It’s a hard knox life for a Duke woman who likes sex: an open letter to Belle Knox from the old guard

Dear Belle,

You are now squarely in the belly of the beast: popular culture infotainment has sensationalized and dispossessed you of the right to straddle sex work with one leg and a Duke education with the other (pun intended).  Academics, journalists and self-proclaimed intellectuals are gratuitously co-opting your story, decoding and deciphering and dissecting — which is to say, objectifying — you, your family, your decisions, and your ‘perverse’ sexual desires as a way to affirm their own authority as social scientists and public intellectuals.

While your financial considerations for sex work (i.e. a hefty $60,000/year tuition bill) have been met with curiosity and even praise of neoliberal ingenuity, the audacity of a young woman who might like sex work or feel empowered by pornography has been met with vitriol.  And vitriol hurts, goddamnit.  Sticks and stones are not the only things that break our bones, though I suspect you’ve received physical threats in addition to rhetorical whippings.

I remain your fan, and am writing to celebrate your vulnerability as a shameless woman of sexual excess–because, to be clear, there is no shame in sex work, for profit or pleasure (or both); nor is there any shame in ‘rough’ or ‘humiliating’ sex, which I understand you participate in (to great scorn) as a sex-positive porn star.  Leo Bersani and other radical-leaning queer theorists argue that these power dynamics are precisely what make sex exciting and excitable, and not just on camera, but in our real-life pursuits of sex.  To claim otherwise is to lie to ourselves in the light of day, so that by the cloak of night we can throw out these ‘theories’ and submit to our most carnal sexual desires, having reassured ourselves that we’ve already done the ‘work’ of thinking through urgent questions about sex and power, or sex as power (and power as sex).

The culture or “campus climate” — to borrow from President Richard H. Brodhead — of Duke University, as you well know, is a petri dish for exactly this kind of double-standard.  Work hard, play hard.  Think by day, drink to forget (and to make questionable decisions that you are not accountable for) by night.  Lest we forget, disassociating work from play — abandoning the critical thinking skills we learn in the classroom when we drink and fornicate — is what landed Duke in the eye of a media storm in 2006: a scandal almost eight years ago to the day (March 13, 2006) in which three white Lacrosse men were accused of raping (gang-banging, really) a black Durham stripper.  You may recall that one Lacrosse player went so far as to email his team two hours after the alleged rape to request an encore in which he “kill[s] the bitches as soon as the(y) walk in” and “cut[s] their skin off.”

The Lacrosse men who fanned the flames of race- and sex-based hatred in 2006 are by no means exceptional.  Consider, for example, the bully who outed you: that disgusting person known as Thomas Bagley –righteously exposed for his questionable proclivities by porn distributor Mike Kulich, who revealed in an open letter that 18-year-old Bagley finances his subscription to the hardcore porn site FacialAbuse.com using the “$200 a week [that his] parents send [him] …for living expenses”, likely “watching a new girl getting a huge cock viciously rammed down her throat” — or the typical sorority woman who can only ever experience sexual pleasure drunk and stammering, which is to say, incoherent and absent to her own body.

These Duke ‘types’ remain unproblematized while the world looks on at you through computer screens, watching videos of you in compromising sexual positions, ‘getting off’ without consequence — free from internal guilt or externally-imposed shame — leaving you with the heavy burden of justifying your choices while theirs go unchallenged.  To borrow from your own beautifully-crafted words in last week’s interview with Piers Morgan, “The same society that consumes [you] is also condemning [you].”

I want to thank you for merging feminist ‘talk’ of sexual freedom with the real-life stakes of sex work.  You don’t refuse one for the other; you don’t just do sex work, you think sex work, and you do/think the two simultaneously.  I could have used a friend like you when I was an undergraduate at Duke (2003-7); when I was dancing on bars and tables and taking great pleasure in the voyeurism my sexual excesses elicited.  I wanted to be looked at, and to be looked at that way.  For me (as I suspect is the case for you), the male gaze I witnessed in TV or in movies and even at fraternity parties or at Shooters was not totalizing; to borrow from bell hooks, an ‘oppositional gaze’ in which women can enjoy being looked at and look back is entirely possible.

