Tomato, Potato

So, there is a body of feminist scholars that can’t get behind all this critiquing of bell hooks’s critique of Beyoncé and “Lemonade.”

They think that hooks’s critique is on point because feminism is about destroying the patriarchal power structure and its materialist products, institutions, and various other manifestations.

So, like, poverty–which women experience at disproportionately higher rates than men. Or violence–military, sexual, or otherwise–which women often experience is a way that is specific to gender (think military rape or rape as warfare or rape period).

These supporters of Ms. bell think that her point that Beyoncé is a capitalist, and so she cannot effectively help women get outside of patriarchal thinking and action, is the point.

Because they think that feminism, again, is about–and I’m going to quote my very intelligent, passionate Facebook Friend, Ms. Jessica Garraway, on this–“collective liberation of women and the dismantling of oppressive hierarchies.”

According to Ms. Jessica–and many other academics and activists I am reading around the Internet–black feminism has lost its foundational “anti-capitalist and anti colonial emphasis.”

She writes:

The shift in the focus is divorced from the original emphasis. It poses no threat to the power structure . . . That’s what feminism was[–]a movement to change material conditions . . . [The] politics are lacking and do not go far enough. They do not challenge the very foundations of what causes patriarchy and white supremacy in the first place. 

Feminism is suppose[d] to be about freedom but REAL freedom. Not the illusion of freedom presented within empire. The reason such a shift is even possible is because of the material gains made in the 70’s. What does feminsm [sic] offer now to women in poverty or stuck in a abusive relationship? How does it work to change their material conditions?

. . . feminism is suppose[d] to be about global solidarity with those oppressed by patriarchy. Women can’t just choose to not be bombed by drones if you are a feminist in Yemen[,] for example. Only collective action and solidarity can stop that. [To be honest,] I’m seeing a lot of similarities with black feminsm [sic] now and what we rightly call out as white feminism. The most marginalized are not centered. Because they are both neoliberal feminism[,] which is about individuals making it within oppressive institutions at the expense of others[,] not creating new ones.

To which I responded:

“If feminism is, by definition, a movement to tear down the power structure in the material world, then I am only marginally a feminist . . . Most of the work I do is on self-acceptance, self-motivation, and self-definition. Agency and autonomy. Along with . . . not exploiting and oppressing others.”

To which Ms. Jessica responded:

I think that is important work[,] too. I’m not saying it is not influenced by feminism/not feminism . . . [W]riting that is done with your focus is important and can be powerful . . . That work has led me to be an overall happier person and . . . act in movement spaces with confidence. I know my worth. If you do not have a feeling of efficacy[,] it’s hard to act in a way to build towards something larger than yourself because you don’t believe in your own power.

She is right, though, when she says: Women are also tethered in ways that [cannot] be fixed by internal work because it’s a matter of their material reality/there not being support networks for them to survive and escape physical violence. Women, particularly those in poverty[,] need a movement to break the chains.

I don’t know exactly how these chains can be broken, and, I have to be honest, activism is not my avocation.

I am a writer and thinker; I am a teacher and supporter. I don’t have a sacrificial enough nature to be a true freedom fighter.

I am more about the present and my own individual wellbeing, life, and livelihood than a truly revolutionary motherfucker can be.

Still, I do feel a pull, as I told Ms. Jessica, toward the work of helping black women and girls love and accept themselves and each other–cherish and enjoy themselves and each other–in the face and within the confines of a society and racial community that make them feel worthless and needless and, shit, unsafe.

After my exchange with Ms. Jessica, and reading all this dialogue about Ms. bell and Bey, I really am wondering whether I need a new title for that work–for the ethic by which I live (described here).

In my last post, I called my brand of feminism “femme feminism.” But maybe it isn’t feminism at all.

I am all about helping black women and girls, as Ms. Jessica says, “understand . . . that we as individuals exist and operate within the confines set for us.”

I am about helping them to negotiate more happily and healthily within and without those confines.

I want them to understand what is the truth and what is patriarchy and draw closer to the truth–that they are just as capable and valuable as any other type of woman or any man or boy on this planet.

That they deserve respect, fair treatment, safety, freedom, and a wide range of reaffirming choices for their lives.

Feminism, as it has been traditionally defined, is not this, or it’s not just this. It centers on ridding society of those confines, not operating within them.

So maybe I am not a feminist. Maybe I am something else.

The work that I try to do is conjunctive with feminism, as I see it. Which is why I’ve been using that title to describe it.

As Ms. Jessica said, you can’t break the patriarchy without first believing that you can.

