gay. Thinking about Bayard Rustin. Thinking about these intersections of identity, and… if you’re thinking about moving forward, what is your priority? Is it blackness [in general] or black people at the margins?
MR: I’m actually really interested in — now that we’re kind of established, that we’re sort of not going anywhere — I really really *really* want to get some nuance going in terms of our spaces. I am completely appalled by the lack of visibility for black women in conversations of police brutality. I’m appalled by our lack of action regarding trans women of color in general, but black trans women [specifically]… in the last week alone, there were at least three higher-profile cases of black trans women being murdered. At least two of them were in New Orleans. I really really want us as we’re moving forward to focus on more nuance in #Blackout spaces.
Especially since — as we say all the time, Blackness is not a monolith. Our experiences are not monolithic. My experience as an Afro-Caribbean person who’s first generation is not the experience of the African-American people who use the tag in these spaces. My co-creator is also Afro-Caribbean, so it’s like… we are looking to add more nuance, more diversity within our space. Especially since we’ve been combating erasure in the #Blackout tags for the past couple years. One of the huge, *huge* things that we’re trying to figure out how to get people on board with combating is colorism. A lot of #Blackout posts will get *very* popular, some people will get like a hundred thousand notes or more… usually they’re either super gorgeous or an inspirational story, and we want to see more of the inspirational stories, you know? We want to see more of your artwork, your photos, and less of like… this person’s #Blackout photos got *completely* huge because they fit into more conventional ideas of beauty..
We [also] really want to look into how we can best support the voices and the content of darker folks. And then what I think I’m going to prioritize is LGBTQ black folks, the erasure of them as well. Especially when a lot of my mutuals are trans women of color, black trans women — I never see their posts within our space get any kind of traction. Especially when a lot of them are asking to be commissioned, or asking to help support their art, their comics — I never really see their things move forward in the way that I want. Or that they want.
LL: From an outsider perspective, I’ve seen a lot of the inspirational stories come across my dash. I think the coolest was Sophia and her book?
MR: Sophia’s such a sweetheart! She’s one of my mutuals and I love her so much. It’s such an honor for me to get to really look at that story, and be like, I knew when you were first struggling to get your stuff off the ground, and now she’s flourishing! She’s got the first book, and she just dropped another one, it’s a novel about romance in space. She’s one of those stories that inspired me. When we started doing our campaign to move… not so much away from selfies completely, [but to] grow beyond them, she was definitely one of those stories where I was like, we could use this visibility for sooo much. At this point we generate millions of impressions on Tumblr, millions of impressions on Twitter… to really get people connected to the right people, we could get people’s work seen. She published that first book and I was like, what! Like, I knew it was a personal victory for her, but it also felt like a victory for me, cause it’s kind of like… yeah, I definitely helped someone get one step closer to their dream. And that is such a fulfilling feeling.
LL: On a Caribbean tip, you rep the tiny island of Antigua… I’m wondering if you can speak a little bit about the relationship between black folk and blackness on the islands as a broad term, or just in Antigua specifically, and black folk and blackness where you live now.
MR: You know what’s weird… unfortunately, because we moved to America when I was so young, my relationship with Antigua has now become a little diluted. Which is kind of the qualm of all Caribbean people living in the Americas. But blackness there feels…. I mean, my grandmother and my aunts and my extended family kind of know what I do, and they know the conversations I lead, but to them it’s like, “Uh… we don’t understand why you have to have them”. Just because Antigua is one of those islands where it’s black people, it’s black folks. It’s not a place like Guyana or like Trinidad where you have the Indo-Guyanese, the Indo-Trini population and then the Afro-Trini… you know what I mean? So it’s a black island, you’re surrounded by black folks. And I think the relationship with blackness in the Caribbean is very much like… instead of being super aware of white supremacy in their everyday, it’s moreso like constructions of white supremacy are a little more insidious.
Like colorism is a huuuuge issue. I was just seeing one of my Jamaican mutuals talk about it. Like, “you need to be lighter, you need to be prettier, you need to not be in the sun so much”. Unlike black Americans where we have to be having these conversations about, like… [how] this country was literally built on white supremacy! They [in the Caribbean] don’t have those conversations, I don’t think, as much or as often because it’s not something that they’re very aware of everyday. Although, because of colonizers, that’s why we ended up where we ended up in the first place: in the diaspora. So it’s an interesting thing to see as an Afro-Caribbean person, just because the conversations about the enslavement of African peoples are so prevalent here in the States versus… I know very, very little about how my family ended up in Antigua--or, you know, the acknowledgement of enslavement as part of the history is not really there.
And that’s why I’m very respectful of African-American folks because it’s glaringly obvious in their everyday interactions with this country that they were enslaved at some point, you know what I mean? And that enslavement really continues to impact the way that they interact with this country and the way that this country interacts with them. So I think that’s the difference between the two. My mother would know better than I do. (laughs) But I think from my observation of Antiguan folks and Antiguan culture and everyday interactions with themselves and their blackness that that’s a completely different rodeo.
LL: What do you make of that perception of a divide, or people who try to divide the community between Afro-Caribbeans and African immigrants and African-Americans?
