This essay explores James Baldwin's recirculation in the era of #BlackLivesMatter by computationally tracking, historicizing, and closely reading the quotation of Baldwin's words across 7,326 #BlackLivesMatter-related tweets sent between June 2014 and May 2015. By combining these methodologies, I discover that Twitter users overwhelmingly resurrected an essayistic, explicitly political, mass-mediated, and 1960s-era Baldwin, sometimes actively obscuring other dimensions of Baldwin's life and career. I also find that the most referenced quotation in the data set is an apocryphal quotation first circulated in the late 1960s and 1970s by Black Panthers such as Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, who had elsewhere publicly and homophobically condemned Baldwin. Through the act of quotation, Twitter users thus reproduced and reimagined Baldwin, sharing a reception lineage that stretches back to Black Power but is also distinct in its twenty-first-century, digitally networked instantiation. This essay contends, most broadly, that social media data and computational methods can help bring greater depth to the interpretation of texts in the digital humanities and contribute to reception histories of the recent past.


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pp. 531-559
Launched on MUSE
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