bell hooks, Beyonce, Spirit, and Feminism For Now

I’ve been watching the whole “bell hooks is sour on Beyoncé’s Lemonade” thing from the sidelines, afraid to comment because of the colour of my skin.  But I’ve gotten tired of “nodding respectfully”, and I want to approach this through a door hooks herself opened — her assertion that Lemonade being created primarily for a black female audience misses the point. “Commodities,” says hooks, “irrespective of their subject matter, are made, produced, and marketed to entice any and all consumers.”

I understand that I’m writing from adopted tradition.  I grew up with black people, but I’m obviously not one.  I do not claim ownership of black traditions or black culture, just an appreciation.  I don’t seek to be an appropriator.  But as a presumed outsider who sees some of the nods for black women, there’s no denying that Lemonade was made for black women.  And this matters, because the voices and art of black women matter.

hooks is interchanging the concepts of art, artist, and commodity in ways that are… duh duh duuuuuuuh… problematic.  In reducing Beyoncé’s highly metaphorical, some would say deeply personal, work of art to a good to be bought and sold, hooks is objectifying Beyoncé’s story.  Art is not a what.  Art is a who, a how, and a why.  We are sharing in Beyoncé’s message, not transferring ownership of it.  It cannot be reduced to object simply because a copy is purchased.  Lemonade will always be an extension of Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter.

hooks, who for years has taught acolytes to rage against the dominance of the presumed white male audience, now claims Beyonce’s work on Lemonade can’t be presumed to be primarily for black women because it exists in a capitalist paradigm.  Because Beyoncé has learned to thrive in a capitalist system, hooks believes that her work cannot be considered feminist, never mind black feminist.

The reactions in the white media to Lemonade prove hooks wrong.  While watching an ABC News clip that teased the project, I was marveling at the glory of Beyoncé with her hair in cornrows, showing flashes of people in Voodoo face paint, when the perky middle America-friendly commentators said “fans have commented that it looks like something out of American Horror Story”.

I immediately hit pause so I could internally scream.  These “news” anchors were missing that Beyoncé was drawing from the same source as the third season of American Horror Story: Louisiana Voodoo.  That is her culture.  Her history.  She’s not copying a TV show.

There’s a level of ancestor worship in Lemonade that the gossip rag media doesn’t get, because most people who engage with Lemonade are only connecting to the surface elements of the work — the lyrics that talk about infidelity.  Yes, that’s commodity.  Female suffering will always sell albums.  However, there are images to consider as well in this visual album, and the references to voodoo, Antebellum America, and even embodying a goddess of love, seduction, and beauty, all ochre yellow robes and running water… these matter too.  They tell another, deeper story, of the historical struggles, myths, and personifications of black women in the Americas, and these images matter so deeply.  This is Queen Bey’s descent, Ishtar-like, into the underworld, stripping down, and emerging with her power returned.

hooks’ toolbox doesn’t factor in the very old, very subversive myths that Beyoncé is invoking.  Beyonce’s working magic older than the modern patriarchy, and hooks’ academically masculinized viewpoint, her phallic set of tools, are deaf to Beyoncé’s underlying messages.

I don’t see Lemonade as the story of Beyoncé’s reaction to Jay-Z cheating.  Artists do concept albums all the time, and the work speaks for itself.  I see Lemonade as a subversive musical history of black women who sang about their men and their Christian God because society wouldn’t let them sing publicly about anything else, but the Goddess was always hiding in the bedroom and the church.

Beyoncé is examining the role of black women in the media, in business, and in the home.  It’s daring, deep, brave, and artistic as all hell.  Yes, black women’s bodies have been uniquely sexualized.  Why not explore that?  Why not say something about that?  Beyoncé doesn’t just show herself as a wife of a cheating mogul.  She shows herself as a daughter, a sister, a mother, a business woman, and the sacred feminine too.  bell hooks fixated on the body, when Beyoncé was baring her soul.  bell hooks fixated on systems, while Beyoncé was invoking spirit.  bell hooks, in essence, politicized Beyoncé’s testimony, and you can’t politicize the Goddess without losing the divine spark.

And at least a dozen brilliant black women, who can connect in historical and personal ways that I can’t, stood up to bell hooks, thanked her for her past service, but emphatically told her she was wrong.

