On Annie Lennox and erasure.

(Morgan Jerkins graduated from Princeton University with an AB in Comparative Literature and is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction at the Bennington Writing Seminars. Follow her on twitter @MorganTheScribe or her Tumblr blog, “Black Girl in MFA.”)

When I initially heard that Annie Lennox was promoting a new album, I, like countless others, was excited about it. Annie’s a living legend who has been in the music industry for nearly 40 years, and she’s a well-known social activist, raising money and awareness for marginalized communities affected by HIV/AIDS. So it was safe to assume that interviewers were going to ask her about feminism, right? After all, feminism has been a hot topic, and Annie was alive during the earlier waves of feminism.

In an interview with Pride Source, Annie is specifically asked what she thinks of Beyoncé in the context of feminism. She says that Beyoncéas well as a few others—are “feminist-lite,”calling their brand of feminism “tokenistic,” “cheap,” and shallow since it does not delve into the depths of feminism wholeheartedly. The crux of Annie’s argument lies within the polemic relationship between a woman’s body and her agency to use it however she chooses. More than that, her thoughts become complicated when we consider the polarizing relationship between black and white feminists.

Now, I cannot blame Annie for talking about Beyoncé because the interviewer, Chris Azzopardi, geared the question in that way which elucidates a point: the mainstream media is fascinated with Beyoncé’s feminism. He didn’t ask what Annie thought about Emma Watson’s feminism, but Beyoncé’s in particular. It’s not enough that Beyoncé said in an interview with British Vogue that she calls herself a feminist, believes in equality, and advocates for women to be whoever they would like to be. It’s not enough that Beyoncé included Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous “We Should All Be Feminists” speech in her song Flawless. It’s not enough that Beyoncé had a huge neon sign with the word “feminist” behind her during a MTV Video Music Awards performance. It was not enough, because Annie took it a step forward. In a later interview with NPR, Annie praises Beyoncé and says that her critique was centered on the singer because she was asked about her, which is fair. But she then goes on to say that twerking is not feminism.  Granted, Beyoncé’s feminism may be debatable to some because of her sexualized dance moves and her Bow Down lyrics, but whose feminism isn’t? What about Miley Cyrus, who popularized twerking for mainstream audiences, and proclaimed that she was one of the biggest feminists in the world in a 2013 BBC Radio 1 interview?

I don’t know what was going through Annie Lennox’s mind during either of these interviews. I don’t believe that she intended to maliciously single out Beyoncé, even though she and her interviewers know that Beyoncé is the biggest black female pop culture icon of this generation. However, we mustn’t forget how often Black female artists are challenged for their forms of feminism with a degree of severity. For many Black people across the globe, Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, and Rihanna are feminist role models; but to others, their feminism is not feminist enough.

This inability to see eye-to-eye on how the black experience is oftimes misunderstood, neglected, or condemned revealed itself once again in a recent interview with Tavis Smiley, during which he asked Annie about her decision to cover Billie Holiday’s iconic song “Strange Fruit.” Annie was right in saying that “Strange Fruit” was a protest song but then fell down the slippery slope of political correctness when she said, “This subject of violence and bigotry, hatred, violent acts of mankind against ourselves…it’s a human theme that has gone on for time immemorial.” The song’s subject is the lynching of black people in the American south. It was not a violent act of mankind against ourselves, but a systemic and almost carnivalistic practice of lynching Black people that was carried out by racist whites. This song was specifically tailored to this “cultural sport,” which is why her words are so hurtful. One should not make the words of “black bodies swinging in the breeze” a universal issue.

Was it her intent to minimize the black experience in this country under the huge umbrella of universality? Perhaps not. But that’s the thing with words: you have to mean what you say and say what you mean. She’s a highly intelligent woman and I, as well as others, expected her to say outright what the song was about. It’s not enough for us that the song is not metaphorical even in the slightest. It would have been nice if she acknowledged what the song was truly about.

Shortly afterwards, Tavis Smiley rushed to Annie’s defense, arguing that those who were upset with Annie’s explanation of “Strange Fruit” because she did not say “our word of choice” were arrogant. Yes, lynching is bigotry and violence, but that is not the point here. What we seek is acknowledgment. The song is specifically about lynching. Lynching was racialized bigotry and violence.

How many people, especially Black men in media, have ran to the defense of Beyonce or Nicki Minaj whenever they were being attacked for their views, sexuality, or song lyrics? T.I. threatened to assault Azealia Banks, but rushed to rapper Iggy Azalea’s defense when Snoop Dogg lambasted her looks. These conversations about feminism and intersectionality seem circular because the same things keep happening: black women continue to be criticized for their choices, and left unprotected. Historical components of the black experience continue to be sugarcoated or ignored. When will there be a change?

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24 comments

  1. christianliving2014 · October 29, 2014

    I apologize for what they did in the past. It was wrong. But, everyone gets criticized, judged, and worse. Christians are being killed and attacked. Israelis and Palestinians are killing each other. Fat people get criticized and ridiculed, along with skinny people, white people are being attacked for being white, the list goes on. It’s been so long since slavery. I don’t want to sound insensitive because I feel horrible that people had to go through that. But, how are we going to get past the hate and try to live in peace together if people keep bringing up the past. At some point there is a time when you need to forgive and let it go.

    • Lor · November 1, 2014

      Unfortunately, we are not learning from our past mistakes which is why we cannot fully live in peace. We are in an era much different than our ancestors yet their mistakes are continually echoed through our words and actions. Engaging in discussions about slavery and racism should actually educate not persecute specific groups but you see, it’s just so easy to resort to bigotry and blame others rather than confront the issue. Nearly a century later and we are still dealing with the same issues… Progressive as our technological advancements seem to be, our basic human rights seem to need a sharper focus under the current microscope.

