“Formation” is a Black Feminist Statement

 

By now, the world has probably gotten word that Beyoncé broke the Internet with her latest masterpiece, “Formation.” Released yesterday, the video has already garnered millions of views on YouTube. After experiencing “Formation,” Black people took to social media to laud Beyoncé for highlighting Southern Black expressions in the lyrics and in the video, such as her references to hot sauce, Red Lobster, and J’s. She makes it clear that though she has stacks, she is still a country girl at heart, a true Texas Bama. Beyoncé displays New Orleans as the backdrop for the video, and she also features the voices of New Orleanians Messy Mya and Big Freedia. Centering New Orleans was quite a political move since it is a majority Black city that has a rich culture, but its Black citizens have been and continue to be marginalized (pre and post Hurricane Katrina). Yes, “Formation” uplifts this oppressed group, all while grounded in Black feminism.

Beyoncé confirmed that she identified as a feminist in “Flawless,” and since then, she has faced criticism because some feel that she doesn’t portray the “ideal” image of feminism. With “Formation,” Beyoncé shows that she could care less what the haters have to say, and she is not here for anyone policing how she chooses to express herself. “Formation” reminds us of who spearheaded feminism in the first place—Black women. In the video, she showcases her daughter and other Black girls/women with their natural hair, portraits of Black women, nostalgic clips of Black women of the Southern elite class with their fans, and Black women posted in a beauty supply store. Beyoncé also talks about her sexuality and has no problem rewarding her man after good sex, a statement that slams gender roles and expectations.

These feminist ideals are further validated when Beyoncé proclaims that when she sees something she wants, she goes after it; she grinds hard until she claims it. She does not adhere to society’s expectations of how a woman should navigate the world; she does not need permission to do what she wants because she is in control of her life. Such a statement could be considered what Patricia Hill Collins describes as the development of “subjugated knowledge” as an act of resistance. Historically, every aspect of Black women’s lives has been controlled, including their work and reproduction. Society has also formulated negative images to represent Black women (hot mama, mammy, and welfare queen). In response to these images, Black women have pushed back and engaged in acts of resistance to challenge their oppression. This has included Black women developing their own knowledge and definitions of themselves. Beyoncé continues that tradition in “Formation,” as she pushes back on society’s perception of Black women and exclaims that she is going to take what is hers. What is hers includes the autonomy, dignity, and self-expression that have been stripped from Black women.

The recurring line throughout the song is “slay,” a term that means kill, eliminate, or exterminate. According to Beyoncé, she slays, and we slay as well. Some may take this to mean that figuratively, Beyoncé is referring to how she slays the music industry, fashion, and everything in between. As Queen Bey, she has “eliminated” those who have threatened her throne and family. Yes, Beyoncé is slaying the industry, but I believe she is also hinting at something deeper. If you’re slaying, then it implies that there is something to “kill, eliminate, or exterminate.” When Beyoncé says that she slays everyday, I believe she is revealing that in addition to being a boss, she is faced with challenges as a Black woman and must slay them. Black women have always encountered obstacles, roadblocks, and opposition. But we did not just sit back and succumb to them; we slayed. Fannie Lou Hamer slayed. Audre Lorde slayed. Marsha P. Johnson slayed. Angela Davis slayed. Pauli Murray slayed.

“Formation” demands that White people recognize Black expressions, and reminds Black people that Blackness is beautiful, from our Afros to Jackson 5 nostrils. The song and video also serves as a testament that Black women will continue to disrupt the status quo. Black women will continue to work to slay the white supremacist, patriarchal, homophobic, transphobic, classist system that imprisons us all. Alicia Garza slays. Patrisse Cullors slays. Opal Tometi slays. Elle Hearns slays. I slay. You, Black woman, slay.

Thank you, Beyoncé for the reminder.

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Justice, Women’s Bodily Autonomy, or Else

With the upcoming rally in D.C. to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March, Minister Louis Farrakhan has been quite visible in the media as of lately. He has been featured on a variety of talk shows in the past few months, and has done a series of public speaking engagements, including one in Memphis, TN on August 20th. In his speeches, Farrakhan has vehemently spoken out against the plight of people of color, focusing on police brutality and the Charleston massacre. Farrakhan is attempting to mobilize individuals nationwide to gather in D.C. this October and demand “Justice or Else.” 

