Week 4 – Black Feminist Futurities I – Lemonade

Page Illustration: Roberto Cavalli @roberto_cavalli/Instagram, 2016

ASSIGNED READINGS & MEDIA

Knowles, Beyoncé (2016). Lemonade. United States: Parkwood Entertainment (via Streaming – Spotify, Apple, Tidal/YouTube)

CONTENT WARNING: SEXUAL VIOLENCE; CHILD SEXUAL VIOLENCE – Hartman, Saidiya (2019). “A Minor Figure,” Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, 13-35. New York: Norton. (COURSE TEXT)

PAGES 1-18 ONLY – Webster, Sina H. (2018). When Life Gives You Lemons, “Get In Formation:” A Black Feminist Analysis of Beyonce’s Visual Album, Lemonade, Senior Honors Thesis, Eastern Michigan University. (via LEARN)

Zandria (2016). We Slay, Part I. New South Negress: Region. Race. Culture

Black Feminist Thought

Image: WBUR Gallery, 2019. Caption: This series of pamphlets was created by the Combahee River Collective to spread awareness about the murders of black women in Boston. They had to update the number on the pamphlet as the number of murdered women increased. (Courtesy The History Project)

Perhaps no collective of activist-scholars have been more influential to contemporary social movements than the Combahee River Collective. This collective of Black feminist lesbian activists and scholars in Boston,they took their name from a book co-founder Barbara Smith owned detailing the historic raid on Combahee River and the instrumental part Harriet Tubman played in the military operation that freed 750 slaves (WBUR Gallery, 2019).

Members joined the collective as a refuge from the conditions that they faced within radical social movements in the 1960s-1970s. These included homophobia and misogyny in the civil rights and emerging Black power movement and racism within the feminist and queer movements.

Their conversations and collective organizing resulted in the Combahee River Collective Statement (1977), now considered to be one of the most visionary frameworks for political organizing.

Principles of the Combahee River Collective Statement

  • Black women are inherently valuable: our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s. We require autonomy and recognize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us.
  • Stereotypes of Black women are used to keep us down: Merely naming the pejorative stereotypes attributed to Black women (e.g. mammy, matriarch, Sapphire, whore, bulldagger), let alone cataloguing the cruel, often murderous, treatment we receive, indicates how little value has been placed upon our lives during four centuries of bondage in the Western hemisphere.
  • Problems of Organizing as Black Feminists: The major source of difficulty in our political work is that we are not just trying to fight oppression on one front or even two, but instead to address a whole range of oppressions.
  • Psychological Toll of Organizing as Black Women: The psychological toll of being a Black woman and the difficulties this presents in reaching political consciousness and doing political work can never be underestimated.
  • Process is a Part of the Struggle: In the practice of our politics we do not believe that the end always justifies the means. We are committed to a continual examination of our politics as they develop through criticism and self-criticism as an essential aspect of our practice.

Intersectionality

If you have taken SDS 331R with me you will be familiar with this image – and you should also be familiar with the concept of intersectionality. I am using this image here because I developed SDS 331R around the concept of intersectionality and when the web developers at the Centre for Extended Learning asked me for an image that would define how the course worked, this is what I came up with (after they modified my original concept because it basically looked like the Olympic rings and they were afraid of copyright infringement.

So what is intersectionality?

The concept of intersectionality is directly derived from the political work of Black feminists (including those associated with the Combahee River Collective). Most notably, Professor Patricia Hill Collins provided us with a clearly thought out framework of intersectionality that is used today.

Intersectionality situates oppression through matrices of power. Collins makes the claim that we live and exist in societies that are created through a web of power relations. While many theories that preceded intersectionality tried to claim that oppression could be boiled down to one system of power (i.e. class, gender, race, ability, etc.), intersectionality sees power as being weaved into the structures of our society through multiple axes.

Let’s revisit those rings above:
  1. Let’s ascribe each ring to a contemporary structure of power (capitalism, white supremacy, (cis)heteropatriarchy, settler colonialism, ableism).
  2. The rings have different patterns to show that each of these structures has their own histories, ways of operating, and populations that benefit and/or are oppressed by them.
  3. The rings are interlinked. To interlink rings in that way it has to be part of the origin. So, we are making the claim that these structures of power emerge together historically – they shape each other and conversely shape our society.
  4. The rings are locked into each other. If we are going to address the issues of power, we need to address them all simultaneously. We might try different things at different times, but the big picture is that social justice comes from a breaking down of all these structures (not just one).

Patricia Hill Collins explains that we need to see power and oppression through a lens of interlocking and intersecting systems. The last part is very important.

Collins is not advocating for an “additive model” of identity politics. She is not saying, you can pick and choose where you fall into these categories to get your “oppression score” (i.e. black (-1), cis/heterosexual (+1), disabled (-1)). Instead, Collins – guided by the work of Black feminists, articulates that we need to understand the ways in which systems of power intersect and create different conditions of life for different people based on where they are situated along these axes of power.