As an 18-year-old Duke freshman, I wanted to own the male gaze that existed on campus as the property of privileged white men with popped collars and distinguished pedigrees; to conquer this gaze and make it my own.  To stare it in the eye without blinking.  To have some fucking power over how I was perceived as a woman (of color) on Duke’s campus.

I took the feminist claim to the personal as political at its word, not realizing at the time that my greatest opponents would be women.  I wrote about my sexual exploits for the school newspaper, revealing in my inaugural column (which I wrote and published as a Duke freshman) that “I own a little black book. I’m a regular at Shooters. And I like my men”.  I went further to describe myself as

a “black lace bra kind of woman…, a tease and a twirl.”  [As Sandra Cisneros writes,] I’ll “ruin your clothes” and “get you home way after hours.”  I worship Victoria Secret instead of Ralph Lauren.  And, like I said, I like my men.  But if these men can be classy and be pimps and gigolos, then a pimpstress or gigolette can also be classy.  In the spirit of promiscuity, I propose another, more modern definition for the term “hooking up.”  In the very little time that I have spent at Duke, it has become painfully clear that there is something disturbingly and undeniably wrong with a culture that pushes a woman towards promiscuity and then chastises her for it.

My column went through several iterations and reinventions over the span of four years, but my questions remained the same:  why is Duke’s campus so anxious to contain its women?  Why aren’t Duke men obligated to contain themselves in any way?  And how is race mapped onto sexual excess and/or containment on campus?  The irreverent way in which I chose to ask these questions earned me hate mail and threat letters — one threatening rape, sent to my mother in an unmarked envelope — from the university community.  I was also physically attacked on a number of occasions by Duke women for daring to defy and/or question their ideological infrastructures.  Luckily, I fight back, and I fight hard.

I now teach critical race and gender theory as a doctoral candidate.  My peers?  They’re having kids, settling for the mediocre achievement of once-lofty life goals, and making the kinds of decisions that will lead to a loaded mid-life crisis in a decade or two.  (In the meantime, and to borrow from a fictional Barney Stinson, “I’m just getting more awesome.”)  There is life after (or past) respectability politics; more of a life, in fact, than the one awaiting the chaste, pearl-laden Dukie sitting next to you in class or on the campus bus.

You are being judged by a nation of hungry onlookers not because you have done something ‘wrong’, even in an Internet age in which your sexual exploits are a public commodity forever available in an online archive.  This is not about you; you have been offered as a sacrificial lamb because of how these judgments position those people standing on high wagging a nagging finger at you–many of whom are women of considerable age and experience and education who should be standing with you in solidarity.  Because isn’t that what feminism is all about?  Women supporting women?  Choice supporting choice?  Not at Duke, and not in white feminist circles.

You may have seen by now Robin Kirk’s March 11th editorial in Dame Magazine (the magazine’s tagline is — cue patriarchy — “for women who know better“) in which Kirk, a Duke professor of ‘human rights’, calls you an ‘opportunist’ for using the banner of feminism to understand your participation in pornographic sex work as an empowering labor.  Kirk’s editorial — which claims ‘insider knowledge’ because, as a member of the university community, she is a witness to the kinds of pressures Duke women experience — polices the boundaries of who can legitimately claim feminism and who cannot, and follows in the long line of slut shaming that white feminists are beholden to when they sign their name on the dotted line of respectability politics.

If [Belle had] only stayed at Duke a little longer—and I, for one, hope she returns [from her leave of absence]—she would have learned from a number of my fellow faculty members that there is a canyon between sexuality and pornography, an ocean between feminism and “facial abuse.” Pornography is fine if it’s what you want, but Knox’s argument that she’s producing something “feminist” doesn’t get my passing grade.

…In fact, Belle is feeding precisely the monster that makes college life for women such a contemporary bear. The culture wants young women to be pornified. It pornifies them even before they hop the L.A.-bound flight Belle flies to film. It pornifies them as teens. It pornifies them as little girls who plaster on unneeded makeup and false eyelashes and butt-enhancing heels.

…I just can’t see the feminist argument here. What Belle has done is simply take the culture at its word. If it’s porn you want, she’s serving it up, in exactly the format and style that the culture relishes. I imagine she’s not the first college student to work in porn. Indeed, the Duke label has boosted her videos into true star status, a triple-play for fans: young, brainy, and spread-eagled. But it’s the same old same old, in pretty stockings and a stained bow.

