Monday, December 16, 2013
Before Beyoncé, I don’t think I would ever be a feminist (read: womanist, but let’s stay in conversation). Raised by a queen, I long appreciated women’s strength, their multitudes. I learned their intersections seeing my mother navigate both male and white spaces, seeing her sisterhood from Los Angeles to Boston and beyond, survive. My appreciation though never charged me to jump in and stand with them. I could support from my various places of masculine performing privileges but Beyoncé is the reason I can call myself a feminist now. In reading the growing and mixed discourse since the release of her self-titled fifth album, I realize it is an active work to defend, highlight, and place women, especially women of color in the center of cultural discourses of body, performance, sexuality and race.
I have no intention to hide, minimize, or shame my undying love for Queen Bey, for that would be unfair; however my bias is not to her goddess-ness but to my personal investment in the celebration of Black women. I know how many other queens I could write about and defend. Beyoncé offers urgency and at this particular cultural moment this feels most appropriate.
Where were you when Beyoncé dropped? In the wee hours of Friday the 13th, I got a text from my best friend currently in India asking for the new Beyoncé album and I was floored. Not that Bey had secretly released an album-- if anyone right now is going to release a secret album its gonna be her or Kanye and Yeezus just came out-- but that I hadn’t acquired it yet. I scoured the Internet and found out that the Queen was preparing to make history. To say Beyoncé is all I’ve listened to since is not only completely accurate but a reminder of my perspective from the Beyhive. However, in listening to the album and reading the discourse, I found people were so shocked at the dynamic release. I wasn’t. At all. There was disconnect I felt from the mania surrounding this early Kwanzaa present. I went back to older articles with Mrs. Carter to figure out if there was some clue I had forgotten that innocuously now made since. Think back to Amy Wallace’ Miss Millennium article for GQ; in the profile released just before her legendary Super Bowl performance --which, for the record, was watched by less people than Madonna. Toward the middle of the article Wallace documents this “crazy archive” that Beyoncé and her team have created of every video or photograph or diary entry from the Queen since 2005. Among this archive are older videos from her time as a performer growing up in Houston’s Third Ward with Destiny’s Child predecessor Girl’s Tyme.
Why does this matter? Why does having collecting an estate of imagery and symbols do for an artist? Don’t other artists have them? Sure. Yeah. But consider this perspective from Black feminist scholar Hortense Spillers, in her work documenting the creation of Black femininity through the “Middle Passage”. She notes that there are little to no record of the female in African/slave archives. Where we see them in the “New World” as feminized and marked, we are missing them from the archive. Spillers notes how she, and Black women (read: women of color) are marked (Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book, Spillers 1987). Beyoncé, probably unknowingly, is doing such a critical work by creating a self-archive. Finding and documenting a narrative, a living bibliography of every photo, every interview, every time she is consumed. We have seen various utilizations of this archive from her two autobiographical films “Year of 4” and “Life is But A Dream”. Though completely over-crafted and not problematizing her cultivation of perfection; this work is still critical and she is, more than less, in control of it. By noting her archival work we can then better understand Beyoncé. Highlighted by various clips and sound bites -- artificial and archival -- we see how her history has constructed her work now. How do we understand her work now? Her work is undoubtedly Black and feminist.
This concept of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter being a feminist has been under fire since the morning we all recovered from the Queen’s entrance. The first and most interesting critique came from ForiegnPolicy.com Passport Blog “Beyoncé’s New Album Got FP Global Thinker Chimamanda Adichie All Wrong”. They cite Bey’s sample of the acclaimed Nigerian writer’s TEDtalk “We Should All Be Feminists” in her song “***Flawless” as problematic and unhelpful. Blogger Catherine A. Traywick writes,
Adichie's actual speech offers deeper insights than Beyonce's treatment would suggest. Breaking down the many subtle yet insidious ways that sexism guides our choices and shapes our worldview, she's particularly pointed about how cultural expectations surrounding marriage inhibit women's potential by framing subservience as "love."
This refusal to see how these Black women’s work are in conversation speaks to a greater disconnect between understanding how multi-faceted Black womanhood is and can be. Black women and all women of color are constantly critiqued and left out of affirming feminist narratives for the use and consumption of their bodies. Easy cites of these attempts at erasure can be found in our Black celebrities. We have seen the discourse from Eartha Kitt to Donna Summer to Grace Jones to Lil Kim. Black women’s bodies problematized and their sexuality made phenomena. But their discourse however misinterpreted or lost in the systems in which they have found commercial success is doing a work for women of color. It has been a pleasure reading various Black feminists come to bat for their newly enlightened baby sister Bey.
My favorite article is “5 Reasons I’m Here for Beyoncé’, the Feminist from the always dynamic Crunk Feminist Collective. Among the slew of great reasons to “be here” and stand with Knowles include:
What we look like embracing Queen Latifah and Erykah Badu even though they patently reject the term, but shading and policing Bey who embraces it? If Bey is embracing this term, that is laudable. If she’s figuring out her relationship to it, I embrace that. I will never let my politics be limited by folks’ identification with a label, but it is nice when folks are willing to take the risk that comes with the word.
This speaks to the growing critique by many feminists (I’m assuming white, but we forget our own, too) of Beyoncé, as seen in the aforementioned. If feminism is as nuanced and evolving as the work appears to be progressing, how can we shut out Beyoncé? Her work uses systems of power to highlight the oft-erased space of Black womanhood. We must take her statements and her body as declarative. That is not to say she is or should be the iconic political voice for Black women. Her steadfast integration and presence in the commercial, capitalist, and patriarchal music industry does place her at an interesting table in the master’s house (you, didn’t think I wouldn’t shout out Queen Audre Lorde, did you?). She has more access to communicate feminist statements than say Lauryn Hill or Erykah Badu. She has never been painted as the “Angry Black Woman,” her work has rarely, if ever, been othered by her Blackness. We can understand her access through various ways she is read, as married, as blonde, and sexualized. But we do see her latent feminist perspective as a product of success and privilege. Though flawless, she is not without problem.
When discussing realities of race, sexuality, gender, I hate the rhetoric of “raising awareness” which as a friend of mine once described as “the epitome of whiteness”, or “starting a conversation.” Beyoncé’s Beyoncé is not a conversation starter. It’s a declaration in a long history of popular Black women announcing their feminism. Their pleasure, their bodies, their feminism at the heart of their work. As queer bodies, including all women’s bodies and all bodies of color, we must define for ourselves the perspectives and identities we maintain to survive. We must create our own archives. To shame her oeuvre is to shame our own. To shame her sonic blackness is to shame blackness. To shame her success, is to shame success of Black bodies wherever we find them. So when she says “Bow Down” she means it and we must take it upon ourselves to read through what all that means for our own flawlessness.