Getting in Formation: Story in the Service of Social Justice

By Angela Ards

Using story in service of social justice is a founding principle of African American literature. The slave narratives, personal stories of servitude and escape that advocated for sisters and brothers yet in bonds, epitomize the tradition. That animating impulse still infuses much black cultural production. For instance, in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (1998), Angela Davis writes that singers such as Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday riffed on love gone wrong as a metaphor for social struggle. After slavery, for those exploited as studs and breeders, the ability to choose a lover symbolized a collective sense of freedom as much as previously denied access to literacy and travel. Davis argues that the blues, the predominant postslavery black musical genre, are consequently replete with themes of romantic love “linked with possibilities of social freedom in the economic and political realms,” with black women often focusing on themes of “betrayal and abandonment; broken or failed love affairs; … infidelity” to articulate the civic disappointments and aspirations of an emerging nation within a nation.

However, as legacies of oppression morph from one historical period to the next—slavery, segregation, the historic election of the first president of (visible) African descent—some artists and scholars contend that contemporary black literature and cultural production need new narratives and new functions. In “The End of the Black American Narrative” (in American Scholar, Summer 2008), for instance, the novelist and philosopher Charles Johnson argues that future black writing should leave slavery in the past. And the scholar Kenneth Warren, in What Was Black American Literature (2011), declares that African American literature is simply no more, since it emerged to protest Jim Crow and thus was made obsolete by Jim Crow’s legal end, not to mention a black president in the White House. But now that Barack Obama has bid the nation farewell, and we brace for the return to an old order, or a new authoritarian one, those statements seem as premature as the triumphant declarations of a postracial America when Obama was first elected.

Recent offerings suggest that, indeed, in the age of Black Lives Matter, African American literature and cultural production carry on the tradition of story in service of social justice. In her introduction to The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race (2016), editor Jesmyn Ward reveals that the collection emerged from an impulse similar to that which launched African American literature, beginning with Phillis Wheatley’s eighteenth-century poetry: to validate the humanity of black life. In the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin, Ward first took to social media for comfort and community but soon discovered she “needed words”—sustained narrative all in one place rather than “the ephemera of Twitter”—to “satisfy [the] need for kinship in this struggle.” She instinctively turned to James Baldwin, reading first “Notes of a Native Son” (in Notes of a Native Son [1955]), then The Fire Next Time (1963). “Like a wise father, a kind, present uncle,” she writes, his frank, elegant words reminded her of her worth: “You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger. I tell you this because I love you, and please don’t you ever forget it.”

At the time, Ward was a new mother who had just published a memoir about five black men she’d known and loved, all of whom had died violent deaths. Thinking of Trayvon Martin and her dead brother and her own young child, she envisioned a cadre of contemporary writers updating Baldwin’s classic text. The “your black life matters” message would be the same, but rather than a lone voice exhorting a namesake nephew, The Fire This Time would be a chorus of fictive kin speaking to a generation of African Americans who were raised to identify beyond race, only to find themselves judged yet again by—and, in recent high-profile cases, executed because of—the color of their skin. To a great extent, it was this rude awakening from a postracial fantasy to the reality of antiblackness remaining at the core the American national project that precipitated the transformation of #BlackLivesMatter, the social-media hashtag created in the wake of Zimmerman’s acquittal, to a social movement against state violence.

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) reflects this zeitgeist. Much of the volume’s success was admittedly due to timing. As the poet and scholar Evie Shockley has noted (in “Race, Reception, and Claudia Rankine’s ‘American Lyric,’” in the Los Angeles Review of Books, January 6, 2016) Citizen hit bookstores

within the five-month period that saw Staten Island’s Eric Garner, Ferguson’s Michael Brown and Cleveland’s Tamir Rice all killed at the hands of police, Citizen entered a national conversation already politicized by the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer and the formation of Black Lives Matter a year earlier.

However, Rankine’s canny use of personal story played a part as well. In an interview with Lauren Berlant in Bomb magazine (Fall 2014), Rankine acknowledges that she consciously decided “to inhabit my own subjectivity in this book,” an award-winning, experimental work that describes the slips of tongue and sometimes intentional slights that characterize our daily interactions around race. Yet Citizen is not written in the first-person that we have come to associate with autobiography. The bulk of the book consists of second-person, lyric prose poems. And through that “lyric-You,” Shockley writes, Rankine “achieves a full-throated polyvocality…that thrusts every reader into the position of speaker and addressee simultaneously.”

In “Speaking in Tongues,” the theorist Mae Gwendolyn Henderson’s essay in African Literary Theory: A Reader (2000), she famously argues that this kind of “discursive diversity,” which is also seen in Ward’s collection, structures black women’s cultural expression. The effect, as Audre Lorde describes in Sister Outsider (1984), is “to remind you of your me-ness as I discover you in myself.” Citizen’s polyvocal “lyric-You” challenges not only conventional ideas about the lyric subject’s singularity, as Shockley argues, but also popular notions of autobiography as “true” and “real”—transparent. For instance, Rankine’s ambiguous pronouns sometimes leave readers wondering where her “I” ends and the “you” begins, and whose story is whose, which forces them to inhabit unfamiliar perspectives and experience citizenship anew.

