“You’ll never recreate her no, hell no” – Beyonce, Don’t Hurt Yourself
13 minutes into Lemonade, Beyonce’s visual accompaniment to her album of black, female empowerment, the voice of Malcolm X is projected over a montage of black American women. He declares that:
“The most disrespected person in America is the black woman.
The most unprotected person in America is the black woman.
The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”
One of the world’s leading icons of black politics, quoted by arguably the world’s most influential black female, generated headlines across the world. It instigated a global discussion about gender and race and the hypocrisy of an ‘America dream’ that promotes freedom but disenfranchises so many minorities. In that moment the question of America’s continued failure to acknowledge the role and power of black women was brought into sharp relief. Was the black woman still disrespected? Was she still unprotected and neglected?
Malcolm X was discussing the role of black women in the 1960’s, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement. At the time black people didn’t have the right to vote, they were discriminated against in school, work and in public life; meanwhile women of all races faced discrimination in the work place, an old-fashioned and repressive ‘housewife’ stereotype and rampant sexism in all areas of life. Women had been shut out of board rooms, out of political office and out of the elites in nearly every aspect of life.
Much has changed since then. Legislation has altered, attitudes have changed and progressive liberal values have allowed great freedom for all genders, races and sexual orientations. And yet, one of the world’s most influential black figures in the world is raising the issue in 2016, using similar language and highlighting similar issues. This is because, in contemporary America, the black American woman is still disenfranchised.
“She’s stacking money, money everywhere she goes” – Beyonce, 6 Inch
At this point I think it’d be good to point out that I am not a woman, I am not black; I’m not even American. Some could argue that, therefore, I have no real perspective on this issue. I shouldn’t be commenting. But from outside this society I can comment and observe and understand what the various voices say. I can go past these declarative pillars of identity to look at the universality of the issue and the very need to look past these characteristics.
One of the biggest things to understand is what traps the modern black woman in American society. In the 1960’s it was a system of law that repressed black people and a society that prioritised the rights and ambitions of men over women. In 2016 the repression still exists but it is largely an economic and cultural issue.
Black woman can excel in American society, if they’re wealthy. Poverty continues to trap women. Unfortunately, in America, the black community has one of the highest rates of poverty at 26.2% (US Census, 2014). That’s over 15% higher that the poverty rate among white Americans. The rate rises dramatically among single-parent families, standing at 44% within the black community (based on data from 2007). That figure is likely to have increased as it dates from the pre-crash era, prior to 2008, that later plunged millions of Americans into deeper debt and poverty. The figures should shock as they show the continued wealth gap that divides black and white communities in America. This is a form of economic segregation that exists as a hangover from the Civil Rights Movement, a legacy of the disadvantage that was ingrained in the life of black Americans. But what the figures mask is how the burden of poverty and debt is shared; more often than not, the burden falls heaviest on women.
One of the problems facing black women in America is the high rate of single-parent families within the community. It is a stereotype that many black children grow up without father figures, but for many families that is the case. It a reality that is inescapable and unfortunately it puts great pressure on women, now forced into balancing work, family and their own existence, with their own identity the most likely thing to be sacrificed. Poverty and the additional social and economic burdens this causes, have taken away the individuality of black women. Their identity has been subsumed by wider stereotypes, prejudices and media narratives. It has been eroded so much that, for many, identity has been reduced to two pillars; their status as a woman and their status as a black person.
“I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros” – Beyonce, Formation
It is this attack on identity that is at the root of what Beyonce’s Lemonade is trying to challenge. It is the thing that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie surveyed in her award winning novel, Americanah and it is the thing American society needs to confront if it wants to remove the barriers to women. What does it mean to be a black woman in America in the 21st century?
Adichie’s novel explored the modern experience of black women in American society. Ifemelu (her Nigerian protagonist) details an America where the politics of race are bound up in a cultural treatment of black women. Black women, in particular black, African women, are part of a romantic, exotic narrative in which men, and in particular white men, value women for their aesthetic qualities and do not allow themselves to truly see who the person is. At the core of this novel is the necessity to break away from a stereotype; to engage with black women as people; talk about their achievements in the context of American society as a whole, not merely in relation to their belonging to a community of black women.
But this form of cultural abstraction is hard when America, in 2016, is gripped by the phenomenon of a female rising to the highest political office in the country. Despite Hilary Clinton’s years as a lawyer, Senator and Secretary of State much of the election is bound up in her gender and although there is a positive and important argument to be made about the ‘First Female President’ it should never define her. It is just one part of the narrative.
For those that continue to want to define women solely by their gender or their race or their sexuality they are robbing them of their identity; their individual ‘body’ that is so much more than those stereotypes.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, the world renowned writer and activist, argues that in a world where black people are robbed of their bodies, “that all are not equally robbed of their bodies, that the bodies of women are set out for pillage in ways I [Coates] could never truly know”. Because of the necessity in American society to define and categorise people we have created a category for black American women that obeys the rules set out by the white ‘American Dream’. In this categorisation we have created a culture where stories of successful black women are stories of exceptionalism, rather than the normality and where violence can occur without the intense scrutiny that surrounds the treatment of white crime; where the burden of proof is higher; where the media focus is less intense; where the massacre of black worshipers in Charleston is called mass violence, but not terrorism.
“I pray to the Lord you reveal what his truth is” – Beyonce, Sorry
In American society there exists a racial hierarchy, constrained by economic burdens, social practices and a cultural narrative that seeks to put black people into a pre-defined way of studying the world. For black women there is the added constraint imposed by gender. In our 2016 society there is still a bias against women. These biases engrain discrimination and hold women up to a standard and scrutiny that men have never had to experience. They argue that family values must continue to be the priority of a woman, that marriage is an all-consuming aspiration and that expectations should be tempered when compared to those of men. This is world where few women can break through the glass ceiling that many seem to want to keep in place. Let us have a female President, let our cultural icons be female, let us have female athletes whose achievements eclipse that of men, whose pay is equal and whose social importance is recognised (when will Serena Williams, winner of 21 Grand Slam Singles titles and 13 Grand Slam doubles, alongside her equally talented sister Venus, get a globally admired status equal to, or better than, Roger Federer, winner of 17 Grand Slam Singles titles and widely considered to be one of the best players tennis has ever seen).
It spoke volumes that Beyonce’s message of female empowerment received second billing in the media to a single line about “Becky with the good hair…” and the issue of celebrity infidelity. Just as sporting prowess got in the way of domestic violence in the Ray Rice case, where many in the media criticised the handling of the case by the NFL. In all these cases the black female is not the priority or the centre, despite their undeniable centrality to the issue.
Unfortunately, no one is going to give black women the status they deserve in modern American society. It is only going to be achieved when black women take it. When they say that white America will listen. Beyonce, Adichie, Coates, Black Lives Matter, the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, these are the voices that have started a new conversation about black rights; about gender. They are imploring us to listen, to take notice and maybe feel compelled enough to actually engage with what they are saying.
I may not be black, I may not be a woman, I may not be American but there is a universality in the messages these figures are sharing; there is an understanding in people and values; a recognition of the need to be heard and seen and not to be subsumed by a stereotype established by someone else in a different life or a different time. Somewhere, in this universality, there is the key to moving forward a race, a generation, a gender and ensuring that, in the future, Malcolm X’s words no longer ring with a resounding truth.
By Peter Banham