Interestingly, Farrakhan has focused on the Hip Hop community, as he has criticized their leadership and called them to action in an attempt to attract young individuals to his agenda. After all, Huey P. Newton–co-founder of the Black Panther Party–once stated, “the revolution has always been in the hands of the young,” as they are the ones who “inherit” it.  In an interview with E-Money of Hip Hop Since 1987 and Tahirah Akilah on September 10th, Farrakhan was asked to share his thoughts on the Made in America Festival that took place September 5-6. Specifically, he was prompted to address the role of female R&B/ Hip Hop artists such as Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and Beyoncé. Farrakhan began his analysis by noting that “the woman is everything in the way of building civilization…she is the mother of civilization.” He went on to say that today, women are stripped of their clothes and men cannot think straight because the beauty of women, such as Beyoncé, mesmerizes them. Even religious leaders are subject to this distraction when a woman “disrobes” herself; as a result, they lose focus of the Bible or Quran. Farrakhan further suggested that when a woman is stripped down, a man becomes a dog since women don’t “make” a man when they are free of clothing. Instead, they make a man treat them like an object of sex rather than the creative geniuses that they are.

When I viewed Farrakhan’s interview, I was completely disgusted by his remarks. Overall, his comments mimic the antiquated saying that “a man will not respect a woman unless she respects herself.” What this really means is that a man will disrespect a woman if she doesn’t adhere to his conception of “the ideal woman.” This ideal woman dresses conservatively, is a virgin, and should never hint at sexual pleasures. If she acts otherwise, then she automatically loses the respect of men because she has somehow now disrespected herself.  David Banner expressed similar sentiments back in April when he tweeted how women should present themselves in a way that demands the respect of men, i.e. women surrender autonomy, including bodily autonomy, to gain validation from men.

Such remarks treat women as objects and imply that women’s bodies only exist for the male gaze. Never mind women deserving respect because they are human beings, regardless of presentation. Never mind how women view their own bodies and the reclamation of bodily autonomy that Black women are trying to gain. Farrakhan falsely assumes that women seek attention and validation from men and that all women are heterosexual. He does not recognize that women have agency in their presentation; this is evident when he proposes that we appeal to female entertainers’ managers, such as Jay Z.

Furthermore, Farrakhan’s remarks contribute to rape culture. He is blaming women for the way that men engage with them. He suggests this when he continuously states that men are made into dogs by a woman’s presentation of herself. The onus is on the woman for men gawking at her appearance and uttering sexual remarks. When a woman dresses in a way that is “revealing,” she has made men treat her like a sexual object. I have never been able to wrap my head around the notion that women “make” men harass them, but Farrakhan’s comments reflect the classic justification for harassment and assault: If she wasn’t wearing that article of clothing, then she wouldn’t have been attacked. Though this logic is absurd, Farrakhan affirms this belief in his interview.

It seems that someone is always policing how Black women present themselves. When Beyoncé declared that she was a feminist, she was policed by Black and mainstream feminists; she was stamped a “bad feminist” for dressing in sexy leotards and using Ronda Rousey’s speech in performances. Nicki Minaj has been policed for her choice of style in music videos, such as “Anaconda,” and speaking out against the injustices that Black women experience in the entertainment industry. Amber Rose has received a significant amount of backlash because of her former career as a stripper and most recently for wearing a body suit to the VMAs painted with epithets including slut, whore, and bitch.

Some may argue that Farrakhan’s comments were women-friendly since he says throughout the interview that women are smart beings and are more than sexual conquests. He also addresses the abuse that women endure at the hands of male relatives in his discussion. I can appreciate his attempt at trying to express that women should be loved, but he does so while egregiously upholding respectability politics. He seems to suggest that women are deserving of love as long as they are covered, and men should want their women covered. Jay Z should want Beyoncé to be fully clothed in public presentations because he is her husband. Does this then mean that husband is synonymous with dictator? In order to maintain a happy and healthy relationship, shouldn’t Beyoncé possess some autonomy in this marriage, Minister Farrakhan? As a society, we have to start acknowledging that sexual politics are not demeaning, and that intelligence and sexual agency are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they complement each other.

