Beyonce and Forms of Blackness

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Personally, I can go either way on Beyoncé.

I can critique the commodification of blackness by a middle class, privileged, light-skinned woman that wears fake blonde hair, shakes her ass professionally, calls herself a feminist whilst continually defining herself in relationship to her husband (“Let me hear you say ‘Hey, Mrs. Carter!'”), and is unwilling to make explicit statements about her political beliefs.

Or I can appreciate a pop singer with a record-breaking level of fame laying claim to her blackness and making references to the crises in her community and its history when she’s not obligated and stands to lose at least a modicum of the cross-over appeal that made her so ridiculously famous by doing so.

I see her both ways, and I get when people see her either way.

But here’s the thing:

When Beyoncé does something like turning out the Super Bowl 50 Halftime Show, and black people start arguing about whether that was a “good” thing or a “bad” thing, we’re not really arguing about Beyoncé’s performance.

I mean, yes, some people love her singing and dancing, and others don’t, but that’s not really the root of the conversation, I don’t think.

I think what we’re really arguing about is how we want to see blackness represented in the media. And underneath that I think we’re arguing about what we really think black people need to be doing with themselves and doing about our collective “situation.”

And of course I have thoughts about both.

Wanna hear ’em? Here they go.

When it comes to representations of blackness in the media, you have black occurrences and black performances.

Black occurrences are things like the tape of the murder of Eric Garner. A record of an organic incident that presents some devastating truth about what it means to be black in America and contains some serendipitous aspect that can be commodified (Mr. Garner’s last words “I can’t breathe.”)

Black performances are things like Beyoncé’s “Formation” video. A piece of art that presents aspects of black life aesthetically, either to make a point about the truth of what it means to be black in America; to make a point about the artist’s individual experience of being black in America; to entertain an audience using points of reference that come from the black American experience; to sell a product using points of reference that come from the black American experience; or all four.

When it comes to consumers of representations of blackness in the media, you have purists and enthusiasts.

Purists want to see black occurrences; they prefer them. Because they are usually political (polemical) in nature. Because they can mobilize activism. Because they are serious and real. Because they signify struggle and necessitate fighting. And that’s what they think black people in America should be doing. Fighting. Period. Point-blank.

Enthusiasts like black performances, too. Because they’re black. And that’s a big part of what they think black people in America should be doing. Just being black. Just asserting their plain old blackness in a world of #OSCARSSOWHITE and so many other forms of racial exclusion. They don’t need the blackness to be political, respectable, appropriate, feminist, or “authentic.” They just need it to be black and not bleeding to death in the street.

Again, I see both sides of it, and I get when people occupy either side.

I do think it’s important that black occurrences be broadcast all over the fucking world so people can see and understand what America is doing, but I also can’t help but snicker at a troupe of black dancers in afro wigs, berets, and black turtleneck leotards storming the fucking Super Bowl.

I’m a black feminist, but I’m also a black girl and black artist. I see the worth in fucking with the aesthetic. I also get a kick out of seeing black people in places where they “don’t belong,” doing things that they “shouldn’t” do.

And so–I’m here for Beyoncé and “Formation.”

Not because I think it’s the perfect black feminist statement. Not because I think her video is a paragon of black representation. Not because I think she’s a revolutionary or “Formation” will change the country or black community. But because I think that there are different forms of blackness, and there should be different forms of blackness.

Black activism is one thing. Black entertainment is another. Beyoncé is an entertainer, and she does her job amazingly well. I like that she’s injecting a little Black Panther, a little Nola, a little history in her imagery. But it’s not her job to save us. It’s her job to make us dance and sing along. I don’t think she’d say anything other than that. And I don’t think we should expect anything other than that from her.

We have black feminist activists. Scholars. Educators. Leaders. If we don’t know their names, then we can’t be lazy and look to a pop star to act as our stand-in. We need to learn their names. We need to read and follow their work. We need to give them the same amount of exposure and respect that we give the pop star. We need to put them on an adjacent pedestal, so kids recognize and follow them like they follow Mrs. Carter.

Too, I don’t think we should police people’s performances of blackness. Love it or hate it, but don’t dissect it for “rightness,” because what’s the “right way” to be black?

There are as many ways to be black–or do black–as there are black people in this country or on this Earth.

No one’s utterly or perfectly authentic in their blackness because blackness isn’t one measurable thing.

When we as black people deride each other for the way that we enact identity, we’re not getting any closer to solving our collective problems. We’re certainly not strengthening our collectivity. We’re being divisive, and hypocritical, because isn’t that what we’re always accusing white people of doing? Policing us?

