When The King Speaks, We Must Listen
Established 100 years ago in 1916, The Journal of Negro History sought to publish findings from studies about Negro life and history. Dr. Carter G. Woodson formed, with others, the Association for the Study of Negro Life in 1915 and the Journal sought to educate the world about what it meant to be a Negro. Woodson would go on to establish Negro History Week in 1926, a week which would eventually transform into the month-long celebration we recognize each February in America: Black History Month.
A loaded word, no doubt. A word once popularly used to describe people of African descent who have primarily been born and raised in places like the United States, the United Kingdom, and others. Meaning “black” in both Spanish and Portuguese, “Negro” became a checkpoint on the United States Census, a birthmark noted on a scrap of official paper declaring one’s lineage and citizenship (if one was lucky), or, plainly, a racial designation to make it known that a person was one of the people seemingly destined to be tortured by centuries of imperialist colonization and racist oppression.
“Negro” became widely used and accepted by many of our heroes and icons as the word used to describe who we were as a race of people, too often without question or challenge to who labeled us as such. In the popular 1963 speech, Message to the Grass Roots, Malcolm X analogized the difference between the “Black Revolution” and the “Negro Revolution” as being like the different between the “Field Negro” and the “House Negro”. The United Negro College Fund was established to help Black Americans offset the financial burden of attending college and continues to use the word in its branding. There were/are Leagues of Negro Voters or Negro Voters Leagues. And of course, the National Council of Negro Women, which thrives in its commitment to uplifting modern Black American women.
The word has also been used as a pejorative insult to Black people across the diaspora. Now defunct, there are those who use the word when referencing Black people as a throwback to their ideas of the “good ole days” when Black people were legally subjugated and relegated to a universally accepted dehumanized status. It has also been used to “out” those who sought to escape the pain-laden burdens of Blackness… by any means necessary. Calling out a Negro known for “passing” for White gave many people, White and Black, a sense of powerful control over another’s life. Its use phased out with Lyndon Johnson’s exit from the White House, as we accepted “Black” as the all-encompassing term to identify us. Negro was gone; Black (Power) reigned. To this day, many people use “Black” and “African-American” interchangeably.
But not “Negro”.
No, “Negro” is an antiquated label that, for many, resonates with mostly negative connotations. It conjures up images of the Jim Crow south, with its Whites-Only water fountains and segregated bus systems. Negro reminds us of when we walked with bowed heads, avoiding eye contact with the Whites we were raised to believe were superior. It makes us think of sullen spirituals sung to pass the time as we worked hard for The Man and dogs chomping at our limbs as we dared assert our humanity on public streets. “Negro”, and everything it represents, has long been the identity we have collectively fought against in favor of self-identification that empowers us and allows us to believe that we deserve to live.
So when Beyoncé, the Creole Black woman of lighter skin tone who dazzles us with long blonde wigs and weaves, exhibits pride in her “Negro Nose” in her latest song, “Formation”, we all pause. We rewind. We all reflect. We all…rejoice. Wow. Yes! I *do* love my Negro Nose and I *am* proud to breathe in the air long thought to be reserved for those who have, for centuries, oppressed me and my people. My nose is bae. Beyoncé said so, dammit.
“I like my Negro Nose with Jackson 5 nostrils.”
The Jackson 5 had big noses, not unlike many Black people across the Diaspora. Wider noses with perpetually flaring nostrils. Black-assed noses. Yup. Larger nostrils needed to breathe more air. Neanderthal noses, closest to the original “man”. That’s who we are, of course, original people and as much as people deny and pretend otherwise, we are the originators of humanity. Black-assed noses and all.
Such a bold affirmation of pride in a feature that has long been ridiculed as being ugly and unattractive is important. With Whiteness heralded as the standard of beauty, people with wider, larger noses deviate from that standard and are often considered less attractive because they look less White. Beyoncé, whose features are, for the most part, closer to this standard of beauty, took it upon herself to subvert the beauty ideal by drawing attention to her “Negro Nose”. She reminded people, in that simple line, that she is, without question, a Black woman and if you accept that she is beautiful or an aesthetic prototype, then you need to accept all Black features as beautiful, full stop.
And it was powerful.
Throughout the song, King Bey makes more culturally affirming declarations like “I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros” and “My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana/You mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas bamma” to challenge anyone who dares challenge or deny her Blackness that she is who she is — a Black American woman in control of her destiny who has not forgotten where she comes from or why she is here.
To slay us all.
Critics with entirely too much time on their hands will pay more attention to her calling herself and other women “bitch”, “hoe”, and “trick”. They will focus on her capitalist leanings while typing on devices made with materials mined by enslaved children. They will question her Negroidian affirmations as a lighter-skinned woman who benefits from the plague of colorism. They might even seek payment from a White-owned publication to go on a rant about how Beyoncé Feminism is undermining the real work of real feminists who care more about real issues, not silly positive, empowering representation in popular culture (Half-time show at the Super Bowl, anyone?) or bringing inspiring pride and joy to millions of Black girls and women around the world. Pssh who cares about that, right?
The rest of us will secure our earbuds, pump up the volume, and stand at the bus stop, sucking on lollipops, getting our Biggie Shorty on… in ‘Formation’, of course.