December 18, 2013

Worthwhile: Beyoncé Theory pt. 2

The knowledge began when my mother lost her mind. I was 8 years old. Beaten throughout her life, in childhood by the white woman who picked her up in Korea, as an adult, by boyfriends after the divorce. This violence inflicted irreparable damage. She almost died earlier this year of ammonia poisoning as the result of the modern pharmaceutical cocktail unchecked by the revolving cast of fresh-out-of-school psychiatrists and social workers that work at the free clinic serving those on medical/medicaid.

I am an abuse survivor, too. In the way that mothers and daughters so often both share in the experience of abuse due to the patriarchy. I live a happy life and thrive, but every once in a while I have to contact a crisis hotline. 

Because of this insanity during girlhood, I was an angry young woman. I inflicted self-harm. But I found a sisterhood in college, and in sharing our experiences about having vaginas and all that this genital configuration entails, we formed lasting bonds out of what was for me, a life changing experience. We moved from girlhood toward womanhood together in grieving and bawling and then coming to the light and the love of mutual support. 

I mention all of this to make but one point: I am not taking this topic lightly, being dismissive, or making excuses for misogyny, patriarchy, or violence against women. These are actually the things I hate the most in the entire world.

When Jay Z referred to himself as Ike Turner, and that scene, I was caught off guard. But because of the overwhelming beauty of the encompassing work, I had no trouble at all continuing to take in the entire work. Enlightened, blissed out of my mind, exuberant for the message as I described it in all its values in the previous Beyoncé post, I went to bed happy, excited and alive.

The next day here on the internet, I genuinely hoped we were all feeling this thing so deeply we could have honest and open exchange without hate. But the first thing I encountered was a post over the Ike line, and hundreds of people coming out of the woodwork to tear Beyoncé down as a person, a woman, a black woman. At this point I've seen some of the nastiest, dirtiest, most vile ways that people wanted to use this Jay Z lyric to discredit her as a person, a woman, a black woman. I've also seen and taken seriously that for some women, this lyric triggered powerful hurt feelings and touched raw wounds. I respect this. 

Taking a pause to think about a provocative/controversial rap lyric can be a very useful exercise. Don't forget, a sad, surely dying culture of white normativity wants us to shame black men for their words, clothes, language, and existence at every turn.

Like Bey, I am a grown woman. That means no blind acceptance of things that may be unacceptable. In the case of Jay Z's lyric, I am not only at peace with it, but have come to appreciate it more because of this analysis.  I enjoyed thinking these thoughts. They made me even more certain the text is relevant. It compels. I appreciate Beyoncé more, because it's layers go deep, and it allowed for this thought-strengthening exercise.


Let's begin with Jay Z, as a man, as a person. Because he is speaking. Not Beyoncé. 

I refuse to hold a woman accountable for what the men in her life say. I would be horrified if I, or any woman I know, was to blame for the shit that comes out of their husband's/dad's/brother's/uncle's/boyfriend's mouth. So this is actually going to be about Jay Z.

Recently some white male friends described to me their experiences walking alone through the city at night, and the instinctive knowledge that some women become suddenly afraid as they detect the male footsteps behind them.

These men suggested, in tone and demeanor, that they sympathize with this in a real way and get from it a feeling for the female experience. They get to feel in those moments, in their bodies and minds (at once) the real weight of violence against women. They are not exempt from this kind of intrinsic consciousness.

They are husbands and dads and boyfriends and uncles and cousins and brothers and friends with abused women. 

Jay Z is married to Beyoncé, whose sister Kelly released "Dirty Laundry" earlier this year, a raw, scarred, aching track about silently facing abuse while believing that Bey's superstardom meant she was alone with the abuser. She talks friend jealousy and how the wrong man can only enhance it through manipulation. She talks about calling "them people" on her man. Kelly talks about reconnecting with her girlfriend after getting out of this situation. Additionally, Jay Z just had a little girl. So I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt that he, too, shares in the kind of intrinsic consciousness described to me by my male friends. 

Consider that Jay Z exists in a world that already categorizes his body as a violent menace, a threat, and a beast. He exists in a culture that features faces like his every night on local TV news reports on whatever crime. In higher ed, where I work, the university sends me emails with his physical description in every university campus "safety alert" about petty theft. Yet, I never get any email about the white frat boy rapists. I never got an email about the doctor conducting a clinical trial that allowed a schizophrenic research subject to die and who was paid by pharmaceutical companies to use vulnerable people as test subjects. All I hear in regards to my "safety" is a steady, almost weekly it seems, stream of warnings about, in each instance, an approx. 6' tall black male with a puffy jacket, always wearing a hoodie. 

If we consider that this is a condition of life that Jay Z carries in his being every day, then we can begin to contextualize and empathize with his words.

He knows full well what he is doing, with words. It is his profession, and he is very successful because of his ability to renegotiate the meanings of words. This is what happens in all of his songs.

Maybe he wants us to have a pause, to think about why on earth he would say it. On the most obvious and easy to understand surface level he's just talking about sex. He begins the verse softly, "I'm nice." He is chill, casual, bragging that sex with Beyoncé is the shit (duh). He takes care with his voice to enter softly. He evokes tenderness in his tone, and moves on to evoke the raw sexual tension of the moments when we test boundaries during sex. Let's just go there with the Anna Mae moment, because anyone who has ever performed oral sex on a man knows there is almost always a moment where let's just say, there may be some tension around the shoving into the mouth. And that actual Anna Mae moment in the movie is nasty. It is morally reprehensible. Is it possible that Jay Z is acknowledging that this very real thing that happens during sex, and is not necessarily a problem at all, does make him feel in some subtle way conscious of the violent history of male power?

Does the moment when Beyoncé turns her face away (as most of us have at some point within a fully consensual, feminist, sex positive experience), cause Jay Z to in some way recall all the ways that he is always already painted as an Ike Turner, regardless of his own actions?

Is it possible that Jay Z wants us to acknowledge that no matter how loving, how tender, how positive and peaceful he is in everyday interactions with his wife of more than a decade, that he is still under suspicion in white supremacist minds as a deviant violent criminal? 

Is this a way of 1) pointing out how despite his relationship status with one of the most in-charge grown women of the world, and their obvious love and happiness, that he's still a black man in America with all the baggage that entails, and then 2) softly and with all the love he and his wife share, shoving this image of the black male in all of our faces so that he can subvert its meaning for himself, to remind us how he will always be perceived by a white supremacist culture as violent anyway, and to liberate himself from that baggage? 

To take something ugly and recontextualize it into something beautiful and enjoyable is precisely the kind of thing good art does. It puts the ugly up front and makes you confront those often hidden, but always right under the surface, aspects of culture that evoke deep pain. Some people will only ever choose to see the ugly as reprehensible. I see ugly as valuable. I spend time with ugly, until I find its beauty. 

Beyoncé is a feminist statement on the full spectrum of the experience of life as a grown woman. And what would a full-length statement on womanhood be without any mention of violence against women, really? This is something wives, sisters, best friends, mothers, and daughters are all forced to confront, all the time. Just as men are forced to confront how because of this, women are haunted by the specter of misogynistic violence... when they walk down streets at night, as privileged white men. When they exist, every day, as black and brown men. 


As Beyoncé says, "Perfection is so... Mmh." She also says we wake up flawless. 

An imperfect flawlessness. 

Just the kind of paradox that keeps me excited to learn and think and write. 

1 comment:

eri said...

Susie, these posts are amazing and inspiring.