Beyoncé Slays Black People
by R.L. Stephens II on February 9, 2016
One evening in September 2015, I sat down to watch the season premier of Doctor Who. What I saw disturbed me. Beginning with the opening scene, Black men were repeatedly killed within moments of appearing on screen. It was the old Black guy dies first trope. I was mad, pausing the show to mutter to myself about racism and decide if I’d continue watching.
That same night, a friend’s brother was murdered in Chicago. He didn’t even make it to 30. I called my friend the day I got the news. I could hear the devastation in his voice, each labored breath almost choking the words out of him as we talked. “Chicago spares no one,” he lamented.
The separation between life and death is at the same time a chasm and a small crack. I had to stop watching a TV show for a few minutes; my friend’s brother had to stop living. The juxtaposition brought into stark relief one notion in particular: there’s a big difference between representation and reality. Unfortunately, as the latest round of internet hysteria following Beyoncé’s new video “Formation” demonstrates, many would-be pundits recognize no such distinction.
I love my blackness. And yours. #Formation
— deray mckesson (@deray) February 7, 2016
“I think parts of this video are as radical a seeding of visionary futures as the lunch counter sit-ins,” one author says. Wait a minute. The lunch counter sit-ins actually happened. They weren’t a music video, and they weren’t a cultural representation. The sit-ins shut down businesses and sometimes even whole towns, upending day-to-day realities in the fight against racial segregation. People got hurt. It’s beyond me how those insurgent events can be favorably compared with a Beyoncé song that says “Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.”
— deray mckesson (@deray) February 6, 2016
Adolph Reed, Jr., in his book Class Notes, explains that these writers deal in “cultural politics.” Their claims are predicated on the premise “that interpreting literary texts is identical with interpreting the wider world.” This falsehood is what allows them to strip actual political events of all context in order to create a false parity with pop culture representations—say, for instance, equating a Beyonce video with the sit-ins.
Reed concludes that this fallacy “empties the idea of political action of all meaning.” Most crucially, he dispels the common assumption that class and identity politics are opposing, mutually exclusive ideologies:
Cultural politics and identity politics are class politics. They are manifestations within the political economy of academic life and the left-liberal public sphere—journals and magazines, philanthropic foundations, the world of “public intellectuals”—of the petit bourgeois, brokerage politics of interest-group pluralism. Postmodernist and poststructuralist theorizing lays a radical-sounding patina over this all-too-familiar worldview and practice.
Clearly, culture is politically relevant, just not in the way that practitioners of cultural politics would have us believe.
Kenneth Warren Sr., an English professor, demonstrates that cultural representations do not exist in a historical vacuum. Focusing on late 19th century Black novelists’ depictions of labor relations, Warren argues that these representations—both positive and negative—were “a response to the rise of the Southern Alliance in the 1880s, which was followed by the emergence of the Populist Party in the 1890s.” Labor insurgency was on the rise, and more than one million Black farmers had formed the Colored Farmer Alliance, leaving Black elites “disturbed by the reality of poor blacks acting politically without their guidance or sanction.” Therefore, according to Warren, “in novel after novel produced by the black political class, writers inserted scenes where unschooled black laborers pleaded for the leadership and guidance of their black genteel betters.”
— deray mckesson (@deray) May 9, 2015
In keeping with the tradition of scholars like Professors Reed and Warren, I propose that we examine Beyoncé’s work within its real-world political context. Beyoncé’s cultural signifying does not illuminate political conditions, it obscures them.
One of the key points of emphasis in numerous think pieces is praise for Beyoncé’s use of post-Katrina New Orleans in the “Formation” video. Hurricane Katrina actually happened, and people actually died. It wasn’t merely a natural disaster, it was a political one. The fix had long been in, a neoliberal conspiracy set in motion before Katrina struck and primed to take advantage of the resulting chaos.
7,000 teachers, most of whom were Black, lost their jobs immediately after Katrina. They filed and won a lawsuit against the government for their wrongful terminations, but that didn’t save their jobs. The neoliberal shift in New Orleans’ policy gutted not only the Black middle class as a whole, but Black teachers in particular. From 2002-2012, New Orleans has seen the Black teacher population drop by an astronomical 62%, with most of that loss coming after Katrina. At that same time, the number of white teachers has increased 3.3%.
INTERESTING READ: Should the Postal Service be sold to save it? http://t.co/fUxkMBI71K
— deray mckesson (@deray) September 28, 2015
Teach for America was instrumental during the racist neoliberal takeover of New Orleans schools, tripling the number of TFA recruits sent to New Orleans and providing a steady stream of young (often white) teachers to staff the charter schools that took the place of the city’s public schools. Beyoncé’s politics perfectly align with New Orleans’ racist neoliberal nightmare, even as “Formation” represents racialized suffering and resistance in a post-Katrina world. Look no further than her public support for DeRay Mckesson, an alliance which invalidates all think piece claims regarding “the Black radical politics of Beyoncé’s work.”
DeRay Mckesson, the celebrity protester who rose to prominence in the wake of the Ferguson riots, is a product of Teach for America. He defends and promotes TFA’s neoliberal political machine any chance he gets. Last year, Teach for America gave him a $10,000 award for his work. With the announcement of his Baltimore mayoral campaign, DeRay is positioning himself to take Teach for America’s neoliberal vision not only to Baltimore’s schools but to every agency in the city.
Beyoncé is a major supporter of DeRay. When speaking at Yale last fall, he boasted that he is one of 10 people in the world that Beyonce follows on Twitter. For a man who thinks “twitter is the revolution,” such a high profile endorsement is serious currency. If local news anchor Vanessa Herring is any indication, DeRay’s association with Beyoncé is already paying dividends in his campaign to be Baltimore’s next mayor.
— Vanessa Herring (@VanessaWBAL) February 6, 2016
In his campaign announcement DeRay proudly tosses around neoliberal buzz words like “accountability” and “transparency.” Transparency in particular is, as political theorist Jon Beasley-Murray put it, “neoliberalism’s key value, going hand in hand with governance.” DeRay, once described as a “ruthless administrator” for his firing of teachers, used his campaign announcement to call for “the release of the internal audits of the Baltimore City Public School System.” Notice he’s not calling for increased oversight and regulation of notoriously corrupt charter schools or the racist lending system that destroyed much of Baltimore’s housing stock. Much like TFA-backed education reform uses data to justify school privatization, DeRay’s audits will foreshadow a similar privatizing effect for the entire city:
I also understand that transparency is a core pillar of government integrity. We deserve to know where our city services — from housing and sanitation, to schools and police — are doing well and falling short. To this end, we must invest in a broad range of systems and structures of accountability and transparency, including the release of the internal audits of the Baltimore City Public School System along with annual and timely audits of all city agencies.
“Formation” is all about “slaying.” Who exactly shall Deray, a ruthless administrator with a track record of firing public employees, be slaying as mayor of majority-Black Baltimore? Black people disproportionately work in government. Black government employment is a primary reason Black people are the most unionized ethnic group in this country and one of the only reliable routes to the middle class for Black workers.
Given that context, the Supreme Court’s recent undermining of public sector unions should be understood—at least in part—as a racist attack on Black people. When DeRay calls an article on the privatization of the U.S. postal service an “interesting read,” that’s not merely an opinion. It’s a threat against one of the largest employers of Black workers in the country. And if his electoral career is successful, DeRay will have the power to carry it out. DeRay represents Beyoncé’s neoliberal ideology implemented in the real world, and it is a politics that destroys the poor.
Yeah, Beyoncé and Deray slay, alright. They slay Black people.