Pawn: The Weekly AmeriKKKan Idol
These vultures rob everything leave nothing but chains
Pick a point on the globe! Yes, the picture’s the same
There’s a bank, there’s a church, a myth and a hearse
A mall and a loan, a child dead at birth
There’s a widow pig parrot, a rebel to tame
A white-hooded judge, a syringe and a vein
And the riot be the rhyme of the unheard
“Calm Like a Bomb”, Rage Against the Machine.
Working a dead-end job as a clerk in an electronics store to pay the bills as a 27-year old did not make Lefu feel unsuccessful, since he was aware the current late stage of capitalism can force the most impressive minds of his generation into not taking advantage of the intellectual and artistic edge they may have. Accomplishing your non-economic dreams by staying true to your craft, regardless of how many commas are in your bank account, was Lefu’s definition of success. His wage labour gave him enough free time to record, edit, and publish three weekly videos to his YouTube channel, but the subscriber count and number of views were an obvious sign of virtual inexistence.
Very much inspired by a literal interpretation of Orwell’s quote “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”, Lefu’s online persona was of a black cultural traditionalist. Instead of following Black Twitter and YouTube’s trends of discussing the intersectionality of present pop culture and social justice, Lefu focused on dissecting films and albums from 20th century black artists. His video review of Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever did not even reach 350 views, but it was twice as much as his video essay on Gil Scott-Heron’s Pieces of Man got. Out of his 92 subscribers, 33 were acquaintances he made in college, 42 spam accounts, and the rest his aunts and cousins.
Lefu’s approach to his YouTube channel did not mean that he did not appreciate or even actively enjoy contemporary black artists. Kamasi Washington and Ryan Coogler were mentioned in his “Support yourself: Recommendations” video for the month of April. He even debated whether to make a video mourning Nipsey Hussle. But this concept was largely based on the idea that white intellectuals, entertainment producers, culture vultures, and college professors should not be the only ones honoring the Robert Johnsons and Spencer Williams of the past.
Tired of waking up feeling wrapped in a blanket of failure, Lefu decided to break his own model and review Gary Clark Jr.’s 2019 album This Land. Not that his non-existent fanbase would care, but Lefu felt the need to explain his switch of focus. “I know you guys are probably wondering why today I am discussing a modern album. You all know how I feel about the appreciation of the past, but this guy right here breaks the model. In this video, I will explain how This Land performs the roots of B.B. King and Albert Collins for 2019. Contrasting Lil Nas X who instead of going back to the country roots, sells trap beats as black country music.” Lefus said to start the video.
Using the money he got from selling his hockey stick and electric bass, Lefu invested in promoting his video on Twitter and Instagram. After patiently waiting three weeks to complain about the results, the video only received 400 views and the first comment ever on his channel. It read, “shut the fuk up niger”. He could only laugh at the attempt. The suggestions tab on his video included an acoustic cover of Childish Gambino’s Redbone performed by a white redheaded woman with a ukulele, and over 195,000 views.
Lefu’s social and personal life were not conditioned to his dead-end job or cultural aspirations. Using Tinder and Bumble to promote his YouTube channel proved to be unsuccessful, but was enough for him to go on dates, get ghosted and sleep around. A healthy group of friends helped him unwind his pains and frustrations, but Lefu still felt unachieved. While lamenting his latest failure, his white roommate suggested he probably should go even more outside the box and try making a video that does not address pop culture and art. Be reactionary to the Internet’s trend and swim along, just for once. Test the waters and probably bring more subscribers to his channel. Intrigued by the idea, Lefu found a trend that seemed to work for most YouTubers, and definitely left a shock value for the audience: ordering a mystery box from the dark web and recording a “genuine” unboxing video. Some videos showed a human finger, the backpack of a missing 11-year old girl, but most mystery boxes included random pieces of clothing, old VHS tapes, or prank items. All the videos relied on the suspense leading up to the actual unboxing. His lack of success in YouTube culture (and on the overall Internet) blinded him to the odds of how many of those “MYSTERY BOX UNBOXING: IT GETS REAL THIS TIME” videos were staged.
