Out of respect for elders, I haven’t been pressed to weigh in on why the venerable bell hooks might find it reasonable to refer to Beyoncé as a terrorist.
Yet, I felt compelled to respond this morning, after reading this piece from Rev. Osagyefo Sekou at Truth-Out.org, that indicts an entire generation of Black intellectuals for apparently “believ[ing] that the system is a good system that only needs to provide greater access to the historically othered.” Who exactly are these people who believe this liberal claptrap?
Because of this alleged belief in the “goodness” of our current racist, capitalist, patriarchal effed up system, we supposedly “rush to defend the black embodiments of neoliberalism Obama and Beyoncé.” This generation of Black intellectuals apparently “directs its fever-pitched critique at the blatant racist and sexist actions of individuals while it is unable to articulate the ways in which Beyoncé and Obama undermine the very possibility of anti-neoliberal discourse.”
First, the critique of structural racism is incredibly strong among young Black intellectuals. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Mychal Denzel Smith, Kirsten West Savali, anybody? Second, does Beyonce’ even know what neoliberalism is?
Now Rev. Sekou makes a number of important claims, a few of which I agree with, the vast majority of which I think are bullshit.
And my calling bullshit ain’t about disrespecting elders, but rather about saying that elders, especially elders as astute and insightful as bell hooks, don’t get a pass for making whack-ass arguments. I grew up in the Southern Black Baptist Church, my daddy is a preacher and I still address senior scholars as Doctor even though I also have a Ph.D. That Southern sensibility peppers how I do my work, but as much as my mama and grandmother taught me to respect my elders they also taught me never to sit around and stand for no bullshit. And I won’t do that shit in the name of either civility or academic respectability, because if Black women are out here terrorizing people, then we ain’t got no time to be polite with each other.
So let us be clear: Beyoncé is not a terrorist. She isn’t systematically doing violence to any group of people, rolling up and taking folks land, creating a context of fear in which people must live, or usurping folks right to self-determination, raping women as a tool of war, or turning children into soldiers.
President Obama on the other hand…might be doing some of that.
As far as Bey goes, it looks like she’s committed to anti-violence, at least in her intimate contexts. And when Black women can manage to rise above the violence happening right in front of their faces in their intimate spaces, there is something liberatory and radical about that posture.
But apparently who black women are when the cameras aren’t looking (or when they don’t know the cameras are looking) doesn’t matter in taking down the neoliberal project.
Btw, I’m so drove with all these intellectuals who think defending bell hooks and Cornel West makes them radical.
Calling Beyoncé a terrorist in a moment when 300 Black girls from Nigeria are being raped and otherwise terrorized daily and can’t nobody seem to come up with a strategy to get them back is not only intellectually and politically irresponsible – it’s ill. bell hooks knows Beyonce isn’t a terrorist.
She was being provocative. And I imagine that the provocation has to do with asking us to think about what kind of work or harm Beyonce’s image does under a neoliberal system. And if that was the question, then ask that question. But conflating the potential discursive and psychic violence that Beyonce’s image does with Beyonce herself is irresponsible feminist theorizing.
Yes, the Time cover shows a light-skinned, bleached blonde Beyonce, and to the extent that she has control over the image, it certainly doesn’t disrupt white beauty standards.
But I also read it as her playing with the possibility and plasticity of her image.
Maybe that means she’s complicit with whiteness, but it could also mean that like many of us, she is interested in all the ways she can be visually rendered. But when light-skinned women revel in their light-skinnedness, it triggers deep shit for Black women who struggle with colorism. And that’s tough because while it might be reasonable to demand that Beyonce show some empathy for this cultural Black girl struggle, the reality is that she is as we say in the south “bright-skinned.” And she has the right to love her skin and revel in its possibilities, too.
Regardless of whether you agree with my reading of the image or not, what we should be able to agree on is that how one chooses to appear on the cover of a magazine does not a terrorist one make.
And calling a black woman a terrorist when nothing could be farther from the truth is an act of discursive violence.
It is not mere hyperbole. It is not metaphor. It is an act of violence. And what we can’t have going down in Black feminism is Black women being violent with other Black women in the name of being radical.
That’s that bullshit, and we should call it what it is, even if it means we have to implicate our elders. Elders ain’t gods to me.
Sekou’s conflation of Barack Obama, a politician twice elected to lead the American Empire, with Beyonce’ a self-made entertainer is intellectually untenable.
President Obama can and does use drones on people. President Obama can and does sanction military action. President Obama can and does deport Brown people in startling numbers. President Obama can and does reason with people on the right far too often when he should be bulldozing their shit. President Obama does what he was elected to do, which is to run this American empire. And as someone who voted for him, I’m complicit in what that means. I’m also glad that my unemployed CF who needed to go to the doctor this week was able to because of Obamacare.
So there’s that. Anyway.
President Obama’s actions materially impact the lives not just of the U.S. millions but of billions around the globe.
Beyonce’ is an entertainer, who sings good songs and choreographs routines, so that we can dance and feel good and fuck well and talk shit with our friends or partners as we navigate our lives in this neoliberal, capitalist machine. She might be a bigger cog in the wheel than most of us, but she certainly ain’t driving the bike.
And it is precisely this kind of untenable conflation of her with the denizens of empire that emboldens the Beygency.
Now I’m not part of the Beygency, but where Sekou accuses my generation of intellectuals with having outsized outrage at the wrong shit, I want to call him out for the same. Conflating Beyonce’ with Obama is outsized outrage at the wrong target if I ever saw it.
What I’m not going to do here is re-litigate the Cornel West-Barack Obama debate that Sekou attempts to bootstrap, unfairly I think, to the Bey and bell conversation.