Kirk’s op-ed does an infuriating disservice to your autonomy as a sexual being, and I want you to know that there are people out there (myself included) who see this gratuitous ploy for what it is: an op-ed that says more about Kirk than it does about you.  A credit to your genius, you preempt Kirk’s criticism when in an interview with The ChronicleDuke’s daily student newspaper — you reflect that feminism (not your feminism, but surely Kirk’s) differs little from patriarchy:

“I think the thing lacking in feminism is that women are making decisions for other women.  If the patriarchy is about men making decisions for women and taking away their agency, why do some feminists want to control other women’s decisions?”

Kirk not only patronizes you — I wonder, did she attempt to reach out to you privately before blasting you online? — but in fact grossly abuses her power as an educator to punitive ends.  To borrow from a fellow Duke alumnus, “Since when is it okay for professors to publicly comment on and criticize students, especially when the critique has nothing to do with academia?”

(If I had the time or the energy — or even remotely cared about initiating a conversation with Kirk — I would write a second open letter; this time to Kirk, to remind her that one of the first rules of the academy is: thou shalt not trample students on your way to the top.  You are supposed to be their advocate.  Hell, you’re supposed to be their friend.)

Not too long ago I was a Duke undergraduate making similar choices, and feeling terribly disappointed when those people who were supposed to be my allies and champions were using my experiences, scandalous as they might have been, to empower only themselves.  I even ‘made it’ into a self-help bookcum-expose authored by a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist; convinced she was my friend, I let the author, Laura Sessions Stepp — a white feminist in her 60s who was ill-prepared to understand the nuances of sex as power, and power as sex — reduce me to a caricature.  Had I your courage to call my own shots and had I not been so desperate for the kind of validation I thought only an older (white) feminist could give me, I would not have allowed Stepp to commodify my story.  I would have found other ways to validate myself, like sex work, which would have paid the dividends I never received (but was surely entitled to) as a subject in Stepp’s book.

My decisions in college about when, where and how to have sex and, likewise, my decision to write openly and honestly about my sexual dalliances empowered me as a woman, as a feminist, as a Duke student, and — I would later come to find out — as a scholar-activist.  But it’s a hard knox life out there for people like us; few of my Duke peers actively voiced their support of my sex-positive feminism.  Many looked on as spectators, mouths agape, whispering to each other, but few wanted to know me or call me a friend.

You scare these peers with little to offer in the way of complexity, because you’re sexy and you’re sassy and you’re educated and you know it.  You’re even uppity: you want it all, and you won’t apologize for wanting it all.  From one retired Duke sex kitten to the new guard of this mantle (if I might be so bold as to call you that), I want to remind you that yours is not Gloria Steinem’s feminism, or Robin Kirk’s; and though that makes your sexual performance unintelligible to the modern ‘feminist’, there are those of us out there who get you, girl, and who stand firmly in your corner.

This analysis is written by the blog’s author, M. Shadee Malaklou, who can be reached at shadee.malaklou@gmail.com with inquiries.

Understanding anti-Black racism as species-ism: Reflections on Richard Sherman’s affective excess and the Twitterverse’s response

My first impulse was to resist paying even a modicum of attention to the story following Richard Sherman’s postgame interview, namely because the goings-on of the sports industry — an industry that takes from Black bodies their bits and pieces of flesh, leaving Black athletes often permanently disabled and with little material or financial support in (a very early) ‘retirement’ — rarely surprise me or gives me pause for critical reflection.  But then I saw the tweets.  The disgusting, racist-cum-speciesist tweets.

The number of tweets that compare Sherman to a monkey or an ape are …astounding, signaling a discursive and material investment in the hearts and minds of 21st century white (and ‘passing white’) Americans to intentionally confuse Black bodies with ape bodies.  Here’s the rub: the structuring logic of anti-Blackness as speciesismas I have started to suggest elsewhere, our white supremacist society imagines Black bodies as something different from (and paradigmatically Other to) human beings, as a constellation of flesh reduced to the order of things, made alive only in the figure of an animal in likeness to apes — produces a discursive violence not unrelated to the physical or corporeal (the ‘real’) violence experienced by Blacks.

