Philadelphia activist and writer Feminista Jones is famous for letting misogynists have it on Twitter, much to the delight of her more than 160,000 loyal of followers.
She gets props for creating some of social media’s most enduring hashtags, like #YouOkSis, that call attention to street harassment. We can also thank Jones for the sarcastic name Hotep Twitter, the moniker and sometime-hashtag that pokes fun at anti-feminist ideas, like all black women bow to their Nubian kings, and that sparked the ire of controversial Philadelphia Pan Africanist Umar Johnson.
Jones’ decade-plus work in online activism — and her opinions on everything from Cardi B to Maxine Waters — are the backbone of her latest book, Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Women Are Changing the World from the Tweets to the Streets. (Beacon Press, $14.95)
The book is part memoir, part comprehensive look at how black women have shaped mainstream social media habits. Black women, Jones points out, changed how we watched TV in 2012, thanks to our obsessive live tweeting on ABC’s Scandal. It was also black women who were at the forefront of using hashtags in the fight for social justice. #BlackLivesMatter, for example, was launched into the zeitgeist of resistance in 2013 by three black women — Patrice Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opel Tommetti — with the express purpose of calling attention to the spate of young African Americans, like Trayvon Martin, who were being killed at the hands of police.
“Reclaiming Our Space is about telling the origin story,” Jones told me from her living room in Northeast Philadelphia. “It’s important that we tell the truths about our origins because it is key to preserving our history.”
Jones, 39, is both book smart — parts of Reclaiming Our Space read like academic text — and keenly aware of all things pop culture. Her aesthetic is Gen X old-school hip-hop and R&B, as evidenced by the vintage Prince albums that hang throughout the space. She also has a record player in a purple sparkle box that she still plays.
Jones is dead-serious about not making her voice small just so others feel comfortable ― especially black men and white feminists. As we chatted, she was crocheting wefts of magenta hair into her own with quick fast ease. The result: a mass of shoulder-length curls she plans to wear to Iowa, the next stop on her 17-city book tour that kicked off this month. Her voice is low, but everything about this discussion about black feminism is deliberate: Black women aren’t victims and we aren’t the world’s saviors, either. (Read about it in Chapter 10, “Mammy 2.0: Black Women Will Not Save You.”) Black women deserve equality, she presses. And we deal with issues relating to racism and gender that can’t be ignored.
“Black feminism is the key to liberation,” Jones says, to the chagrin of men who caution women not to be too independent, lest they won’t find a man.
My takeaway: Any black woman with even the teeniest concern about equality has some feminist blood pumping through her body.
“When you fully embrace [black feminist ideology], you have to live by it,” Jones said. “True feminism champions queer people, disabled people. There is no room for ageism, fatphobia, queerphobia, none of that.”
Life as a viral activist
Jones not only chronicled the rise of Twitter, she lived it.
Born Michelle Taylor, she became Feminista Jones on Twitter in 2011. The Jones part, she said, is a reference to 1970s blaxploitation actress Tamara Dobson’s no-nonsense Cleopatra Jones. She’s since trademarked the moniker and writes solely under that pen name. Depending on the mood of the day, she tweets under the display name BlackityBlack — taken from a song featured in the 1998 Chris Rock movie CB4; B.I.E. Felicia — from the movie Friday, with newfound relevance in the meme era; and, these days, Luminary Jones — Barnes & Nobles referred to her as one of the luminaries in black writing this year.
Jones, a divorced mother of one, has a bachelor’s degree in sociology and deviance law from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in social work from Hunter College.
In 2014, the year many credit as the beginning of online activism on black Twitter, Jones came to the rescue of a young mother who was being berated by a young man whose advances she rebuffed. She was so moved by the encounter she related the story in a Twitter thread with the hashtag #YouOKSis, giving her her first taste of viral popularity.
After the deaths of Eric Garner and Mike Brown at the hands of police that same year, Jones organized 199 vigils in 42 states and five countries using the hashtag #NMOS14 — or National Moment of Silence 2014.
Jones moved to Philadelphia in 2016. She took a job with Drexel University’s Witness to Hunger Program. After about a year, she left that gig and worked for philanthropist Chase Lenfest’s North Philadelphia nonprofit North 10. She left that appointment at the end of last year.
Her life as a writer — she’s written for the Inquirer — and speaker puts food on her table now. She travels around the country, talking about black feminist issues and black women’s impact on social media. She was one of the organizers of Philadelphia’s first Women’s March, and she’s been on countless lists signaling the impact of activists. In June, she gave a stirring baccalaureate address at Vassar College. Next month, she will be a featured speaker at the South by Southwest music and film festival in Austin, Texas.
Jones journey, however, hasn’t been without controversy. The internet can be a nasty place. Detractors have put her personal information on blast. And she’s been harassed, a victim of countless online threats. She’s had very public twitter spats with Johnson as well as with filmmaker Tariq Nasheed. Her stances are often ridiculed by men, including some black men, who often say her strength is a detriment. In 2017, when she tried to to raise $250 on PayPal to rescue her car from being impounded, the razzing was relentless.
“When you identify as both a black person and a woman, you should expect to be met with naysayers and antagonists who are wholeheartedly invested in countering whatever messages you might be sharing with others just because you are black and you are a woman,” she writes.
She landed the book deal with Beacon Press a little over a year ago. It took her six months to write the proposal, and she says she wrote the book in two months.
When the tour is over, Jones says, she plans to open an online vintage boutique she will call Ladies First, with a decidedly hip-hop spin. “People don’t know how crafty I am,” she said. She wants to write a book about black women’s contributions to hip-hop. And she’s working on a multimedia project, called Black in Philadelphia, that will feature prominent black Philadelphians’ impressions of life in the city.
In the meantime, she wants people to remember that history is being lived every day. "We have to recognize and honor those people ― specifically black feminist women ― who every day are pouring their heart and soul into ideas they believe in that are moving our country forward.”