Every day I walk or drive through historic Black neighborhoods in Atlanta, Georgia where upwards of 50% of residential properties are vacant, abandoned and sometimes burned down (but not demolished). I see empty buildings that used to be schools, recreation centers, community centers, and businesses. I see extraordinary flooding each time it rains; rushing water nearly covers the street. Sidewalks are non-existent or so torn-up you cannot walk on them so folks move through the middle of the street–parents with strollers and people in wheelchairs.
On weekdays I see elementary, middle, and high school age youth sitting on porches at 11 in the morning. I see groups of black men walking away from the county jail on my way to work or standing around at all times of the day and night. I see elders waiting at bus stops with no benches or shelters. I see stray dogs. I see people struggling with disabilities, addictions and other ailments. I see people waiting in line at food distribution sites. AND I see residents choosing to stay, choosing to see each other, and fighting to amplify the culture of these historic communities. I also see neighborhood people working to serve the needs of those in their community. I see Angels.
I also see poverty with a backdrop of downtown wealth and power and I constantly have to remind myself that “smart people” designed predatory lending, mortgage fraud programs, and strategies to suppress wages and downsize entire industries. The “college-educated” working for corporate law firms, elite colleges and universities, and top consulting firms developed models to privatize the public sector and underfund public schools, public transit, public hospitals, public services, public safety, prisons and more. “Our best and brightest” dreamed up revitalization programs promising better, safer housing and then leveled affordable housing, displaced entire communities of color and triggered the rash of school closings we are still dealing with currently. But these brilliant people are absent in poor communities and so rarely held to account. They are simply Ghosts.
So I’m new to Beyonce, in that I’m nearly forty and this is the first time I’ve purchased one of her albums. Just like she is starting to look into feminism I’m starting to look into her lyrics, visual presence, and platform. I think her new visual album is groundbreaking and two videos in particular stick with me as I think about how poverty, power, and action are represented in media. As an academic my platform does not compare to Beyonce’s so I think it’s significant that she seems to be inviting her followers to focus their attention on her process. She is asking that her fans process with her.
In the “No Angel” video…
1) She is…putting her body in places that matter to make them more visible (like First Lady Obama did during President Obama’s first term). “No Angel” opens with the sun rising on the Houston skyline. It quickly cuts to a black community where the built structures are in the background such that the substandard housing, deserted lots and vacant properties inform but don’t define the people in the video.
2) She is…making the familiar strange- telling the world that she sees what’s happening in her hometown Houston. “No Angel” is significant because it defies typical representations of black working class and underemployed communities by foregrounding real people as subjects. Not just dancing, partying, pouring out liquor subjects, but daytime subjects with kids, families, and interests. It’s not about a glorification or a judgment project.
3) She is…situating the people at the center of the narrative with a gender-conscious analysis. She is calling upon us to name the unnamed. You see glimpses of the backstage space of women’s nighttime work and the remnants of violence in the scars and wounds on young black males’ bodies. The many representations of memorials invoke a heavy feeling forcing me to recognize that parents who bury their children have no name. They are not widows or orphans. Nameless and uncategorized because naming suggests normalcy. She spotlights these subjects, she makes them visible to us, and invites us to process with her.
In the second video, “Ghosts,” Beyonce simply asks how come?
4) She is…signaling a move towards using her global platform to make global connections and to ask critical questions. Questioning record labels. Questioning why people are working “9 to 5 just to stay alive, 9-5 just to stay alive, 9-to-5 just to stay alive, how come?”
5) She is…raising resistance and action as an option by resisting traditional channels for releasing an unanticipated album or simply contributing an essay, “Gender Equality is a Myth,” in The Shriver Report.
Beyonce is asking “how come,” and so am I. When the images of poverty are present, but the responsible parties are absent from the frame I want to know how come? Admittedly, I am in a nascent stage and she seems to be as well, but I appreciate that she is creating points of entry for her fans to question issues that matter to me. That she is representing on a much larger platform what I’m seeing everywhere everyday…Angels and Ghosts