Beyoncé is not my favorite singer, but she’s a hell-of-a performer, and I’d rather see her on the Super Bowl than fucking Taylor Swift or Katy Perry–the poster girls for pop feminist whiteness.

I’d rather see her nouveau aesthetic blackness on a music video than another clip of a male rapper posing in a sea of undulating multiracial breasts and hips.

But that’s me.

If Beyoncé’s “formation” of blackness doesn’t suit you, that’s cool. Stick to your own.

She’s not taking anything away from anybody, I don’t think.

And whether you like her or not, she gives some people absolute life.

 

 

 

 

 

149 thoughts on “Beyonce and Forms of Blackness

  1. Wonderful article. You brought up some very good points and have certainly sent my thought process into over-drive.

    I have to say, as a 50-something, Southern, conservative, white woman this time in history is both confusing and unsettling for me. I know how that sounds–that it’s unsettling for me–I bet African Americans would, after reading that, wonder “how do you think it makes me feel”…and they’d be right to think so. But, let me explain.

    Although I can certainly remember instances from my childhood of blatant racism (mostly while in the company of my paternal grandfather–a mason, a farmer and an all-around 1950’s personification of “Southern white male”–I PERSONALLY don’t see it myself (anywhere but in the news) any more. Don’t get me wrong, I know racism still exists; I just don’t experience it myself. Why would I, you might ask.

    I am the grandmother of 5 beautiful bi-racial kids. The 3 oldest are 1/2 black. The two youngest are 1/2 Hispanic. “We don’t see color or race in this family.” That’s what I’ve told people in the past. Lately, however, it’s hard not to..

    To employ your word, “blackness” is the hot button topic. There’s nothing wrong with that…but still, it’s a little unsettling for me and mine.

    My grand-daughter (who is ten) came to me recently and asked, “Is it okay that I’m black”. I’ve been waiting for a question like this. I assumed she was being bullied in school or that someone had a ask a question about her ethnicity. So I asked, “Why do you ask honey? Is someone bothering you at school?” She said, “No. But, my friend Athena (who is black) told me that because Mommy’s white I can’t be black and if I’m not all black we can’t be friends, ” she went on, “Athena says white people–especially cops–are bad and we [black people] should kill them all.”

    OMG! This is coming from a ten year old girl!!

    I didn’t know how to respond, other than to tell my grand-daughter that OF COURSE it was okay that she was black and not all white people are bad and MOST cops are good guys.

    I still don’t know what to say. Until this conversation she never felt black or white. She was Lizzie–a girl that likes Netflix cartoons and reading. She was just Lizzie. Now…now she’s worried about being 1/2 black and 1/2 white and wondering if one could get her killed.

    I don’t know… I know it sounds naive…but, can’t we just all get along?

    It’s a childish question I know…but I still can’t help asking it…

    Like

    1. It’s not a childish question. I think it’s the question that we all ask at one time or another. I don’t know the ultimate answer, but I have my thoughts on it. People want power. They want money. They want to feel good about themselves. That’s human. What’s also human is the ruthlessness with which many people are willing to pursue those things. White people in America have a really singular social position. They created this country and built it, in part, to ensure they had a relatively smooth and easy path to power, gain, and happiness. That meant handicapping other groups that might compete with them for power and money. They did this by enslaving the blacks that they brought over to work the land and exterminating the indigenous people that were here. They do it now by propagating negative stereotypes about the descendants of those slaves and indigenous people and using their political power and money to keep them oppressed. Black people react to that oppression with anger and resentment; they compensate for that oppression by closing ranks and vilifying white people. I’m painting the picture in broad strokes, but I hope you get it all the same. We can’t get along because there’s a power differential between the races. And the people with the least power get routinely victimized by the people with the most power. And since this happens along color lines, color can’t be inconsequential. It’s funny–the concept of living life without an intense amount of anxiety attached to your skin color is as odd to me as having to think about your skin color is to you. That your granddaughter was able to go so long without understanding her blackness is pretty incredible, actually. My 8-year-old knew she was black from about three. She had no choice. The world around her forced her to develop a concept of race in order to understand it. And pardon me for saying so, but I don’t think that “feeling black” is necessarily a bad thing. Black people are amazing. Our history is rich, and our legacy is inspiring. But–yes–it’s heavy. That’s what I sense you lamenting here. It’s a heavy mantle to carry. People will say and do things to you–like Athena–all the time. But it’s life. When Lizzie was born with black blood, into American culture, she was forced into a certain set of circumstances, just like the rest of us. She’ll have to learn to deal with them, and so will you. Love helps a lot. And acceptance. Refuting your blackness, or the existence of race, or the fact that it matters in America, doesn’t.