In a recent essay in The Guardian, Barbara Smith, co-founder of the Combahee River Collective pushes us to think about Black feminism through an intersectional notion of identity politics, not a superficial liberal politics of visibility. Read the article to see what she means by this.

Black Feminism & Hip Hop

Patricia Hill Collins was also early to recognize the way in which Black feminism was taken up in hip hop. In her book From Black Power to Hip Hop: Racism, Nationalism, and Feminism she clearly shows how akin to within social movements, Black women struggled to find their place within an emerging music genre.

She argues, “to be a Black feminist-leaning woman in America during the Hip-Hop era is often a contradicting one.” Citing the way in which capitalist interests had co-opted and mischaracterized hip hop around the tropes of macho “gangstas” and money-obsessed young Black men, while Black women were positioned as “hoes” and “booty shakers”, Collins says that the radical possibilities created by Black women within hip hop are erased, minimized, and set aside.

Highlighting the work of Roxanne Shante, Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, Salt & Pepa, Collins traces the development of a Black feminist intersectional analysis within and among hip hop artists.

Most recently, during the Black Lives Matter uprisings in the summer of 2020, we saw the rapper NoName clap back at J.Cole who seemed to put out a dis track about her in the midst of the uprisings. Her track Song 33 responds to this dis through a Black feminist intersectional analysis.

A Minor Figure / A Queen

Image from Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, p. 13

This week’s readings are a juxtaposition of two figures.

The first figure (a minor figure), an unnamed child found in Saidiya Hartman’s archival research. She is forced to pose (nude) for the photographer Thomas Eakins and his wife – who would later go on to be accused of numerous acts of child sexual abuse.

The second figure (a major figure), Beyoncé Knowles, known affectionately as Queen Bey by her legions of fans. We study her her mediations on fidelity, motherhood, Black love and power.

I’ve chosen this juxtaposition precisely to engage with the ways in which racial, gendered, class, and other forms of violence intersect in the lives of Black women and girls. These experiences are what give rise to Black feminist thought.

In Hartman’s chapter “A Minor Figure” we learn both about the author’s methodological framework for her research and we are introduced to the story of the unnamed girl. We witness Hartman trying desperately to read the emotions and non-verbal communication in the child’s portrait, situate them within the living conditions of young Black girls living in poor urban areas, and through the lens of power that makes their lives a footnote or a forgotten act of violence. She then, quite beautiful, projects and imagines, the lives of these young girls as they grow up – refusing to simply label them as “victims” and move in.

She crafts ” a love letter to all those who had been harmed, and, without being fully aware of it, reckoning with the inevitable disappearance that awaited” Black women (including herself).

Activity 1 - Bearing Witness to the Archives
Be sure to read Zandria's We Slay, Part I before completing this activity.

Saidiya Hartman approaches the archives knowing that they are a form of violence. Not only do the archives contain evidence and proof of the violence committed against many people, often painfully detailed or matter-of-factly written with a cold bureaucratic language - but also the way in which who appears and how they appear in the archives - and who collects and controls the archives are themselves violent. 

For instance, discussing her subject (young Black single women in Turn-of-the-Century urban centres in the U.S.) for the book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Hartman expresses, "Young women not in desperate need, not saddled with children, and old enough to say Hell no and Get out of my face evaded capture." They are missing from the archives partly because they are deemed unremarkable by those who collect this knowledge and by their own resistance to being "known". What Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson term "ethnographic refusal." 

Hartman notes: "I work a lot with scraps of the archive. I work a lot with unknown persons, nameless figures, ensembles, collectives, multitudes, the chorus. That’s where my imagination of practice resides."

Your Task: In the video for Beyoncé's  Formation (below) survey the chorus, the nameless or unknown persons, the voices/speakers that don't appear on-screen.  Select one figure/group from the video and take a moment to reflect upon who they might be (or who they are portraying), what their lives might be like, how the intersections of race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, cis-normativity, etc. weave through their lives and create both contexts of violence and possibilities of beauty. 

Be Reminded of Hartman's Quote: Beauty is not a luxury; rather it is a way of creating possibility in the space of enclosure, a radical art of subsistence, an embrace of our terribleness, a transfiguration of the given. It is a will to adorn, a proclivity for the baroque, and the love of too much. 

Note: We will take this activity up in the week's lecture, so if you are able to do it before class, all the better!!

