Is 'planking' harmless fun or fundamentally offensive?

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Have you ever felt the urge to “plank” something?

While it started out as an Internet stunt — “planking” has become this year’s craze — inspiring intrepid, amateur stunt men and women lying with their face down, usually in a public place and then posting the photos to the web (preferably Twitter).

And it’s not just something the kids are doing. It’s been a worldwide meme that’s been a viral phenomenon since at least this spring, with the widely publicized death of a 20-year-old who fell off a balcony trying to take a picture of himself planking.

But now, the concept of planking is becoming more and more visible in references made on Twitter by members of the hip-hop community.

Within the black community, some of the photos are arguably horrendous. One shows a woman with her head in a toilet bowl, hands to the side, feet against the wall. Others show people in sexual positions. Body outstretched on a stool.

The rules of planking require you to keep your body in a straight position with your hands to the side, face down. A humiliating pose to say the least. The term that black folks have been using is #plankin or #planking.

CBS Sports has showcased several photos by Orlando Magic’s Gilbert Arenas and center Dwight Howard whom they called “two of the most prolific plankers”. Photos showed the two planking at a hotel and throughout Orlando’s Amway center.


As the wave of planking photos built to a wave and then crested yesterday at least one person made people think about a more serious side of planking. Comedian Katt Williams posted a picture on Twitter showing a man being arrested, face down on the ground, hands cuffed behind his back. The caption on the photo: PLANKING, You’re Doing It Wrong. Williams added the message “Black people been #Plankin for years.”

And that’s what’s gotten so many in the black community shocked by this Internet craze which trended heavily on Tuesday. There were multitudes of mentions and even people who said the word “planking” was derived from a slavery era term. It allegedly described the prostrate position slaves had to take when traveling over the Atlantic.

From the Wikipedia page on “slave ship”:

Often the ships, also known as Guineamen, transported hundreds of slaves, who were chained tightly to plank beds. For example, the slave ship Henrietta Marie carried about 200 slaves on the long Middle Passage. They were confined to cargo holds with each slave chained with little room to move.

Another mention of the word, describes the “bed” for slaves who were chained onto ships. From the book, Upon these Shores: Themes in the African-American Experience, 1600 to the Present:

Some ships had tiny bunks, really nothing more than shelves, on which slaves could recline; in others, the slaves lay side by side on the planking, rolling with the ship, bodies virtually touching, for weeks on end.

One can see how photos of someone laying across a basketball hoop, or fence, or inside of a club between two women is funny, or across a mailbox is humorous. And although there’s no direct evidence I could find that “planking” was a specific term that came out of slavery. The term “slave plank” also brings up mention of political platforms or “planks” that were used during political conventions in the 19th Century. Frederick Douglass would argued the “anti-slavery plank”.

Still, given the similarity with the visual references of slave ships and stacking bodies in chains during the slave trade, evidence also points to the planking position as being one of humiliation and confinement for African people during the Middle Passage.

What we know about planking is that it’s derived from the Laying Down Game (a.k.a Playing Dead) meme that spread throughout England and Australia sometime around 2009 and seemed to reach its peak in 2010.

It became known as “planking” sometime later because participants try to get their bodies to resemble wooden boards or planks.

However, any intended allusion to slavery has yet to be proven. As some would suggest, African-Americans have been taking to “planking” for the competitive factor, the same reason that people stuffed into phonebooths and Volkwagons back in the 1950s.

Mass fads such as those were all about oneupmanship, recorded in a still photo — but without the potential viral audience that the modern era can deliver. With athletes and celebrities talking about planking and showing themselves in the act, it’s only natural that the massive young black Twitter and Facebook community will follow, even without realizing that it recalls the slave trade that ended several hundred years ago.