Why people are joking about Rep John Lewis on Twitter

dex digital
5 min readJul 19, 2020

Hi. Also some thoughts on Breonna Taylor memes and ‘minority’ humor.

You may have heard that Rep John Lewis passed away. And if you’ve been on Twitter, you may have also heard that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio eulogized Lewis by posting a picture of himself and …Elijah Cummings.

A man who is very significant, but also significantly not John Lewis.

People noticed immediately. One journalist summed it up in a quote tweet: ‘Wrong black guy’.

Rubio has since deleted the tweet, and acknowledged that he tweeted an ‘incorrect photo’. But hasn’t really addressed the fact that he had trouble telling the difference between black people he actually met and worked with.

Pretty quickly, people started cracking jokes at Marco Rubio’s expense. Here are a few of them:

I know explaining jokes is usually a bad idea, but here’s some quick maffs on why these jokes are funny. First, the relatable context. The nigh-universal experience that just about every black person has: being mistaken for a classmate/coworker who looks nothing like them.

To the relatable, add the predictable character: a Republican* politician who mixes up black people is so stereotypical as to be almost too obvious. (To nitpick, Rubio being Latino is less predictable, but in the context of this joke, his identity is probably just flattened into ‘Republican’.)

Add now the over-confident fail: Regardless of Rubio’s intent, this is being read as Rubio having tried to use Lewis’ name for clout, and failing. It’s the political equivalent of that quarterback who spiked the ball into his own nuts, minus the TD. There’s something satisfying about watching someone get too confident and screw up in public.

Relatable context + predictable character + over-confident fail= funny.

Now all that’s left is to create endless permutations of the joke: situations where Rubio is constantly mixing up black actors, musicians, etc. Wait until Tiktok gets ahold of this.

So yeah, people are laughing. But you might also feel like there’s something wrong here. Maybe you’re cool with criticizing Marco Rubio, but these jokes are not just about Rubio.

These jokes are also about John Lewis.

That is, the crucible of the joke is the juxtaposition of two figures: a civil rights legend, and a politician who mis-recognized him the day after he died. In the construction of the joke, Rubio is not the reason the ‘moment’ appeared. Rubio is replaceable. If I told you some other politician, be they Democrat or Republican, had posted that tweet — you’d believe me.

Rubio is just the predictable character, the guy who opportunistically tries to use a ‘moment’ as a lever his own benefit, and failing to comedic effect. But the fulcrum of the lever, the thing that makes the joke work — is John Lewis. You can’t separate him from the jokes.

And again, it’s been less than 24 hours since we learned of his death. That would be my best guess at the internal logical of why these jokes might feel a little ‘off’ to some people.

But I’d submit that these jokes are an understandable reaction to the moment we’re in now.

If you feel like a legacy that you identify with is being hijacked, and you also feel you have no power to do anything about it? Yeah, you might decide to make some jokes. Sometimes this dark humor is all people feel they have. Particularly black and brown people. Laugh to keep from crying, I guess.

Tangentially, this reminds me of something else I’ve been observing: the meme-ification of the demands for the arrest of the officers who killed Breonna Taylor. You may have seen the bait-and-switch memes on Instagram. Some think this is disrespectful. There’s been a lot of smart writing on this topic. And I’d encourage you to read it if you’re interested.


But what it comes down to is this: people are doing everything they can to keep Breonna Taylor’s name in everybody’s minds, at all costs. It’s a play/plea for attention.

Attention is the currency of the Internet. Having more attention doesn’t necessarily mean that you will win. But at the very least, attention can keep you in the game.

For some people, one way to stay in the game is to crack jokes. In the case of the Breonna Taylor’s memes, the aim is to keep her name alive in the national conversation. The Rubio jokes, if only obliquely, do the same with the name of John Lewis, subtly encouraging people to do better than Rubio, and properly remember John Lewis — which, of course, is part of mourning. Keeping the name alive.

Now, I think these jokes are less purposefully strategic than the Breonna Taylor memes. There’s no defined movement or goal behind them. But they are serving to poke at some things that are part of the same system that the memes are addressing: a system that treats black people as interchangeable, as replaceable, as worth less.

Different approaches, different contexts, similar factors. You don’t have to like the jokes, or agree with the memes! It’s understandable if you don’t. But it’s a good idea to consider why they’re happening.

Anyway, hope you’re taking care of yourselves. It’s been a rough week.

* Yes I know Democrats are not immune to casual racism. I’m speaking in the terms of a joke that inherently relies on stereotypes, in the context of an audience that is predisposed to be suspicious of Republicans in particular. If you message me complaining about this line, you hereby forfeit your pokemon cards to me for all eternity