A #BasicBecky’s Love Letter to Beyoncé
How basic am I? Here’s an example: in late 2015, I pushed my infant daughter in a grocery cart through Target in the middle of the day while wearing black yoga pants and drinking a Starbucks coffee. In the midst of my search for diapers and cute picture frames, I saw a display with Adele’s latest album. Ooh! I thought. I love her! It only hit me as I returned to my car with my haul. I wasn’t just a stay-at-home mom. I was the most basic, whitest of white girls, suburban stay-at-home mom. Self as stereotype is a harsh truth.
For years, I’d convinced myself that I wasn’t that basic. I might be from the Deep South, but I’d been raised in a pro-union, arts-forward, Democrat household. My family was on the lower end of lower middle class, but we were hardly trailer-parks-and-gun-racks people. My mother owned our home, and we aspired to the Junior-League-and-country-club class. We lived in one of the shabbier neighborhoods in the best part of our county so we could go to the good public schools. My classmates drove brand new cars and went on ski trips, but our subdivision Candlewood was popularly known as Candlehood. It boasted a mix of black and white folks, military retirees, and working class families.
When the private school kids I hung out with drove to the shadiest parts of town to buy weed, it was me they sent inside. Because I wasn’t afraid, they said.
There is my Beyoncé fandom prior to February 6, 2016, and there is my Beyoncé fandom after. That evening, my Facebook news feed lit up with links to a brand new video, dropped seemingly out of the ether. I may have scrolled past, as I was an exhausted new mom and could not be bothered to stay on top of pop culture, but I could only read, “oh my god” and “this new Bey video is amazing!” so many times before I realized that something big was happening.
That first image: Beyoncé on top of a submerged police car in the middle of a flooded neighborhood. The voice over the music asking, “What happened…after New Orleans?”
Whoa, I thought. WHOA. This was no “Partition.” It was clear that Bey had something to say.
I did not come to play with you hoes. I came to slay, bitch.
Do go on.
The flood of images at once fully southern and overtly black overwhelmed and excited me. There was so much to unpack. Katrina, police violence, black poverty, the French Quarter “octoroons.” But there were also joyous celebrations of blackness and femaleness. I giggled from pure giddiness over how good it was. By the time she got to the line, “When he fuck me good, I take his ass to Red Lobster,” I very nearly wept from pure happiness. Face hidden behind vaguely voodoo finery, two middle fingers pointed defiantly at the sky. I wanted to fall to my knees in gratitude for the sheer gumption of it all.
Halfway through my immediate second viewing, it hit me, and I started cackling. After all the bullshit of “all lives matter” and “blue lives matter” and “well, Donald Trump certainly says what he thinks,” Beyoncé was going to perform “Formation” the next night at the Super Bowl. Holy fucking shit.
Dear White People, Beyoncé did not come to play with you hoes!
The reaction was much as I expected. Conservative talking heads got their panties all in a wad, which meant that all my southern, white, conservative friends got their own panties similarly wadded.
And what did Beyoncé do in the face of this wypipo backlash? Nothing. She didn’t tweet about her performance – which was spectacular – or its reception. She didn’t go on talk shows or cable news networks to explain her artistic choices or spell out what she was trying to accomplish with “Formation.” She just did the damn thing, and then she went home. To be free of the need to explain oneself – I was in awe. I boiled in fits of jealousy.
I was ready to ride or die for Beyoncé. But it hadn’t always been that way.
I met Beyoncé in the summer of 1999. Weeks away from starting college, I heard “Bills, Bills, Bills” for the first time and loved it. I thought it was hilarious. Like, you could get a guy to pay your bills? Destiny’s Child seemed a more-than-worthy addition to the list of black girl groups I’d listened to growing up: En Vogue, TLC, Salt-N-Peppa. I immediately went out and bought the CD.
The rise and sustained popularity of Destiny’s Child made them a major part of the soundtrack to my college career. “Bugaboo” was the guy I spent most of my first semester trying to break up with. “Jumpin’, Jumpin’” was the go-to banger at our sorority mixers. Aside from being just really good pop music, their R&B sound made them stand out from the belly-ringed blond girls spitting out ear candy. And in the era of overly-saccharine boy bands, I could count on Destiny’s Child for female anthems like “Independent Women.” In high school, I’d reluctantly delighted in the girl power of the Spice Girls, but by college, I was much more interested in the subtle feminist subversion of “Say My Name.”
My high school honors classes were full of upper-middle-class black kids. Kids whose parents were married, well educated, active in the community and in their children’s lives. Kids who weren’t just going to college, but had their sights set on Georgetown, Howard, and Duke. I’d always been in classes with these kids. I served on the executive boards of student council with them. I liked them. I respected them. They weren’t just smart. They were smart.
