Beyhive, Stingers Up! From Feminist to Womanist and Back Again
I came to Beyoncé late, although I do use the seven minute “Get Me Bodied” to get in the zone while running on the treadmill. What I mean is, I’ve always been on the periphery of her meteoric rise. I cocked half an ear to Destiny’s Child while comparing them to 90s R&B sensation En Vogue, and passed idle gossip as rumors swirled around this relationship or that relationship. I’ve watched and admired from afar as I read Entertainment Weekly, thinking, “Oooh, what an awful outfit,” or “Oh, her hair looks amazing.” While perusing an Essence cover story, I hoped her vibrant beauty would be capable of cancelling out Jay Z’s unfortunate blah once they decided to bring forth a child. But then in August of 2014, seemingly out of nowhere, Beyoncé proclaimed herself a feminist in bright, white lights during her VMA performance. Suddenly, my hearing and my focus came to sharp attention. I started to actively listen to her music, pay more attention to her utterances—forgiving those I deemed less than highbrow, turning a blind eye to her sometimes not-so-cute outfits.
As a cradle to the grave feminist, nothing makes me happier than when women, especially those of a slightly younger generation, or someone unexpected, embraces the word and the lifestyle. It’s a good word–a strong word–with, to my thinking, an even better message attached to it. And dare I say, at the risk of having my Black Card revoked, it’s a more evocative word than “womanist,” which always makes me think of mulch and rows upon rows of spring vegetation. I’m a city girl.
The term womanist was coined by the incomparable writer and champion of humanism Alice Walker sometime in the seventies. From my understanding, she invented it to differentiate the white female equal rights movement from that of the black women’s fight for liberation. In a teacup, Walker and others argued that black women’s equality concerns were different, deeper, vaster than those of white women. That we have to not only think of our gender, but that of our race and that of the men in our lives be they son, brother, husband, uncle, nephew or lover, as we battle for parity. We do not have the luxury of a flat-terrain battle of income equality, safe and affordable daycare options, or sexual harassment in the workplace, because we have many rivers, valleys, and hills to cross. We have all of the above plus institutional racism and skin-privilege exercised by both white men and women, beginning as far back as feminist foremother Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Released from chattel bondage, but not from backbreaking, soul crushing labor and daily humiliation, black women still managed to fall under the thrall of the Victorian Cult of Womanhood, buying into the larger society’s definition of what a true and proper woman was, until they realized in the seventies that their desires and needs were a footnote in the ongoing conversations about female liberation. Then, according to Walker, womanism was conceived.
As was I. And in the hotbed of communal, liberal politics of San Jose, California, growing up with a single mother and a gaggle of strong aunties, I considered myself a feminist. Then I discovered Baldwin and Walker and Toni and switched to womanism, and then I went to college. Hello feminism for the first two years and then how ya doin’ womanism the last two, and so on and so on as I grew. I’ve pretty much conducted my whole adult life on this seesaw between my deep, abiding belief in equality for all women and the need to be unified in order to achieve it, and the bone deep belief that black women have a seriously different fight on our hands.
And then here comes Beyoncé sharply into focus. There’s “Single Ladies,” which I think of not as a demand for traditional marriage but a demand for respect, “Run The World,” and “If I Were A Boy” both self-explanatory. Then the big mamas of them all, “Formation,” dropped just in time for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and the newly released visual album “Lemonade.” Now, I’m not arguing all of the merits of “Formation,” although I do believe it is as important as Euzhan Palcy’s “A Dry White Season,” Ava DuVernay’s “Middle Of Nowhere,” or Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” (his sexism is for another time). In “Formation”, there is so much to love, to unpack, to study, but what it seems to have unleashed first and foremost is confusion, panic and foolish outrage from white men and especially white women. SNL even debuted a hilarious sketch called “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black.” YouTube it. You won’t regret it. It’s Elizabeth Cady Stanton versus Fredrick Douglass all over again, but instead of corsets, bustles, string ties, extravagant afros, and Eugenics, we’ve got political correctness, you go girl Oprah idolatry, black berets, stilettos, and the honoring of a seventies civil rights group which partook in California’s open carry gun laws and created breakfast programs for Oakland school children, among other things.
