In 1925, when Alain Locke published his anthology of Black literature, The New Negro, he argued that Black youth were finally shedding the tattered garments of the white gaze. He wrote that, “the mind of the Negro seems suddenly to have slipped from under the tyranny of social intimidation and to be shaking off the psychology of imitation and implied inferiority.”
In short, these Black youth were fab, vibrant, and demonstrative, and their burgeoning self-definition blossomed mostly notably into the Harlem Renaissance.
The Civil Rights era brought forth a Black identity buttressed by the light of human dignity. Dr. King continued to argue that Black folks were inherently full of self-worth, and that we were a respectable people that deserved our rights and citizenship just like White people. Of course, being accepted into White society meant accepting the terms of that society. The mainstream integration movement silenced the efforts of women and queer folks. Thus, by preaching integration while ignoring the most marginalized Black folks, Dr. King, or at least the ideas he espoused, carved out distinctions between Blackness that is right and Blackness that is wrong.
Of course, the legal victories of the Civil Rights Movement were diluted by Dr. King’s assassination, and the unrelenting structural and institutional violence waged against Black folks. Accordingly, the next generation no longer saw assimilation into a White power structure as the path to freedom—but rather advocated for a fundamental change to the institutions of that society. Stokely Carmichael spoke of Black Power, “the right to create our own terms through which to define ourselves and have those terms recognized.” This effort spoke of Black political and economic independence, and was accompanied by the iconic cultural aesthetics of Afros, black power fists, and shouts of “Black is beautiful.” Nevertheless, this movement still ignored the most marginalized Black folks in favor of romanticizing Blackness. The same movement that would deem Black women as “queens” would be the same movement where Carmichael said the position of Black women in the movement is “prone.”
Ultimately, each generation has struggled to congeal a politics of Black identity. Historically, that struggle has often meant silencing queer and femme bodies. Beyonce's new video encapsulates our current generation's struggle. That is, that we reject all of the binaries and dichotomies of the old, and we celebrate Blackness unapologetically. Whether that means being ratchet or stereotypically excellent.
Unapologetically Black is our generation's Black Power.
“Formation” is a triumphant visual conglomerate of what it means to be culturally Black in 2016. Of course, Beyonce is not doing this work alone, and the work she is doing is on the cultural and aesthetic plane, but it is an important contribution to the Movement for Black Lives. Alongside other protest songs like Kendrick Lamar’s “We Gon Be Alright” and Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talm Bout,” she makes an Unapologetically Black statement against police violence and structural injustice.
Beyonce uplifts what Black millennials are voicing everyday when we trumpet our ratchetness alongside our college degrees, touting that Black institutional success and formal education should not be antithetical to working class struggle. While Black millennials today might struggle between our working class roots and maintaining a “respectable” guise for white consumption—Beyonce reminds us that she can get “reckless” when she “rocks [her] Givenchy dress.” Or more precisely, that she “earned all this money but they can never take the country outta me.” I jokingly tell my friends, who often laugh at my perceived Detroitness, that I’m nothing but a nigga with a degree.
This is not to say that formal education is the key to Black success, but rather to assert that Black millennials are living at the crux of Black institutional success and the continual denigration of Black lives. We live at the moment of the first Black president, but are witnesses to the pervasive persistence of Black poverty. When Beyonce clings to her country-ness and her capitalist commodities, she conjures a Black contradiction that millennials struggle with constantly. A contradiction that holds space for the fact that we can be disruptive, defiant, and Black and excellent and brilliant all at the same time.
This is why Beyonce pronounces her “negro” mixed with her “creole,” and how that erupts into a “Texas ‘bama”. Beyonce trumpets her self-love, and how these two legacies have congealed into her southern roots that are still very ratchet, accented with cornbread and collard greens and hot sauce in her bag. Black roots that are queered with Big Freedia’s booming voice serving as the omnipresent reminder that queerness and Blackness have never been far apart, despite what past movements would have you believe.
It is legacy that takes center stage in this video. With Blue Ivy standing adorned in her proud mama-endorsed afro in an array of Black girl magic, and a little carefree Black boy dancing so fervently that even the police have no choice but to surrender. Black millennials too have to embody this contradiction between joy and self-care and organizing against structural impediments looming over us. It is no mistake that Beyonce’s call to “get in formation,” blurs the lines between militant factions and twerking dance routines. We are a generation of Jaden and Willow Smiths, dancing, twerking, wearing flowers, dresses, booty shorts, and blunts, but still have to balance a commitment to resisting an increasingly intolerant police state.
In short, Beyonce’s new video, like the Black youth of today, are a big mess of contradiction. Arguably, Black liberation and resistance in this country has always been just a big mess. But perhaps what is different, and what Beyonce’s video partly encapsulates, is that perhaps now is the time to no longer keep battling between what banner of Blackness to flag, but to instead be posted unapologetically on all sides. It is the time to understand that resistance does not need to look or sound a certain way, and that we have to hold all of this Black Otherness in our joined hands to prosper.
To be Unapologetically Black is to love Blackness in all its forms while centering the identities that have been the most silenced. To do so is complicated, requiring that we re-think all the ideologies that we’ve been fooled into believing will lead to freedom. To be Unapologetically Black is to love Black when it’s high and love Black when it’s low. It is to embrace the division in Blackness. Formation, in its ratchet chaos reminds us of loving Black. Is Beyonce the end-all be-all? Of course not, and she is very problematic, but this video is a gem in our cultural lexicon, and offers us so much to talk about. She reminds us, “you know you that Bitch when you cause all this conversation.”
Aaron is a Chicago-based writer, activist, and educator. His work has been featured in Colorlines, Mused Magazine Online, the Feminist Wire, TruthOut.com, the Advocate, the Education Post, and Chicago South Side Weekly. He is currently working on a speculative fiction novel for young adults. Follow him on twitter and Instagram: @Talley_Marked