By way of example, some of the postgame tweets (righteously exposed for public shaming here and here) reference ‘lynching’ — and, more to the point, call for a public lynching of Sherman — a violence discursively legitimated through recourse to the idea that Black bodies aren’t human bodies; they are, instead, strange fruit (or animals) ripe for material and libidinal consumption.  Other tweets suggest introducing Sherman to George Zimmerman, presumably because “Richard Sherman deserves to get shot in the fucking head.” 

The breadth and variety of anti-Black Twitter responses to Sherman’s ‘outburst’ share one glaring similarity: they hold Sherman accountable for his affective response to Erin Andrews by suggesting only one way to placate the angry masses.  Sherman is made analogous to an untamed animal who must be ‘put down’ — or, more to the point, taken out back and shot — because he cannot be contained.  As poet and activist Olivia A. Cole notes on her blog, Sherman’s failure to perform a white respectability politics in his postgame interview with Andrews revokes his ‘Human Card’, reducing him to a monkey and a n****r (and — by Sherman’s own account — to a thug), which is to say, to a figure who can be shot and killed with impunity because the human right to life is — by definition of his Blackness — alien to him.

White supremacist culture dictates who and who does not get to be human. In order for people of color to receive a Human Card, they must assimilate: they must not use slang. They must be quiet. They must not wear hoodies. They must not curse. They must be gracious at all times. They must enunciate. They must not talk about racism. They must not listen to rap music. They must not sag. They must not brag. They must not laugh in public. They must not take up more than one seat on the bus. They must not ever ask for more. In short, you must be perfect. Robotic. Even if you are a professional athlete who performs for millions of Americans, playing a game in which aggression, testosterone, and energy are rewarded (demanded)… you must be quiet, gracious, calm, unassuming. Unscary. To be black and also be regarded as human, you must never make a mistake in your entire life, ever—ever—or you are a thug. Ghetto. Other. Your Human Card is denied.

I think that’s what the word “thug” really means. The n-word, arguably the most dehumanizing word in history, has been decried. It is considered inappropriate to speak it in public, and while that doesn’t stop everyone, hate will find a way. “Thug” is that way. Lately, it is a word used when we want to revoke humanity. Trayvon Martin, murdered only a few blocks from his home, was called a thug during his murderer’s trial. The jury needed to be convinced that this boy’s humanity could not possibly exist if he was “a thug.” Police [in Omaha] put a toddler’s “thuggery” on display as if to say, “This is why we police them.” …So when Richard Sherman’s “graciousness” is criticized, it’s more than his status as an athlete that’s being attacked: it’s his blackness. When the media (or the typical spineless, anonymous Twitter-user) calls him a “thug,” they are denying him his humanity.

Lest we forget, Sherman received a 3.9/4.0 GPA (reports on this figure vary) from Stanford University, where he plans to return for a Master’s degree.  Likewise, he is a regular contributor to Sports Illustrated Magazine and otherwise speaks articulately and eloquently on screen (see the video below) with all the bougie cadence one might require of a Black man who has ‘arrived’.  And Sherman isn’t just smart or well-spoken; he’s perceptive.  As Arturo R. García writes in his thoughtful coverage in Racialicious, Sherman is keenly “[aware] of the coded language used against him” by white sports commentators; which is to say, Sherman is perfectly capable of performing (white) respectability, and he is plenty respectable.  Consider the below interview from March 2013.

It is a testament to Sherman’s genius that he is able to preempt the psychic violence manifest in these racial codes, offering a response in real time to his white host: “I’m better than you”.  We might go so far as to say that Sherman is melancholically aware, to borrow from Fanon — who reflects in Black Skin, White Masks (1952) that his subjective experiences of/in the world are “no longer a question of being aware of my body in the third person but in a triple person. …I was responsible at the same time for my body, for my race, for my ancestors. I subjected myself to an objective examination, I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics; and I was battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects, [and] slave-ships” (112, Farrington translation) — that he exists ‘triply’, anxious about how his Blackness is projected back onto him (for him).  As Garcia notes, One of the worst things about the worst responses to Richard Sherman’s interview Sunday night with Erin Andrews might be this: he probably saw it coming.”