      Great article though.

    • Jor'El Jones · November 2, 2014

      Hi, interesting post. The “forgive and let it go” strategy isn’t as logical as other suggested methods given contemporarily the same issues remain upon us. There’s a book titled Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Obama that I’m reading now which details the rights of women and minorities in modern America, as the title implies. There you’ll find why “forgive and let it go” fails to be considered the necessary solution to improve the social inequalities that communities of color, particularly their women, are facing (and not just African Americans). – UCLA Afro Am

  2. crissmancebo · October 29, 2014

    Reblogged this on chicasocial and commented:
    Good.

  3. irishprophet14 · October 29, 2014

    There was a man who made a boat to sail away and it sank!

  4. benjimartinmusic · October 30, 2014

    Reblogged this on Benji's Music Blog.

  5. monkazelarab1 · October 30, 2014

    Reblogged this on monkazelarab1.

  6. brokensbooks · October 30, 2014

    Cool

  7. AARON VINTAGE GENERAL STORE · October 30, 2014

    Reblogged this on A A R O N V I N T A G E and commented:
    as we all know anyone famous can surf on the what-so-ever cause in demand with youngs it’s raise the star more attractive to its audience doesn’t cost anything actually probably tax deductible so Lennox is right it’s fair to speak about feminism-lite about some women who show über-sexual attitude on stage but the show must go on right?rmf.

  8. ornettedclennon · October 30, 2014

    Reblogged this on Academic Creative Enterprise and commented:
    This is a great blog comment which echoes my thoughts on Racial Patriarchy very loudly. In this case, Morgan Jerkins illustrates how everyone is affected by Racial Patriarchy as Black Feminism is clearly positioned as a form of inferior feminism to Feminism (aka white feminism, which appears to be the universal and “correct” form of feminism). This blog comment is a great piece of intersectional analysis and observation!

  9. Sally Ember, Ed.D. · October 30, 2014

    Brilliant question and insight, especially here: “…black women continue to be criticized for their choices, and left unprotected. Historical components of the black experience continue to be sugarcoated or ignored. When will there be a change?” Thanks for posting!

    Sally

  10. Sally Ember, Ed.D. · October 30, 2014

    Brilliant questions and insights, especially here: “…black women continue to be criticized for their choices, and left unprotected. Historical components of the black experience continue to be sugarcoated or ignored. When will there be a change?”

  11. Catherine · October 30, 2014

    The last thing we need is to have feminism “cat fights.” We are all sisters, black, white, purple and all. I agree with you there. However, I think women should try to just be without using their sexuality all the time. It confuses the masses and conforms to what men want. That is not feminism. Beyonce is a talented, gifted AND beautiful woman. Shouldn’t that be enough? Niki Minaj was crawling around Kanye’s Monsters video with dead anorexic models hanging from meat hooks while men ate at a table. That is no role model. Just my opinion. But interesting points you bring up. Thanks for posting.

  12. ProblematicPop · October 30, 2014

    Beautiful post and very true. What Annie Lennox said about Beyonce is incredibly minimizing of Beyonce’s impact and it’s disappointing to see someone who fights for equality declaring who is a “good feminist” and who is not. Even if there was such a distinction, I doubt twerking would make the difference.

  13. jacintoela · October 30, 2014

    Beyonce is everything but not a feminist

  14. zobop republic · October 30, 2014

    “…the polarizing relationship between black and white feminists.”
    Hello. Sooner or later Black & White women are going to have to discuss the issue of ‘color prejudice’. There’s nothing wrong with feminism but color prejudice has no place. It defeats the purpose of equality.

    Thanks for the moderation.

  15. tanyavon523 · October 30, 2014

    Wow. Thought provoking indeed.

  16. Jean · October 31, 2014

    I guess I don’t clue in enough to pop culture. I appreciate that Beyoncé just delivers her talent in a style that she likes (though I’m sure her marketing folks make darn sure she’s sexy, etc.), regardless of what people think and she’s rich/wealthy which enables her to make clear decisions in life and who she wants to be with.

    But I have a tough time seeing Beyonce vs. just today it was announced a black female engineer in our organization (and one of the rare black engineers out of 14,000 employees) was moving to another dept. I wondered what her journey was like vs. highly publicized Beyoncé.

    What Lennox said of “Strange Fruit” and her jumping off point was clueless..

  17. Very Bangled · October 31, 2014

    I hate when feminists tear into each other. This insidious kind of criticism undermines the entire cause. I do have a brief question about the article, was it an effort at trying too hard political correctness that Annie Lennox stumbled on? Or a stupid attempt to universalize the song for her more main stream listeners? I’m inclined to think the latter.

  18. assetchemist · November 1, 2014

    Reblogged this on Asset Chemist .

  19. Anthony · November 4, 2014

    Although I found your blog well written, I do feel that this is what patriarchal society does. Pits women against women and now adds race to the mix. Beyoncé may well believe she is empowering woman by ‘putting a ring on it’ but is that really feminist? Annie’s response to ‘Strange Fruit’ was if a macro nature (mans inhumananity towards man). She obviously knows the context of the original – not everyone needs exact details. While women continue to be segregated within their own gender with male owned media- how do we move this on? Peace

  20. Anthony · November 4, 2014

    I might be missing something obvious but why does the article read ‘On Annie Lennox and erasure’ ..?? Not see Erasure mentioned in the article? …should it have read Eurythmics perhaps?

  21. esse636 · November 6, 2014

    Great post.

  22. esse636 · November 6, 2014

    Reblogged this on stuffofmyattention and commented:
    An interesting read on intersectional feminism.
    I don’t know that feminism at any intersection can fully be understood by the ‘other’ in the situation.
    My feminism is individually and socially placed. Feminism is the ultimate word of a million meanings.

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