It is very infrequently that popular culture offers us a pedagogical moment we can truly learn from. Beyoncé’s Formations, followed by her half-time performance at the Super Bowl was one such moment.
Superbly timed with the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party in 1966, Formations linked the contemporary violence against African Americans to the long assault on African American lives from slavery to Jim Crow to the carceral state bringing to light what scholar Saidya Hartman has called “the afterlife of slavery,” a devaluation of Black lives “by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago.” Beyoncé forces her viewers to confront this devaluation not from a comfortable space where non-Blacks can simply view her images through a righteous pity or a morally cleansing shame that can right the wrongs of structural racism in America. Images of plantation homes, quadroons dressed for balls, the ghost of Trayvon Martin in a dancing hooded boy, the flooded homes in New Orleans, a line of police officers, and Beyoncé sinking into the water in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina all confront us in a continuous present we will always be part of. These images combined with those of Beyoncé’s daughter Blue Ivy Carter in an afro, the lyrics celebrating the Black body (“I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros. I like my Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils”) and the refrain “I Slay” empowering Black women spell Beyoncé’s refusal to separate African American history from the celebrity that is Beyoncé and who has arguably the largest following by youth of all races.
But Beyoncé’s brilliance was in connecting Formations to the halftime superbowl performance where the women wore black outfits with berets reminiscent of the Black Panthers, formed a X in tribute to Malcolm, and Beyoncé herself sported a golden X. Beyoncé’s performance implicitly called for a need for radical Black activism, saluted the Panthers, and put women at the center of activism in a way the Panthers had not. Conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin (born Michelle Maglalang) , and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani were incensed and issued statements about Beyonce politicizing the superbowl, disrespecting the police, and glorifying the violence of the Black Panthers.
However what truly enraged them was Beyoncé’s centering of Black American activism in the heart of mainstream American nationalism. The superbowl is, in fact, a highly politicized event. Rush Limbaugh had it right when he said “you have in the Super Bowl, you have the pregame, which features the anthem, with a giant American flag spread out over the entire field. You have military, uniformed military all over the place.” Into this jingoistic display which cannot admit the racial fractures of America, Beyoncé celebrated the Panthers.
In light of Beyoncé’s tribute to the Black Panthers we would do well to remember that the Black Panthers were wiped out through COINTELPRO an illegal covert FBI operation through which many members were shot; that they patrolled the streets of Oakland and, in what is widely recognized as a precedent for the Miranda rights, began reading intimidated citizens their rights; that many of the demands of the Panthers’ Ten Point Program such as those for decent housing, decent education, employment, and being tried by a jury of one’s peers have not yet been made.