Notably, Sherman does not use profanity in the postgame interview with Erin Andrews.  What he does is display an affect of aggression, which — to be clear — is exactly what he is paid to do, and exactly what sports reporters get paid to procure from athletes in the ‘heat’ of the game (or postgame moment). As Nate Scott writes in an article in For the Win,

Some of these reporters [who complained about Sherman] were the very same ones who have complained publicly, in print, that athletes never do anything but speak in clichés. They long for the good old days, when athletes had real personalities and weren’t all trained by media specialists. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t complain that athletes are too well media-trained and the days of “big personalities” are gone and then freak out when an athlete goes off script.

Likewise, NFL athletes are poked and prodded into aggression by coaches who aim to light a fire under the players that will burn bright and volatile on the field, motivating them to put ‘all they have’ into the game, a labor that (necessarily and completely) exhausts and depletes these athletes.  But — as Stuart Hall famously observes in “The Spectacle of the ‘Other'” — we never think about any of that as (white) spectators to Black athletic ability, an ability that is assumed foundational, an effect of ontology, a product of the athlete’s Blackness, which renders him supra-human because he is other than human and can be reduced to the kind of abuse one usually reserves (to borrow from Frank Wilderson) for cows that, after grazing the field for scraps, are sent to the slaughterhouse.

Of the thoughtful analysis that has emerged in the wake of this story, I have yet to come across one that critically engages Sherman’s own immediate reaction to the buzz that his postgame interview solicited.  In a January 20th post for In This Corner, Sherman writes, “My body ached. I was thrilled and proud and upset, all at once.”  I mention this reflection because a human body that aches is given respite; Black bodies reduced to chattel or monkeys or n****rs (or thugs) are not.  Black athletes, especially, are discursively and materially imagined at their most intelligible as sinew and flesh — how else could they perform such supra-human feats of sport? — and not as coherent (human) bodies.

Instead of taking a breath (or a seat) after his win — a win immediately followed by a confrontation with Sherman’s ‘rival’, Michael Crabtree; in Sherman’s own words, “I ran over to Crabtree to shake his hand but he ignored me.  I patted him, stuck out my hand and said, ‘Good game, good game.’  That’s when he shoved my face” — Sherman, the consummate NFL spokesperson, was assaulted by a series of reporters, of which Erin Andrews was just one.  Let me repeat (for good measure and emphasis), Andrews was not the only reporter Sherman spoke to in the moment immediately following his win, which begs the question: why has this particular postgame interview attracted so much attention?  Stated another way, why is Sherman’s interaction with Andrews being exceptionalized on Twitter and in sports media coverage of what is being called the “Sherman-Crabtree feud”?  Greg Howard reflects in his essay for Deadspin that

The league’s best cornerback had made the best move of his career on the biggest play of his career to win the biggest game of his career, against an opposing wide receiver and college head coach with whom he shares not a little bad blood. This was a triumphant moment, and still to a lot of people there was something viscerally ugly about Sherman standing over a pretty blonde woman, yelling into our living rooms with an emotional mixture of joy, relief, and excitement, arrogance, and anger.

The anxiety surrounding Sherman’s postgame interview is not disconnected from the epidermal and corporeal makeup of the reporter standing precariously next to him, less than an arm’s distance apart, microphone in hand: a white woman whose imagined chastity is contaminated by physical proximity to Sherman (by virtue of the fact that Sherman is Black and a man: a thug; and because, as Lauren Berlant convincingly argues, the trope of vulnerable white women as girls founds America’s understanding of nation and belonging).  The video footage of Andrews interviewing Sherman was intentionally cut short by Fox NFL producer Richie Zyontz because, according to a statement Zyontz gave to Sports Illustrated‘s Richard Deitsch, the interview “started crossing over a line that I did not want to see it go. …It started getting dangerous for us.”  We might pause to reflect on which ‘us’ Zyontz — a white male producer — hails in this statement: the league, Sherman, Andrews, FOX News, or the imaged community of its audience; which is to say, for whom was Sherman’s outburst ‘dangerous’?