After finding a video tutorial on how to enter the dark web, Lefu got his laptop ready and downloaded all the necessary software to be as anonymous as possible. Keeping his identity secret was what mattered the most, since the legality of the dark web’s existence gave Lefu the comfort that he would not get in trouble as long as he did not partake in any illegal activities while in the browser. His intentions were not to buy drugs, a set of wives, or pay for the streaming of a cage match to death, so he thought he had nothing to worry about. Lefu ordered his mystery box, paid with Bitcoins and kept his identity private. Doubtful about his purchase before accepting it, the low price of the mystery box convinced him to do it. After all, it was cheaper than advertising on Twitter and Instagram. Under Lefu’s expectations, this video represented his last opportunity at “making it”. He did not know what he’d do if it did not help his subscriber count, but he knew what he would do if it did. It was the video he put the most effort into, by borrowing video equipment from his job and spending nights watching video tutorials for more advanced editing software skills.
The mystery box arrived after two weeks, disguised as a black plastic bag filled with cotton balls and clown noses. Lefu found inside a used white Nike shoebox, forcedly closed with masking tape. He then set up his video equipment and started recording. “Hello everyone, today I am going to unbox this mystery box I got from the dark web. I know this is a departure from what I usually do, but I’m just trying new stuff out,” Lefu said while he unwrapped the box with a pocket knife. He could feel a tremble in his hands, unsure if it was because he was trying something new, or he was afraid of what was inside. Trying not to look nervous for the camera, Lefu started to whistle. “It seems there is a pair of wet black velvet bags with something inside of them,” he said after tearing the box apart. Carefully and with disgust in his face, he opened the first bag. Inside he found a cold, moldy, round black iron collar and a rusty key. Without taking a step back, he quickly opened the second bag where he found a white coarse noose with the bottom half showing signs of burning. Aware that he only had one chance of a genuine reaction, Lefu was quiet for a few seconds before addressing the camera. “I am still trying to process what is happening. I do not know if I should fear for my safety or how should I react to this. If these are not obvious attacks on who I am, then I do not know what they are. This is not over, but I do not know what is next,” Lefu said addressing the camera. “Please rate and subscribe while to be updated with this story.”
There was no way whoever sold the box knew Lefu was black. He covered his webcam, blocked his IP address and removed any personal information from his computer before browsing the dark web. The fact remained that a black person received a noose and a collar in the mail, and Lefu was about to take advantage of it. He spent more time than usual editing the video and added a visual introduction and music for the first time. Opening with a small voiceover introduction about Lefu and what his channel normally does, the screen cuts to his opening monologue. Royalty-free suspenseful music is heard as he tries to open the box and then the video goes silent once he shows the collar and noose to the camera. His closing monologue is followed by animations inviting the viewer to rate and subscribe, repeating what Lefu said.
Lefu uploaded the video before going to bed. He made sure to use all the appropriate tags, like social justice, black, rights, slavery, racism, racist, reaction, mystery box, deep web, reaction. Before, he would only use film, art, and the names of albums/films discussed. No amount of movie and album reviews prepared him for the storm of online vulnerability that was coming.
From “people are fucking crazy #racismisstillalive”, to “this is so fake” and “this is why black ppl can’t get over slavery already”, the notifications of the comments in his video Lefu’s phone and woke him up. His YouTube account crashed when the video reached 95,000 views. He had been inactive on Twitter since the ad fiasco and somehow managed to get more than five thousand followers overnight. While the online reaction was unfolding, Lefu decided to tweet a brief message stating that he was safe and was still trying to take in what had happened, asking for privacy until he decided to officially speak out. Lefu’s name was constantly mispronounced or straight up botched by Instagram influencers discussing his video on their morning updates. The faithfulness of his video was quickly questioned by Ben Shapiro and the likes of Turning Point. Headlines from centrist outlets described him as “black commenter”, forgetting he has a name. White journalists with a blue check mark on Twitter advocated for the fight against racism in the United States, using Lefu’s video as an example of what is wrong with this country. Capitalizing on his experience became a morning jog for every single political outlet, from individual to group and from left to right. Black Twitter was divided on making a joke out of him, lamenting this seemingly act of racism, and questioning why he is making this an Internet moment instead of trying to find who did it. Everyone wanted a piece of the cake Lefu had baked, telling him how to eat it or judging him for not giving it to someone else.
