I don’t care much about the Superbowl; that’s always been my mother’s thing, not mine. But I grew curious about the halftime show after running across multiple articles discussing Beyonce and race, in particular one from my home state discussing the history of the Portland, Oregon chapter of the Black Panthers.
Beyonce’s performance didn’t distress me. It made me feel hopeful. What distressed me were the deeply ignorant and racist comments I ran across – nothing new, just the same old BS about how racism only exists because black people x y or z; that we shouldn’t talk about race; that the Black Panthers were militant; that it was inappropriate to politicize an entertainment event like the Superbowl.
Let me be clear: I can see the homage to the Black Panthers in the attire worn by Beyonce and her dancers (also pop icon Michael Jackson). I do not feel threatened by this homage. I think her performance was a potentially powerful statement, and I was heartened by the way her song Formation celebrates traditionally black features and culture. Is it defiant? Yes. It is defiant because to be black and to be proud of one’s heritage, history, beauty, strength, culture in a society defined by white supremacy is to be defiant. It’s a defiance we need a lot more of.
Given the recent events surrounding white militia converging on federal reserve land in Oregon, I shouldn’t have been surprised to see parallels drawn between the Ammon Bundy crew (AKA “Y’all Qaeda” and “Vanilla Isis”) and the Black Panthers, parallels that valorized terrorism steeped in white privilege while villainizing black efforts to achieve equality. I suppose I wasn’t so much surprised as frustrated and weary. Ignorant whites remember the Black Panthers for their leather jackets, berets, and guns. They don’t remember the community building and community support – the free breakfasts given to impoverished schoolchildren, the free medical clinics, the efforts to police local communities and keep them safe not only from criminals but from the individuals who were supposed to keep them safe and who instead regularly dealt immeasurable harm.
To those who say, “It’s 2016! Racism is dead!” I say, “No.” Racism is not dead. It has never been dead. It has only shifted form, hidden itself in the workings of our cultural, political, social fabric. Don’t believe me?
Name five prominent black scientists, academics, or astronauts. Name five successful black politicians. Name five nationally recognized black reporters or journalists. Name five black visual artists. Name five black directors. How many of the doctors or dentists you’ve seen in your life have been black (or Hispanic, or Native)?
Now name five widely-known musicians, five famous black athletes, five famous actors. It’s not that there aren’t brilliant and talented black individuals. It’s that most brilliant black youth are pushed into a handful of socially accepted careers, almost all of which involve entertaining predominantly white audiences. All too often, it takes great strength of character, profound determination, and often a truly striking talent for a black individual to achieve success in non-entertainment fields (which is absolutely not to say that successful individuals in entertainment/sports don’t possess these traits). That combination of abilities and character traits gives us people like Martin Luther King, JR, bell hooks, and Neil Degrasse Tyson, who are or were extremely remarkable human beings. I, for one, feel honored to live in a time where I can benefit from their brilliance…but how much are we losing out on because of the vast minefield of barriers facing black scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs, politicians, journalists, artists, poets, thinkers, doers, movers and shakers?
That’s white supremacy. In the long run, it doesn’t benefit anyone. It hurts black individuals and communities directly, by inflicting deep wounds and trauma likened by the DSM-V to the PTSD we’ve only just begun to acknowledge in our troops. But it also hurts the entire fabric of society by stifling countless potential intellectuals, innovators, doctors, creators, and leaders, denying us all the advancements they could have helped us make.
So I’ll cheer when Beyonce tells us that she loves afros, Negro noses with Jackson Five nostrils, and all the long history and features of a proud, strong community that has endured through centuries of brutality and oppression. I’ll cheer because I hope someday that will be an unremarkable and uncontroversial claim to make. I’ll cheer because I want a world where that culture, that history, those features, are celebrated freely by everyone. I’ll cheer because I want a world where nobody has to deny or decry their connection to that history, or culture, or feel shame for those features, where black individuals and communities have every opportunity to thrive.
I’ll cheer because hearing someone like Beyonce celebrate her people is a rare moment of fierce joy in a sea of frustration and despair born from white supremacy.