Holding Hands with Becky

I’ve been reading some interesting analysis on Twitter (from all kinds of women) about the danger of some of the lyrics in Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” and their potential to promote women enacting violence against other women. In light of the recent tragedy involving 16 year old Amy Joyner-Francis who was beaten to death by classmates in what has been said to have been a fight over a boy, and the online bullying Rachel Roy has faced over a reference she made to “good hair” in a photo caption on Instagram, certain critics are posing important questions. What is the artist’s responsibility to ensure that her work doesn’t fuel negative behavior? How does any artist give their audience the tools to understand and appreciate their work in a way that will not take it out of context?

An examination of Beyoncé’s visual album must take into account how the different interludes of Warsan Shire’s poetry interact with the visuals and song lyrics at any given point. I’ve seen the poetry from the “Anger” section of the video interpreted as an invitation for women to attack other women who have wronged them, specifically under the circumstances of infidelity. Consider the following lines:

If it’s what you truly want, I can wear her skin over mine. Her hair over mine. Her hands as gloves. Her teeth as confetti. Her scalp, a cap. Her sternum, my bedazzled cane. We can pose for a photograph, all three of us. Immortalized, you and your perfect girl.

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Mind you, there is no mention of Becky at this point. The fact that the main message of the video is being taken as a fight between us versus them, black women versus Becky, is a manifestation of the ways we are constrained by a patriarchy that deals in binaries. Where did that system come from, and who benefits from it the most? Let me give you a hint. If you sailed around the world, claiming entire swathes of land and the people living there as your property, you would need a sort of system, no matter how pseudo-scientific, to justify your actions and to back up the fixing of positions of superiority and inferiority that allow you to colonize and control at will.

When Beyoncé says “If it’s what you truly want,” she isn’t expressing her resolve to go out and murder the other woman and use her remains as clothing and accessories. She is illustrating an old pain that many women have experienced, of not being good enough for a romantic interest, of trying to transform into a more lovable, more worthy version of herself for that partner. That section ends with “Why can’t you see me? Everyone else can.” She could be seen to be expressing confusion and hurt because her partner is not able to see or appreciate her efforts to be the best that she can be for him. Since this section is about “Anger,” I’m inclined to read these lines less as a despairing plea for attention and more as the quiet rage that comes from someone who has been taken for granted for far too long.

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When Becky is finally mentioned at the end of the song “Sorry,” the listener can assume that she is the infamous “other woman.” The listener cannot, however, reduce Becky solely to the position of “girlfriend of a married man.” Becky is a concept, a national inside (bittersweet) joke and dismissal only known to Black women and women of color, a representation of centuries of Eurocentric ideals that for some will forever remain unattainable. Think about familiar tropes from film and literature that have framed women who are closer to whiteness as more desirable, particularly in  the context of heteronormative portrayals pf romance. How many times have you seen the pleasant love interest with her “sassy” sidekick snapping and cheering from the sidelines as she goes on the date, gets the guy, gets married. Consider also that throughout history, white women have taken out on black women the violence they also experience as result of living in a patriarchal society. I previously cited an example of this from the novel Cecilia by Cuban writer Cirilo Villaverde in this blog post.

Another more recent instance of violence from white women directed at black women can be seen in the photo of Russian art promoter Dasha Zhukova sitting on a chair fashioned to look like a black woman lying on her back with her legs in the air. This Guardian article tries to deny the racist imagery of the piece created by Norwegian artist Bjarn Melgaard by pointing out that it was more of a commentary on earlier controversial works by British artist Allen Jones that portrayed white women in a similar position. “Are you offended by this black woman’s abuse? Then why is it OK for white women to be similarly humiliated in a respected pop art icon in the Tate collection?” I’m sure any womanist/black feminist/afrofeminist would stand up and condemn Jones’ work as appalling and degrading to white women, but why does the black woman’s body have to be the site of undoing for violence against ALL women? Art that is meant to be subversive can often recreate the violence it is trying to parody or critique.

Yet, somehow white women are now able to present themselves as benevolent representatives of global sisterhood without having to acknowledge the ways in which they benefit from the subjugation of black women. Meanwhile, any expression of anger from black women is met with criticism and calls for levelheadedness and calm, sometimes coming from black women ourselves. The white woman can enjoy her fair trade Starbucks coffee and smile with satisfaction at the portrait on the wall of the African woman who is supposed to have harvested the beans without considering the working conditions and difficulties of that woman. Black women are called upon to swallow and forget the history of physical violence and the constant over-valorization of proximity of whiteness in media and on a day-to-day basis.

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It is very true that the Beyhive does the absolute most at times and should not take it upon themselves to fight a fight about a situation they have little to no knowledge about. Yes, Beyoncé has an immense influence on super fans and casual listeners alike. Yes, art does not happen in a vacuum, and artists have the power to influence discourse and shape the public’s consciousness on many different issues. I can only speak for myself when I say that I do not feel that Beyoncé’s latest release is giving me leeway to scratch and punch any other woman who makes me feel small or offends me in some way. The way I see it, if a listener takes Beyoncé’s lyrics as a green light to commit assault or murder, that person was already intent on taking that particular course of action and needed a final little push or a scapegoat.

This is not a case of revenge against any and every “Becky” who has done a black woman wrong. This is not about Becky at all. It’s important to note that most of the lyrics are directed at the partner who has been unfaithful and NOT the other woman: “This is your final warning. You know I give you life. If you try this shit again, you gon’ lose your wife.”

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I want to give myself room to be messy and poised and complicated and angry and brave and to take to task anyone that undermines or underestimates my strength. I can’t hold hands if my hands are still burning.