Formation: The Multiplicities of Beyoncé’s Political Anthem

In 2016, in the wake of Black Lives Matter uprisings in response to killings of Michael Brown (Ferguson), Eric Garner (New York City), and Sandra Bland (Houston), Freddie Gray (Baltimore), Alton Sterling (Baton Rouge), Laquan MacDonald (Chicago) we saw a wave of hip hop artists produce tracks inspired by these movements. Blood Orange produced the track “Sandra Smiles“, Vic Mensa produced the track “16 Shots,” Prince recorded the track “Baltimore,” Miguel produced the track “How Many,” Lauryn Hill released the track “Black Rage,” and Janelle Monae released the track “Hell You Talmbout“.

Perhaps no artist, however, created the ripple waves throughout the globe than Beyoncé when she released her track “Formation,” and accompanying video on the eve of the Superbowl. Formation’s reach was vast and Beyoncé overt political statement drew the ire of many of her (white) fans. This was compounded by her performance at Super Bowl 50 (the year before Colin Kaepernick would take a knee and be eventually blacklisted from the NFL for his political actions).

Take a moment to watch the Superbowl performance – observe the imagery, the wardrobe, and the political statements being made throughout Beyoncé’s performance:

What

Analyzing Formation Through an Intersectional Lens

The release of formation “broke the Internet” precisely because it resulted in a vast amount of conversation about the Black Lives Matter movement, Beyoncé’s clearest political statement in her career, and the imagery/quotes/political affirmations that accompanied the video and Superbowl performance.

We will cover a few key threads here:

Black Queer and Trans* Folks in the Periphery and at the Centre

In Zandria Robinson’s (2016) blog post reaction to the release of Formation, she considers the way in which the music, video, and imagery all harken to queer/trans* community work in New Orleans.

She states,

Formation is an homage to and recognition of the werk of the “punks, bulldaggers, and welfare queens” in these southern streets and parking lots, in these second lines, in these chocolate cities and neighborhoods, in front of these bands and drumlines.

Zandria Robinson, 2016

If those lines sound familiar, that’s because Zandria is using terms used by Saidiya Hartman in our book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. The argument here is that Formation immediately makes visible and centres Southern Black queerness as central to the analysis of the song.

And yet….

The main voice that narrates the track, Big Freedia, a Black trans* woman who is one of the originators of the New Orleans “bounce” genre of music, is heard but never seen. This itself became a point of discussion given that Big Freedia was also used to narrate a Drake song “In My Feelings” and there has been a clear trend (one covered in Weeks 6 and 7 of this course) of Black queer/trans* culture being appropriated and mainstreamed without due credit or recognition.

Black Feminism and Radical Black Love

The video and lyrics to “Formation” are a love affirmation to Black (and particularly southern Black) culture and people. The video transgresses time/space and we see scenes set in various eras and settings all blending together.

In it, Beyoncé, establishes her roots in this culture, repeating the refrain:

My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana
You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama

This very clear alignment with Black culture, identity, and politics shocked and disrupted normative (white) notions as a “safe” or “un” Black pop star. As Sina Webster argues in her undergraduate thesis,

After Beyonce officially displayed her Blackness for the world to see, she received a
considerable amount of backlash from white people, who deemed her performance too political. The Formation music video itself also received backlash as it featured a young Black boy dancing in front of a line of police officers, eventually making them raise their arms to him in surrender, and graffiti on a wall saying “Stop Shooting Us,” and Beyonce standing on a sinking New Orleans police car.

Sina H. Webster (2018), 2

For Webster, what makes this particular video so powerful is Beyoncé’s desire to root herself in her poor/working class southern Black roots rather than play into the “Queen Bey” phenomenon. As Webster suggests, to revere some Black women as “queens” perpetuates the notion that Black women must be royalty for them to be given respect, dignity, and a good life in the United States.

Barbara Smith. Beverly Smith and Demita Frazier writers of “A B lack Feminist Statement:· report, “[w]e reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.” (13).

A Return to Liberal Capitalism

Perhaps no other part of formation received as much backlash from Black activists and feminists than the final section of Beyoncé’s formation. Here she moves from analyzing the conditions of Black oppression in America and forefronting Black queer, trans* and feminist movements that have fought for liberation and justice to the actionable part of her manifesto.

Specifically two lyrics that suggest that the key to Black liberation lies in … liberal capitalism …

You just might be a black Bill Gates in the making, cause I slay
I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making

You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation
Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper

Beyonce, Formation, 2016

These statements came with wide ranging detractors such as the feminist bell hooks and the abolitionist Ashon Crawley.

bell hooks, for instance, suggests that both “Formation” as a song and Lemonade as an album, while offering significant political content and need for reflection, fall short in their goals precisely because they lack an intersectional lens.