There’s magic in this.  Beyoncé’s message of unity resonated, and her sisterhood answered.  Lone gun academics like hooks who forsook the magic of her body to be “accepted” by the mainstream can’t understand the raw power in something like Lemonade.  Taken as a whole, I don’t think Lemonade is about one story of infidelity.  I think it’s an invocation that the “men cheating” narrative is a very old one, going back to some dark places in history, and Lemonade successfully shows there’s more to the story.

hooks herself got the uniquely Southern reference — the childhood memories of girls selling lemonade as a symbol of the female businesswoman — but got lost in her head and missed the call to the spirit of womanhood that is embodied in an angry goddess, smashing stuff because SHE CAN.  hooks may be afraid of sex, afraid of violence, and afraid of feeling anything below the waist because she sees it as a symptom of dominance, but the “goodbye to the good girl” truths in Beyonce’s form of feminism CAN BE TRUSTED, despite hooks’ claims to the contrary.  Lemonade is Beyoncé’s freedom cry, her assertion that there is so much more to her than the wife of a man who cheated. She is not just “the wife”.  She is not just “the voice”.  She is the spirit and the consciousness and she’s a modern day beauty goddess.  In the traditions Beyoncé is invoking, her goddess has a vindictive streak.  She is not a passive beauty.  So she can smash cars if she damned well wants to, even if it’s not the “right” thing to do.  We won’t overcome the oppression in our own minds by saying “pretty please”.

hooks missed this.  hooks is showing the oppression in her own mind.

hooks seems very interested in the male role in Beyonce’s story, missing that Jay-Z is only a supporting character in the story of Queen Bey.  Beyoncé cannot control her husband.  She can’t force him to be faithful, respectful, or see her as an equal.  She CAN contextualize her own story in the collective tales of her ancestors, her blood, and realize that her man cheating is an annoyance, not a failure.  She will choose to stay with him or she will choose to tell him to leave her story.  Both of these are valid choices.  Beyoncé has choices because she sees herself as emancipated, and hooks has no right to deny her that.  We have to hope for a point in time when being black in America stops being a psychological handicap.

Beyoncé is standing in her power regardless of what her man did, and that’s an astounding testament of how far all women have come.  It’s a unique achievement for black women, who had to choose between their race and their sex during the second wave of feminism.  Beyoncé is not afraid of her lady parts.  She realizes that only by being whole can she also be powerful.  She is the heroine of her own story.  She’s sharing a spiritual, ancestral road map to move beyond pain, and bell hooks is telling her “not good enough”.

How is this not hooks in the role of oppressor?  The matron telling the younger female that she is not yet a woman, holding her down despite her fame?  Despite her wealth?  Despite everything?  hooks has decided none of this has meaning, and I don’t know what higher power she invokes to believe she has that right.

While hooks is using the white man’s tools — academics, non-fiction writing, and “literature” — Beyoncé is taking her message to the streets, the charts, the sports stadiums, the award shows, the runways, the airwaves, the social networks, and the salons.  hooks is only relevant in this matter because she’s the cranky neighbour who called the cops on the street party.  hooks seems to forget that one day she herself was an upstart poet saying challenging things, perhaps because her skills lie in tearing things down more than building them up.  However, black women today don’t call her “Auntie bell” because she ripped apart the work of white feminists.  They respect the words she gave black women, not the words she took from white women.  Beyoncé is adding to that dictionary and extending it to all women willing to see and hear those words, and that’s a good thing.

Beyoncé is the feminist that the culture needs TODAY.  She couldn’t have gotten to this point without bell hooks, and that’s why it’s especially sad that hooks has decided to extract the lemons from the Lemonade.  Intersectionalism means not missing the sugar and the water that also make up the drink, and hooks is so stuck on the sour notes of violence, domination, and oppression that she’s missing the sweetness and the cleansing nature of Beyoncé expressing the elements of her truths that she wants to share.

This round of artistic truths started with Formation, not Jay-Z’s antics.  How quickly some “academics” forget a woman’s art when there’s a man involved. Lemonade is absolutely made for black women, and that doesn’t change because a black woman is getting paid.