We would be remiss to overlook the fact that, instead of fearing for her life at the sight of an angry Black man, Andrews was in fact enamored by the experience.  In an interview with For the WinAndrews said that she thought Sherman’s response to her question was “so awesome.  And I loved it” (a confession that verges on fetishization).  This is not a media spin of Andrews’ earlier statement that

“I don’t want this to look like I was upset with him, I was frightened, I felt threatened, we all like Richard Sherman a lot at Fox,” Andrews told For The Win. “At that moment I saw how crazy it was going to blow up, and I wanted to make sure people knew it wasn’t a situation where I’m a victim and he acted like an idiot.”

Video coverage of the postgame interview suggests that Andrews did not flinch or retreat in response to Sherman’s ‘outburst’.  Surely, she was caught off-guard by the enthusiastic quality of Sherman’s affect (she also appears to be deflecting projectile saliva or sweat), but Andrews’ body language does not signal fear; in her own words, she was no ‘victim’.  Take a look for yourself:

Curiously, what’s somewhat haunting about this exchange is just how casually Andrews responds to Sherman.  Though the cadence of her voice changes slightly when she asks, almost coy, “Who was talking about you?”, the move feels performative, as if for effect — to gain favor with American audiences who (again, following Berlant’s observation) find great pleasure in watching white women rehearse familiar tropes.  (She’s ambitious, I’ll give her that.)

The fact that Andrews’ own experience or interpretation of the event is not foregrounded in the outrage over whether or not Sherman intimidated or ‘scared’ her with his affective excess — it is important to note that Sherman actually fixes his gaze on the camera, or on a (white) gazing public, and is not addressing Andrews directly — is not inconsequential.  The exclusion reveals a truth; namely, that a hetero-patriarchal white supremacist society is willing to appropriate the concerns of (white) women to make a racist point about the Black savage, but that this same society is not interested in addressing or ameliorating feminist concerns.  (Yet another reason why white feminism’s recourse to a politics of inclusion has failed to revolutionize sex and gender relations.)

Black athletes function (still) as profit-producing chattel who are bought and sold and traded by white team owners and other titans of industry — Sherman’s team, the Seattle Seahawks, is owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who is worth an estimated $13 billion — in the form of merchandise and sponsorships and a whole host of other branding efforts, in a process not entirely unlike the corporeal branding chattel slaves once experienced on the slave plantation (not least of all because these experiences evoke similar psychosomatic responses).  And when white women like Erin Andrews ‘build’ a career by leveraging their white femininity against the perceived threat of a mythical Black ‘boogeyman’, we learn why — as Audre Lorde famously warned — “the master’s tools” have not “dismantle[d] the master’s house.”  Indeed, it becomes clear that the ‘afterlife’ of Black chattel slavery and its libidinal economy — to borrow from Saidiya Hartman’s allegorical formulation — is that it ‘lives’ on by evolving its discursive and material technologies.  It adapts.  It mutates.  And with each mutation, it grows stronger and more resistant to treatment; the ideological apparatus of anti-Black racism as speciesism becomes more resilient, less clear as speciesism (or, in a self-proclaimed post-racial society, as plain ole’ racism) in the mind’s eye.

So when Howard notes that

A public personality can be black, talented, or arrogant, but he can’t be any more than two of these traits at a time.It’s why we recoil at Kanye West’s rants, like when West, one of the greatest musical minds of our generation, had the audacity to publicly declare himself a genius (was this up for debate? [Yes.]), and partly why, over the six years of Barack Obama’s presidency, a noisy, obstreperous wing of the GOP has seemed perpetually on the cusp of calling him ‘uppity.’ …All this is based on the common, very American belief that black males must know their place, and more tellingly, that their place is somewhere different than that of whites. It’s been etched into our cultural fabric that to act as anything but a loud, yet harmless buffoon or an immensely powerful, yet humble servant is overstepping.

…Too many of us think that one ecstatic, triumphant black man showing honest, human emotion just seconds after making a play that very well could be written into the first appositive of his obituary, is not only offensive, but is also representative of the tens of millions of blacks in this country.

he is — perhaps unwittingly — prompting us to critically consider how and why Sherman ‘oversteps’ as a Black athlete: why Sherman is portrayed in the media and on Twitter as ‘uppity’, and what boundaries Sherman is (intentionally) traversing by not ‘knowing his place’.  I would like to submit here (for discussion) the possibility that Sherman’s ‘crime’ is that — as a Black man who can speak and think and read as well (if not better than) any white man, or as a Black man who, to use the Fanonian metaphor, convincingly wears a white mask — he betrays the insurmountable human/animal divide that also functions as an ontological divide and a libidinal economy.  (To be clear, the libidinal economy of slavery is an effect of the ontological crisis of Blackness, because reproduction, in a slave economy, produces progeny-as-property.)

