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Beyoncé’s Black Feminism, Political Honesty, and Seeing the South

December 12, 2016

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Here’s our pick of news, writing, and research this week that investigates political questions at the intersections of gender, race, and region.

1. Melissa Harris-Perry: “Beyoncé publicly embraced explicitly feminist blackness at a politically risky moment.”
When TIME named Beyoncé a runner up for their annual ‘Person of The Year’ designation, Melissa Harris-Perry, the Anna Julia Cooper Center’s founding director, reflected on the singer’s political presence in 2016: “Having problems is the human condition. But there is a particular complication that comes with being black in America. ‘Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question,’ W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in his classic The Souls of Black Folk. ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ In 2016, Beyoncé, a pop star, chose to be a problem. […] With Lemonade—an album, an Emmy-nominated film and, as America looked on, an experience—Beyoncé publicly embraced explicitly feminist blackness at a politically risky moment. For three years, the stream of cell-phone videos of fatal encounters between African Americans and local police sustained a national controversy that, in some quarters, came down to a choice between one and the other. She chose blackness even as many Americans rejected it, taking sides and never wavering. […] And in so doing, she offered a recipe for transforming the bitter politics of 2016 into the sort of lemonade Southern black women have been making for generations. […] Black women have spent much of American history laboring at the margins to ensure the future of black families and communities. The work of black women in social and political organizing has often been thankless, unacknowledged. ‘What a wicked way to treat the girl that loves you,’ Beyoncé sings in ‘Hold Up,’ aptly describing how America has treated black women whose labor helped build the nation. ‘When you hurt me, you hurt yourself,’ she roars in ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself,’ speaking to the interconnectedness of citizens in a democracy. ‘Daddy Lessons’ reminds black women of their Second Amendment rights. ‘Freedom’ declares black women’s ability to carve out spaces of liberation for themselves even in the most constrained and oppressive circumstances.”

2. What It Was Like As A Muslim To Cover The Election
Asma Khalid for NPR: “Sometime in early 2016 between a Trump rally in New Hampshire, where a burly man shouted something at me about being Muslim, and a series of particularly vitriolic tweets that included some combination of ‘raghead,’ ‘terrorist,’ ‘bitch’ and ‘jihadi,’ I went into my editor’s office and wept.[…]To friends and family, I looked like a masochist. But I was too invested to quit. […] I’m from Indiana. [My] town was predominantly white and fairly conservative, a place where the Ten Commandments are engraved in marble outside the old County Courthouse. I loved our childhood […] we weren’t outsiders — I sold Girl Scout cookies, was captain of the tennis team. We were part of the club — or so we thought. […] One of the benefits of growing up as a brown girl in an overwhelmingly white town is that you get accustomed to making white folks feel comfortable with you at a young age. It wasn’t intentional; it was merely a mode of survival. I suppose it’s something you learn inadvertently when your sister is called a ‘nigger’ before she even knew what the word meant. And that skill set was perhaps the most valuable tool I brought to this election. So, for example, whenever the Pledge of Allegiance was recited at a GOP event, regardless of whether I was balancing a laptop on my knees, a notebook in one hand and a microphone in the other, I instinctively stood up. I noticed — sometimes — my fellow journalists didn’t stand; they would finish the email they were writing. But I also knew I couldn’t afford to give the people in the room any more reason to doubt me. […] All year long, my single job was to tell the stories of voters… I always tried to understand their fears. But, so many times, this empathy felt like a one-way street.”

3. This Was The Year America Finally Saw The South
Jesmyn Ward for Buzzfeed: “Before I published my first novel in my early thirties, I was an invisible artist. This is part of the reason that I was so invested in writing about ordinary black Southerners, and why I felt such a heavy sense of responsibility to do so. I wanted to be seen. I wanted to write stories that affirmed my existence, that showed black Southerners to the larger American culture. That posited this: We are here. We are human beings. We live. […] But [why has this Southern renaissance] reached a sort of apex in pop culture and literature in 2016? […] As black person after black person died without cause across the United States of America, as they were buried without justice, suddenly the South wasn’t so far away. It had been hidden for so long, disavowed in the public sphere, only recognized by those it harmed, but this year the steady stream of deaths created activists who insisted that all Americans acknowledge that which most spent decades denying. […] Suddenly, the experience of the black Southerner is universal. It inspires a feeling of kinship in an audience. It garners sympathy. It renders the invisible visible. And because it is capable of all of this, it sells. Artists recognize this. Businesses recognize this. And in 2016, we all benefited from it, as a multiplicity of voices sang out in the wilderness, against those that would silence or disavow. These voices affirm our shared humanity, our shared plight, our shared hope that we can fight through this quagmire of hatred and antipathy and misplaced nostalgia and willful ignorance to a better future, which has to be inclusive of all. Or else we fail.”

4. Now is the Time to Talk About What We Are Actually Talking About
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for The New Yorker: “Now is the time to burn false equivalencies forever. Pretending that both sides of an issue are equal when they are not is not ‘balanced’ journalism; it is a fairy tale—and, unlike most fairy tales, a disingenuous one. Now is the time to refuse the blurring of memory. Each mention of ‘gridlock’ under Obama must be wrought in truth: that ‘gridlock’ was a deliberate and systematic refusal of the Republican Congress to work with him. Now is the time to call things what they actually are, because language can illuminate truth as much as it can obfuscate it. Now is the time to forge new words. ‘Alt-right’ is benign. ‘White-supremacist right’ is more accurate. Now is the time to talk about what we are actually talking about. ‘Climate contrarian’ obfuscates. ‘Climate-change denier’ does not. And because climate change is scientific fact, not opinion, this matters. Now is the time to discard that carefulness that too closely resembles a lack of conviction. The election is not a ‘simple racism story,’  because no racism story is ever a ‘simple’ racism story, in which grinning evil people wearing white burn crosses in yards. A racism story is complicated, but it is still a racism story, and it is worth parsing.”

5. Here’s a Huge New Survey of Transgender Americans
Jesse Singal for Science of Us, an imprint of New York Magaizine: “Just about every available indicator suggests that transgender people fare worse than cisgender ones when it comes to a variety of outcomes, ranging from housing to health to violence victimization. The problem is that in some cases, those indicators are fairly imprecise — researchers still don’t have great data about trans people and their needs. Because there aren’t a huge number of trans people and many of them have very real reasons not to announce their identity to the world, it can be a tough population to survey in methodologically rigorous ways. But researchers at the National Center for Transgender Equality took an important step last week when they released the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, an in-depth survey of ‘27,715 respondents from all fifty states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and U.S. military bases overseas.’ It’s the largest-ever survey of trans people in the U.S., and it offers a lot of valuable information — albeit mostly of the depressing and heartbreaking variety […] Because the federal government and other key researchers have not sufficiently studied transgender people, we actually do not have a solid sense of the demographics of the whole transgender community. […] In other words, researchers don’t know what the true percentage of (for example) African-American trans people is relative to the total number of American trans people, so they don’t know what a representative sample would even look like. ‘Although the intention was to recruit a sample that was as representative as possible of transgender people in the U.S.,’ the authors explain in the full survey write-up, ‘it is important to note that respondents in this study were not randomly sampled and the actual population characteristics of transgender people in the U.S. are not known. Therefore, it is not appropriate to generalize the findings in this study to all transgender people.'”