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Regional Identity Influences My Feminism

In response to the shortcomings of first and second wave feminism, third wave feminists have worked to develop a movement that is centered on an intersectional approach. Though the term was officially coined by feminist and legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw in the late 1980s, feminists such as Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Patricia Hill Collins, and bell hooks called for individuals to examine the intersections among various forms of oppression. For example, the women who formed The Combahee River Collective in 1974 declared that they were working to overcome “racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression… as they saw that the synthesis of those oppressions create the conditions of Black women’s lives.”  Therefore, the oppressions are not independent of each other, but rather influence one another. Furthermore, third wave feminists,  such as the women of  The Combahee River Collective, proposed that the experience of oppressed groups of people, like  Black women, cannot be understood without considering their multiple identities and how these identities “intersect” or interact with one another.

Today, it is now a requirement that groups who seek to work for the liberation of all women, not just White, middle class women, adopt an intersectional approach. This includes an understanding that the dismantling of systematic oppression in relation to race, gender, class, sexual orientation, age, ability, etc. is necessary for liberation. It also includes centering the experiences of marginalized groups of people, such as women of color and transgender individuals, in the movement and allowing them to have a platform to speak out against the many forms of oppression that they encounter.

Quite a few individuals and organizations who have prided themselves on utilizing an intersectional approach have critically analyzed racism, gender constructions, classism, homophobia, and ableism. However, one intersection that I rarely see examined is regional identity. Regional identity is the specific region or area where someone is born and/or raised. In the United States, there are five main regions: the Southeast, the Southwest (collectively known as the South), the Northeast (North), the West, and the Midwest. Each region of the United States has a particular culture of its own, including style, food, and colloquialisms.

I believe that in addition to other intersections, regional identity must be considered in an intersectional approach. Though it may seem cliché, growing up in the South is a vastly different experience than growing up in the North. As a Southerner, I have witnessed first-hand what growing up and living in the South is like. I have also visited other places outside of the South and spoken with individuals who were from other regions of the United States. These opportunities have led me to conclude that regional identity intersects with other identities and strongly influences people’s conception of themselves.

While growing up in the South, I read and saw images of how the South was the powerhouse of chattel slavery. My grandmother often told me stories of how her grandparents were born a little after slavery was abolished and worked as sharecroppers, a job that their parents had passed down to them. I knew that the South was also the birthplace of Jim Crow laws and my hometown was where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. In order to deal with the insurmountable acts of racism in the Jim Crow south, my Southern ancestors developed an array of musical styles, including blues, that transformed American music.

One genre that blues inspired was hip hop, and in turn, another genre was developed in the South—crunk music. I remember listening to Three Six Mafia and Lil Jon and the Eastside Boyz while dancing in the mirror, trying to “get low” and pretending that I was a “thick junt.” Crunk music features upbeat tempos and lyrics that some might deem objectifying to women. One of my favorite songs is “Shake That Monkey,” a tune that is essentially about a woman “twerking”  for the pleasure of multiple men.  Lil Jon starts off with “put a hump in ya back and shake ya rump” and Too $hort chimes in on the first verse with “bounce dat a** till ya can’t no mo…” Though crunk songs such as “Shake That Monkey” seem to encourage women to do sexual favors for the enjoyment men, which can be quite objectifying, they are catchy and one can’t help but to sing along.

On Sundays, I was not allowed to listen to such raunchy music because that was the day that my family, and all the other Black families that I knew, spent the day at church. In addition to music, religion, specifically Christianity, is another aspect of Southern life, as the South contains the Bible Belt. For quite a few Southerners like myself, religion was a salient part of growing up in the region, as it translated to every aspect of life: home, school, community centers, and work. Though there is a supposed separation of church and state, people in the South somehow find a way to use Christianity as the foundation of everything that they do, even politics. There can be no discussion of a sex education program in schools other than abstinence because sex before marriage is “outlawed” in the Bible. It is taboo to work on Sundays, except if one absolutely has to, because that is the day designated for church in most sects of Southern Christianity. And after church, it is only custom to eat the famous Southern cooking of your mom and grandmother.

Aside from Southern culture, there are some issues that occur nationally and are exacerbated in the South. For example, there are higher “poverty areas” in Southern states.  Additionally, a majority of students in public schools throughout the South are low-income (the 4 Western states with the largest populations also have a majority of low-income students). Though mouthwatering, traditional Southern cooking includes comfort foods, and these foods typically contain high concentrations of salt and sugar. As a result, quite a few Southern states have the highest rates of obesity, hypertension, and diabetes in the country.

