On Unapologetic Blackness

Fuck you, understand me.” – Saul Williams. (“All Coltrane Solos at Once”)

According to the web, 2016 is the year of unapologetic blackness. There’s Lemonade. There’s Formation. There’s Cam Newton. There’s Black Panther. There’s Ta-Nehisi Coates. There’s Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther. There’s Kendrick. There’s Cornrow Kenny. There’s the Birth of a Nation. There’s Rihanna. There’s Empire. There isn’t Prince, but his spirit lives on. Ad infinitum.

I like the term and I think I know what it means – blackness unmediated, unfiltered, uncut – but I wonder how useful it is. On one hand, it’s a celebration of blackness without concession, especially in hyper-public spaces, like the Super Bowl and the Grammy’s. Even better, at the same time  it’s also a celebration of mundane blackness, in private and at ease: afros and hot sauce and selfies and t-shirts and cousins and aunties and church and attitude and crocs at Wal-Mart. Never has something so nebulous seemed so concrete. I love it. But what gives me pause about the term is that I don’t know why it’s needed and I think it might be too rosy.

I say this because unapologetic blackness, despite its defiant undertones, seems eerily similar to blackness. The term openly hints at the constant pressure to reduce blackness, in public and in private, so maybe it resonates because it highlights active affronts to that pressure. But doesn’t blackness itself already do that? We’re in the midst of a crazily racist presidential election, and to even mention that race is a factor in this election is to draw serious ire, on both sides of the political spectrum. And to go further and mention how blackness in particular is a factor might as well be witchcraft.

And beyond the election, even the way people talk about blackness is still guarded “Diversity” is still our go-to word to describe very specific problems with media. Terms like “race relations” and “racialized” gracefully slither around particular grievances.  It almost seems that as our terms proliferate, our grasp of what we’re referring to weakens.

This leads to my real concern. Unapologetic blackness gestures at these obstacles to unadulterated blackness, but it often focuses on the triumph, the breakthrough. This is fantastic, but I wonder if that focus obscures what gets stonewalled.

To put it differently, can unapologetic blackness account for mediated blackness? Can it encompass compromise or failure or resignation? Can it process another officer acquitted in the Freddie Gray case? Can it comprehend Stacey Dash and Azealia Banks endorsing Donald Trump? Can it oppose the execution of Dylann Roof?

I ask these questions because blackness, sans qualifier, can handle it, as it has been doing for years. Even though it’s well accepted that respectability politics is toxic, no one denies that respectability politics is a facet of blackness. Likewise, blackness encompasses religiosity and profanity, conservatism and progressivism, hate and love, tragedy and triumph, murder and excellence. Maybe it’s a good thing to purge the tension of blackness, to purify it, but what’s the cost? Unapologetic blackness may be indifferent to the white gaze, but what about black discord?

These are just speculations. Perhaps I’m being a lame ass literalist, something I’m often guilty of. Unapologetic blackness is probably just a cool term for the moments that make black people proud, collectively and individually. And more importantly, it’s probably just a defiant response to the longtime hegemony of respectability politics. I really want to believe this.

But at the end of the day, when it’s just me and the abyss, I wonder about those moments beyond pride and spectacle, where refusing to apologize is no different from refusing to engage, where not apologizing leaves the bridge burned, where the fuck you never leads to the understanding.

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On Beyonce

I left a lengthy comment on this essay I came across on Tumblr. That essay basically argues that the feminist praise of Beyonce is unwarranted because Beyonce is plugged into a huge male-driven machine that uses her appeal to generate huge loads of money that only makes those males richer and does nothing to propel a productive feminist agenda. The author’s solution is that we actually direct our praise toward Miley Cyrus because she is “clearly” what no woman would ever want to be, meaning that Miley is an anti-model that will disgust women into choosing the right path.

I think that that argument is nihilistic, deterministic and severely uninformed about how people actually experience pop music. My response is below. It’s written in a weird tone because internet comments are weird.  Sorry about that.

“This is an incredibly nihilistic essay, man. Yes, Beyonce is sustained by an unfathomable infrastructure of ignored labor and male-centered capital, but infrastructure, intention and design aren’t destiny. I think it’s the right move to look beyond Beyonce’s surface and notice the myriad circuits of capital flowing through her and into record exec’s bank accounts, but seeing that morbid reality shouldn’t mean accepting it (ie saying that Miley is the proper herald to the cursed throne). People don’t just blindly reproduce Beyonceisms. Her messages and her songs get reconstructed, deconstructed, ravaged, polished, buffed, defaced, bastardized, tinkered with and more all the time. I don’t think that happens with Miley. The way Miley presents herself/is presented already has that element of “resistance/rebellion” built in. That’s more dangerous to me. Miley Cyrus is the equivalent of a mobile phone that you can’t open because its copyrighted. With Beyonce, you’re encouraged to open things up, see how it works. Sure, that phone was still produced by a super-sexist mega-corporation that ultimately just wants your money, but at least this phone is potentially not just a phone. The radical possibilities aren’t foreclosed from the start. I think that’s why Beyonce is so praised by circles that you would expect to condemn her (feminists) given her institutional reality. We know that B isn’t a panacea, but we also know that there’s worst products on the market and – here’s the kicker – that this market is a huge force in determining how people conceive of themselves. Given that reality, Beyonce has to be the role model. Lastly, surfaces, packaging, matter. Think about grocery shopping. It’s all about the spectacle. Even when you’re surrounded by price tags, nutrition pyramids, sales and other things, shopping is essentially just a sequence of aesthetic encounters. In the same way that it matters that Obama is black, it matters that Beyonce is a woman of color who can’t be reduced to the typical images that plague women of color.

So basically, I think that your argument – “This is what Beyonce really is!” – is deterministic, misrepresents how Beyonce is actually received and undervalues the political significance of a surface (even when troubling things lie beneath).