Lefu’s false request for privacy was only to give him time to work on his response to the reaction. He knew he had to capitalize on this, but did not want to become just another trivial meme or face of the Internet. Only a few control the world of viral culture and are the undertakers of the online life of some topics, and Lefu was not willing to meet the masters. After taking the rest of the day to think about it, he knew the answer was to release a video acknowledging the support (without engaging with the reactionary amerikkkan joke of right media), inviting the viewers to watch his previous videos and subscribe to see what is next. Recorded on his phone to seem more natural and grittier, his new video was uploaded a day after. It quickly reached 100,000 views by the end of the day, and both videos were now monetized. Lefu finally profited off his craft.
Sure he could now pay rent by reviewing his favorite films and albums, Lefu decided to wait a week until his next video on Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates. For the rest of the week, he dealt with the intricacies of going viral such as trolls, white knights tweeting him asking for forgiveness for being white and death threats. Lefu’s workplace was completely unaware of what had happened the last three days.
The review of Withing Our Gates was uploaded to Lefu’s channel exactly one week after his unboxing video. At the time, the latter had reached over 500,000 views. “The plot in this movie is hard to follow, since Micheaux was a self-taught filmmaker. But the themes it explores, like the New Negro and the Great Migration leaves the plot as one of the last priorities of this film,” Lefu said. He put even more effort compared to the unboxing video, using advanced techniques of editing and redesigning his whole channel. The new review only reached close to 5,000 views after the first week.
Afraid he may never be successful, Lefu brainstormed about what to do next. He felt that he swung and miss at the only opportunity to capitalize off his pain, so in order to make it he needed to regain it. His message about past art and its relationship to the present were still what mattered the most to him, so selling out was not an option. There are just a few actions that bring back relevancy to viral trivialities of the past, without anyone questioning their motives. Thoughts & prayers are in now.
He set up his camera for a livestream on Twitter, posted the link to his YouTube account and briefly waited for his audience to reach more than 500 viewers. Don’t forget to rate and subscribe. Without talking to the camera, he set up the white noose in his window frame and hung himself. “Black Victim of Online Harassment Kills Himself in Viral Fashion”, read a headline from a local news station. Journalists from post-2016 phony liberal websites started the hashtag #RIPLefu, inviting people to watch his videos and find more appreciation in art from the past. His older videos quickly reached at least 90,000 views each, with his essay on Pieces of a Man being the sole exception. The hashtag was the #1 trend the three days following his death.
It was only tweeted seventeen times a week later.
To say the current sociopolitical climate influenced Pawn: The Weekly AmeriKKKan Idol would be an understatement, but it is something that must be addressed while discussing this short story. The themes and concepts it explores had a different meaning in the past and will probably do so in the future, at the same pace of the ever-evolving social media culture. Lefu’s actions would not make sense under a more accepting economic system and would cause different reactions in a less intense culture war. His morals and fate imitate those of who live under the conditions of the late stages of capitalism and a system rooted in slavery. Institutionalized oppression and limited opportunities based on the color of his skin, force Lefu to become a pawn who does not want to leave his idealistic nature, not being able to balance both experiences.
Inspired by the collective praise from white writers and audiences for Angie Thomas’ unchallenging The Hate U Give, this short story explores the banalities of the support from online white crowds regarding conversations about race and the consequences they present. It is up for debate if this is caused by white guilt or genuine concerns, but the extent to which some are willing to go to not question what is put in front of them is nauseating. This leads up to the commercialization of social issues that should not be trivialized, only to appeal to a mass who feels guilty and concerned about not being the face of a movement. When unchallenged stories about race and class go mainstream, this tells the public how to react with the concepts presented. The consequences range from the importance of actual social justice getting ignored, to political movements getting staled. Similar to how Frida Kahlo’s relationship and political involvement with Leon Trotsky is ignored whenever a gentrified business tries to profit off appropriating Mexican culture and false notions of feminism.
Every detail and reference in Pawn is intentional and shows Lefu’s knowledge and ethos, driving him to the core of the story and shaping the world building that mirrors reality. As Kathy Short writes in her essay “Since our view of the world is a web of interconnected stories, that worldview, along with our biases and misconceptions, is also embedded into our stories (14).” This goes to show that mirroring current interconnected stories in fictions, allows to critique our own preconceptions of reality and how we socially interact with it. The realities of Afro-pessimism and the afterlife of slavery are present in Lefu’s journey, as are the consequences of a class system. Interacting with real artists, albums and films presents Lefu’s motifs and how rooted they are in real life. Gil Scot-Heron’s Pieces of a Man opens up with “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and foreshadows the fate of Lefu’s idea of a “revolution”.
