Formation As Black Liberation Theory

Beyonce has made me so proud of her. I was already high after watching her video for “Formation” five times. But after seeing her Black Panther dancers throw their firsts in the air during Super Bowl halftime, I don’t know when I’m going to come down.

Predictably, some folk—black and otherwise—have been quick to point out what “Formation” didn’t do or mean to them. And the video and ‘Yonce’s Super Bowl performance won’t do a lot of things. They won’t stop the police from shooting black people. They won’t stop another Katrina or Flint, when the white people in power don’t give a damn about poor black communities. But “Formation” did a lot for me and a lot for other people, judging from the giddiness on my Twitter timeline.

Watching that music video, I felt affirmed in so many ways—as a person with southern roots (both of my grandparents on my mother’s side are from Alabama and Louisiana, and my dad’s parents are from Georgia), and with connections to a culture that is otherized. As a black man with “Jackson 5 nostrils,” whose hair grows like Blue’s. As a black man who identifies as LGBT (I’m bisexual), I felt recognized by the images of New Orleans black LGBT culture, and the genderqueer voices peppered throughout (Google Messy Mya and Big Freedia). I felt affirmed by the little boy in the hoodie who caused the officers to put their hands up. I felt affirmed by the happy black children in their kinky-headed radiance. And I heard Beyonce say that all these things were okay. “Formation” gave me permission to love and be myself in a way that I had not before. So many other black girls (and boys, clearly) needed to hear that, too—at a time when we face so many reminders that blackness is the enemy.

By extension, what I also saw in “Formation” was a working model for black liberation. With a flooded New Orleans as the backdrop, and Black queer voices as spokespeople in her absence, Beyonce centered not only black people at the margins of the mainstream, but black people at the margins of blackness itself—black poor, black women, black LGBT folk. True black liberation means freedom for all black people—freedom from state-sanctioned race and class violence and from homophobia and misogyny within our own communities. With “Formation,” Beyonce embraced those whom we acknowledge the least. Ironically, it has been black women and LGBT folk who have been leading the Black Lives Matter movement.

Beyonce did not come to play with you hoes, she came to slay white supremacy, heteronormativity, and the patriarchy with intersectional feminism. Backstage after her halftime show, Beyonce said about her performance, “I wanted people to feel proud and to have love for themselves.” This one wasn’t for the masses—”Formation” was for her people.

But it’s that very reason why so many (white) people—even fans—were upset by Beyonce’s displays of unapologetic blackness. Previously, Beyonce had been a “safe” artist for white audiences to embrace—she kept her distance from race and politics. She broached the political on Beyonce and in documentaries when she openly embraced feminism and talked about the importance of agency for women. But race? That’s a different beast. With “Formation,” Beyonce demands to be acknowledged not just as a woman in control, but as a black woman in control—and one that’s country as hell. She refuses to allow audiences to celebrate just parts of her identity, or celebrate her divorced of her identity altogether as some otherworldly Queen Goddess that transcends blackness. She likes cornbread and collard greens, bitch. And not only that—she don’t fuck with police brutality.

Beyonce is far from the first black artist to make a political statement. But her reach is global, and that in some ways makes what she did categorically different. To drop such a defiant statement on the eve of the Super Bowl and then deliver that statement to the masses via an army of black women—I was proud of B like I was proud of Bree Newsome for snatching the Confederate flag off the flag pole at the South Carolina state capitol building. Both made me feel like there’s nothing I can’t do. Coincidentally (or probably not), Usher dropped a video for his single “Chains” featuring Nas on Sunday morning, which also speaks to police brutality. Hopefully, now green-lighted by the world’s biggest pop star, other black artists feel empowered to speak out about important issues despite fear of backlash.

Of course, there is real groundwork to be done. Black people must continue organizing and fighting for black liberation. (And for those who doubt Beyonce’s sincerity, she and Jay reportedly spent tens of thousands bailing protesters out of jail during the Baltimore protests, and Tidal [Jay Z’s music streaming service] is donating $1.5 million to Black Lives Matter and other civil rights organizations). But what “Formation” can be in that is a model for how to love ourselves and include the most marginalized among us in our advocacy, our spaces, and in our ultimate vision for freedom as we wage a collective struggle against oppression.

You feel me? Okay, then let’s get in formation.

Brandon Ellington Patterson is a senior editorial fellow at Mother Jones magazine in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @myblackmindd.

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