But damn if they didn’t always want to talk about race. Always. I listened politely as they told me what it’s really like to be black in America, not letting on that their words sounded to me like bellyaching. Wasn’t the Civil Rights era over? Hadn’t equality been achieved? Can’t they just let it go? Because the lies white society told me about race seemed, to this 16-year-old, so rational, so true. I mean, why didn’t we have White Entertainment Television?
My classmates tried to tell me the truth, and I didn’t believe them. In my bolder moments, I would ask why everything always had to be about race. “Don’t you see it?” they’d answer. “It’s everywhere. Are you blind?”
I stayed in South Carolina at a college as white as the Oscars, but we had enough of a black student body to have a thriving, albeit small, community of historically black fraternities and sororities. I loved step shows and felt confident in my enlightened stance on race. I was in a Panhellenic (translation: white girl) sorority known as the Zetas. We made friends with the girls from Zeta Phi Beta. We planned some service projects. We planned a mixer. Later, we made friends with several Deltas who taught us how to party walk. As far as I was concerned, we were the coolest white girls on campus.
Meanwhile, the white boys I hung out with, members of the ostensibly progressive fraternity – they had openly gay members, which, hoo boy, is a big deal in the Bible Belt – drove luxury SUVs with CSA stickers on the back bumpers and casually dropped n-words when they were drunk. But they weren’t as bad, I figured, as the Kappa Alpha Order with its large Stars and Bars hanging in front of the house.
I mostly shrugged at Southern Pride antics. I am not a native southerner – born in Massachusetts – and my parents are full-blooded Yankees, so I found it a weird mental leap to glorify losing a war. But as a girl who’d grown up in the South, I understood how it was possible to be proud of where you’re from. I wondered how these boys separated their pride from the South’s history of slavery, how they told themselves that the Civil War was about states’ rights, but it didn’t bother me enough to give it much thought. It had very little impact on my life.
My senior year, a single black girl came through Panhellenic rush. Every sorority on The Row wanted her. Because we’d be, like, so diverse! She went Chi O.
I was skeptical at best when Beyoncé went solo. I had been devoted to Destiny’s Child. How could she do Michelle and Kelly and me like that? After “Survivor”?!
I wasn’t ready to write Beyoncé off forever, but I needed to be wooed. Some songs succeeded. “Baby Boy” and “Irreplaceable” were favorites during my mid-20s when I waited tables full-time. Thanks to “Single Ladies,” Bey was the first one to make me feel good about being single again when my first marriage disintegrated. “Halo” was special because it came out right around the time I was getting serious with my future husband. And the feminist anthems continued. The Beyoncé of “Diva” and “Run the World (Girls)” was a Beyoncé I could always love.
I wasn’t full-on Bey Hive, at least not yet, but I sure liked her.
After college, I entered the workplace and became abundantly aware of my gender. Or, I should say, my male coworkers and bosses made me abundantly aware of my gender. The guys that I encountered in the bars and clubs of my hometown made me abundantly aware of my gender. The cops in my hometown made me abundantly aware of my gender. It was infuriating and, at times, frightening.
I’d been raised by a feminist in an all-female feminist household. “Men are trash” was our mantra long before #MeToo. Being a woman in the world only amplified that attitude. And being the loud, opinionated, “intimidating” girl that I’d always been, I was pretty vocal about the sexism I was experiencing. One day, a friend asked, “Why is everything about gender with you?”
“Don’t you see it?” I said. “It’s everywhere. Are you blind?”
I’m a white girl from South Carolina. If I hadn’t learned over the years to make friends with conservatives, I’d have, like, six friends. It was mostly easy for me to focus on our commonalities, for me to tell myself that we all wanted the same things for ourselves and our country. We just disagreed on the best way to get there. Or it was about differences in fiscal policy. Or it was about differences in opinion over what the role of government should be in the life of a nation and its citizens. Mostly, we just didn’t talk about politics.
But larger events and the profound sickness they exposed forced my hand.
In 2015, I posted this Facebook status: “TFW the pastor of your Methodist Church forcefully declares in her sermon that black lives matter and you want to stand up and applaud.” From the beginning, I’d been surprised by the white reaction to Black Lives Matter. When I first heard the phrase, I thought, Yes. Of course. How sad that it has to be pointed out. It was impossible to ignore the news of shooting after shooting after shooting, of yet another black man or woman dead and law enforcement’s role in that death, of the pattern of inaction from the justice system. Each new breaking story, each new hashtag, sickened and angered me. Of course black lives matter. Of course.
