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I am now convinced, after having spent the better part of the past three days listening to Beyoncé, that there will be no liberation of the Southern black woman until we can all freely talk about oral sex with nothing but love and admiration and an absence of shame.
I know now that we can serve up all the reproductive justice talk and spar about women in positions of power all we want, but our freedom won’t come until we can loosen the invisible chastity belts fastened by religion and culture and respectability that too, too often inhibit the freedom—sexual and otherwise—of black women who prefer their tea sweetened.
If you haven’t heard it, let me sum up Beyoncé’s fifth album, "Beyoncé," with a series of unrelated words and phrases: sex, I love having sex with my man; family; I’m the best at life and I’m OK telling you; I’m an awesome sex partner who doesn’t mind a little jizz on a designer gown.
Yeah, it’s like that. And I thoroughly loved it. I got chills listening to Chimananda Ngozi Adichi’s words on “Flawless,” a celebration of bad bitchdom. I had to keep myself from giggling while listening to “Blow,” an unapologetic ode to the joys of cunnilingus. I almost cried when I listened to “Pretty Hurts.” Then again when I thought about “Flawless.” And yet again at the sheer beauty of “Superpower.” I got out of my bed at 2 a.m. to booty pop to “Partition.”
Again, I loved it, but that’s not the point. And since, by now, you’ve undoubtedly read fifty-leven think pieces about Beyoncé, her music, her feminism and whatever else, all of those opinions—while valid—are not the point either.
Beyoncé is a woman, a black woman, a black woman of a certain mold, a class of black girls the old folks may describe as “down home.” We grew up in black neighborhoods, were raised in black churches and use phrases like “home training.” We are black girls living in worlds where an intact black family with a strong, male head is still, and probably always will be, the goal.
She’s this kind of black girl, yet she’s free. That is what matters. This album is a celebration of the marriage of privilege and intellectual movement that a lot of black women—particularly Southern, Christian black women of this mold, which I am also a part of—do not have access to and are not allowed to attain, let alone claim and express and shout the way Beyoncé does with her self-titled album.
To understand our world, the world that Beyoncé manages to both service and subvert on this album, you have to understand gossip. I swear, black women in places like Houston, where Beyoncé grew up, and New Orleans and Nashville and Fort Worth, TX, where I’m from, we make gossiping an art.
It’s ungodly how much we relish dissecting other people from head to toe, what’s inside their heads and what’s inside their hearts and what they should be doing and shouldn’t be doing. We hang on phones, lean over chairs, touch the arm of a friend to implore understanding. It’s entertainment, it’s storytelling and it’s infectious. We’ll drown you with compliments to your face, hug and kiss you, offer you our food, then talk about you like a dog the minute you leave the room.
It’s all in good fun. We assume you’re doing the same about us. But, the world of “girl, let me tell you” is vicious and demanding of its inhabitants. Girls get their legs smacked if they part too wide in church and older girls get mocked for having birth control in high school and male pastors openly admonish single mothers who want their children blessed in church.
The price of propriety and cultural righteousness, which is indecipherable from religious righteousness, is constantly disproving the historical narrative of the hypersexual black woman who is no more than a jezebel with a tame and sanitized public sexuality.
This constant defense of character, this unending refrain on why you are worthy and human, is stifling and prevents real movement towards equality and justice. But it’s necessary. The consequences for liberated black girls are much greater than those for white women.
For slutty black women, there is no second act and no redemption. Our Madonna-like characters don’t go off and become English countrywomen. Our Kendra’s don’t marry well and become mothers. Men demand purity from us. Our culture draws a sharp(er) line of delineation between good girls who are acceptable wives and sluts who won’t ever meet the family.
As Adichie so eloquently said in her TED Talk sampled on “Flawless,” women aren’t allowed to be sexual. For black women, double down on that sentiment. For black girls in the South who were raised in the church, multiply by a million. As a cultural structure, the black church often serves as an oppressor to women by placing an imbalanced burden on the sexuality of girls.
