Getting In Formation: Beyonce, Race & White Tears

Unless you’ve been unplugged and living in the woods as a hermit, you’ve probably seen Beyonce’s surprise video for her new single Formation—quietly coyly released just a day ahead of her scheduled Super Bowl 50 Halftime Show appearance, and in preparation for her upcoming FormationWorld Tour—have already viewed said SB50 performance this past Sunday, have read the numerous think-pieces (either questioning her political motives and song lyrics or praising her efforts), and have heard the angry call to arms by white conservatives, insisting that folks boycott Beyoncé, ’cause she’s suddenly enemy #1 and a threat to ‘Murica’s values. You’ve probably also seen the ire from white feminists who are hellbent on reminding us that#solidarityisforwhitewomen.

Most commonly recognized as the quintessential crossover darling and purveyor of catchy pop-music and dance routines, this year Beyoncé decided to extol the wonders of her Blackness by releasing a song and video, and performing a SB50 set, that’s undeniably Black without the burden of respectability, Single Lady-friendly hand gestures, or Flawless soundbites preferred by the mainstream; the better for them to thrust and sing to, or co-opt as part of their YouTube reenactments or cabaret acts. I mean, this go-round, Beyonce went balls to the wall, and described herself as a Texas bama who loves to hoard hot sauce in her handbag, and white folks are like, ‘Quoi? What does any of this even mean?’

I don’t want to make this solely about Formation—(more than enough essays have been cranked through the pipeline already)—as much as I mean for this to be about the push-back against Black self-love and representation, but the video and song are decidedly political (for Beyoncé); and much of the Melina Matsoukas-directed offering seems to be a love letter of sorts to New Orleans and the Black southern aesthetic often derided by the mainstream (when they aren’t pilfering style and music trends from it), featuring clips of New Orleans bounce culture; Beyoncé and her dancers (all Black women) strolling; the pop star singing about the love she has for her baby’s afro and Negro noses with ‘Jackson 5 nostrils’; voice-overs by New Orleans-born comic and rap artist Messy Mya (who was shot and killed in 2010) and ‘Queen of Bounce’ Big Freedia; Beyoncé draped atop a New Orleans police car submerging herself underwater over voice clips about Hurricane Katrina; graffiti that reads “Stop Shooting Us”; and a Black little boy in a hoodie, dancing in front of a white police squad while they stand with their hands up.

SANTA CLARA, CA - FEBRUARY 07: Beyonce performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl 50 Halftime Show at Levi's Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA – FEBRUARY 07: Beyonce performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl 50 Halftime Show at Levi’s Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Couple the video’s anti-police violence stance with Beyoncé and her dancers coming out during the SB50 Halftime show dressed in Black, at attention in an X formation, in homage to Michael Jackson, the Black Panthers, and Malcolm X, and a deluge of White tears flowed forth like a torrential downpour. Beyoncé, who said her latest effort is meant to make people feel proud of and have love for themselves, was suddenly evading the White Gaze instead of performing for it. And now white people are pissed, don’t know what to do with this latest incarnation of Beyoncé, and so have called for her head on a platter.

beyonce-formation-sb50_800x Reactions have ranged from amusing to downright disturbing. But all of them are par for the course whenever Whiteness isn’t centered or White Supremacy is challenged. In addition to anger over Beyoncé’s perceived anti-police stance, white feminists and conservative news pundits have hiked deep into the dark confines of their feelings, pitched a tent and camped out, because the video isn’t sprinkled with images of White womanhood and isn’t necessarily for them.  And, once again, we basically have to contend with a collective tantrum and argument that amounts to, “We’ve historically excluded Black women from everything, and faithfully continue to do so, but how dare you not center Whiteness?”

Even amid the backdrop of the national dialogue about the importance of representation in art, media, and film, the #OscarsSoWhite Twitter conversation and an industry’s reluctance to embrace or address its diversity problem, Black creators are always expected to center Whiteness in their narratives and content. Chris Rock, who’s been advocating for the visibility of Black actresses, recently spoke about his struggle to fight for actress Tichina Arnold’s role in Everybody Hate Chris, because the network wanted a non-Black actress to be cast, despite the show being based on Chris Rock’s own coming of age raised in a household by two Blackparents.

The backlash against the fight for representational media images and Black affirmation is telling. White feminists… White people… ostensibly hate to see Black people–Blackwomen especially–affirming themselves in the absence of mainstream representation; even within our own personal narratives and art, because so much of their self-affirmation and work is prompted by hating and/or erasing anybody and anything that doesn’t look like or pedestal them. When dialogues about lack of representation unfold, Black people are condescendingly told to ‘get over it’, and to ‘stop whining.’ Yet, here it is, four days later, and the tears are still flowing over the Formation video and Beyoncé’s SB50 performance.