Within minutes of posting the status, two Facebook friends responded to tell me that all lives matter. One was a woman I knew only casually through a local organization we’re both in, so that was an easy defriending. But the other was a longtime family friend. I’d known her since I was five. I remember her wedding, the birth of her sons. She holds a PhD and works as a school principal, where she is incredibly and deservedly well-liked. I loved her. I felt like I knew her. How could she say, “All lives matter,” but not see – or worse – deliberately avoid the racism inherent in such a statement? Maybe she wasn’t the person I knew, and I didn’t think I wanted to associate with the person she really was. I defriended her. It was painful. Still is. The ascendency of Black Lives Matter was the first time I had to confront the fact that the differences between me and my conservative friends might not just be a matter of policy or economics or constitutional interpretation. They would likely swear that they are definitely not racist, but maybe their definition of racism and mine were beginning to diverge in unbridgeable ways.
By the time conservative social media lost its collective mind over Hillary Clinton’s “we all have implicit bias” speech in April 2016, I had tuned many friends out. I didn’t engage. They were, as a group, a hopeless case. I knew it was possible – and necessary – for white people simply to say, “Yes, I’m racist.” I said it to my own like-minded friends and family members: “Yes, I’m racist. Of course I see color. I am a product of the same system of white supremacy in which all of us operate, and I’m one of the winners of the sperm lottery. I am trying to unlearn all the lies I’ve been told, and sometimes it’s a difficult process. I am coming to terms with the fact that I have done nothing to break down that system, and my inaction might as well be complicity. People are dying.”
Saying that to myself and out loud made me feel shame, but not defensiveness. In fact, I often had to check my pride: Look at me! Look how woke I am! I’m such a good ally!
Honestly, girl, get your shit together.
Three days after the Clinton speech and just two months after Beyoncé’s Superbowl performance, Lemonade dropped. I did not think it was possible for someone to break the internet twice in a lifetime. Beyoncé did it twice in a matter of months. (And that’s not counting the universe’s most glorious maternity photos.)
By the time I got to the end of this magnum opus, I’d felt so many emotions. I laughed. I cried. I was speechless.
There were moments when I felt that Lemonade wasn’t for me. Don’t forget: I’m a basic Becky with not good hair. But there was plenty of overt feminism that I could latch onto. I could stand with Beyoncé in all the moments she declared female power, and I could stand in the audience in all the moments she declared black power, seeing how often the two overlapped. Why should I feel threatened by celebrations of black femaleness? Or female blackness? What does it detract from my life and my experience? If anything, those celebrations enrich my life and my experience. It enriches my cultural understanding of what it means to be black, of what it means to be American, of what it means to be human.
And it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that Lemonade isn’t for us white folks. It may not be for us the same way it is for black Americans, but it is for us to listen, to learn, to shut up and believe a black woman when she tells us about her experiences of being black in America. And perhaps that’s all Beyoncé needs from her white fans, all that the black folks in our lives need from any of us – to sit down, shut up, and then show up.
I plugged into Black Twitter in 2017. Not on purpose. But when you plug into Literary Twitter, you are likely to find yourself going down a rabbit hole that delivers you into Black Twitter’s arms. As Thanksgiving approached, a common chorus rose up: “Dear White People, we hear you worrying about having to spend your holidays with the Trump voters in your families. We don’t have that problem because none of us voted for him. It’s not our job to change the minds of your family members. That’s on you.” They were right, as Black Twitter is so often right.
My interactions with friends and family over the holidays and since have been fraught. F-bombs may have been dropped. Accusations of voting for a pussy-grabber may have been leveled. But when someone makes a crass remark regarding #MeToo over Thanksgiving dinner, when a stepsibling makes a racist joke, or when a Baby Boomer relative declares that the lyrics to “Despacito” are “not nice,” even though the only difference between them and every other American pop song is the Spanish, I am faced with a call to action. I can no longer swallow, stare at my plate, and keep my mouth shut in order to keep the peace, as I have done so many times over the years. I have tried engaging in polite debate, only to be met with manterrupting and Fox News talking points. Many times, I have resorted to savagery out of sheer rage. The merits of such savagery are…debatable, at best, but politeness hasn’t worked either. Maybe politeness is what got us here. Maybe it’s enough to draw a line in the sand. It’s 2018, and I am done playing nice. My patron saint is Beyoncé.
When I fired up Twitter around 6:30 on the morning of Sunday, April 15, I knew immediately I had to find a way to watch Beyoncé’s Coachella performance. The sheer unadulterated joy emanating from the tweets on my timeline was intoxicating. Black Twitter was so damn happy, and it made me happy just to be around so much happiness. I watched the rebroadcast Beychella shortly after lunch. To say that I witnessed a cultural moment that will go down in history is not overselling it.
