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Beyonc- and Janelle Monae are creating a new language of black womanhood

I was that little girl.Hairbrush in hand and hand on nonexistent hip, I strutted around my pink bedroom with t...

Posted: May 3, 2018 7:35 AM
Updated: May 3, 2018 7:35 AM

I was that little girl.

Hairbrush in hand and hand on nonexistent hip, I strutted around my pink bedroom with the white princess canopy bed, lip-synching to "Bad Girls" by Donna Summer.

At 6 years old, I had no idea what the lyrics meant. I was lured in by the song's relentless whistles, toot-toots, and beep-beeps. Singing in my bedroom amid the stuffed animals and roller skates, I was practicing what I thought it meant to be a woman. Certainly not the prostitute hinted at in the song, but something independent, strong, rebellious and a little bit dangerous.

American popular music today is littered with hucksterism disguised as feminism. However, Janelle Monae and Beyonc-, especially in the wake of "Dirty Computer" and Beychella, are the real deal. They are also the latest in a long line of musical artists who have used their art and unique style to create a vocabulary and cultural conversation about what it means to be a black woman in the United States.

Josephine Baker was arguably the first, reinterpreting blackface comedy and American vaudeville tropes. Baker transformed the pickaninny -- a racist stereotype used to justify the rape and abuse of black women by white men -- into a glamorous swan.

Decades later, Aretha Franklin married gospel music, the soundtrack of the civil rights movement, with the burgeoning women's movement in the late '60s and early '70s with her signature performances of songs like "Respect" and "(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman," neither written by black women but forever marked by Franklin as a symbol of our power.

As black Americans made economic and social gains after the civil rights movement, Whitney Houston in the 1980s presented a sleek, polished version of black womanhood that reflected the accomplishments of thousands of black women who were often the first in their families to graduate from college and move into white-collar jobs in greater numbers.

And now in the 21st century, enter Beyonc- and Janelle Monae.

Much like Baker, Beyonc- has reframed the aesthetics of the past as a gesture of empowerment for the present. Beginning with "Lemonade" and more recently during her Coachella performance, Beyonc- has taken cultural ideas and imagery from institutions that were created in response to segregation -- such as the black national anthem "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and the marching band and step line of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) -- and reinterpreted them to give them an unprecedented platform, power and presence. She has encouraged black people to be proud of the art we created to survive unrelenting racism.

Monae, much like Franklin, has forged the intersectional feminism of our times, most embodied by the #metoo movement -- and added her futuristic imagination to offer millennial women distinct possibilities for a future in which gender fluidity and sexual empowerment are accepted.

Together, their musical and artistic languages construct signposts of hope at a time when many either ignore or feel threatened by black women. And unlike the Beyonc- who twirled in a ginormous champagne glass in the video "Naughty Girl," or Monae, who cloaked her most daring artistic statements about black womanhood behind the disguise of a messianic android she called Cindi Mayweather, these increasingly bold and innovative languages place the experiences of black women at their center. They relegate the white male gaze (a term first used by film scholar Laura Mulvey in 1975 to convey how cinema portrays women as passive subjects) to the sidelines.

Beyonc- and Monae are crafting a "for us, by us" experience -- so that even if our stories are erased from public space, they can never be erased from our hearts or memories. The erasure of memories, and essentially black lives, is a narrative thread in Monae's "Dirty Computer" "emotion picture." In the 48-minute film, Monae and Tessa Thompson are on the run from a memory-clearing, totalitarian government that refers to its citizens as "computers."

In inventing and experimenting with a new iconography for black women, both artists are extracting from the cultural DNA of black women in the United States. From quilts to spirituals to a well-placed "mmmmhmmm" in mixed company, black women have always spoken to each other in coded, cultural language. Beyonc- and Monae have made those languages public for all to see and made millions doing it.

Their creative engagements with past, present, and future remind black women of our power and strength and that despite efforts to intimidate us into the shadows, we are an integral part of America's ongoing, cultural story. When I consider Beyonc-'s and Monae's artistic contributions and think of the dazzling possibilities they might present to young, black girls today, my inner, 6-year-old diva winks and whistles.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 291891

Reported Deaths: 6605
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto19515228
Hinds18611385
Harrison16431275
Rankin12543261
Jackson12419216
Lee9641160
Madison9378194
Jones7857145
Forrest7094136
Lauderdale6760225
Lowndes5998137
Lamar581180
Lafayette5698113
Washington5135128
Bolivar4580120
Oktibbeha438691
Panola424992
Warren4101113
Pearl River4083128
Pontotoc406668
Marshall398392
Monroe3977126
Union392173
Neshoba3758166
Lincoln3447100
Hancock338673
Leflore3349118
Sunflower316685
Tate299874
Pike298293
Scott291867
Alcorn289660
Itawamba288571
Yazoo283262
Tippah275465
Copiah273957
Coahoma272666
Simpson270778
Prentiss267658
Leake251370
Wayne250540
Marion249878
Covington247178
Grenada244676
Adams232877
George229845
Newton223151
Winston220274
Tishomingo211465
Jasper211244
Attala205969
Chickasaw200550
Holmes181470
Clay177848
Stone171129
Tallahatchie169239
Clarke168271
Calhoun155527
Smith151531
Yalobusha142236
Greene126533
Walthall123340
Noxubee122629
Perry120934
Montgomery120537
Lawrence119021
Carroll117223
Amite110732
Webster109229
Jefferson Davis99931
Tunica98023
Claiborne97329
Benton92524
Humphreys91326
Kemper89422
Quitman76614
Franklin75419
Choctaw69416
Wilkinson62226
Jefferson61027
Sharkey48817
Issaquena1676
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 490220

Reported Deaths: 9744
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson704661342
Mobile35810721
Madison32203443
Tuscaloosa23961409
Montgomery22417489
Shelby21773211
Baldwin19635272
Lee14883147
Morgan13571248
Etowah13118312
Calhoun13090283
Marshall11212203
Houston10036257
Limestone9321133
Elmore9313179
Cullman8864177
St. Clair8771220
Lauderdale8570210
DeKalb8419173
Talladega7450162
Walker6492249
Jackson6466102
Autauga617285
Blount6072125
Colbert5978118
Coffee5229100
Dale4614106
Russell401431
Franklin397675
Covington3948105
Chilton383196
Escambia376670
Tallapoosa3559139
Clarke342749
Dallas3396140
Chambers3393103
Pike292771
Lawrence281284
Marion280793
Winston245665
Bibb243759
Marengo238554
Geneva238468
Pickens223554
Barbour209550
Hale208464
Fayette199356
Butler195165
Henry182341
Cherokee176338
Monroe165638
Randolph162740
Washington156233
Crenshaw143353
Clay143254
Macon140543
Cleburne136539
Lamar131632
Lowndes130148
Wilcox120825
Bullock116534
Conecuh106523
Perry105327
Sumter98231
Coosa86823
Greene86732
Choctaw54723
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