Sherman mimes too well the white human subjectivity of an athlete who is also a scholar: an educated bloke who, yes, is better than you, by all measures of accomplishment.  As Howard suggests, it is Sherman’s expression of “honest, human emotion” that a white gazing public is unable to digest or make intelligible; and like a child throwing a tantrum because he doesn’t have the language with which to understand or communicate what he wants — a Black man who ‘knows his place’ in the racial hierarchy of human beings — white Americans have responded to Sherman’s complex Blackness in the only way they know how: by reducing him to the animal he never was.

This analysis is written by the blog’s author, M. Shadee Malaklou, who can be reached at shadee.malaklou@gmail.com with inquiries.

Reading Beyoncé’s SUPERPOWER as a love letter to BLACK RADICAL INSURGENCY: An open letter to white feminists who want to remind us that Beyoncé’s music is just “art”

In her December 13th article for The Raw Story, A Plea: Remember Beyonce’s Record Is Art, Not A Political Treatise”, freelance journalist Amanda Marcotte — who writes on feminism, national politics, and pop culture — tackles the accusation that Beyoncé’s album is “anti-feminist” (referencing reactions to lyrics like “bow down, bitches”) by reminding us that Beyoncé has produced for us a work of art, not one of politics.  Because if we look closely, her politics are flawed, or so the argument goes.  Marcotte faults Beyoncé for “reinforc[ing] the same beauty standards she decries on the records”, but ultimately concludes that Beyoncé is still a feminist because, you know, feminism is messy.  Marcotte ends the piece in (what she claims is) a “plea” that not only fails to understand Beyoncé’s feminism, but also functions to silence the Black radical politics of Beyoncé’s work:

I want to remind everyone that music is not a polemical or a campaign pamphlet. Music is art. Art can—should—be messy, contradictory, raw, and emotional. I love that Beyonce openly struggles in her music and in her image between the push-pull of both wanting to embody this kind of feminized perfection and seeing it for the trap that it is. It’s much more honest and human and humane than some kind of bland feminist treatise set to a beat. Beauty is a painful trap to ensnare women, but beauty is also pleasure and it draws you in. Denying these contradictions and presenting ourselves as people who have it all figured out all the time is tempting, but it’s not honest. And it’s certainly not art, which is supposed to reveal, not conceal. Just a small plea from me to remember that we’re talking about an art form, not a political treatise, as we tear into the lyrics, beats, and imagery that Beyoncé just turbo-launched into the public.

In one short paragraph, Marcotte manages to remind us why white feminism fails (still) to address the experiences of Black women as women; and in the same stroke, disaffects us — as a viewing public — from our identification(s) with Beyoncé as a woman of color.  As an ideology, (white) feminism demands that women identify (and rally) as women first, and as bodies of color second, or better yet, last.  Marcotte forecloses on the overdeterminacy of Blackness in an anti-Black world, and underestimates Beyoncé’s commitment to (what I am going to suggest here is) an insurgent, Black political future.

Beyoncé’s radical politics are perhaps best expressed in SUPERPOWER, the music video for a song she sings with Frank Ocean.  In it, Beyoncé directs a diverse band of women to commit righteous acts of arson and property damage.  Her co-conspirators consist of freaks, monsters and degenerates; she celebrates fearless, violent women: veiled women, Black women, as well as several women who present as gender ambiguous and body dysmorphic.  In the last two minutes of the video, these women women are joined by their male comrades and a cadre of Black musicians — Kelly Rowland, Michelle Williams, Luke James, and Pharrell — and together they march to meet the riot police that awaits them.

