by Hermia Lyly
We were all thrilled by the Super Bowl 50 half-time show last night.
Okay, maybe we were just thrilled by Beyoncé and Bruno Mars (sorry, Coldplay).
Okay, mostly Beyoncé.
But we need to talk about our reactions to the half-time show. LGBTQIA+ white folk, I’m talking primarily to you.
I get that you were thrilled at all the rainbow imagery in the performance, especially Coldplay’s floral design. I get that it was wonderful to have the words “BELIEVE IN LOVE” emblazoned in rainbow all across the stadium. I get that it was so great to have this happen months after the legalization of same-sex marriage, in a city that has long been known for its queer culture.
I totally get that.
But what I don’t understand is celebrating the LGBTQIA+ activist themes in the half-time show while paying little attention to–or entirely erasing–the anti-white-supremacy celebration of #BlackLivesMatter, the Black Panthers, black womanhood, and black history. I saw too many tweets and Facebook posts that praised the rainbow flowers and the “BELIEVE IN LOVE” signs while totally ignoring the fact that Beyoncé and her dancers were dressed as Black Panthers, that she was dressed in homage to Michael Jackson, and literally yelling at them to get in formation. If you know anything about Beyoncé’s new music video, “Formation,” you know that the entire song is a brilliant work of art dedicated to celebrating black activism, personhood, resilience, and history. It’s a battle cry, and if you’re white and uncomfortable with that, you need to sit down and get educated.
I am particularly annoyed by a Mic.Com article that proposed to divulge the “secret meaning” of the Super Bowl performances. Here a couple sentences from that article:
During one of the performance’s early shots, Chris Martin went up to a member of the crowd waving a pride flag right waving [sic] all over Martin’s head. Within that moment, the performance’s entire meaning changed: Millions of viewers just watched a 12-minute tribute to LGBT love — with an epic Black Lives Matter interlude.
I have two thoughts about this paragraph:
1: Why did anyone think that they needed to write an article explaining the political messages behind the half-time show? Do people really look at rainbows paired with “love” and black folk marching in black berets and black uniforms and wonder what this could possibly mean? What rock have you been living under?
2: More importantly: Black Lives Matter is never, ever, ever an “interlude.” While it is true that Beyoncé’s performance of “Formation” did not take up the majority of the performance, her music and her dancing was the apex of the event, the crown jewel of the performance. She and all her back-up dancers exuded strength, poise, and power that Coldplay nor Bruno Mars ever matched. Calling Beyoncé’s performance and her support of Black Lives Matter an “interlude” insinuates that “LGBT love” is the main attraction, that black activism is just a temporary phenomenon in the larger picture of gay rights.
Nothing could be more destructive. No attitude could do more damage as LGBTQIA+ activists and Black Lives Matter activists work together to help each other. The history of LGBTQIA+ right and black activism has been a troubled one, with white gay activists drowning out trans and queer people of color ever since the Stonewall Riots, when white gays tried to ignore the role of trans and queer people of color in starting the Riots and building the community. It still happens today, as white members of gay dating websites simultaneously profess the expectation that their rights should be protected, but that they should also be able to have dating profiles that read “whites only”; as directors create movies about LGBT history that erase the work of people of color; as young black folk feel so alienated and un-affirmed by the LGBTQIA+ community and its white, Eurocentrism that they refuse to refer to themselves as gay and lesbian.
There is a long history of hurt and pain here, and it doesn’t help at all that white LGBTQIA+ folk are choosing to ignore or downplay Beyoncé’s anti-racist anthem as just an “interlude” in the “larger” or “more important” or “more universal” history of LGBTQIA+ rights.
So if you are a LGBTQIA+ white person or ally, what can you do?
1. Watch Beyoncé’s “Formation” music video and STUDY IT. I don’t mean just listen to it a lot or share it with your friends, I mean get paper and pencil and WRITE NOTES. Beyoncé’s “Formation” is a modern work of art–it’s as well-crafted and nuanced as T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” and just like “The Wasteland,” it’s full of cultural and historical references. Perhaps you don’t understand those references? That’s fine. It’s your challenge to look for them and research them.
2. Learn when to step back. In the past few years, it has been very exciting to be a LGBTQIA+ person. We have made a lot of advancements, and we’ve also experienced a lot of setbacks. But sometimes we get tunnel vision, and we forget that there are other people out there who are also experiencing oppression, and that we owe a debt to help them. Black folk have done more than you know–perhaps more than anyone knows, because of how Black history is often erased–to help forward the LGBTQIA+ cause, and we must be better at supporting them in their fight. We have a powerful platform, and we must use that platform as a place that can also preach the importance of black power and anti-racism. Yes, it feels good to be in the spotlight–but once we have that spotlight, let’s use it to draw attention to black lives and black voices.
3. Don’t appropriate black culture by making false parallels to black oppression and queer oppression, by tweeting about taking your bae to Red Lobster (see “Formation” lyrics), or by posting Instagram photos posing as Beyoncé in “Formation.” “Formation” is an anthem by and for black folk, and when we step in and try to make it about us, we’re continuing the history of LGBTQIA+ white folk drowning out black folk.
We have the opportunity to change. We have the opportunity to look our not-so-inclusive history in the eye and learn from our mistakes. Let’s be better, and let’s do better.