Yoga Journal Tried It: Social Media, Publication, and the Ethics of Citing Black Women’s Intellectual History

Several Black women historians, including Deborah Gray WhiteAshley Farmer, and over a dozen scholars who presented at the 40thAnniversary Symposium of the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH) have written about race, gender, and the archive. Recently, these discussions became personal for me when Yoga Journal published pictures from the Library of Congress showing Rosa Parks practicing yoga, without citing my archival research that brought this amazing story to light. 

In December 2018 at the ABWH Symposium, I shared my research (based on published family memoirs and her personal narrative of “stretching”) that Rosa Parks practiced yoga. I published my findings about Black women’s yoga history and shared the first public research of Mrs. Parks and her yoga legacy in the ABWH blogon June 21, 2019. On January 15, 2020 Yoga Journal published pictures from the archive without citation or attribution to my intellectual labor to bring the story to light. They knew of my work because I had tagged them and other major yoga publications on November 12, 2019, in the event they wanted to feature my work. If the story of Rosa Parks doing yoga was compelling enough to print, it should have been compelling enough to cite. Essentially, a powerful, professional trade journal acted as if they had done the research themselves. 

I get it. There are no rules to the internet. Yet this is a teachable moment that raises questions about social media, citation, and publication (trade, news, or academic). When scholar friends of mine who had posted the Rosa Parks picture were notified this originated from my research, they were more than happy to share my ABWH citation. When, in December 2019, Susan Reyburn, released her book Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words, including a never-before released picture of Mrs. Parks in the Bow pose, I was thrilled to share her work, with a citation of that source. I meticulously recognize the work of scholars like Jeanne Theoharis, who have committed substantial time to recovering Mrs. Parks’s history. I have acknowledged the intellectual labor of librarians and archivists who do the work to enable researchers to “find” and “discover” stories from the archive. I also honor and cite the work of Jana Long, founder of Black Yoga Teacher Alliance, and her work on the history of Black yogis

Of course, when folks with large platforms or social media followings share work that is not theirs, we cannot prevent images or ideas from going viral. But it cannot be as simple as saying that copying without attribution in the academy is plagiarism and copying in trade presses without attribution is journalism. Plenty of trade publications, news outlets, entertainment producers, and even social media superstars are happy to at least give a “shout out” to the sources or “inspirations” for their work. Yet, here we are. 

At the time when I first located the “Thunderbolt pose” picture of Mrs. Parks, it was available on the Library of Congress (LOC) website…only as a thumbnail. The LOC required permission to print (read the fine print under the picture on the ABWH article) and also required written permission from the Parks estate representative. I went through the right channels to secure permissions, so I knew anyone who published a high-resolution version of the picture was duplicating my work, not accessing the LOC thumbnail picture. The “Bow pose” or “Note on Yoga” pictures were not at the time available online and would not be released until made public in conjunction with the Reyburn book (hence her rightful claim to sharing work “in print for the first time”). 

“Rosa Parks practicing yoga at an event.” 1973 March. Image courtesy of Library of Congress, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Visual Materials from the Rosa Parks Papers, [LC-DIG-ppmsca-58369]. Photo used with permission of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development.
“Rosa Parks practicing yoga at an event.” 1973 March. Image courtesy of Library of Congress, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Visual Materials from the Rosa Parks Papers, [LC-DIG-ppmsca-58369]. Photo used with permission of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development.

Date stamps for citations are critical to tracing the origins and evolution of ideas—the public records for sources are there for those who want to find them. 

My work on Black women’s intellectual history is grounded in life writing, so when I did not find a suitable archive of voices (published memoir), I created my own——to encourage research in this area. This database is where I began to shape my discussion of Black women elder yoginis throughout history, particularly Harriet Jacobs, the Delany Sisters, Eartha Kitt, Rosa Parks, Jan Willis, and Tina Turner before 1975 and six others after 1975. My theoretical framework, methodology, and analytical approach are narrow and purposeful, so when I see this combination of names together or memoir sources presented a certain way, I know it is my work. Like academic publications that do not cite or reference my work, it speaks volumes about how Black women’s intellectual labor is ignored, silenced, or co-opted. Social media is one thing, but academics, news sources, and professional publications have a responsibility to operate with a greater responsibility to not actively render intellectual labor invisible. 

Academic research, writing, and publication is slow. It cannot possibly keep pace with social media and viral posts. It does not have to. While topics may trend, it is the job of ethical academics, reporters, and intellectuals within and beyond the academy to #CiteBlackWomen and #CiteASista to ensure the record is there for those who want to access it. Citation and attribution are tools by which to gauge the weight of information presented. 

When I teach my students about research processes, I stress the significance of the literature review. The 1,400 books by, for, and about Black women in the Black Women’s Studies Booklist and the “Real Bad News” teaching tool about source types are resources for research training that will serve everyone interested in a professional writing career, even if they have no desire to be an academic. Black women are not a monolith—our ideas are diverse and complex. Quality writing requires a broad understanding of existing resources and a full review of the range of discussions marginalized populations like Black women have. Not everyone is interested in quality writing, but if you say you are a scholar or a professional, you will be held account by those who actually have done the work before you. 

Recently, a Washington Post story revealed how the National Archives altered photos for an exhibit. At every turn, some folks will seek to hide, delete, take credit for, or alter voices of hope, dissent, resistance, and radical truth. Regardless of efforts to not cite us, Black women’s voices will not be silenced, our records will continue to inform, and our intellectual labor will continue to guide present and future generations to a greater sense of universal freedom and to contribute to education that serves the purpose of social justice. Now run citethat

Dr. Stephanie Y. Evans  is Professor and Director of the Institute for Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Georgia State University. She is author of three books: Historical Wellness: Mental Health and Wellness in Elder Memoirs (forthcoming), Black Passports: Travel Memoirs as a Tool for Youth Empowerment (2014), and Black Women in the Ivory Tower, 1850-1954: An Intellectual History (2007), and lead co-editor of Black Women and Social Justice Education: Legacies and Lessons (SUNY Press, 2019), Black Women’s Mental Health: Balancing Strength and Vulnerability (SUNY Press, 2017), and African Americans and Community Engagement in Higher Education (2009). Follow her on Twitter @Prof_Evans.