And then Queen Bey upped the game once again, sending white women like Iggy Azalea scrambling for the smelling salts and black women nearly universally (Hi there, rapper Azelia Banks) hugging themselves and the nearest sister in relief that they, for at least the length of Beyoncé’s gorgeous, visually stunning album, have finally been seen.
According to Lynn Brown, who wrote a piece for Ebony.com, “‘Lemonade’ felt like Beyoncé’s attempt to explain the concept of Black Girl Magic.” Black Girl Magic, like Beverly Bond’s Black Girls Rock Foundation is part of a social movement conceived to empower young black women and girls. And I don’t disagree, but I would argue that it also highlights the age-old battle or misunderstanding between feminist and womanists. Much like my personal growing pains as I vacillated between “clear cut” feminism and, dare I say, a funkier, more nuanced womanism, Beyoncé’s earlier work is white women fighting against the male gaze and men’s insistence on infantilizing women. “Formation” and “Lemonade” are black women’s never ending struggle against both infantilization and masculinization.
From Sojourner Truths’ “Ain’t I a Woman?” to Mrs. Obama’s arms, black women have had to prove time and time again to the larger society that we are women, exposing ourselves to what that can mean in a sexist world. And then we have had to pivot on our heel—in Beyoncé’s case her Louboutin’s—and declare that just because we are women, we still deserve equality and respect, no matter what choices we make in our private lives.
And according to “Lemonade,” in Queen Bey’s private life she has chosen to put up with her king straying from the castle. This is nothing new to white or black women. But once again, where some white feminists take a hardline on staying, feeling it is a betrayal of all that they have worked for and women’s very personhood, black womanists tend to see shades of historical gray. Though they speak up for themselves, defend themselves against the pain and hurt, they may stay, with their womanism fully intact.
“‘…Doesn’t read at all like a desperate woman who can’t live without her man, but rather a vulnerable woman learning how to forgive. This song [“Sandcastles”] reminds us that a woman can be both furious at a man’s transgressions, while open to reconciliation,” says Lynn Brown, quoting and referencing the eighth song on the twelve song album.
I think this perfectly sums up where white feminists and black womanists need to start in order to find more common ground. Womanists already know what feminists are fighting for; they’re fighting for it as well, always have been, always will. But feminists, much like the rest of the world, need to go back to the history books, or perhaps pick up a paper at the corner bodega, and learn what womanists are fighting for. Womanism demands more honesty from feminism before it will securely hitch its wagon to the cause.
But many womanists fear that may not be possible. Amidst Meryl Streep’s seemingly tone deafness after a lifetime of being tuned in (slave t-shirts and “We are all African,” et al) and other avowed white feminists from actresses, to writers, to public intellectuals once again singing the ERA equivalent of “Can’t we all just get along?” or “Maybe Beyoncé’s new song isn’t for us.”
There are rants and think pieces all over the internet and polemics in the print dailies and weekly news magazines about Mrs. Carter’s latest works, making claims like, “Beyoncé hates cops,” while looking away from the bloody black body on the street. A real thing. A real thing that in the face of my continued 78 cents on the dollar, weekly sexual harassment by my boss, and black men and boys being shot dead on what seems to be a monthly schedule when they are not being hauled off to jail, has me waffling, fighting the age old battle between feminism and womanism.
Do I embrace the intellectual, practical, heartfelt position that we are all women who need to band together to fight for our equal rights? Or do I fall into formation, understanding that in the black community, black women, gay, straight, transgendered or otherwise, rise when black men rise? We’ve come a long way from Seneca Falls and Civil War Amendments. Still, there are those who believe single or married, God-fearing or God-denying, we as women will never be boys and therefore never men, and thus are unqualified to run the world.
As Queen Bey says in “Sandcastles,” “Show me your scars and I won’t walk way.” Womanists are saying to their feminist sisters, understand where we are coming from, and then let’s get into formation together.
K.C. Washington, the Director of Communications for the Harlem Writers Guild, is the author of Mourning Becomes Her: a novella and the Harlow Ophelia Jackson Mystery series. @harlowophelia
May 6, 2016