Three years ago, Solange Knowles released the beautifully layered album A Seat at the Table. The title alone offered hints about the type of music I should expect; I knew her album would leave me feeling empowered and seen. Solange has been vocal about “growing up in a household with two parents who consistently celebrated Blackness,” so I expected that she would deliver an album that unapologetically celebrated Black womanhood. As a Black woman who adopted the song “FUBU” as my personal anthem, I can assure you she did. With lyrics like “Made this song to make it all y’all’s turn,” her intentions were hard to miss.
On February 26, Solange dropped hints about the possibility of new music. But this time the announcement came with an unexpected, and welcomed, trip down memory lane. After the singer posted a Tweet saying “Find me on black planet,” fans began discussing the possibility of Solange not only releasing an album, but also teasing it on Black Planet, which was once the largest Black online community. (She later tweeted that When I Get Home would come out at midnight on February 28.)
Long before Twitter and Facebook posts written in all caps by grandmothers everywhere, we had Black Planet. I signed up for the social networking site about two months after I joined the Black Greek Letter Sorority, Zeta Phi Beta. Black Planet, with its customizable homepages, private messaging, and little green chat notifications, was where I virtually connected with my sorority sisters and fraternity brothers. We used our inboxes to share our college experiences, support each other’s fundraising efforts, and, of course, spread the word about our parties.
It made the first year of my sorority life invigorating. It was also my introduction to online dating and even web design. Users could tailor pages to reflect our personalities. For example, I could customize my page with my favorite song; the layout of the site allowed users to post pictures and write what are now called status updates. However, my favorite feature was the messaging. I once got to know a guy from a different college—seeing the little notification light on my screen and realizing it was from him was like opening a note in elementary school and realizing your crush had checked “yes” to that infamous question.
My memories and fondness for Black Planet are intertwined with a pivotal—and ridiculously carefree—time in my life. As a new member of Zeta Phi Beta, everything I did felt fresh and exciting. The first time I attended a college party wearing my sorority paraphernalia was pretty damn epic for a young college student from New York whose only glimpse at Greek life came from the sitcom A Different World. This excitement and newness was extended by my faithful use of Black Planet. Cell phones still looked like garage door openers in 2000, and I’d certainly never even heard of an app. Free WiFi? Try trial AOL CDs from the mall.
The ways Black Planet helped shaped my college experience certainly extended beyond dating and parties. Attending college in the south meant I was miles away from the intimacy of family gatherings. The more I was able to build community, whether with students from my own college or from other campuses, the less I felt the emptiness of being away from home.
But it’s taken several attacks from racist trolls on current social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to deeply appreciate what it meant to have an online community specifically for Black people. Online harassment is not a recent development. But on Black Planet, I never experienced the type of venom and misogynoir spewed on newer social media sites. Given the magnitude of reported cases of online racist attacks, many of us now long for a digital community that would at the very least incorporate fast-acting policies to reduce these encounters.
Black Planet has still been running this whole time, many of its users departed for newer platforms like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter. But based on the social media reactions to Solange’s announcement, our cultural connection to Black Planet has clearly endured. The thought of revamping a safer Black online community is a powerful one. It was our space—created with our community in mind. The mere mention of a possible resurrection has caused people to blow the dust off their old usernames, myself included. People seem excited: There’s chatter about how exciting it would to have this space back in the social media mix, and suggestions on ways to make it app-friendly. Black Planet reminds many of us of a much simpler and freer time online.
The cultural connection that Black Planet represents and our desire for a safer online community makes Solange’s choice to showcase her art there yet another example of the ways she speaks directly to and expressly with her Black audience. As with A Seat At The Table, she deliberately creates art that centers us. Thanks to that knowledge, I feel a deeper connection to her music; I trust her creative vision that much more. I’m not sure which will be my favorite song on this new album, but I trust I will find another anthem that feels like it was created for us, by us. From the looks of the song titles she just released, it could well be “My Skin My Logo.” Because if anyone can capture what it feels like to have your skin speak volumes for you, it’s Solange.
When I Get Home will be released at midnight on February 28.