As part of the amazing and generative energy cultivated during the NEH Summer Institute, I signed on to contribute to a project on urban fiction in visual and popular forms. As the title probably informs you, I have committed to tackling Beyoncé Knowles and the “urban fiction” that has been created by her performance persona, music videos, and so forth. It’s a bit of a daunting task, but I was inspired to think of Beyoncé critically during Eve Dunbar’s lecture and discussion of hip hop, pornography, and black women.
We read an essay that attempted to position my girl B as an agent of post-Katrina feminist activism. As I began reading the essay, I kept an open mind. I thought, “Okay. Maybe this will work. Let’s see how she will lay out the argument”. The essay left me unconvinced. I did walk away, however, thinking that Beyoncé was saying and doing something important for young black women. I just wasn’t sure what exactly.
We chopped up the usual criticisms of Beyoncé as narcissist, her overt consciousness of her body as visually pleasing, playing up her French “creole” roots, and of course, there were lengthy comments about her playing the role of prostitute—supplying her viewers with whatever fantasy (usually sexual) they desire.
As our conversation parsed out the holes in the essay and we placed our critical gaze upon B’s video for “Déjà vu;” I was struck by the metaphor of the prostitute and how that has all sorts of implications for black female sexuality. I began to consider her body of work and what, if anything, Beyoncé is telling us about black female sexuality—or even her own. What narrative of sexuality does Beyoncé weave when considering her various performances—both entertainment performances and the performance of her public persona–as hood rat (think, Destiny’s child “Solider”), whore (“Déjà vu”), and wholesome (wife, mother)??
This is the question that is at the center of my burgeoning project. Now, I will be the first to confess I am a fan. I know the lyrics, I know the choreography, and I know her story. I have paid to see her perform a time or two. You don’t know Beyoncé until you have seen her stage show. I am still thinking through my ideas and what I ultimately think of Beyoncé’s urban fiction. I want to believe and argue that there is something powerful at play in the Beyoncé imaginary. I think that she just may surprise us by offering a transformative view of black female sexuality that is neither confined by social standards nor bearing the weight of the slave experience. How active an agent she is in constructing such a narrative is another question altogether.
What I saw in the “Déjà vu” video was an invocation of another black female icon that disrupts binaries—particularly as it relates to Africana women’s sexual experience during slavery. I will save the rest of my thoughts for the book chapter, but know that I am anxious to work through this project and to center Beyoncé as a black feminist subject.