Black History Month 2020 was rough. First there was the video of G-Eazy kissing Megan Thee Stallion that led some to wonder if the two were dating (Megan addressed the rumor in a simple and straightforward tweet that, although likely disappointing to G-Eazy, was well-received by those that thought they missed their shot). Fast forward to the end of the month, ex-NFL player Jack Brewer declared Donald Trump America’s “first Black president” during a Black History Month round table discussion at the White House, essentially pulling a “hold my beer” on the pro-Trump antics of Kanye West in 2018. But at the very least, it ended with the release of the first trailer for Nia DaCosta and Jordan Peele’s Candyman, which brilliantly transformed Destiny Child’s “Say My Name” into a horror anthem.
As always, memes help us endure the chaos of this world, and if there were any that provided some comedic relief for us in February — and serves as the focus for our Memes Rule Everything Around Me last month — it was hotep memes. You’ve seen them before: the images of real and fictional figures wearing photoshopped kufi hats and their eyes replaced with glowing beams.
Hotep is a term that loosely means “I come in peace” but has become an insult for Black people (primarily Black men) who not only prescribe to certain Afrocentric ideas but who signify “a faux-wokeness associated with misogynoir, homophobia, toxic masculinity, and misguided understandings of history and science,” according to the 2017 Outline article, “The rise of ‘hotep.’” As the article also notes, the rise of its latter meaning is difficult to track. However, there have been satirizations of Black people that preceded hotep that could now be described as such. For example: In Living Color‘s Oswald Bates; CB4‘s highly memorable “I’m Black Y’all” scene (which became a meme itself); and Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood‘s Preach, the “politically conscious” activist who has a fetish for white women.
Some believe that hotep’s transformation from a greeting to pejorative is unfair; others see the term’s evolution as a way to undermine and make valid critiques against Black people who claim to be pro-Black but actually aren’t. In its divisiveness has come the creation of hotep memes which, like most memes, have evolved from the initial meme generator format to how memes are made now.
Like its predecessors, current hotep memes still hilariously caricaturize the type of pro-Black Black person it means to critique. But where past memes primarily featured images of Black people, new hotep memes have come to encompass animated cartoon characters, Baby Yoda, Watchmen‘s Dr. Manhattan (which, I guess, is still technically a Black person, considering the HBO series), and even bees. Some are even soundtracked by Jay Electronica’s “Eternal Sunshine.” These images are often accompanied by captions that satirize the often faux-intelligent comments hoteps tend to make.
December 2019 brought with it countless hotep memes, but the amount of them circulating on social media feels like it doubled in February.
But current hotep memes have also highlighted figures who are considered hoteps in its current meaning, most notably Umar Johnson. According to his website, Johnson is a “Doctor of Clinical Psychology and Certified School Psychologist who is considered an expert on the education and mental health of Afrikan and Afrikan-American children.” He also claims that he’s a “paternal blood relative of both the Great Abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the late Bishop Alexander Wayman (1821-1895), 7th Bishop of the AME Church.” (The Frederick Douglass Initiatives released a public statement denying that Johnson is a descendant of Douglass back in 2016, writing: “Mr. Johnson is very careful not to bill himself as a ‘descendant,’ but he doesn’t correct people when they refer to him in this way. He calls himself a ‘blood relative’ which is a nebulous reference designed to make people think he is a descendant.”)
Despite amassing a notable following on social media, Johnson is viewed as a conspiracy theorist and con artist by the mainstream. The latter descriptor primarily stems back to 2014 when he began asking for donations to open the Frederick Douglas Marcus Garvey Leadership Academy for Black boys. Fast forward to 2020, and the school still hasn’t been opened, let alone has Johnson revealed the location of where the rumored school is. Despite this, Johnson has been busy on social media, primarily doing Instagram Live videos speaking on Kobe Bryant’s death and how he’s not allowed in Detroit for allegedly smoking crack, both of which have become memes.
People have since taken to sharing their favorite “hotep rant” from Johnson, as well as compilations of his rants, highlighting just how synonymous he has become with the term hotep as a pejorative.
Of course, with the proliferation of hotep memes in social media has come the inevitability of people who aren’t Black participating in both the sharing and creation of hotep memes, which is concerning.
The concern surrounding hotep memes no longer being in Black-only spaces is valid and is a reminder of the divide between what hotep initially meant and what it has become. Some cultural critics have spoken on this conflict. In her piece “We Have To Discuss Our Use Of ‘Hotep Memes,’” Brooklyn White articulates a more nuanced approach to hotep memes, writing:
I can acknowledge pointed attacks on my Black peers who are women, a part of the LGBT+ community, or both, through humor. I can also understand why the term being used exclusively as a joke without any historical context doesn’t excite people. The point is not to demonize either side. Instead we can discuss how we can get into the complexities of the term, while also having fun with Black lingo. Peace.
If February is any indicator, hotep memes are here to stay. And just as much fun as we’re having with them, it would help to be mindful that hotep memes may gave way to the other memes we’ve created.
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