While discussing Hennessy Youngman’s advice for black artists and anger, Claudia Rankine mentions in her collection Citizen: An American Lyric “the anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color. This other kind of anger in time can prevent, rather than sponsor, the production of anything except loneliness (24).” Lefu reflects on this loneliness, frustrated by his failed attempts at success representing his anger. It is unclear if his failure in YouTube is because of his race, but it is clear that the rapidness in which his viral experience ends is directly correlated. He becomes another name and another hashtag, as the always-updating list of victims of police brutality in Rankine’s collection. “In Memory of Philando Castile (134).”, Rankine writes to finish the list as the names start to fade away.
Lefu is exhausted and dies from asphyxiation, directly interacting with Shermaine M. Jones concept of affective asphyxia. “Affective asphyxia results from the expectation that black people must choke down the rage, fear, grief, and other emotions that arise when confronted with racism and racial microaggressions (38).”, Jones writes in her essay. Lefu must accept his fate and failure, because even when he has the spotlight his message gets ignored. His ideas are constantly choked down, only being allowed to breathe when the white crowd feels like it.
The rapid vanity in which social media goes through the cycle of reacting to oppression is what brings Lefu to his imminent social death. Social media should not bring to light social issues that are not fought for outside of it, but rather invite for actual human change. Conversations can arise from social media, but if they stay there it only increases the power of social death. While discussing the evolution of #BlackLivesMatter from a hashtag to a social movement, Makeba Lavan writes in her essay “Black Twitter seems to be an effective tool for organizing Black political power and also policing mainstream media representations of African Americans (62).” Black Twitter has the power to change the course of social oppression because it actively fights for it outside of Twitter, so when Lefu ignores their message he suffers the consequences of remaining online.
At the core of Lefu’s story, we find Afro-Pessimism as what drives the plot. As Sebastian Weier writes in his essay, “the focus of Afro-Pessimism is not on the possible claims of African Americans — although they do reflect on and support claims such as those for economic reparations — but on the impossibility of articulating these demands within the “American grammar” (spillers, “Mama’s” 68) from a position of black social and civic death that is constitutive moment of whiteness and white civil society (423).” Lefu’s claims for appreciation are largely ignored even when the spotlight is on him, because that is not what the American grammar is asking for. As Weier suggests, Lefu is in a position of black social and civic death under a white structure, his claims are ignored as soon as he becomes disposable.
Pawn: The Weekly Amerikkkan Idol narrates a story of Afro-Pessimism and social death, driven by affective asphyxia and the hunger for success. The fact that Lefu does not care about money shows that he is long gone for society, he just wants to be heard and embraced by his surroundings.
Works cited list
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric, Graywolf Press 2014.
Jones, Shermaine M. ““I Can’t Breathe!”: Affective Asphyxia in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric.” South: A Scholarly Journal, Volume 50, Number 1 (Fall 2017): pp 37–45. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/26484081.pdf?ab_segments=0%2Fdefault-2%2Fcontrol&refreqid=search%3A0992a1eea10cc483117ae4bef923a5b4 Accessed May 13th, 2019.
Lavan, Makeba. “The Negro Tweets His Presence: Black Twitter As Social and Political Watchdog.” Modern Language Studies, Vol. 45, №1 (TRAYVON (SUMMER 2015)): 56–65. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/24616765.pdf?ab_segments=0%2Fdefault-2%2Fcontrol&refreqid=search%3A1e2cc799d276ba1a2f61cec1bdfa8690 Accessed May 13th, 2019.
Short, Kathy G. “Story as World Making.” Language Arts, Vol. 90, №1, Local Literacies in a Global World (September 2012): pp 9–17. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/41804370.pdf?ab_segments=0%2Fdefault-2%2Fcontrol&refreqid=search%3A415b2f6793def2c6fdb535ae791bd413 Accessed May 13th, 2019.
Weier, Sebastian. “Consider Afro-Pessimism.” Amerikastudien / American Studies, Vol. 59, №3 (2014): pp 419–433. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/44071852.pdf?ab_segments=0%2Fdefault-2%2Fcontrol&refreqid=search%3Afb3e00b810805e06634aa6b6c04e996a Accessed May 13th, 2019.