Growing up in the South, with its unique culture and set of challenges, has shaped how I perceive myself as a Black feminist. There are several aspects of Southern culture that complicate Southern Black feminism, with religion encouraging women to maintain purity on their quest to becoming virtuous women and crunk music suggesting that women bend over to the front and touch their toes for the male gaze. Similar to the intersections of race and gender, it is hard to separate regional identity, as it also contributes to the ways in which one experiences systematic oppression. Regional identification does not act independently, but instead simultaneously with other forms of identities. My experience as a Black woman living in the South offers me a certain perspective that is different than those in other regions.  Though there are similarities among the regions, there is still a certain uniqueness about the place in which one is physically located in the country. This specific location gives rise to an outlook that is distinct and this allows us to have a more nuanced understanding of the concept of intersectionality.

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The Misrecognition of Black Motherhood

Motherhood is a topic that has been heavily scrutinized for centuries. Until the 1960s, it was thought that a woman’s primary goal in life was to fulfill the societal expectation of engendering children, as she mainly served in the private sphere as a wife and mother. In fact, it was believed that a woman was not whole until she attained the experience of motherhood. After the publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, women began challenging the ideology that their sole contribution to society was becoming a mother. This marked the onset of second wave feminism, which included a push for women to be included in the public sphere with respect to participation in the workforce, and the ability to have autonomy over their bodies.

While second wave feminism has often been deemed as a pivotal period in the ongoing fight for reproductive freedom, it is important to note that Black women have always had a unique experience in this movement, especially with exercising their “right” to parent. Since the onset of chattel slavery, Black motherhood has been dehumanized, regulated and criminalized. As slaves, Black women were forced to reproduce for the maintenance of the Southern economy and the institution of slavery. This often included their slaveowners raping them to ensure that there was a readily supply of laborers. Once slavery was abolished, Black women were subjected to involuntary sterilization because they were perceived as a group of people who possessed undesirable traits; they were falsely portrayed and labeled as hypersexual and sexually immoral individuals, characteristics that were considered antagonistic to “good” motherhood.

Today, such reproductive regulatory practices have for the most part been legally repealed, but there is still an inhumane treatment of Black motherhood. Black motherhood continues to be criminalized with legislation such as Senate Bill 1391 aka the Tennessee Pregnancy Criminalization Law that was enacted last summer. Though the law does not specifically reference Black women, it is clear that it is targeting them because they are more likely to be reported to authorities for their addiction than their White counterparts. Additionally, low-income women, who also happen to be Black women because of intersectionality, are less likely to have the financial and childcare resources to complete treatment for addiction. Moreover, Black motherhood continues to be regulated with cases like Shanesha Taylor and Debra Harrell, two women who were arrested and charged with felonies for essentially not having what the government deems as “adequate and proper” childcare.

Lastly, Black motherhood continues to be dehumanized with the growing number of individuals who have become victims of police brutality such as Aiyana Jones, Yvette Smith, Mike Brown, and Eric Garner. Included in someone’s right to parent is the right “to parent a child without fear that he or she will be killed;” Black mothers have been stripped of this freedom because their motherhood is not fully recognized due to negative depictions that continue to linger. There has been a notion embedded in society for centuries that Black motherhood does not matter and in turn, the lives that these women give birth to does not matter. This lack of concern for Black lives is made clear when the perpetrators are acquitted of the murders even after sufficient evidence has been presented.

As reproductive justice activist Loretta J. Ross so eloquently states, “For some women, motherhood is glorified while others have their motherhood rights contested.” Though we have been fighting for individuals to obtain the freedom to reproduce and parent if they so freely choose, Black women continue to have the experience of their motherhood rights being contested. While I appreciate the work that second wave feminists began with expanding women’s opportunities outside of motherhood, I believe that it is important to examine how some women have never been fully recognized as mothers. This then calls for us to acknowledge the power relations that surface within motherhood, with “some categories of people being empowered to nurture and reproduce while others are disempowered.” Some people have the freedom of letting their kids explore and frolic in a park while others do not want their children to leave the house out of fear that they will be shot dead for sitting on a bench.

Despite these challenges and stigma, Black mothers have shown resiliency. In order to counter the negative images, they have worked to develop creative networks of support, including sharing mothering responsibilities through the system of othermothering. Othermothers assist biological mothers by offering parenting advice, financial support, and childcare services since Black women still lack societal recognition and support. Additionally, Black women are taking a stand against the brutality that befalls their loved ones. Mothers for Justice United is one group that is taking a stand this upcoming Mothers Day weekend. Founder, Maria Hamilton, lost her son to police brutality last spring and is calling for the mothers and family members who have similar experiences to join in Washington, D.C. May 9 for the Million Moms March. This march will call for justice and demand our government to take action against the murders of Black people. It is time for America to recognize that Black mothers and the lives that they produce do in fact matter.