Be quiet, and let us rage.

Note: The politics of black women’s hair and the distinction between “good” and “bad” hair is another topic for another day. All I will say is that it is NOT just about straight hair, but is rather a reference to the glorification of looser curls and waves on black women as being more desirable (as they are closer to whiteness) than tighter curls. The term I grew up with was “quality” in place of “good,” but the idea is the same. People on the internet, stop claiming the title “Becky with the good hair.” Trust me, you don’t know what you’re talking about, and you don’t want these problems.

(Images: Lemonade. Directed by Beyoncé Knowles, Dikayl Rimmasch, Kahlil Joseph, Jonas Akerlund and Melina Matsoukas. Parkwood Entertainment, 2016)

Razors for Breakfast

[Initial thoughts from 2:40am, essay for school abandoned hours ago in favor of watching and rewinding Lemonade and taking notes feverishly]

I’ve seen a few attempts at “Violence isn’t the answer” responses to Rihanna’s latest music video for her song “Needed Me,” similar to the critiques of her videos for “BBHMM” and “Man Down.” I won’t be the least bit surprised if the same cries for “why don’t we hold hands and sing kumabaya instead of protesting loudly and hurting each other” come from the white feminist camp and the coalition of all people who can’t let black women celebrate themselves after Beyoncé’s hour-long history lesson/poetry reading/letter to every ex/African diaspora vibes epic “Lemonade.” Visuals and lyrics like what these women have given us leave one feeling incredibly badass for lack of a more literary term. Actually, on this blog, badass is a perfectly acceptable term. Canonical, even. (Not exactly the right use for the word “canonical,” but I make the rules around here.) I’m readying my eye rolls for the next article I see that tries to condemn media that “glorifies” violence, as if black women grabbing the barrel of the gun and turning it outward is a new phenomenon.

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“Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage?”

I don’t imagine that the women in the Haitian revolution sat quietly at home with their hands resting in their laps waiting for the men to return, or that during the rebellions led by enslaved people all over the Americas the women just remained on standby with warm cloths for their husbands’ wounds. There were entire armies of women in Dahomey who were renowned for their military prowess, and in Ghana Yaa Asantewaa didn’t just say: “Ok oooh, I hear. Let’s not fight. We can’t beat them anyway.” Musicians, and artists in general, may not be picking up real guns and overturning oppressive government systems themselves, but they are inspiring all those watching to lead rebellions in their own fields, throwing away the fear of being perceived as being too aggressive and chewing and swallowing the bit of forced humility we have been clenching between our teeth for years.

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“Motivate your ass, call me Malcom X.”

One can argue that we have a legitimate problem of making violence appear sexy and glamorous in film, music and video games etc targeted at young people, but when I see black women swinging baseball bats and shooting no-good men in the back of a strip club, I’m not compelled to go and pick up my longest knife and hurt the next person that tries to hurt me, and I don’t think that’s the message these artists are trying to send. It’s very convenient to forget that a huge component of the colonial project was brutal violence and suppression, bending people -body and soul- to submit to the authority of the master arbitrarily justified by his supposed superiority. Black women continue to face violence at the hands of the police, militant groups, relatives, romantic partners, and strangers who feel threatened by women’s queerness and trans identity. Do not ask us to “rise above” and sway softly to hymns and quiet songs for peace when our art provides us the perfect space to spit back the violence inherited as an unshakeable birthright.

My badass and my revolution looks like writing late into the night to make sure no one cuts of my tongue and my fingers, excusing their actions with a dismissive shrug. Zora Neale Hurston put it best when she said, “If you’re silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” These portrayals of black women blowing gunpowder in the face of respectability and fighting for the right to exist unapologetically are not new. You just forgot, and we’re here to remind you.

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“Why do you deny yourself heaven? Why do you consider yourself undeserving?”

***

Razors for Breakfast

This isn’t something new I have just added to my diet. Neither is it a trend, nor another shortcut to the kind of beauty that mocks and berates those who don’t possess it, one that taunts from screens that sting tired eyes with their glow late at night. My jaws have been galvanized for this very purpose, teeth fixed in place like steel bolts in the neck of a crossbow, a roar for a voice like a high-powered engine.

I have always kept razors in my mouth, turning them over and over with my tongue, but long before me, there were women picking thorns out of their palms, bringing back royal heads wrapped in a tattered tricolore. They soaked gunpowder in hot water and rubbed it into aching muscles, and used it to wash their feet crusted over with mud and the crushed souls of the enemy. These women dragged timid men to war and trampled the pages of a history that forgot their names, their strides drumming up the same dust that will eventually settle on the books I will write and leave behind.

This isn’t something new I’ve recently learnt to do. Neither a twisted party trick, nor an illusion to make you squirm and wonder how I made it look so effortless. The blood dripping from the point of my chin onto my chest is yours and not mine, theirs and not ours. It is the last remaining hint that we once sliced them in half and licked away the evidence. Today I had razors for breakfast, and the taste of victory still lingers on my lips.

***

The work of one of my favorite poets, Warsan Shire, serves as a beautiful backdrop for Lemonade. Here is my favorite quote from her. I’m sure I’ve posted it on this blog before, but I still love it just as much, so here you go!

“If you think I’ll be the dark sky so you can be the star, well the sky is vast and have you seen the sky in the morning? Have you seen how it looks against the sun? I’ll swallow you whole.” -Warsan Shire

Another favorite quote of mine:

“No, I do not weep at the world. I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” -Zora Neale Hurston

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“Baptize me, now that reconciliation is possible. If we’re going to heal, let it be glorious.”