The Black woman has long been seen as an anomaly of sorts when it pertains to gender-assignments as well as an object, for lack of a better term, to be desired, reviled, castigated, and celebrated. There are a plethora of stereotypes that have been wantonly assigned to, be they egregious or haphazardly heaped upon, the woman of color in the good ole’ U.S.A. and even the world. Both Black and white Americans, male and female, have deemed the Black woman as “strong” and “independent” due to the matriarchal leadership role(s) they had to assume do to the dehumanizing and degrading experiences of American slavery. Yes, Black women had to be strong when they were oft times forced to rear their children, as well as Massa’s children, without the aid and assistance of a consistent male figure (mainly due to the perpetual state of unknowing and absence of the Black, and white, male due to the selling and trading of the Black male body/slave within the institution of slavery and the absentee fatherism of the white male planter). Yes, they had to try their damnedest to shield their children, for as long as they could, from the hardships, both physical and psychological, of Black American enslavement in the United States—for the most part on their own. Yes, they had to endure the wrath of a jealous white mistress who hated them because of their (romantic, if you can call it that) relationships, be them forced or unforced, with their husbands. Yes, they had to teach their daughters how the ins and outs to avoid constant harassment from the sadistically grotesque sexual yearnings of their Massas. And yes, they had to be the burden barer and uplifter of the Black man when he was perpetually raped of his manhood, fatherhood, personhood, and mere humanity at the hands and psychologically warping fantasies of the white slave owner. But even more, she had to be independently strong in combating the stereotype that she, and all of Black womanhood, was a walking metaphor for sexual deviancy and licentiousness comparable to the Biblical Jezebel; an indictment of Black womanhood that fostered the notion that the Black woman was evil because of her physicality or sensuality which was only a piss-poor excuse for the white male’s need for dominance, specifically sexual, over a being that was considered chattel/property, thus making Antebellum era slavery a sexual-free-for-all for the white male who was “privileged” enough and wealthy enough to own a Black female slave.
But what has always been lurking in the mind of America is the perpetual gaze, if not physical and psychoanalytical gaze of the Black woman---and her aesthetics seemed to be a source or focal point of admiration and abomination and not necessarily in that order. From Saartijie "Sara" Baartman to Josephine Baker to Beyoncé, the Black female body, be it extremely talented- you know dancing and singing better than the average human- or just aesthetically different from the physical endowments and make-up of the prototypical non-colored European woman-- you know, big thighs and buttocks and a sassy, alluring switch/sway in the walk-- has been on public display, for gregarious gawking and erotic entertainment, for as long as Modern History can remember. But, what happens when the Hottentot snatches a page from the Afrocentric, Back-to-Africa, be proud of the Western Coast of a huge-ass-continent-of-Africa Negro and proclaims its love of the skin, appendages, and physical features that were bestowed upon it by the Southern Hemisphere? Oh, and does it on America's fourth biggest holiday (After Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Independence Day). Well, you have Black Womanist Beyoncé Knowles-Carter going from Hottentot to Hotep to, even, Black Nationalist vis-a-vis worldly acclaim, monetary fortune, and international influence.
Bey has taken heat from the entire U.S. Pop Culture Brigade (written, visual, and auditory media outlets). Some criticism has been supportive of her stance while much, both Black and white, has been negatively critical of either the aesthetics of the performance, the place or time, and even the 2016 "space"-- you know after, during, and more than likely before a killing of another Black civilian body at the hands of authoritative police figures. I believe this is because we, as Americans, both black and white males and females, have an issue with Eve, the mother of all, who had to have been black since everyone who has historically been born and raised in that portion of Africa where the Judeo-Christian Bible tells us the Garden of Eden was located (Mesopotamia, Iran, or the Persian Gulf, which ain't to far east of the continent of Africa, so she had to have had a dark tint to her skin which is the antithesis of our European artistry and illustrations of a Kate Winslet-looking Eve) , schooling us all the while massively and broadly disseminating her opinion of Humanity in a holistic manner--at the mother-fuckin' Super Bowl Half Time Show, I might add. Beyoncé’s deliberate call for and public display of empathy and sympathy for the fallen Black lives that should've mattered to the American public, as well as the world, just as much as those American bodies that are lauded as heroic when dying while fighting for the supposed freedoms and democratic society of states united in America via a respect of fatigues, flags, and military follies has disrupted the comforting narrative of the carefree, “Single Lady” songstress whose musical persona to date focused on fun times, love relationships and female empowerment. By adding the veneer of race, and creating an intersectional perspective (and critique) to her music, Beyoncé the “Happy Black Girl” entertainer became Beyoncé “Menace to Society.”
Trespassing the boundaries of gender representation by using the voices of New Orleanians Messy Mya and Big Freedia, men who were and are comfortable claiming alternative ways of “doing” masculinity, even pushing the boundaries of femininity, Beyoncé´ reminds the world and acknowledges how much of popular culture is built on the outliers of gender nonconforming men…(Madonna’s Vogue, anyone?). Proclaiming a staunch love of self, family, and blackness vis-à-vis Afros and big noses, she disrupts the fun single lady persona and presents us with a Black mama determined to receive and give the love she and her family deserve, and in turn extends that love to all of the black mamas whose babies have afros and whose men have big noses...this line makes Formation, in the words of a late 90’s tee shirt “A Black Thang” (You wouldn’t understand) This intersectional approach, claiming race, and gender is further complicated by space. Beyoncé brings the entire south, the land historically (and currently) rooted in Black/African enslavement and European/White domination as her homeland, her place of creation. Her creation has co-opted the old Louisianan notion of Creole as exception and borne out the most “basic” forms of Blackness…a Texas Bama. Borne of the shortening of the word Alabama, and used to generally describe a country bumpkin type character, the Texas Bama that is Beyoncé is anything but unsophisticated. Indeed she is overly polished. Her genteel deep country lilt in her speaking voice gives listeners an immediate comfort which is ultimately disheveled by the business acumen, work ethic, drive for perfectionism and professionalism that has become synonymous with the Beyoncé brand.
Wrapping her meaning making into representation by natural haired black women of all skin tones dressed to mimic the garb of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense is a direct reclamation of history, power and rebellion. In one fell swoop, she reclaims beauty standards AND comprehensive Black power, two things which are often polar opposites and especially not compatible in Eurocentric America’s viewing of Black women and their bodies. The Super Bowl performance of Formation forced white American viewers to accept both a failure of the program to degrade, define and control Black womanhood but also a failure to destroy the legacy of the Black Panther Party (and with it the continued struggle for Black liberation) which celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding during the week following the performance. In performing the song Formation, Beyoncé moves not simply from Hottentot to Hotep, but even further to Black Womanist. Embracing family, community, empowerment and love of self, layering race, gender, class and political agency, she throws down the gauntlet for those who made claims to love her and her music while simultaneously daring them to utter a word of critique. Rejecting the narrative of the tragic black entertainer, the obnoxious diva and the unappreciated soulful earth mother, Formation and Beyoncé take us back and bring us forward in one moment. Her audacious performance yells for a new agenda and rejects all that came before, including the overarching Eurocentric dictates of what Black womanhood should be, and shows instead what her Black womanism is.
- Giovanni Dortch & Gee Joyner