Dr. Umar Johnson in front of a building
Dr. Umar Johnson in front of a building
Do Dr Umar meme accounts like the popular "No Context Dr Umar" mock him or celebrate him? Graphic: Okayplayer

Who's Laughing At Dr. Umar Johnson & Who's Laughing With Him?

Dr. Umar Johnson memes can be funny but they also serve as a reminder of how divisive he is.

"This is only for Africans. The training is only for Africans. You may not bring your white wife. You may not bring your white wife. You may not bring your white wife. If you bring a non-African, you and the non-African will be escorted out my training. If you bring a non-African, you and the non-African will be escorted out my training."

The quote, taken from an Instagram Live Dr. Umar Johnson did on his account, is arguably one of the more popular memes of the divisive figure. A search of "You may not bring your white wife" on Twitter will not only show a handful of users bearing the phrase as their name, but sharing the video that the quote comes from, too. Since. the rise and fall of Vine in the early 2010s, caption-video memes has become one of the more popular meme formats. Currently, Umar Johnson memes are huge among Black Twitter users, as some have taken bite-sized moments from old speaking engagements and livestreams and transformed them into bits of comedy. Umar memes are essentially the spiritual successor to the hotep memes that resurged earlier this year, only to lose their luster as their popularity grew beyond Black spaces, subsequently leading to non-Black people participating in the creation and sharing of those memes. That Umar has taken the place of hotep memes isn't surprising: he is treated synonymously with the term hotep as a pejorative, and a handful of hotep memes were centered around him.

Who is Dr. 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.” (In 2017, The Root confirmed that Johnson is a doctor of psychology.) 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. Still, Johnson is seen as a leader and a representative of Black people as a whole, his charismatic personality and outspoken views on how to better Black communities seen as pro-Black to some, and a detriment to others.

On the surface, it's understandable how someone could gravitate toward Johnson. He speaks to the inequalities and mistreatment that Black people face, and peppers his points with memorable — and unintentionally comedic — terms ("coon chip") and phrases ("you may not bring your white wife") that speak to his candid persona. But underneath the flamboyant oration is what skeptics of Johnson find concerning: his conflation of opinions and facts or presenting half-truths as full-truths; his well-documented homophobia and misogyny; and the money he has been given to fund a school that still doesn't exist.

This is what makes Johnson a divisive figure — the question of if he's really for Black people or not.

The rise of Dr. Umar Johnson memes

Considering Johnson has been around since the early 2010s, it's likely that memes have existed of him since then, but weren't being reported on. The year 2017 found the first reports on memes centered around Johnson courtesy of The Root, when they covered his appearance on The Breakfast Club. (He has appeared on the nationally syndicated radio show four times.) Since then, Johnson memes have been reported on alongside hotep memes, with pieces often examining the complexities surrounding hotep's transformation from a greeting to pejorative.

Although seen as something humorous, memes can also be used to satirize or undermine someone or something. However, memes often decontextualize the source from where it came from, leaving us with a moment that may seem funny but can contrast from its origin. They can also be adopted by the person — and their fanbase — that they're making fun of, normalizing them in a way that could be harmful.

For a time, it seemed as if the Johnson memes were serving the purpose of poking fun at Johnson, a contrast from the users who unironically share his videos and support him, especially now as protests have taken place across the country against police brutality. But there's an account on Twitter that has blurred the line. No Context Dr. Umar has amassed more than 90,000 followers since joining the social media site in March. It's unknown who the creator is; some users think it's Johnson himself running the account, and whoever created it plays into that. (When asked via DM if the account is operated by Johnson, the anonymous creator replied: "Of course, who else could it be?")

Initially, the creator shared screen records of Johnson's Instagram Live videos on their Snapchat, but the posts didn't resonate on the social media platform. So, they decided to pivot their posts to Twitter.

"I would always see a picture of Dr. Umar with a straight face looking into the camera attached to tweets that advocated interracial marriage, or Black people defending white people for example," they said in a Twitter DM. "It would always gain thousands of likes and retweets."

Inspired by the No Context Hearn Twitter account — a self-described parody profile dedicated to boxing promoter Eddie Hearn — they created No Context Dr. Umar under the idea of "what if black people had a no context page to themselves?" As with any meme page, the intent can be misconstrued unless it's explicitly stated what it's for. For weeks, the creator pinned the following tweet to clarify that, "Some videos are posted because it’s funny, some are posted for when he speaks facts." The tweet received some criticism, with one user even saying that they were unfollowing the account. Prior to this, the creator asked followers of the account if they were actual supporters of Johnson in April. Out of 2,928 votes, 55.4 percent said no, while 44.6 percent said yes. They followed this up with another poll on May 13, asking once again if followers liked or supported Johnson. The difference is that it included another aside from no and yes — it's complicated. Out of 5,460 votes, it's complicated received 44.7 percent, while no and yes received 34 percent and 21.3 percent, respectively.

As the polls have shown, not everyone sees Johnson similarly, and not everyone is laughing at him. As for the creator themselves, they support Johnson and believe "he only wants the best for Black community."

"I can see where some people are coming from that say I'm trying make his ideology into a joke, which was not what I intended when this account was originally made," they said in a DM. "I always try to upload Dr. Umar's serious videos to show that I'll always respect his points."

And as for why memes of Johnson seem to be so popular among Black Twitter users — whether they support him or not — the creator believes it's because he says what people are thinking.

"I never worry about if people take what Dr. Umar says seriously because it's about the user's perspective," they said. "Whether they take it serious or not is their business. I simply upload clips for humor or what I believe is factual so it's their choice on how they receive the videos posted."