So let me untie these two critiques for the reasons listed above. bell hooks was being provocative about pop culture; Cornel West at least tries to bring some righteousness to his critiques of imperialism, even though his approach works my nerves. And now let us return to the claims that Sekou makes.
Race, sexuality and gender are critical aspects of their work, yet there [is] an outright refusal to say neoliberalism and capitalism are bad….Contemporary black intellectuals strive for a non-sexist, non-homo and -trans-phobic, and non-racist seat at the table versus a construction of a new table….”
He returns to this point again later, saying: “Again, the dominant intellectual disposition of contemporary black intellectuals is neoliberal. Their anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-transphobic and anti-homophobic sentiments are easily incorporated into the neoliberal project without critiquing neoliberalism.”
To be clear, I think capitalism is a fundamentally fucked up system, that magnifies a hundred-fold the effects of racism and sexism. I think Sekou is right that an endless focus on anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-transphobic, and anti-homophobic discourse does make the work of contemporary young radicals co-optable. I do think a more explicit critique of neoliberalism in our work is warranted. I do think we have to recognize that fluidity and mobility are not the same thing. In an article I’m working on, I talk about how discussions of performance and fluidity have come to stand in for real discussions about whether people themselves have actual mobility, or options to move around in the social structure. I do think we have to remember that intersectionality was never put forth as an account of identity but rather an account of power. That we have taken up intersectionality as a way primarily to speak about ourselves and endless categories of identity is unfortunate, especially since it often means that we can’t think productively about how racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, and yes, neoliberalism, interact as social systems to disadvantage people multiply placed along these axes.
But I don’t think any of this makes Beyonce a terrorist. Nor does the defense of her by those of us who think the girl should not be verbally assaulted by fellow feminists make us uniquely complicit with the neoliberal, imperial project.
And for those of you who want to know what neoliberalism is, here is a great short video from the Barnard Center for Research on Women.
But seriously though – Beyonce is in the tradition of mega superstar entertainers like Madonna, Tina Turner, and Janet Jackson, not Barack Obama (and Bill Clinton, and the Bushes, and Ronald Reagan.)
Why is there such hateration for Bey, even though to my knowledge hooks has never called Janet Jackson a terrorist, even at the height of both their careers in the 1990s? There would be no Bey without Janet. I mean, as my friend Tamura Lomax, founder of The Feminist Wire reminded me, shouldn’t we be talking about the neoliberal implications of Dr. Dre reportedly selling Beats By Dre to Apple for $3.2 billion dollars? Or is it only capitalist Black women who are cause for concern? Brother Sekou, why no outrage against the brother?
I work from the assumption that Beyoncé is a human being , not just an image or an icon. That is why her feminism doesn’t offend me. I see her adoption of the term as the work of a powerful woman in a very traditional relationship, looking for language to understand the power dynamics she encounters. I see the contradictory gender propositions in her catalogue of music as evidence of both struggle and process. But that is what granting her humanity allows for. If however, she’s just the image on the cover of Time, then it becomes easy to call her a terrorist.
BUT if Bey is a terrorist, then how do you justify gleefully dancing to “Drunk In Love” shortly after saying such a thing about her? Are you dancing on the graves of those whom she has supposedly slain with all her terroristic fierceness?
I mean, what the entire fuck?
Neoliberalism has apparently caused Sekou (and hooks) to forget that Beyoncé isn’t only what she sells, never merely commodity or product. Surely, Black feminism is the one place where we begin from the proposition that Black women are not reducible to their capitalistic capacity. Making #TerroristBeyonce the monstrous feminist Frankenstein straw-woman of our movement, upon whom we heap all our anxieties (and bad arguments) about the momentous generational shifts of this moment, is literally an anti-feminist act that denies her humanity. Calling Beyonce a terrorist is also designed to silence a generation of younger feminists who identify with her work and find something liberatory and productive about it.
Listen: we always navigate questions of power and pleasure within the space of these bedraggled systems not of our own making. Those of us who ride for Bey ride for her because she offers us a language of pleasure, a permission to seek pleasure, in the midst of both struggling to make it and struggling for a different world to come into fruition. An ascetic radicalism that is averse to pleasure is neither just nor healthy. It may embolden us to create a new world, but that world won’t be sustainable, and it may become more violent than the one we left.
I have a critique of capitalism. I also have an ugly student loan tab, bills that need to be paid every month, and habits I want to indulge. What Sekou understands as an abdication of responsibility to critique capitalism, I understand differently. I understand our generation of feminists to be, as Joan Morgan called for, “fucking with the grays” seriously, while calling bullshit on those who are so revolutionary-minded that they manage to do no real good.
That critique does not apply to bell hooks or Cornel West. They both make our work possible. But if the rhetoric continues, the two of them may also become a cautionary tale in what it means for revolutionaries not to age well.
(Yeah, I said it.)
And with regard to their speaker’s fees, “I ain’t sayin they golddiggers, but…” (And check it: I think they should make their paper, because I don’t believe revolutionaries should live in poverty.)
Anyway, we are all just trying to find our way here. My generation of intellectuals definitely could benefit from a more radical edge to our critique.
But if the argument is that we have to violently mow down our icons, leaving a trail of their blood on the way to this new “radicalism,” then you can keep it. Because something about that sounds alarmingly like the patriarchal, black male-centered, radical Black radicalism of old.
And a “radical” critique that goes as hard at Beyonce as it does at President Obama tells me all I need to know about the effed up gender politics that will govern the space of the new world those folks are trying to create. Beyonce’ ain’t Condoleeza Rice, ya dig? And we can’t even conceive a world where Black women have a level of political clout and power like Obama has. So then folks make wrongheaded comparisons like Sekou does, and conclude that they are cut from the same cloth.
That’s that bullshit.
And time’s out for bullshit.