Ultimately, what makes "Beyoncé" so important isn’t necessarily what she’s saying—that she is sexual and loving and super-successful and you bitches better deal—because that’s been said before (Janet Jackson’s similarly freaky-deaky self-titled album, for one), but rather that it’s Beyoncé, of all people, saying it. A woman who never takes credit for her success, who looks blankly while being insulted, who created a whole other alter ego just a few years ago so that she could sing about popping her pussy without ridicule.
Beyoncé, for years, has played the part of the perfect, good black girl. Her back story reads like a black, middle-class play book and she seemed to work hard to keep up the image and remain true to those values, which included muffling her smoldering hot sexuality, even as family members succumbed to sexual pitfalls like teen pregnancy and extramarital affairs.
She was a consummate people-pleaser, a model Southern woman who was praised by the black respectability police for doing her life “the right way”—dating and claiming virginity, marrying and then becoming a mother.
And for a long time, this appeared genuine. She just seemed to happen to want all of the things that are prescribed to women, particularly Southern women of color, like blonder hair and a bigger booty and a man with a lot of money. She worked for these things and fit perfectly into our mold of female perfection.
Until she didn’t.
"Beyoncé" is the most feminist piece of mainstream art I’ve consumed this year and maybe ever. More feminist than “Girls,” which exists in a world where feminism is accepted and encouraged and attainable through college and stuff, or “Scandal,” which I don’t watch, but I’ve got enough Gladiators in my circle to get the gist, or any of Lady Gaga’s stuff. ("Americanah" by the aforementioned Adichie has some pretty interesting things to say about gender, too, but I wouldn’t call a literary novel mainstream.)
It’s women’s empowerment for a group that doesn’t get a lot of it in media and needs it more. It’s feminism for women who are taught that patriarchy will get you to heaven. It’s feminism for women who don’t care to rhapsodize about whatever mainstream feminism’s issue of the day happens to be because they’ve got their own, separate issues. It’s the feminism of lived experience.
And I’m not trying to play the feminism Olympics, but I think that “feminism” is the most concise way to say that Beyoncé’s new album is here to fight the patriarchy. Especially for the hordes of us that have to figure out ways to fight the patriarchy without giving up religion, because religion is family and culture to us, too. Those of us that feel we have to choose whether fighting the patriarchy means big upping racism and the degradation of our men. For those of us who were never presented with the fairy tale endings in the first place, so attaining that is just as much patriarchy-fighting, for us, as choosing not to do that is for the rest of y’all.
As much as anything, "Beyoncé" is a telling note that she’s sort of done with all that. And that we, others in her mold, can also be done with it. We don’t have to shrink to make others more comfortable with our fierceness. We can tell the world to “bow down,” because we work hard and we don’t have to apologize for our success. We can suck dick in the backseats of chauffeured cars, because, why not? We can brag about our asses because they’re amazing and any person would be lucky to have “all that ass up in your face.” We can see ourselves as “flawless” even as our entire existence is seen as one big flaw to be lightened, snipped, straightened and excercised away.
We can be done with the pageantry, which is so much of what womanhood can be about for black women, who are told that we have to work harder to be seen as beautiful, desirable and “acceptable” romantic partners for anyone. As Beyoncé expertly dismantled on “Pretty Hurts,” how we come naturally—our hair textures and facial features and skin tones—is never seen as good enough.
Beyoncé is on her free black girl shit, so hard.
From the response on my (mostly black and mostly female) Facebook and Twitter timelines, we aren’t used to seeing this kind of freedom so boldly dash across our iPods. Grown women with babies reported being uncomfortable with the overt sexuality of some of the songs. Women who have had more than a few penises in their mouths didn’t like the lyrics of “Partition,” which includes the great line, “You Monica Lewinsky-d all on my gown.”
Which brings me back to my original thesis. We aren’t free if we can’t have a grown woman conversation about mouths on genitals. I’m not interested in progress that doesn’t free us, country black women, to be as sexual as want without the ridicule from our own folk, just as black men have that freedom. "Beyoncé" gets us a little closer to that goal.