In the world of fantasy feminism, there are no class, sex and race hierarchies that break down simplified categories of women and men, no call to challenge and change systems of domination, no emphasis on intersectionality. In such a simplified worldview, women gaining the freedom to be like men can be seen as powerful. But it is a false construction of power as so many men, especially black men, do not possess actual power.

bell hooks, Beyoncé’s Lemonade is Capitalist Money Making at It’s Best, 2016

Meanwhile, Crawley, trying very hard not to “poke the Bey hive”, cautions that praising Beyoncé for the seriousness and politically astute nature of her song while willfully ignoring problematic aspects contributes to uncritical deification. Crawley explains, “Black performance occurs on multiple registers, is multimodal, arrhythmic, polyrhythmic. Like the young folks say, there’s levels to this shit.” As such Crawley believes we should also engage with Black politics in a similar fashion.

He notes:

I want to talk about and think through the openings created and the delimitations of dancing and singing over consumerist class culture that makes the noise of a desired “Black Bill Gates” and “the best revenge is getting paper” audible. These two statements are seeming aberrations, they are noise that needs cancelation – so far, it seems, unfortunately through refusing to engage it – that we need to feel its vibration in and on and through us.

Ashon Crawley, Deformation, Information, On Formation, 2016

For Crawley, we must recognize that Beyoncé’s political assertion are not beyond critique. That careful and respectful engagement in conversation on movement-centered popular culture requires not a politics of purity (i.e. it’s ok if your fave is problematic), but rather an engagement with the limits of awaiting for messiahs among the elite. Given Beyoncé’s financial position, we need to recognize that despite this radical turn, her interests are tied to capitalist interests – and as bell hooks reminds us, “Viewers who like to suggest Lemonade was created solely or primarily for black female audiences are missing the point. Commodities, irrespective of their subject matter, are made, produced and marketed to entice any and all consumers” (hooks 2016).

LEMONADE

Image: Dazed Magazine

Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade is a multi-layered and public reckoning with love, lateral harm, intergenerational trauma, and the beauty of Black joy in a world of anti-Blackness. Set across 11 chapters each coinciding with a poem by the British poet Warsan Shire, the album itself mirrors Beyoncé personal reckoning with the infidelity of her husband, Jay-Z.

Each song represents a chapter in the story and a stage of processing for the protagonist:

  • Intuition (Pray You Catch Me)
  • Denial (Hold Up)
  • Anger (Don’t Hurt Yourself)
  • Apathy (Sorry)
  • Emptiness (6 Inch)
  • Accountability (Daddy Lessons)
  • Reformation (Love Drought)
  • Forgiveness (Sandcastles)
  • Resurrection (Forward)
  • Hope (Freedom)
  • Redemption (All Night)

A number of excellent analysis pieces have been written on this seminal album. One of the most comprehensive studies of the album can be found through the podcast DIS/SECT which breaks down important albums song by song, line by line, and in this case visual by visual.

DIS/SECT approaches it’s work through a deep methodological combing of concepts, lyrics, references, and visuals to draw out themes related to the artists’ work. Take a moment to explore the podcasts’ first episode Intuition (Pray you Catch Me).

While we cannot cover the entirety of the album in one lecture, I’ve selected two tracks that delve into key themes for our course.

The (White) Public Gaze

One of the first chapter’s in Lemonade is Beyoncé’s mediation on denial and fear of the public gaze into a harmful moment in her relationship with her husband. Drawing back to our earlier work in this lecture, we recall the way in which Hartman frames the way in which outsiders control our perceptions of the lives of young Black women living in the “slums”. Here, Beyoncé Knowles, one of the most famous celebrities in the world is ruminating on the violence of the (white) public gaze in judging her relationship, her response to the rumours of her husband’s (now public) infidelity, and her reaction.

The album and this video reckon with the intergeneration trauma and lateral harm that is produced in the contemporary era because of the history of slavery in America. It is an attempt to engage with the question of how to (re)construct Black love despite these traumas and in recognition of these traumas. It is not a practice for white (public) consumption, but rather one that is deeply embedded in mutual love for those who have been impacted and continue to live this reality.

DIS/SECT, Season 7, Episode 2

Black Feminist Futurities

The final chapter of Lemonade sees the protagonist returning to the Destrehan Plantation, one of the largest plantations that exploited enslaved African labour. Following the track “Freedom” a resistance song, we are greeted with visuals and music that imagines a new horizon, a reclamation, and a redemption through the Black feminist lens Beyoncé has constructed throughout the album.

Pay close attention here to the way in which children and childhood is centered in this final chapter. How do you interpret Beyoncé’s maternal role in this video? How are the children representative of a radical Black futurity?

DIS/SECT, Season 7, Episode 11
Activity 2
Consider your exploration of the DIS/SECT podcast in relation to Lemonade. Think about how the podcast's producers dug into images, lyrics, and concepts introduced in the visual album. Reflecting on how the show delves into the metaphors, symbolism to interpret the meanings of what was being said, what was not being said, and what might be being said all at once. 

Take note of 2-3 interesting strategies that you observed that might help you as you work on your Assignment #2 - Black Futurities Digital Archives. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s