I looked for a critique of Beyoncé’s behavior that night from her staunchest defenders, at a time when clearly her “slaying” had harmed another black woman, and found very few. When John Legend was asked what happened, he told reporters that Beyoncé asked to sing the song and, “you don’t really say no to Beyoncé if she wants to perform with you.” Ledisi was publicly gracious, unlike Etta James who said, after Beyoncé sang James’ signature song “At Last” at Obama’s inaugural ball, that the woman singing her song was “gonna get her ass whipped.” It is regrettable that James, one of our great blues singers, legend at the time in her seventies and very much alive, wasn’t invited to join Beyoncé on stage as a tribute and to sing for our first black president. Born Jamesetta Hawkins in 1938, James understood, having lived through the Civil Rights Movement, what having a black man elected president in America really meant. She died in 2012.
Some have never forgiven hooks for her “betrayal”, but I believe she was onto something. She was criticizing the destructive elements in Beyoncé’s image, and what it means to women of color, specifically black girls. Beyoncé’s die-hard defenders — and they exist in the halls of academia as well as on dance floors and performance arenas — like to emphasize Beyoncé the mesmeric performer on stage, the achiever, while often refusing to critique Beyoncé the industrial complex. What Machiavellian moves led to Beyoncé’s singing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” from the motion picture Selma at the 2015 Grammy Awards, while the song’s originator in the film, the singer Ledisi, sat in the audience watching? To further the humiliation, Ledisi lost that evening to Beyoncé in the category of best R&B performance for “Drunk in Love” — Beyoncé’s 20th Grammy. (A two-minute excerpt of Ledisi singing “Precious Lord” in concert after the Grammys can be found on YouTube, as can a 2011 live church recording of Whitney Houston. Ledisi’s and Whitney’s renditions embody the Holy Ghost power of black gospel and blues; these are the black women’s voices that got us through slavery, these are the voices that would inspire you to go on living after your children had been sold.)
…olve himself of guilt. Or he’ll open his latest video with a quote by James Baldwin, as Jay-Z does. The process of dehumanization required for the white capitalist to exploit others in order to make money, and which defined American slavery, backfires on the black American capitalist if he still has a conscience; on some level, no matter how successful he is in business, slavery is not an abstraction he can ignore in some history book, it’s his family reunion.
No one laughs at Beyoncé. The Beyhive, Beyoncé’s most determined group of fans, makes sure of that — as Queen Bey, she exists in her own pop universe. Her relationship with her most devoted fans seems unprecedented in the history of black performers, and their emotional violence and threats when they defend her publicly doesn’t seem to worry her. With this kind of power at her disposal, she isn’t just making music, she has created an ideology around herself, a cult-status not unlike L. Ron Hubbard or Jim Jones. I would argue that Beyoncé speaks a liberation theology of a kind, but it is one that stays within the confines of the cult of narcissism; love her first, and if there is any love left over, give that to yourself and the people you love.
But when our need to protect and empower The Star becomes a form of obsessive devotion, a relationship based no longer on inspiration but on fetishizing and hysteria, when we know more about her than we do about our own family, when she profits from the same representations of whiteness that have been employed for centuries against us, and we see what she is doing and still refuse to hold her accountable, then we are using her, her accomplishments and her relationship to the white world to mitigate our feelings of black shame. She and her family, in turn, becomes more and more wealthy, fattened up on the inheritance which we’ve bequeathed to her while we let our own children starve. We need her so badly and for so many reasons, but the question is, does she need us?
Within this construct, Beyoncé is our beautiful, light-skinned princess (“light, bright and damn near white” as some used to say of singer, actress and civil rights activist Lena Horne), representing the best that we have to offer. When racists meet her, our precious black offering, they will see how lovely black people can be and open the locked doors of power, bringing an end to racial and economic oppression. Our princess, our Queen, will then wave her arm to beckon us inside the castle where we will finally be equal, finally be free. It’s a bedtime story, and it works as bedtime stories should: it puts you to sleep. But it’s not a story of resistance.
The black American who “makes it”, from Oprah to OJ, affirms for us that the system may work after all, at least for one of us, and that there is hope despite our feelings of despair. The exceptional black may inspire us on one hand, but she may also help numb us, alleviating the pain of a life constantly dealing with the frustrations and assaults of racism. The Talented Tenth theory maintains that if we pour all our love and resources into her, she will go to the higher echelons of power where we niggers are rejected, and speak to white people on our behalf.
n a… Janet Jackson and Mary J. Blige or having a little pep in your step because you admire Jane Fonda. I’m talking about how focusing on a famous life can be a way of denying one’s own personal shame, of ignoring what is intolerable in our own lives. This has been true for decades in Hollywood, when a star’s life took over our cultural imagination.…
Does the black billionaire say to herself, “My grandmother worked for white folks for years in Mississippi, raised their children, and they barely paid her a dime. I think I’ll break the pattern and give my maid a fair wage and health care”? Or are we all just chocolate-covered Donald Trumps, trying to ignore the fact that the undocumented immigrant we’ve hired to trim the hedges favors our Cousin Terrence who just graduated from Morehouse, and his mother, who does our laundry, looks like the Ecuadorian version of our Aunt Doris, whom everyone in the family calls Dee Dee? (I don’t think Donald Trump has the same dilemma when he looks at this staff.) When the black billionaire’s father worked for years on the assembly line at Chrysler, does that make him sympathetic to the teenage girls in the Thai facility who make his running shoes? What is the responsibility of the black billionaire, and more precisely, the black billionaire artist?
The capitalist has one pursuit: to make money. And once he has made money from one enterprise, he’s off to the next, to pursue something else in the hopes that the next time he will make even more money. Which returns us to the question: does the black capitalist have a moral imperative which a white capitalist doesn’t have because of our history as slaves? Is more expected of us? We often talk about “slavery” as a historical event, but what does it actually mean — psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually — to be owned by another human being? What does it mean to own another human being? And not just for a year, or for a decade or two, but for generations?