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?

The Politics of Respectability is not Revolutionary.

(Hi, everyone! Happy New Year! We return to our regularly scheduled programming with another guest post, this time from Loryn C. Wilson, a womanist and digital media professional living in Washington, DC. You can follow her on Twitter at @elledub_1920.)

TW: Violence, Misogyny, Fatphobia, Racism

Recently, I participated on a panel about leadership, movement building, and using social media to create change. I spoke to about 200 African-American student leaders; I was only one of two women on a panel of about 8 people, and the youngest speaker. One of the male panelists asserted that the politics of respectability was an act of resistance in a time when Black people were treated as less than human. He gave the example of a woman being able to keep a clean house.

Silly example aside, I was most concerned that a group of young people were once again being told that if they just act respectable enough, they will defy white people and somehow rise above oppression. There is plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Respectability politics, simply put, is a dangerous attack on Black people in general and Black women in particular. It is a way to make white people feel more comfortable with us, and not to make us feel more comfortable about ourselves. It is selfish, not selfless. And it is not something to aspire to.

Respectability politics is divisive. Point blank.

Everyone remembers that classic scene in School Daze where the Jiggaboos faced off against the Wannabes. That scene demonstrates one of the biggest problems with respectability politics – it’s divisive nature. It further divides Black people into the Bourgeoise versus “them n*ggas over there,” setting a stage where middle and upper class Black people can look at their low-income brethren–and somehow think they are better than them. If a way of thinking makes me treat one of my own with anything less than love and compassion, then I don’t want to subscribe to it. We need approaches that bring us closer together, that can lift us up as we climb. If it doesn’t unify us, we don’t need it.

Respectability politics dehumanizes Black people, especially women.

As it’s been noted before, if a white woman proudly and publicly embraces her sexuality, white people praise her as an example of sexual empowerment and body positivity. However, when a Black woman does the same, those people treat her as though she is less of a woman. People are quick to police our bodies and tell us that we are ugly, fat, unlovable bitches.

Saartjie Baartman is an early example of this. She was an African woman held in captivity like a circus animal, made to perform for white people on account of her voluptuous body. For a small fee, whites could watch her perform and even touch the “Hottentot Venus.” And this was simply because of the way her body is shaped – a characteristic that she had no control over. There are countless modern-day examples of this – from Beyonce getting her ass smacked by a fan during a performance to Nicki Minaj having the same thing done to her by Regis Philbin on national TV.

Respectability politics suggests that only certain Black people are even worthy of respect to begin with.

Implicit in telling black men to “pull up their pants” or a black women to “keep their legs closed” is the idea that if they do not do these things, then they can’t or shouldn’t be respected. Oftentimes on Facebook, I see the meme of young black men with sagging pants alongside a picture of young black men dressed in suits from the 1960s with the caption “Back then men were real men.” But here’s the problem with that: During the Civil Rights Movement (and even before), Black people wore suits, pressed their hair, and were still beaten and killed – so why even compare? The way one wears their hair or clothes, the way they express themselves, the choices they make—none of these things should be used as a litmus test for respect given or denied.

Respectability politics ignores the fact that Black people are not a monolith.

Blackness is so amazing because it is so varied. There are so many different ways to be black—and no way is more correct or acceptable than another. A black woman will quote bell hooks and dance to Beyonce and y’all will deal. Blackness is not a morality play. It is above the law. It is not meant to be contained or put in a box by anyone or anything—including respectability touting know-nothings.

HF around the web, Renisha McBride, and other matters of import.

It has been a long, emotionally exhausting week, but at least it’s ending on a (somewhat) positive note now that Renisha McBride’s killer has been arrested. Writer/activist dream hampton is just one of many fighting on behalf of the murdered teen and her grieving family, and talks with Democracy Now‘s Amy Goodman about the “criminalizing of black corpses” here. Her parents speak out here.

Friend of HF (and thewayoftheid girlcrush) Moya Bailey pens an open letter to Nelly that should have the St. Lunatic in his feelings for a while. Bailey and her fellow Spelman alumnae will be on HuffPo Live Monday, November 18 to discuss it.

First Lily Allen, now Peggy Noland: when it comes to objectifying black women, white women are having the best week ever.

Oh, and we’ve been a little busy writing stuff. You can check out Evilene’s Scandal-inspired post on “homewrecker” hate for Blogher here, and Jamie’s Scandal-inspired post on gratuitous tv rape for xoJane here.

Also, we’re planning another Google Hangout soon, so keep your eyes peeled.

And now, for a little bit of awesome that’s been making us grin all day (despite only getting three hours of sleep):

Meet Batkid, our new favorite superhero.

Meet Batkid, our new favorite superhero.

And a message we can all use:


              Have a good weekend. 🙂

The Curious Case of Lily Allen’s Horrible Stab At Satire.

Ah, Lily Allen. Everyone’s favorite pop ingenue recently released a new video “satirizing” the music industry and the internet is all a-buzz, mostly praise from mainstream feminist sites applauding her wit and edge, all the while neglecting the fact that she’s using black women as props. Fortunately for the rest of us, there’s still country for nuanced criticism. Here are a (HF approved) few:

Lily Allen is a popstar singing about how its “hard out here for a bitch” – in a hip-hop video? Why couldn’t she stick to her own genre and talk about inherent sexism in pop culture. Why? Probably because of the same virus that’s being going around for a long time, where white women just can’t help use bodies of women of colour as props. Gwen Stefani, Iggy Azalea, Miley Cyrus, the list goes on. – Susuana Antubam (via blackfems)

There is an incredibly valid critique to be made about hip hop culture and music videos which consistently demean black women, but to ignore her enormous privilege as a white woman and engage in exactly the same racist, degrading objectifying fuckery as Miley Cyrus (who this video was apparently at least partially a “dig” at) is disgusting to say the least.” – BlackinAsia

“But the video is…troublesome. I get this is making fun of Miley and the cultural appropriation and so forth. Certainly the song is making fun of the way women in pop are treated. But it’s still a white girl dancing with a bunch of black girls twerking. Yes, it’s supposed to be ironic. But I’m not sure it reads.” – Anibundel

“From Lorde to Macklemore, it’s a sentiment that’s galling for its popularity: white artists need to stop using the wealth signifiers of rap music to gesture at their self-important “anti-consumerism.” What Allen misses as she washes rims in a kitchen decorated only with bottles of champagne is that it’s not anti-consumerism when it only targets one type of consumer.” – Ayesha A. Siddiqi