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The Power in Black Women’s Storytelling

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A few weeks ago I attended Take Root 2015 in Norman, Oklahoma, a conference designed to address reproductive justice issues in “red” or Republican states. As part of the conference, attendees were able to go to a variety of workshops, some which included Reproductive Justice and Faith Communities, Native American Women Addressing Injustice, Pregnancy & Prison in Appalachia, and Trans* Health Matters. A workshop that I found to be particularly interesting was one about sharing stories. The women who organized and led the workshop had been working on a variety of projects that were all centered on transforming the culture of stigma around abortion and other stigmatized reproductive experiences through storytelling. They believed that if individuals shared their stories about their reproductive experiences, then this could not only help others who possess negative attitudes to obtain a better sense of understanding, but also lead to societal change. This change would include an elimination of the stigma surrounding a variety of reproductive experiences, especially abortion.

The workshop was quite intriguing and I left feeling empowered. I have always believed that the concept of storytelling was a powerful form of activism and the workshop affirmed why this work is necessary, especially for marginalized communities. Often times when people share stories, the media deem what is “worth” disseminating to the masses, and almost always communities of color are left out, particularly Black women. This is possibly due to a variety of factors, including the sexism and racism that is embedded in society and how historically, Black women were not encouraged to share their stories. However, I believe we could maximize on the current political and social climate in America and use this opportunity to elevate Black women’s stories under conditions that will allow Black women to feel empowered.

  1. In order for Black women to share their stories, they must have a platform to do so. Therefore, any barriers that would prevent Black women from securing a platform should be carefully evaluated. Though we live in a technological age, not all Black women have access to certain advancements such as the Internet. However, this should not deter any woman from the ability to share her story. Having a platform can include a woman reflecting on her experiences at a reading group, women’s ministry meeting, community discussion, at a park, grocery store, beauty shop, or in her own home. The Internet may be the most popular forum for individuals to share experiences due to the array of blogging websites, but it should not be the sole platform. When telling and sharing our stories, we should keep in mind how privilege exists in storytelling. Therefore, the goal is always to ensure that there are no hindrances to a woman who is seeking to share her experiences.
  2. Throughout history, men or White women have at times retold accounts of Black women’s stories. This is quite problematic. In storytelling, it is imperative that individuals are telling their OWN stories since it is their lived experiences. If Black women do not feel that they have the autonomy to tell their own stories, that their stories will be sifted through the lenses of those who do not necessarily share their experiences, then it could discourage them from sharing. Despite the shortcomings of history, in contemporary society, Black women should tell stories about Black women. We do not need others coming in and speaking on our behalf. We simply need the support to discuss our unique experience as being Black women in American society.
  3. Furthermore, Black women’s storytelling could not only transform dialogue but also allow for healing. Black women are one group of people who experience some of the most traumatic and stigmatized conditions with regard to our reproduction, ability to parent, sexual orientation, social class, behavior in school, and housing, to name a few. Black women sharing lived experiences with such issues can allow healing for ourselves and others. After sharing the letdowns, pains, and triumphs, we will be able to see the power in our stories in a society that has often discounted our narratives. Our storytelling is one strategy that will allow us to reclaim the humanity that has been stripped from us for too long.

With the emergence of the Black Lives Matter Movement and Black women being on the forefronts of this movement, our efforts and commitment are becoming more apparent. However, we know that Black women have always been leaders in movements for social justice, such as the Civil Rights Movement, but our work and experiences have often been overlooked. Even when there are discussions about how there is state sanctioned violence committed against Black bodies, Black women’s narratives are brushed over in the media though we constitute Black bodies. One goal of storytelling is to change the negative attitudes surrounding certain societal issues, and I believe that Black women sharing our own stories could aid in this change since so many aspects of a Black woman’s life is stigmatized. More open, community spaces should be available for Black women to discuss experiences with societal issues in order for us to work to change how we are repeatedly and intentionally overlooked by national initiatives designed to end social injustices. Black women’s storytelling is a tool for mobilization as Black women often have commonalities despite the fact that we all come from different walks of life. Telling and sharing Black women’s stories is critical in the intersectional movement that we are attempting to build and it gives us a chance to add personal perspectives in addressing the injustices that Black women have historically and presently experience.

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