This Super Bowl weekend, Beyoncé showed us that she’s unabashedly black.
First, she offered up her gorgeous and very southern video “Formation,” set in post-Katrina New Orleans. With that video, Beyoncé dropped herself into the most recognizable southern black horror in the last 50 years.
Next came her triumphant march onto the Super Bowl field like an HBCU dance line diva, with all black everything: black Michael Jackson tribute jacket, all-black woman squad in leather and berets, black fists raised in unison and in a tight black “X” formation, all on the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther party founding. Then she announced a world tour and a fund to help aid Flint, Mich. It’s like Donny Hathaway said, “Beyoncé, be real black for me” and Beyoncé shrugged and said as long “as I get to wear Givenchy lace.”
Even in front of the largest audience in the world, it was a daring act of vulnerability, offering up a rendering of black protest and recognizing the historical and cultural agency of black folks on the biggest sports stage available. As my friend Crystal Hayes wrote, Beyoncé is “no longer legible to America.” She is stepping away from a more universally appealing trope of feminine blackness in favor of an experimental and boisterous black womanhood that has room to make critique of social-economic issues. At this point in her career, she has slayed most of the challenges – and bank accounts – where her creativity and longevity were questioned. Being conscious, bringing attention to her black community, is a final destination.
That transformation is reminiscent of the “colored me” moment experienced by another black female artist: Zora Neale Hurston.
In her 1928 essay “How It Feels to be Colored Me,” Hurston, the mother of country black girl magic, revealed a moment of clarity about her blackness and how it was not meant for everyone. She was enjoying a jazz performance – back when it was just black folks’ music and not “America’s music” – and had a sudden realization of what the music meant to a black woman after a brief exchange with a white jazz patron who was absent-mindedly enjoying the music.
Hurston writes: “Music. The great blobs of purple and red emotion have not touched him. He has only heard what I felt. He is far away and I see him but dimly across the ocean and the continent that have fallen between us. He is so pale with his whiteness then and I am so colored.”
Moving forward, Hurston’s art and writing were undeniably southern and black. Her work demonstrated her grappling with making a living while evoking the very southern black identities she sought to highlight. Whose memories and experiences was she trying to document? Who was her audience? Was her art for her (black) community, or for the profit of her white readers?
Perhaps Beyoncé has experienced a similar transformation.
For it to matter beyond last weekend, she’ll have to do more than release a new song. Beyoncé is famously tight-lipped with her creative process and intentions. There is no room to be messy or ask questions. Nobody can ask how and if she plans to balance her sex-positive music with her position as a role model for her daughter and other black girls. Few dare openly interrogate her position on gay rights, nor has she offered a critique on the alarmingly high death rate of trans women of color within the community where much of her fabulousness originates. As Ashleigh Shackelford points out, “the levels of impenetrable protection that Beyoncé is afforded is powerful, necessary, and extremely uncomfortable.” Beyoncé’s accountability needs to reach beyond provocation and dangling black protest in front of a white audience.
It is important to note that black folks’ emotional investment in music remains a significant lens for documenting and working through conflict. Overlooking the blobs of purple and red emotion in Beyoncé’s music in all its varying shades – anger, passion, frustration and melancholy – risks shutting down conversations before they even start. In addition to confronting our own biases, the question we should be asking is if Beyoncé can have a moment of self-recognition and growth while still being entertaining?
Beyoncé is at the point in her career where she can turn a corner and directly align her social-political views with her storytelling. If Beyoncé is wondering “what it feels to be recognizably colored me” I hope that her rendering of blackness continues past her pockets and makes room for the marginalized perspectives that have grounded her popularity.