Monday, February 22, 2016

bell hooks and Beyonce

This semester at UVU, I am taking a class that at the outset I will admit I do not fundamentally understand: Philosophical Issues in Feminism. Why don't I understand it? Because we are now more than a month in, and I could not give you a concrete definition of what feminism is. As my professor Shannon Mussett has said "One of the great things about feminism is also one of it's great weaknesses; it's lack of a concrete definition." As you can imagine, that causes alot of frustration. Maybe by the time I am done with the class I will come up with one (I would not hold my breath on that).

Today in class we were privileged to watch two videos, one of feminist philosopher bell hooks, and the other of hip-hop/R&B superstar Beyonce. In the first video, bell hooks critiqued a photo of Beyonce that appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. The critique was centered in the fact that the photo was not classy; it was a clear sex appeal photo. hooks said that this sort of thing was participating in what the white patriarchal system wanted black women to do, and by participating in it Beyonce was a terrorist. Believe it or not, that was not the most controversial thing that was uttered in class today....

We followed this video up by watching  the video of Beyonce's hit song "Formation", which you can watch here. In the video, Beyonce talks (or sings) about things related to black struggle (racism, police brutality, etc), as well as showing herself in different modes; sometimes as a superstar, sometimes as a slave, sometime both at the same time or in fast sequence, to give the audience the feeling that she has come from the bottom to the top. The song ends with these lyrics "You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation
Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper." In short, she is saying the opposite of what bell hooks is arguing; namely that she can change things by using the system that is supposedly being used to subject her. More on that later.

This was not the first time I had seen the clip, and I also saw the Super Bowl when she performed the song. Both times before I left scratching my head, not because I didn't like the song or that I do not recognize that Beyonce is a very talented artist; she is one of a kind in this generation. What made me scratch my head was the fact that in 2016 blacks still think that money is the root of the civil rights movement, or that using stereotypes can advance a struggle.

So, as I listened to several observers (many who had seen the video for the first time) praise the video, I had enough. I raised my hand and endorsed the view of bell hooks, that using the tools of a master cannot tear it down, rather it will just build it up. I also uttered an epithet in my frustration, which shocked everyone, including myself (I will not repeat it here, I am ashamed to have uttered it.)

What am I getting at? Simple. The civil rights movement was not fought (and is still being fought) so that a person can be an entertainer. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not march so that Beyonce could perform in the Super Bowl. That was not the essence of the dream that he had.

The dream was that we could eventually get beyond the stereotypes, that we as a people (meaning blacks then) could become what had been considered absurd in his generation: President of the United States, a justice on the supreme court, a congressman, a professor, etc. It was to break out of the stereotype, and to make a new prototype. Sadly, while we have those things now, are these the things that are enshrined in the temples of black culture? Nope. Tell the average black person your dream is to be a professor of philosophy or law (my dream), and you will get little more than a polite smirk. Tell them that you want to record a record or catch a football, and you have to restrain them from expressing their nostalgia. Sickening.

You cannot change a culture by being  and celebrating it. You can change it only be defying it. For instance, there is a reason I never use slang or use the word "nigger" as a greeting. The stereotypes tell me that I must speak a certain way because of my skin color, or that calling a fellow human being a word has now changed from being a word that indicates that you were owned and beneath another race to one that is now a term of endearment. We cannot change the culture by popularizing the stereotype, we must rise above it and become better. This is not to say that I am against entertainment, sports or comedy; I love them all. But if I ever have children, I don't want my son or daughter to aspire to be the next Jay-Z or Beyonce. I want them aspiring to be the next Barack Obama or  Condoleezza Rice.

Beyonce maybe thinks that she has become an activist by wearing a black panther uniform. But the only thing she is doing is mocking what a movement was trying to accomplish. I am sure that if he were alive today, Huey P. Newton would have nothing but contempt for this sort of thing. I rest my case.


  1. There is a lot of good wisdom in here, Tarik. I don't agree with everything you say, but I actually think a good many of your points seriously address the issues I wanted to bring up in class yesterday.

    1. Thanks Shannon. Hopefully we can address them in the future.

  2. I would disagree with your teacher about feminism not having a definition. Plainly put by most dictionaries, it is the advocacy for equal social, political, and economic rights between genders. Emma Watson gave a great speech to the UN on feminism that I would encourage you to watch or read, if you haven't already.

    1. Reyna,

      In philosophy you don't necessarily adhere to standard dictionary definitions. One reason is because dictionaries don't actually define a word; they just circulate how the word is being commonly understood. Going on that definition, I am a feminist. After reading people like bell hooks, you will find women philosophers don't have a single definition.