You have to have a sense of yourself before you can act as a destroyer or builder of institutions out in the world.

The inside work helps facilitate the outside work, but I understand and agree that it doesn’t replace the outside work.

It doesn’t erase the need for the outside work. I get that. That makes perfect sense to me.

Still, the inside work–of building up black women and girls spiritually and emotionally–as individuals–is what I’m comfortable doing.

It’s what my particular gifts–writing and speaking–have led me to do, what they lend me to do, and it is what I enjoy doing with these gifts.

Because, as another very intelligent, very passionate–and she calls herself a “womanist”–black woman that I’ve read on the Coalition Zine tumblr pointed out:

I can deconstruct the things [black women and girls] enjoy and say and do . . . [T]here is always something there that can be deconstructed in a sterile academic sense. But . . . [t]here are ways to locate one another and meet people where they are without shutting them out and standing over them in the process. I find asking people why they love the things they love creates more community and proximity.

If true feminist work is tearing down power structures in the materialist–in the outer–the “real”–world, then, we have to be real about that:

It does shut out a lot of black women, and I do mean a lot.

Because we’re not all Harriet Tubmans. That’s just the way it is.

We’re not all revolutionaries and radicals. Just like we’re not all pop icons or iconic writers.

I can say honestly and without shame or regret–I am not willing to put my life or physical safety on the line to “deliver” people that are not blood relatives of mine.

I am too attached to my life and health, and I am too cynical to sacrifice them, to be a cog in a wheel (progress) that seems to be moving forward at an infinitesimally slow pace.

I don’t want to be oppressed, but I also don’t want to be killed.

I don’t want to be an agent of the patriarchy, but I don’t have the heart to be one of its saboteurs.

But I can ask questions and bring up points and share ideas and try to make them feel better.

So maybe I am a black feminist idealist instead of a black feminist activist.

Maybe I am a black feminist ideologue instead of a black feminist scholar.

Maybe I am a black feminist phenomenologist instead of a black feminist theorist.

Maybe I’m a black female idealist, ideologue, or phenomenologist and not a feminist of any kind.

O.K.

I don’t have a problem with not being a feminist if I’m not a feminist. Just like I don’t have a problem calling myself a feminist if I am a feminist.

I just want to do the work that I want to do and have that work reach the people that need and want it.

I just want that work to do whatever healing and unifying and manifesting it can.

In the vein of a piece like “Lemonade.”

In the vein of a celebration like “Black Girls Rock!”

In the vein of a TV show like Issa Rae’s “Awkward.”

In the vein of Warsan Shire’s poetry.

People can call the ethic of these kinds of things whatever they need to or feel is appropriate, as far as I’m concerned–for the sake of clarity, acuity, reality, and authenticity.

They can call them “feminist,” or they can call them otherwise. I guess it’s up to them.

They can call me whatever, too. I don’t much care. As long as they don’t saddle me with names or titles that are disrespectful or dismissive.

As long as they don’t call me a mindless product or willing victim of the patriarchy or misogynoir.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sugar, Ice, and Tea: On “Lemonade”

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We are so tough but so scared–we black folk.

It’s actually quite a feat.

We can manage to survive institutional racism–the trauma, the stress, the constant devaluation, the violence, the seeming endlessness of its pain and suffering.

But we can’t do a Goddamn thing with love.

We run and hide from it like children.

So Beyoncé makes “Lemonade.”

She puts it out after years of hinting at Jay-Z’s infidelities in songs. After years of widespread rumors about his cheating. After the elevator incident. Making it that much more compelling. Arresting.

She opens a window onto a black marriage–possibly hers–through song. She makes a video for this body of songs.

She expresses emotions–again, possibly hers–that are completely natural, understandable, and recognizable to adult people that know anything of romantic love–

And grown black men and women all over the world lose their fucking shit.

That is way more disillusioning than finding out that–hey!–the man that made “Big Pimpin'” has commitment issues and may even be a misogynist.

People have accused Beyoncé of everything from making the video as a publicity stunt to shaming the black female community with her vulnerability and honesty.

A lot of black men in social media have literally mocked her for expressing the pain that comes with being betrayed by your spouse and having to face the decision of whether or not to break up your family.

The real shame–though–is how all of these reactions are motivated by nothing but fear and insecurity.

Men ridicule Bey to scare other women into keeping silent about their pain.

They are afraid to look the effect of their disgusting, dishonest, and dishonorable actions in the face and see what monsters they can be.

Women admonish Bey because they are afraid to be as vulnerable as her and risk getting mocked by these same men.