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      1. I certainly can agree with every word you said, truly. And, you’re right when you express your surprise at how long it took Liz to get to this point. I have been waiting for years to have the RACE conversation. (She and her brothers live with me.) But, until now, it never came. I think I can probably attribute that to our neighborhood. It’s very diverse and everyone gets along very well no matter who or what color we all are.

        Let me say this too…I never meant to imply that “feeling black” was a bad thing. If I did, it was unintentional.

        I guess the truth is, for me at least, I never think about race. Again, I know someone else on the other side of the fence could say it’s because I’m white. That may be so. I don’t know. Although, I’d like to say that it’s because I don’t see our kids as being 1/2 anything. We’re all just a family. And I don’t look at anybody–black, white, red, brown or purple–as those colors. They’re just people. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not perfect or some sort of goody two shoe Pollyanna…I have my share of biases. I hate seeing males of all colors wearing their pants below their butts and I truly dislike hoochie pants on females. I think it’s trashy looking. Does that make me racists since, in my area, more blacks than whites dress that way…I guess. We’re all bigoted about something. That’s just the truth.

        I just wish we could all work harder at fixing the division and not making it worse.

        Thanks so much for engaging. I certainly hope I didn’t offend in any way.

        Like

      2. No–I wasn’t offended. Thank you for being so open and honest with me. It’s refreshing. And you’re absolutely right. We all have our biases. Me too. I think it’s wonderful that you and your grandchildren live in a neighborhood where they’re embraced and not mistreated. And I wish, too, that people would work harder at keeping differences from functioning as divisions. They don’t have to be. Your family is a testament to that.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Omg so relevant to the new project I began. I was discussing this the other day, with a friend.
    Please, if you would spare the time, take a look at my post: https://pardonmyblogs.wordpress.com/2016/02/05/black-enough/

    My recent project, ‘Black Enough’, highlights social injustices, and aims to tackle a few of life’s hardships with humorous fictional incidents and anecdotes in a light series of blog posts.

    I really do hope that you are inspired to read it, and would be great full if you were to share it with others.
    God bless

    Like

  3. Im not sure if ive said this but think Beyonce and her dancers statements via the artsitic medium they comminucate in were brilliant. I believe all artist have an obligation to enact positive change. especial artist who belong to oppressed religious ethnic or racial groups. Its our job wether we accept the task or not. We all can do our small or large part. We listen to “Im Black and Im Proud” by James Brown and its seems tame today but when he dropped it in 1968 he had far more white folk turning red than Mrs. Queen Bey does now. We as a people need a cultural revolution and our cultural icons ,ust be on the front line pushing this. I address it in part here in the begginings of my #hiphopmanifestio http://www.hughemc.com . i also give my take on Queen Bey’s dancers support of the #Justice4MarioWoods movement which Im a part of and the significance of her social stance
    https://hucipher.wordpress.com/2016/02/09/beyonce-the-super-bowl-and-black-power/
    I also agree we need not deride one anthers attempts to represent our culture…our Blackness as long as its done in a respectful manner and Beyonce’s performance was powerful and so is the imagery in her video. We must rally around her because the enemy is doing enough to tear down this sisters attempt to lift us up

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    1. Certainly, the mainstream media is trying to tear her down, and, no, she doesn’t deserve to be attacked. She has the right to make whatever statements she wants to make with her art. You’re absolutely right.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great article. You’re absolutely right. There is no one right way to be black and we shouldn’t be policing each other’s representations.

    Unfortunately, when there isn’t enough of a diverse representation, we’re prone to be defensive about presenting the right collective image when we get to present any image at all.

    As an example, my Taiwanese bf feels forced to support Fresh Off the Boat even though he feels like they Panda Expressed his childhood. It’s not like there are a whole lot of options on TV.

    But you’re absolutely right that we’ve got to stop policing each other. We’ve got to let each other represent our blackness as authentically as we each feel able.

    Like

    1. Yeah–I understand the fear that negative imagery will translate into negative perceptions and negative treatment, but I try really hard to resist the concept of a collective image. Like you said, the black race is not a monolith. So no one image can nor should represent “us.” Rather than fighting amongst each other, then, about the “right” way to represent “us,” I think we need to fight the powers that be to create more opportunities to represent ourselves and see ourselves represented in the media and entertainment. So then no one image receives the amount of pressure that we put on Beyoncé in the case of “Formation.” If that makes any sense.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. You can judge singers based on whatever you like. You can also oversimplify the meaning of what I wrote to make it seem ridiculous or write sarcastic comments about it, too. Whatever you need to do. But it doesn’t negate the fact that the ideas that I touched on are important to some people. If they aren’t to you, then read someone else’s blog.

      Like

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