When a black woman stands up and declares herself a feminist, the response is never universal celebration.
Self-proclaimed feminist and singer Beyoncé Knowles knows this well. Just recently, former Eurythmics singer Annie Lennox offered the latest critique of Beyoncé’s feminist credentials in a series of interviews branding the artist’s stance as “feminism lite.”
Lennox decried Beyoncé’s example as noxious to girls and young women who are fascinated by the “overtly sexual thrust” of her performances and declared her luxuriously sensuous persona “disturbing” and “exploitative.”
Yet, when a black woman stands up and declares herself a feminist, this act has a profound impact on other black women, especially when she wields the megawatt-bright profile that Beyoncé enjoys, and especially when the platform where she declares her feminism is the MTV Video Music Awards.
The day before Lennox made her comments during an NPR interview, the schedule at The University of Texas at Austin posted a new course that I’ll teach next spring called “Beyoncé Feminism, Rihanna Womanism.” The buzz was instantaneous and several news outlets ran stories.
But the people who approached me with the most engaging questions about “Beyoncé Feminism” were young black women: undergraduate and graduate students, burgeoning black female journalists, women who wrote from places like Ames, Iowa, and San Antonio, Texas.
They approached me to express their excitement that a professor was taking Beyoncé and Rihanna seriously. That someone was reflecting back that the lyrics they sing, the songs they dance to, their shirts that proclaim “I woke up like this” just might be important and worthwhile just might be the meaningful sources of empowerment they always felt them to be.
While Annie Lennox looks at Beyoncé glittering onstage with feminist embellishment behind her and sees feminism lite, I on the other hand, along with many black women and girls, see something different: feminism light. And by this, I don’t mean her lightning display.
Beyoncé recently released an extended promo video for her “Mrs. Carter” world tour. The video revolves in a fantasy of Beyoncé layered in gold and opulence. She is laced in a gold corset and gold hoop sans skirt, dripping with chains and jewels, brandishing a scepter and balancing a crown in her curls as she emerges graciously from behind double doors.
Dazzling in red thigh-high boots, Queen Bey glides into the halls of a palace reminiscent of England’s Buckingham Palace where she apparently reigns as the Sun Queen.
This is clearly no place in the world we know. Rather, this is the jewel-laden, spectacularly abundant fantasy of a black feminist imagination: a world-changing vision that stages an alternative reality in which black women have value.
Contrast this with a news story days later in Beyoncé’s native Texas about a black woman emerging from another doorframe. Last February, 47-year-old Yvette Smith opened her front door for police officers responding to a domestic disturbance call. The officers shot her dead in her doorway. Later police offered, then retracted, claims that Smith was armed.
Smith’s twin sister, Yvonne Williams, pursuing a wrongful death suit, mourned: “A part of me is gone, you know, and I wish I could have that back, but I can’t.”
In Texas and elsewhere across the country, black women are more likely to be shot in the dark than to appear on stage in the light. Turning on the news to see black women catalogued as eternal victims, we all feel a part of ourselves is gone.
Girls don’t run the world, and Beyoncé knows this perfectly well. But creating a fantasy vision where for a moment we all are Sun Queens is beautifully necessary to keep the hoping spirits of black women alive.
I don’t want to teach students that Smith represents the only experience of black women’s existence. We must imagine alternatives too, and I appreciate how Beyoncé offers us opportunities to celebrate those alternatives.
I applaud how she creates visions of black women’s freedom, especially in a world where that freedom doesn’t exist. Black feminism, light: thank you, Ms. Knowles, for that small gift.
Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley is an associate professor of African and African diaspora studies at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Huffington Post.
Related op-ed on Texas Perspectives:
Black Women are Already Dead in America
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New op-ed by @LiberalArtsUT prof: Beyoncé and Rihanna have taught us a lot about Black feminism. #Beyonce #Rihanna http://t.co/BkVdtN3uia
— Texas Perspectives (@TexPerspectives) November 20, 2014