Home > BEYONCE, LIFTING AS SHE CLIMBS? by Jack L. Daniel-PUM Contributor

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Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
…But all the time
…I'se been a-climbin' on,
So, boy, don't you turn back.
…For I'se still goin', honey,
I'se still climbin',…
-Langston Hughes-  “Mother to Son”

When the distinguished Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary McLeod Bethune, Mary Church Terrell, Margaret Mary Washington, and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin formed the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896, they adopted the motto, “Lift as We Climb,” to stress the importance of not only improving their personal circumstances but also helping less fortunate people.  It remains critically important that those fortunate enough to be “still climbin” continue to play significant roles in lifting others.  This expectation looms especially large for those who become superstars and, at the moment, there is considerable discussion regarding the lifting done by Beyoncé. 

Beyoncé and her husband have done some heavy lifting as illustrated by the Beyoncé’s Knowles- Rowland Center for Youth, a relief fund for Katrina victims, and numerous other charities.  It has been reported that she gave $7 million to assist the homeless in Houston.  Prior to the release of her “Formation” video, her husband Jay Z's music streaming service announced a $1.5 million donation for social justice efforts such as Black Lives Matter. 

Notwithstanding the “lifting” Beyoncé has done, she has periodically received criticism as was the case after First Lady Michele Obama sent her a birthday tweet thanking her for being a positive role model for young girls around the world.  Many questioned the appropriateness of Beyoncé’s highly sensual videos as role model substance as evidenced, for example, by her performance in the erotic “Partition” video.      

More questioning of Beyoncé’s “lifting” came following her recent release of the “Formation” video and her Super Bowl 50 performance.  Both were politically loaded, racially conscious, and self-defining in nature.  They contained the famous “Black Power” fist in the air, a tribute to Malcolm X, and the wearing of black berets associated with the Black Panther Party.  “Formation” also contains reflections on the Katrina tragedy and Black Lives Matter.  Some of the pride lyrics were:

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

I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros
I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils

Earned all this money but they never take the country out me
I got a hot sauce in my bag, swag

When interviewed after the Super Bowl 50 performance, Beyoncé stated, “I wanted people to feel proud and have love for themselves.”  Of course, Beyoncé can tell her story, on her own terms, when and where she wants.  However, neither the above noted significant charitable work nor her status as an artist make her immune to criticism.  This is especially true given that the key performances occurred during Black History Month and were delivered to an audience of millions. 

If we accept Beyoncé at her word, that she “…wanted people to feel proud and have love for themselves,” then why does “Formation” include several references to women as “bitches” and “hoes?”  What mother or father wishes to have their children enhance their pride by listening to Beyoncé boasting, “When he ‘F…’me good, I take his ass to Red Lobster (cause I slay) / If he hit it right I might take him on a flight on my chopper (cause I slay) / Drop him off at the mall, let him buy some J's, let him shop up (cause I slay)?" 

If Beyoncé wanted to empower African Americans, then why not omit the vulgarity in “Formation” and make references to landmark restaurants such as Ben’s Chili Bowl in D.C. or Chicken and Waffles owned by Gladys Knight? Ironically, one effect of her “Black” art was that Red Lobster realized a 33% surge in sales the day of the Super Bowl (See USA Today, February 10, 2016).  Could it be that someone “got paid” for mentioning Red Lobster just as Peyton Manning might have been paid for his Budweiser “shout-out” which was estimated to be worth $3.2 million-plus in brand recognition value?  http://www.newsmax.com/TheWire/peyton-manning-budweiser-mention-super-bowl-50/2016/02/09/id/713446/#ixzz3zxgLvFzD

Parenthetically, and not meaning to “throw shade,” “Formation” includes the lines “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.”  That being the case, instead of giving what seems to be less than 1% of their net worth, Beyoncé and Jay Z might consider doing as Bill and Melinda Gates did when they gave their Microsoft fortune to society.

Beyoncé has made references to being a modern feminist and one wonders what that means given the fact that her videos so consistently contain the “twerking” of her partially exposed derriere, close-ups of her crotch, revealing bras that are close to a “malfunction,” and other forms of near nudity.   What is modern about an emphasis on risqué, near pornographic, poses given the history of women being sexually exploited?   

Could Beyoncé be “sly as a fox,” wrapping herself in a “feminist fabric” while simultaneously taking off her clothing and capitalizing on the fact that her form of sex sells?  Does she not understand the critic bell hooks when she asks, “If I’m a woman and I’m … (performing oral sex) in a car…is that liberatory?   Or is it part of the tropes of the existing, imperialist, white supremacist, patriarchal capitalist structure of female sexuality?” http://www.clutchmagonline.com/2014/10/feminist-bell-hooks-critiques-beyonce-nicki-minajs-anaconda/

                African American artists, scholars, and others must tell our stories in valid ways given the false representations created by others.  As Langston Hughes stated in his “Note on Commercial Theater,”

You've taken my blues and gone--
You sing 'em on Broadway
…And you fixed 'em
So they don't sound like me.
…But someday somebody'll
Stand up and talk about me,
And write about me--
Black and beautiful--
And sing about me,
…I reckon it'll be me…

Authentic African American story telling cannot be a matter of “anything goes.”  Images of sacred icons such as Martin Luther King Jr. should not be desecrated by mixing them in with the filth also contained in “Formation.”  There must be a “center that holds,” some sort of core philosophical, deep-structural precepts.  Otherwise, culturally speaking, “things fall apart.”  

This writer completely disagrees with those who maintain that “Formation” is “race baiting and anti-police.” There is partial agreement with the claim that “Formation” appropriately celebrates some aspects of southern African American culture; is supportive of important African American political movements; and sets forth the broad notion of self-empowerment. However, because of its vulgar misogynistic content, “Formation” misses the mark of being an unadulterated “black and beautiful” piece “singing about me.”

Beyoncé having missed the mark with “Formation” is of critical importance given her stature and the fact that some have praised “Formation” as a new “Black Power Anthem.” If you wish to see some sound consciousness raising as a matter of contrast, then it is strongly recommend that readers watch a video such as the one in which in which 3 year old Payton Jackson recites an empowering poem.   


Finally, let us be mindful of a history that is replete with what can transpire when the sexualized body of a beautiful woman is used to get heads looking in the wrong direction.  Recall that Sampson was undone by Delilah.  Salome quite literally caused John the Baptist to lose his head. And all too many women have been harshly abused, including the loss of their lives, when they were reduced to nothing more than sex objects for the callous pleasure of others.


Jack L. Daniel

Co-founder, Freed Panther Society

Pittsburgh Urban Media Contributor

February 15, 2016




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