Born and identified through a white-man’s lens: the African-American’s curse.
Beyoncé has never been afraid of loading her songs with a political charge. With ‘Who run the world’ in 2011, she made a powerful tribute to feminism; now it is her half-time show performance, possibly the most political one ever delivered at the Super Bowl, which made headlines and stirred controversy. ‘Formation’ is a battle anthem under the flag of Black Female Power; and one thing’s for certain, Beyoncé ‘came to slay, bitch’.
Critics complained that the performance was too exclusionary, and should’ve been aimed at a wider audience (‘Middle America’). Personally, I prefer lyrics such as these to any song about ass, partying or ex-boyfriends, and if it is these that are found to be better suited for middle-class America, some reflection might be due. In general, I think we shouldn’t be appalled by popular music being vested with a meaningful purpose, which is entirely up to the individual artist to determine. As for the case of this song in particular, I believe nobody in the country can feel excluded. What it says about the progress on racial emancipation is the undeniable concern of America as a whole.
In his highly influential collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk published in 1903, African-American civil rights activist and academic W.E.B Du Bois introduces the metaphor of ‘The Veil’. He was still in elementary school when during a game in class the children had to exchange cards, and a little white girl refused to give him hers. ‘Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like [them perhaps] in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows’, he writes. The Veil, bound to be worn by every Afro-American, symbolizes the perpetual barrier between black and white worlds.
A related concept Du Bois elaborates on is the ‘double-consciousness’ of African-Americans. He describes it as ‘a sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity’. Identity then is constructed indirectly — the Veil as an in-between medium is always there, and the individual is only able to see oneself through the lens of white people.
The continuing existence of racism, though no longer legally institutionalized, remains a deeply embedded problem in America’s social psyche. It must be noted however, that conditions have improved greatly in terms of opportunity. In his work, Du Bois outlines the lack of access to good education and jobs as a major obstacle on the path of development for the African-American population. Today though, education, and even the highest positions — such as those of being President of the United States, as the ultimate example — are equally accessible.
However, to see there is still a problem, one needn’t look further than the series of past tragedies involving unarmed African-Americans shot dead by policemen (referred to in Beyoncé’s music video). The Ferguson shooting in 2014, or statistics on incarceration and income levels, or patterns of urban spatial segregation, or Tea Party politicians for that matter, all suggest that we are only scrapping the tip of the iceberg.
And so in light of all this, to what extent does the Veil still prevail?
Beyoncé’s music video for ‘Formation’ has rustic porches and mansions evoking the spirit of the Old South, now occupied by her and her all-black female squad. It has an Afro-American boy dancing, faced by policemen whose hands are raised in the air in surrender and with ‘Stop shooting us’ graffitied on the wall. It has Beyoncé lounging on top of a sinking police car and ends with the climax: ‘Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper’. During her live performance, her and her dancers form an ‘X’, referring to Malcolm X, Du Bois’ contemporary African-American human rights activist.
The song advocates Black Pride, Black Rights and Black Power — the fact that Beyoncé and many others feel that this is needed, is what really makes ‘Formation’ a manifestation of the Veil.
Du Bois already realized that transcendence over the Veil was the solution and the key to freedom. In contrast, Beyoncé’s message, as fully justified as it may be, is one of further division, and a reflection of the general predominant attitude among the African-American community towards the issue of race.
There is still an omnipresent need for empowerment, which in itself illustrates the cognitive existence of the problem of racial inequality and of a continuously reactionary construction of identity (double-consciousness). A black American is born with the inherent urge to prove oneself; so identity is still being born out of the reflection of how others see you. In a state of complete emancipation, African-American people would no longer feel that they need to give an account of their worthiness or prove anything — not to themselves, and least of all to white people. Human capacity and identity would be judged independently from the social construct of race. Not to mention, African-Americans would no longer feel threatened, physically or in any other way, because of skin colour.
But can such a stage of true equality ever be achieved, most of all on a psychological level? Can such entrenched perceptions on both sides ever be erased or altered? Or was Du Bois right in his deterministic prophecy, that: ‘the destiny of the (African-American) race could be conceived as leading neither to assimilation nor separatism but to proud, enduring hyphenation’?
The answer lies with us: the fight to transcend the Veil is one that requires us to join our flags. And though it will be a long and difficult battle with an uncertain victory, some Beyoncé R&B background music can at least make it slightly more pleasurable.