I was born and raised in New Awlins and never miss the opportunity to remind folks of that. So when Beyoncé’s video for “Formation” dropped on Saturday, I, like the majority of my homegirls, was hype.
I wasn’t excited because I’m a certified Beyoncé stan, because the video is visually stunning, or because this seemed to be the Blackest iteration of Beyoncé yet. I was hype because she seemed to be reppin’ New Awlins hard, and not in a tepid “I heart N.O.” kind of way, but more in line with our playfully defiant brand of Blackness. That she unleashed the video during Mardi Gras weekend? It just couldn’t get any better!
Until it got worse.
The video came out on Saturday afternoon. By Saturday evening, folks were already engaged in rigorous debate on social media. On Sunday, the interwebs had become a volatile, difficult space for anyone who had anything to say about Bey or her “Formation.”
I logged off in an attempt to avoid the fires, but by Monday (February 8), I had participated in e-mail, text and WhatsApp exchanges and two separate-but-related phone conversations with girlfriends—all about Beyoncé.
In one of those conversations, a girlfriend said something to me that forced me to check myself. We were talking about all of the issues and angles that folks were engaging online—from capitalism to appropriation to resistance to the triggering of Hurricane Katrina survivors. I noted that no one was engaging Beyoncé’s spoken and unspoken statements about identity and skin-color politics. My friend said, “We are so two-faced when it comes to colorism.”
And we are.
While Bey let all the folks who’ve been talking crazy about Blue Ivy’s hair have it with, “I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros,” I can’t help but wonder why the two little girls in the video playing with Blue are significantly darker than her and dressed like old women afraid of the sun while Blue shines, hand on hip, in a sundress.
I cheer Bey on as she sings, “I like my Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.” But I cringe when I hear her chant, “You mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas bamma” about her Alabama-born dad and her mom from Louisiana. This is the same reason I cringed at the L’Oreal ad that identified Beyonce as African-American, Native American and French and why I don’t appreciate her largely unknown song “Creole.”
Having grown up black-Black (read: dark-skinned) in colorstruck New Awlins, hearing someone, particularly a woman, make a distinction between Creole and “Negro” is deeply triggering. This isn’t just for me but for many New Orleanians.
For generations, Creoles—people descended from a cultural/racial mixture of African, French, Spanish and/or Native American people—have distinguished themselves racially from “regular Negroes.” In New Orleans, phenotype—namely “pretty color and good hair”—translates to (relative) power.
In this context, people who are light skinned, with non-kinky hair and the ability to claim a Creole heritage have had access to educational, occupational, social and political opportunities that darker skinned, kinkier-haired, non-Creole folks have been denied. In many ways, among those of us who are not Creole and whose skin is dark brown, the claiming of a Creole identity is read as rejection. And I’m not just talking about history books or critical race theory. I’m talking about on-the-ground, real-life experiences.
In 2004 I interviewed three generations of women from New Orleans who identified as Creole. I heard from a 90-something grandmother who struggled to acknowledge that Creole included African ancestry; her daughter who is no darker than Beyoncé but nicknamed “Inka Boo” by her family; and her granddaughter whose brown-skinned son was often told to step out of family photographs so as to not “throw the picture off.” These women’s testimonies only confirmed what I had always known: that much of the investment in Creole identity is predicated on a vehement rejection of Blackness.
I’ve had my own painful personal experiences with this. For example, two years prior to conducting this research, I was excluded from the wedding of a Creole-identifying colleague whom I considered a friend. Thinking she had made a mistake, I asked her, “Girl, where is my invitation?” And she responded, very matter-of-factly, “Oh girl, my mama and ‘nem would pass out if you came to my wedding.”
So while it may seem innocent that Beyoncé describes herself as a mixture of Creole and “Negro,” this particular celebration of her self invokes a historical narrative that forces some of us to look at her sideways. Even in the midst of her Blackest Blackity Black Blackness, we find remnants of anti-Blackness. And yet, we still rock with her.
Had this been any other artist, I likely would have pounced on these contradictions immediately. Instead, I’m now facing my own. I’m asking myself what it is about Beyoncé that can silence even me, a scholar who researches and writes about color issues and who grew up in a city where the deep shade of her complexion literally determined who she could be friends with. How did I overlook themes in "Formation" that dredge up some of my oldest pains for the sake of enjoying a music video?
Honestly, I don’t know. I can say that more often than not, I recognize how far I’ve come, how much I’ve grown, and how much the wounds of colorism have healed. Still, in moments like this, when tensions are high even among friends, family and colleagues whom I like, love and admire, I’m reminded of just how deep those wounds are.
What I am clear about is that I am watching “Formation” through a very tenuous and personal lens colored by my experiences growing up in New Orleans. And rather than wake all of that up, I’ve tried to keep it moving, especially on social media. I just don’t trust that what I might gain in having the dialogue is worth what I might lose. And while I am impressed by the online conversations that Beyoncé has sparked yet again, I am discouraged by our inability to be honest about our own stuff.
Some of us are out here responding from a personal place and calling it analysis. We won’t allow others to have opinions that are different than our own without coming for their necks. But we have got to be honest enough to react to "Formation" from a personal place. We need to say, “You know what? This argument ain’t about Bey. It’s about me." Most important, we need to ask New Orleans how she feels about this video. From what I’m hearing, she’s not too happy.
A work as racially and emotionally charged as “Formation" is bound to cause tension. And because Beyoncé so often evokes something very personal, we need to approach one another with more care and caution. After all, it is very possible to enjoy the "Formation" song and video and take issue with it at the same damn time. Because we’re human.
Yaba Blay, Ph.D. is the author of "(1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race." Her ethnographic case study of skin color and identity in New Orleans entitled “Pretty Color and Good Hair” is featured as a chapter in the anthology "Blackberries and Redbones: Critical Articulations of Black Hair/Body Politics in Africana Communities." Blay is currently the Dan Blue endowed chair in political Science at North Carolina Central University.