MR: I think that the conversation of our differences can be really valuable, especially as the diaspora affects us all. So to have a complete picture of a global kind of blackness is so valuable. So I think that the divisions are, like… they’re there. And we are different from each other. But I think what we make the mistake of doing is getting caught up not so much in what makes us different but [how] we all kind of speak over each other in this way that silences another group or that silences the other two. It moves from valuable discourse to, like… what we call “diaspora wars”.
Perfect example: Samuel L. Jackson, an African-American actor, is trying to open up this conversation of, “Why is it that Black Brits are coming to Hollywood and being cast in these roles in which they tell American history because American actors aren’t getting the shot?” You know, David Oyelowo is Black and British, but he played Martin Luther King [Jr. in Selma]. And it’s like, what is going on where, first of all, Black Americans aren’t getting the shot, and then not only Black Americans but African-Americans specifically, since that is their heritage and their history, aren’t getting the shot to tell these stories. And, like, that’s a particularly nuanced conversation. That’s a conversation I think is valuable and needs to happen. But what it’s devolved to is, like, black folks getting defensive and being like, “Don’t be mean! Don’t be horrible! We’re all black!” which is, you know — we take the jobs we’re offered. They’re all trying to operate under white supremacy in the way that they don’t get cast for things as often, so if they take a job, they take a job. But the conversation is no longer productive cause everyone’s kind of caught up in their defensiveness. And as a person who has, like, no dog in that fight, I’ve just been able to sit and watch the back and forth, and be like “I reaaaally think you should listen to the African-Americans on this one, guys.” It’s kind of unfair that they’re getting shut out of their own history.
LL: I’m thinking about How to Get Away with Murder, my favorite show, and how Alfred Enoch, a Black Brit, plays a Haitian American character, and what that might mean for Haitians who are also a very marginalized community even within Caribbean circles, even within black circles.
MR: That’s another perfect example. I don’t watch How to Get Away with Murder, but I would think that with Haiti being such a valuable piece of Black history, like global black history, like it’s not hard to find a Haitian-American Black actor I’m sure. I lived in Brooklyn for half my life and Haitians are everywhere, you just gotta ask. So conversations between Africans, like continental Africans, and the rest of us in the diaspora are super important. I just don’t want us to get caught up in, "I’m right and you’re wrong and here’s why". Because I think it’s really sticky.
It gets really bad on Tumblr particularly. I usually just dodge everything like, “Oop, I’m not touching that!” (laughs) I have, like, massive respect for what it means to be African-American, that’s just not my experience. I’m a first-generation American, like, my parents are from somewhere else, we don’t have that history of being in this country. And I do think that the rest of us in the diaspora kind of get caught up in, like, ragging on African-Americans and sometimes it’s like, “Kay, time to be an ally!” Like, don’t be terrible.
LL: I think this debate is not new, and there's a lot of Caribbean thought that can inform that discussion -- the Négritude movement, Walter Rodney, and George Irish come to mind. At the same time, this theory mostly comes from educated men, and a lot of times this theory gets hijacked by other folks, Caribbean or not, that use it to marginalize women or LGBT folk among others. Do you engage with any of the intellectual side of things? What do you make of people that are posting all of this intellectual or pseudo-intellectual material on the internet about what these identities mean to you?
MR: Obviously perspective will change depending on a person’s life circumstances, or even the island that they’re from, but generally I’m kind of uninterested in heavily male perspectives on anything. And so, like, having to wrap my mind and see this person going to these schools of thought and having always in the back of my mind, “This is a man’s perspective” is what deters me, because I can’t… Because being a man in the Caribbean is completely different from being a woman in the Caribbean. It’s [overall] a very male perspective on things… very straight male. Like, “Straight man tells you what to think on this” is something that I’m just kind of like, “No, I’m okay.” Like, I would rather make my own observations or prioritize the voices of women or LGBTQ folk over straight men. I generally don’t engage with very heavy school like that because I would rather just have a very organic experience with it.
LL: By founding #Blackout, I think you’ve been able to make that space for this organic observation and discussions about different topics that affect the black community in a space that is still very affirming. Looking at specifically Caribbean spaces, what are the gaps in these spaces? What do you think is missing?
MR: Mmm. I think, for a lot of people, visibility is missing. It’s one thing to joke about how whenever I say I’m Caribbean people think I’m Jamaican. Like, it’s one thing to say that, but, like, also perspectives differ depending on island — obviously, because everyone has a different experience depending on which island their parents or they hail from. But for a lot of these smaller places visibility is just not there. There’s not a lot of, like, space for them to talk about, specifically, things that affect them according to whatever experiences they have on that particular island.
And I think… what else is missing? It’s kind of a… cohesiveness? I mean, I’m not so heavy deep into Caribbean Tumblr yet, but also I don’t think there is a very cohesive, like ‘Caribbean Tumblr’ or ‘West Indian Tumblr’ space. So I think visibility for smaller countries, to have different kinds of conversations about what’s affecting them, and kind of like a cohesion. I can’t tell you… especially, like, in America? I can’t really tell you particularly. I know they exist where, you know, we have these organizations that cater specifically to Caribbean-Americans, people who are coming over from the West Indies. But I don’t feel like there’s a national, cohesive kind of space of conversation, and it’s the same thing with online.