Sophisticated audiences appreciate that autobiography, which essentially constructs a fictive self on the page or screen, is, like all identities, a performance. Of course, each text is necessarily as unique and varied as its individual author. Yet cultural context matters, too, with place and time shaping personal circumstance and experience. In the nexus where autobiography intersects with shared cultural memories and metanarratives, which have embedded within them assumptions about agency and identity, one can see the political interventions of the personal story. A case in point is Lemonade (2016), Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s sixth studio and first audiovisual album. The hourlong avant-garde film addresses rumors of her husband’s infidelity, with the singer’s on-screen persona progressing through a Kübler-Ross-like parade of emotions as she works through the betrayal: intuition, denial, anger, apathy, emptiness, loss, reformation, hope, forgiveness. The opening song, “Pray You Catch Me,” gestures to autobiography’s performative nature. Beyoncé’s character sings of her gnawing suspicions—“Pray I catch you whispering,/ Pray you catch me listening”—while kneeling on stage, a dark-red curtain in the background, a front row of lights glimmering like candles. The scene suggests a private moment, either before or after a show, and appeals to the sense of transparency audiences associate with autobiography, even as the theatrical setting signals that the story being shared is itself a fiction.

What’s at stake in the telling becomes clearer as this personal story intersects with contemporary and historical narratives. Throughout this opening sequence, the visuals shift from the bare stage to the fields surrounding Fort Macomb, a decaying nineteenth-century fortress occupied by both Confederate and Union forces during the Civil War. In both scenes, the singer’s persona wears a hooded robe, conjuring not only the memory of Trayvon Martin and the Black Lives Matter movement his death launched but also their inextricable relationship to the slave past. In Sites of Slavery (2012), Salamishah Tillet argues that contemporary artists incorporate the antebellum past to work through discourses of citizenship, democracy, and African American political identity. Like #SayHerName (, the campaign launched to include “black women’s experiences in social movements, media narratives and policy demands around policing,” Lemonade works to make space for black women’s lives in communal stories and agendas that too often exclude them. And despite its Kübler-Ross, pop-psychology frame, Lemonade is not a self-help manual about getting over betrayal, but rather a meditation and manifesto about black-female political formation.

In Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (2011), Melissa Harris-Perry argues that legacies of oppression, from slavery and segregation to patriarchy, “have created a specific citizenship imperative for African American women—a role and image to which they are expected to conform. We can call this image the ‘strong black woman.’” (Harris-Perry’s critique joins a large body of black feminist thought, from Michele Wallace’s Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman [1978] to Joan Morgan’s When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip Hop Feminist Breaks It Down [1999] and Tamara Winfrey Harris’ The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narratives of Black Women in America [2015]). As several critics have noted, Lemonade charts a different model of black female agency through the staging of groups of women in various “formations”: the marching band and dancers of Edna Karr High School; the women swaying in mourning on the bus; the little girls playing circle games in a parlor; the dance squad practicing a routine in an empty pool; the “mothers of the movement”—Sybrina Fulton, Lezley McSpadden, and Gwen Carr—holding pictures of their slain sons Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, respectively.

The film’s signature hook and call to action—“Come on, ladies, let’s get in formation!”—comes in the final track, “Formation.” However, all that precedes it focuses on what it takes to achieve such alignment and empowerment: an embrace of vulnerability, the very opposite of the strong black woman, as a prerequisite for political action. The message correlates with the larger movement’s prevailing ethos. Whereas the Black Power era is known for its raised fist symbol, for #BLM, the central image is the raised, open hands of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” The former suggests militant defiance; the latter, an acknowledgment of human vulnerability.

Many wonder whether Beyoncé’s embrace of Black Lives Matter is just a savvy business move that exploits the renewed public interest in social movements, alongside a public obsession with personal narrative stoked by today’s reality-TV, selfie culture. Whether one trusts her motivations, or even likes her sound, as critics such as Greg Tate and Nalia Keleta-Mae have noted, it is undeniable that this modern-day blueswoman’s mastery of the cultural pop machine crafts Afro-Futuristic worlds where fantastic black bodies get free. Indeed, the mastery of the body that the film’s performers exhibit counters Afro-Pessimist notions seen, for instance, in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015), in which the black body is always in an antagonistic relationship to the state, whether coffled, lynched, incarcerated, or executed in the streets. As Coates writes, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”

Rather, in Lemonade, the black body is adorned, nurtured, self-disciplined, and ultimately self-possessed, suggesting the possibility of future agency. One of the final scenes of the film has Beyoncé’s character atop a police car, sinking it with her body into Katrina flood waters. It is a moment as fabulist as that of the hoodie-clad boy, dancing as if Trayvon Martin incarnate, in front of a squad of officers who surrender in the face of his “choreography of freedom.” In this moment, Beyoncé’s brings her personal story to bear on the stakes of our current fight against state violence, recalling the almost-mythic story of free-speech activist Mario Savio defying officers during a Berkeley sit-in and (as quoted in Seth Rosenfeld’s Subversives [2012]) declaring, “There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious … you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus”—whether in an airport demonstration or highway shutdown—“and you've got to make it stop!”

Angela Ards is an associate professor of English at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and author of Words of Witness: Black Women's Autobiography in the Post-Brown Era (2016)

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