Beyoncé opened the show by strutting down that catwalk looking regal af. Make no mistake – this is a woman who knows her worth and is not ashamed of her accomplishments or her ambition. But Bey was not just there to celebrate herself. She lifted up the culture and traditions of historically black colleges and universities, black Greek life, and black marching bands. She showed a crowd of privileged white folks what black joy looks like.
And then there was the black feminism. The not-even-close-to-being-subtle feminism. A line of women performed a brief step routine while shouting, “Suck on my balls.” I almost spilled my glass of pinot grigio (#basic) jumping around my living room in response. The show was an important reminder that black feminism benefits all women, but lest liberal white women try to co-opt the message, Bey made completely sure the audience knew what she was doing, blasting the words of Malcolm X as she strode across the stage: “The most disrespected woman in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” In that moment, Beyoncé reminded all the “woke” Beckys like me, the ones who pat ourselves on the back for saying, “Black lives matter,” that it is incumbent on us to use our privileged status to fight not just for the equality of women who are like us, but to work especially hard to amplify women of color. Malcolm X’s words in the context of Beychella may have served as a battle cry for the black community, but they were an admonishment to white feminists: do better.
Many of the tweets I read that day said that Beychella was the blackest thing ever. Good. America needs more of that, especially in this political moment. Beyoncé’s performances at the Super Bowl and Coachella make a lot of white people uncomfortable in a way they need to be uncomfortable. Willful ignorance of white supremacy and systemic racism has been too comfortable for us for too long. It’s not going to kill us to be on the defensive for a change. And even those of us who consider ourselves progressive on racial issues can continue to learn. Hell, I had no idea before Beychella that there was a thing called the Black National Anthem.
Another way I continue to learn: one of the editors of this magazine pointed out that it might be problematic for a white woman to be writing about Beyoncé because does the world really need a white woman’s opinion on that? And I was like, “Oh.” Because he wasn’t wrong. And because that problem had not even occurred to me.
Whiteness means never having to think about your race if you don’t want to.
The truest reason I wanted to write about Beyoncé is that Beychella was just so. damn. good. From the choreography to the sound mixing to the Destiny’s Child reunion to the two full hours of music spanning Bey’s entire catalog. The craftsmanship. The spectacle of it all. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like it. I’m not sure I ever will again.
I marched when the Parkland kids said march. I nodded when Black Twitter said, “Where were y’all when the protestors in Ferguson were getting gassed?” I was angry about so many things related to both race and gender long before the 2016 election, but it took Donald J. Trump to shake me out of my complacency. I feel bad about that. I realize that I sat on the sidelines for too long. I admit that my angry Facebook posts and retweets of liberal thinkpieces were too little and that my newfound activism may be too late. But here I am – late, like most white folks, to the causes of social justice, racial equity, and intersectional feminism. And I feel shame for that. I combat that shame by trying to take tangible action. I’m not always sure I’m succeeding. I’m writing this from a coffee shop that is definitely not Starbucks, but is not black-owned either. Does my city even have black-owned coffee shops? And why did it take a viral video from Philadelphia to make me look that up? Is something as trivial as changing where I buy my coffee going to matter? Is it enough? What is enough?
I feel like recognizing my own privilege is an important step, and I yearn for my fellow white folks to do the same. It’s never easy to look at yourself and say, “I’ve done a shitty thing” or to admit that you’re benefitting from something evil. Because don’t we all want to believe that we are good? To admit otherwise may take us down a road of self-condemnation, may make us question everything about our existence. It’s no surprise then, to me at least, that white folks will perform some breathtaking mental acrobatics to deny the existence of white privilege. It’s no surprise that the default reaction is defensiveness. And some people, after recognizing the systems of white supremacy upon which this country operates, will still ask, “Why should I try to tear down something that makes my life easier?” But it’s a false dichotomy to have to choose between personal benefit and the benefit of others. The dismantling of these systems is better for everyone, not everyone but white people. How do we get people to recognize that? And then, how do we best dismantle these systems, especially when so many of us are still learning what white supremacy actually looks like?
These are the questions that Beyoncé’s recent performances force us white people to ask ourselves. Good answers are hard to come by, and it’s time we rely on our own emotional labor instead of the writers, artists, and activists of color in our midst (although absorbing their work is a fine place to start one’s education). It’s clear to me that Bey has given us a challenge as well as encouragement. She has told us to go make believers of the nations. And we cannot let down our queen.
header image: mixed by eric fershtman; crowd (foreground), flavia / flickr; beyonce (left), kristopher harris / wikimedia commons; beyonce (right), kristopher harris / wikimedia commons; blue sky (behind), dicau58 / flickr