I feel like we find each other by accident at this point, and there’s not, kind of, like, a place where I could go go that’s like, I know that these are all people who have similar experiences to me because we are West Indian. And also these are the valuable things that make us different and I really wanna know more about them, you know what I mean? I think that’s really what’s missing from conversations about what it means to be Caribbean right now, is this very cohesive online space. And obviously if somebody can, like, point me to that? I’d be like (snaps fingers) “Okay, cool. I stand corrected.”
Even connecting with Kathleen… I don’t even remember how long we had been mutuals, like… it was an accident, you know what I mean? Growing up I had my godbrothers and godsisters and godparents are all from different islands. I grew up in Brooklyn, I had Kittitian godparents, I had Guyanese godparents. A couple of my godbrothers and godsisters are Indo-Guyanese. But I don’t really know much about their experience as Indo-Guyanese folks. You know what I mean? And I don’t know an Indo-Trini person in real life. I have only ever met two people, two young people from Antigua in my real life. And so, definitely, spaces to come together are very sparse. We’ll come together at Carnival time, that’s fine, but in general… I don’t feel there’s something reoccurring in my life that I can go and be in that space.
LL: Even growing up in Brooklyn, you didn’t see any sort of unity aside from Carnival?
MR: It was dangerous for me because I was a little kid. Spaces in which people would gather that would be very heavy West Indian vibes, usually my parents would not let me go. One, because my parents were super, super Christian, so, you know, the idea of what happens at dancehall parties, that stuff is debauchery and evil and sinful. And two, it was, like, actually dangerous! One because people get trampled, people would get hurt, attacked, all kinds of stuff. So the whole idea of having a space in which I could very safely explore what being Caribbean means to me and, then, what being an American child of Caribbean parents means to me, that was nonexistent. And it’s still nonexistent cause then I moved to the South, and the heavy Caribbean population is just not here. (laughs)
I mean, I started having them when I was at NYU, at the Caribbean Students’ Association. I would catch a couple of their meetings, which were pretty cool but, again, it wasn’t accessible to me ‘cause I was taking too many hours and the meetings were happening on these days where I was like “I can’t.” But, like, definitely that sense of community where you can really safely explore who you are and connect with other Caribbean folks is something that I missed. And I don’t think I have that accessibility to right now. But we’ll see.
LL: What do you think young Caribbean folk can do to build these communities?
MR: I think just to build these communities, start with really getting together with like-minded people. And the first important step to building these spaces is recognizing their lack. And recognizing that they don’t exist, recognizing that the spaces that we have now aren’t that, and that we need to get away from what we’ve been doing. Because that’s how #Blackout started. It started with one of my co-creators T’von being like, “Hey, we don’t really see a lot of everyday Black folks being celebrated.” So we started with him, you know, saying there’s a need, and we need to fill that need. What can we do to do that? And being like, “Hey, let’s post selfies!” And then getting together with like-minded people because we were mutuals at the time, I said, “You know what? I see there’s a need too. That’s a good idea.” So recognize the need, get together with like-minded people, and then start trying to build a very focused kind of space.
Because, you know, being American and Caribbean… being Caribbean’s not just eating beef patties, as great as they are. It’s not [just] eating goat water. It’s not, you know, listening to the music and partying and drinking and fun, you know what I mean? Those are very valuable pieces of our cultures but, you know, there are Caribbean intellectuals and there needs to be spaces in which we can all kind of talk out all the different things that are on our minds and get people to weigh in and offer perspective on it.
LL: That's all my questions. How are you feeling right now? What kind of emotions are running through your head at the end of this discussion?
MR: Like, the wheels in my head are kind of turning. Cause I’m like, this is something that I’ve never really spoken at length [about]. Like other than joking about being Caribbean — we had this entire argument on my blog yesterday because, you know, we say PLAN-tin and other people say plan-TAIN. And then Dominican folks started chiming in and being like “It’s platano,” and I’m like no! Y’all are all wrong, it’s PLAN-tin and don’t question my Caribbean-ness. I’m so mad. (laughs)
Other than, like, joking about it, I’ve never really ever really had to sit down and piece out intellectually what specifically my Caribbean identity means to me. It’s always just been like, I’m black. I’m black. I’m black. Talking about blackness all the time. So right now I’m really reflective… and kinda hungry. (laughs) It almost feels like… how have I not noticed my entire life that I’ve never really connected to a community specifically talking about what it means to be Caribbean and, like, outside of our music or our food or our cultural stuff — the “easy” cultural stuff — how have I never really sat down and talked to my parents about things beyond “What was it like when you were growing up?” and “What food did you eat?”. [That question of] “What’s it like being Antiguan in America?”, I’ve never really done a lot of work there. So I’m kind of like, huh. Maybe I’ve got some things to think about.
Follow Marissa Rei on Twitter @marsincharge.