The affect produced by this video is telling: the men and women who make up the crowd are wearing baseball caps that read “LEGAL” and (in graffiti) “CHAOS”.  Likewise, the beautifully-produced music video is cut with grainy black-and-white camera footage invoking first-hand accounts of a street riot.  And the closing scene is haunted by Beyoncé’s lyrical reassurance that, if they stand together, “they [the state] can’t break us down”; as well as an insurgent appropriation of Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan, “Yes, we can!”.  Hers is a call for global insurrection on all fronts; and better yet, a violent insurrection with Black musicians at the helm.

Marcotte is wrong to dismiss the politics of Beyoncé’s music, because it is precisely the political nature of Beyoncé’s art that makes her Black feminism unintelligible to a white audience in the first place.  To quote the folks over at The Crunk Feminist Collective,

Academic feminism ain’t the only kid on the block. …Newsflash – everybody didn’t go to college. So when women of color start waxing eloquent about how our grandmothers and mothers were the first feminists we knew and many of them would “never” use the term, I wonder then why we don’t understand Beyonce’s homegrown brand of feminism – one that honors female friendships, one that recognizes and calls out sexism and domination in her industry, one that celebrates the power of women. No, it ain’t well-articulated radical social justice feminism, but if you need a Ph.D. to be a feminist, then we’ve got bigger problems, folks. AND I’ll take a feminist that knows how to treat her homegirls before one who can spit the finer points of a bell hooks to me all day erry-day.

The differences between “white” (or academic) feminism and “black” (or homegrown) feminism matter: Beyoncé’s politics entertain the dream of an insurgency that might change everyone’s lived conditions; while white feminists are (usually) only interested in agitating for issues that affect them directly.  The concerns of mainstream white feminism fail (still) to address the fact that Black women are being gratuitously killed by the state.  Or that they are being criminalized, imprisoned, and forcefully separated from their children.  Or that their children are being stopped, frisked, and interrogated like criminals and, if need be (or the wind blows in the right direction) shot and killed with impunity.  Or that Black women and their families are being starved out by the War on Poverty and the newest bout of rants in Washington about ‘freeloading’ Black welfare queens.  Or that Black lives were never worth a damn in the first place.

Beyoncé’s insurgent aesthetics map seamlessly onto the otherwise-soulful, romantic lyrics she offers, suggesting that the music video is intended as a love letter to Black radical insurgency.  This metaphor is reinforced by Beyoncé’s love interest in the video — a masked freedom fighter — who she shields from violence with her embrace, but whose face and identity are never revealed.

And I thought the world would move on
I thought the world would move on
Without us, without us, without us
But nothing I know could slow us down
Couldn’t tow us down

…And just like you I can’t be scared; just like you I hope I’m spared. But it’s tough love, I know you feel it in the air; even the babies know it’s there. Tough love. Super power. The laws of the world tell us what goes sky, and what falls; it’s a super power. Super power. The laws of the world never stopped us once, cause together we got plenty super power.

Super power
A subtle power
Super power
A tough love
Super power
Like a shark
Super power
Like a bear
A tough love

Beyoncé’s music is a political treatise, just not one that Marcotte can understand.  The music video for SUPERPOWER concludes with insurgent rebels lunging at the riot police, only to stop dead in their tracks seconds before impact.  The video abruptly ends there, before the moment of confrontation between the state and the bodies it has abandoned; leaving us to wonder what will transpire when the mass of bodies Beyoncé has collected actually meet the ruling fist of the state.  But perhaps that’s exactly the point: to prod us into thinking about the impossible possibility of a radical confrontation between the state and its people; one in which the odds are always stacked against us, but we persist anyway.  (It really is a tough love.)  The occult nature of this ending refuses to provide closure to the story of a revolutionary violence that, to borrow from Frantz Fanon, is also a cleansing and a transformative violence; one that will even out the score of anti-Black racism to guarantee Black privilege in an anti-White world.

I have a “plea” for Ms. Marcotte that might rival her own: Beyoncé is not a confused young woman struggling with body and self-image issues that she is working through in her music.  She does not need your guidance or patronage in her efforts to come into her own.  She’s already IN her own, and perhaps it’s time to entertain the idea that her arrival is what scares you, because — as Beyoncé made clear by the “secret” release of her new album — you can’t anticipate it.

This analysis is written by the blog’s author, M. Shadee Malaklou, who can be reached at shadee.malaklou@gmail.com with inquiries.