They are afraid to admit that they’ve had emotional bombs dropped on them in their marriages and romantic relationships and been devastated by them for fear of seeming weak and eliciting the sadism of future lovers.

Black men and women are afraid of each other. We are afraid to trust each other. We are afraid to be ourselves with each other.

We are afraid to love each other because we know how ill-equipped this American experience has made us for such a delicate and complicated job, and we are fatalistically certain that we will fail each other in the enterprise of being each other’s partners and co-parents.

In the place of confessing our fear, and/or, in a lot of cases, just acknowledging it, we attack.

We are far more comfortable attacking each other than loving each other at this evolutionary stage of our culture.

And that goes for men attacking men–for being “soft” or anything else that hints of vulnerability, concern, investment, conciliation, or accommodation–and women attacking women–for being “weak” or anything else that hints of hopefulness or hurt.

Whether Bey really did make “Lemonade” as an elaborate love letter to Jay, or catharsis, or a cautionary tale, she has definitely brought some important issues to the surface related to black love and intimacy.

The reaction to the work has illustrated that there is a dire intimacy crisis amongst black cis-hetero women and men that stems, I’m afraid, from the disrupted familial and sexual dealings of slavery and has been perpetuated by the divide-and-conquer tactics of Jim Crow, postmodern and post-postmodern racism, and even the prison industrial complex.

The disparagement coming from both genders has shown us that misogynoir (shout out, Moya Bailey)–or black misogyny–and cattiness among black women are alive and fucking kicking.

There is a famous quote by one of the wisest black writers of all time, James Baldwin:

james baldwin

But in order for the battle to be won, we can’t fight each other.

We have to fight our fear.

I am in love right now. I have been in love for 15 years. With a beautiful black man I met when I was 25.

Last year, I wrote about our relationship for Brassybrown.com:

J was 20 when we met. A rebel. He’d just been kicked out of his first of two colleges and sent back to Cleveland to get himself together. He was living with his mother, riding the bus, and barely scraping together money for cigarettes and $2 beers at the bar around the corner. He was scribbling poetry on any scrap of paper he could find, devouring political tracts and science fiction novels, and watching the news like most men watch football and basketball.

J didn’t have all the “resume” qualifications that most women look for, and it caused me quite a bit of consternation when we first met. He was kind, though. He was deeply intelligent, surprisingly funny, and beautifully soulful. He was handsome and a talented poet and emcee. He loved his mother and younger brother devotedly, and he fell decidedly in love with me.

I couldn’t resist doing the same to him.

J was wonderful, but J was five years younger than me. He was unsettled, unsure, and unprepared for a relationship as serious as ours. And we went through more ups and downs than I care to enumerate or narrate in this essay.

In other words, we were real people in real love. We had real problems. We made real mistakes.

I didn’t catalog those mistakes in the older post, and I won’t catalog them here, but I will say that I started the relationship afraid that he would never appreciate the “real” me–opinionated, bookish, awkward, restless, moody, freaky, and given to bouts of inconvenient and sometimes unjustified crazy–but he does.

I had to be open with him. I had to tell him all my stories. I had to show him all my scars. I had to trust him.

He had to be gentle and understanding and trust me not to ridicule him for it or throw it back up in his face. Trust me not to take advantage of him.

And vice-versa. He had to be open with me. Tell me his stories. Show me his scars. Trust me.

I had to be gentle and understanding and trust he wouldn’t take advantage of me.

This has been a long and often painful process, full of pitfalls. We’ve had terrible fights. We’ve broken up and gotten back together a few times. We’ve cried over each other. We’ve driven each other to some pretty desperate points.

But we have also made a miraculous little girl, built a beautiful and real friendship, and become each other’s family.

The work we’ve done to break free of our fear has been worth it.

I don’t know whether “Lemonade” is factual or not. But it does tell the truth about the heartbreak many black women experience in love with black men.

It is a very important and meaningful exposure.

It shows that black women have hearts. We’re not made of tin.

It shows that black men have power.

It shows that black women have power.

It shows that black love is an extremely complex and deep thing.

It also shows that black women and men have to allow for more complexity–and depth–in our interactions with each other in order to achieve love and effect some sort of healing of our collective brokenness.

We have to be less afraid, more vulnerable, and forego all this posturing we do for each other.

If America is going to do nothing but give us the “lemons” of living black and un-free in this forsaken place, then let’s be each other’s sugar.

Let’s believe and believe in–let’s help and stop hurting each other.

james baldwin 2

 

 

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.