Most of my weekend found me knee-deep in research as I read up on the state of childbearing people in the United States and internationally. It is easily depressing to read horrible stories of obstetric abuse and neglect in the midst of a racist, sexist, capitalist and ableist healthcare system. I read to keep myself knowledgeable and also to continually arm myself with facts and information to better raise awareness about the crisis women of color are experiencing. I saw the performance early this morning after realizing she had taken the stage at the Grammys Sunday night. Immediately the tears fell and I started sobbing for a good part of her performance. Her grace, beauty and power radiated through in such a profound way that it was initially hard to put words to all that that struck a nerve. Beyoncé’s postpartum work in particular, as I began to explain last year, has blown me away on so many levels. Her provocative images and words stir up emotions specific to the Black women’s experience. It is evident to me that her birthing journey has made her tap into a fierce mother self, awakening to her goddess within and also activating her social justice consciousness.
There have been plenty of criticisms of her politicized performances and videos, described by some as commodifying revolutionary ideas and figures. Regardless, Beyoncé’s work as a Black woman is important to me. I am choosing to focus on the emotions and thoughts her music and visual artistry than to critique her. It’s not that I don’t have critiques but the Internet and this society are often unkind to her and many artists; I prefer to offer a “yes and…” approach especially when there is so much rich imagery, symbolism and narrative coming through her art. Revolutionary work is not a one-time event nor is it a performance; however, it is part of the revolution to have artists use their platforms to make people uncomfortable with the social ills they highlight. Furthermore, I think of the young people who are exposed to these artists that may become their entry point into social justice work. It would be damaging to my commitment to respect individuals’ process to not integrate these expressions of consciousness into the fight for the liberation of all people.
The first thing for me to address is one that I’ve spoken very briefly on regarding Lemonade and the spiritual elements that spoken to me immediately. I don’t claim to know all the layers of symbols and religious iconography that was incorporated into the visual album, yet the presence of the divine feminine was felt. Many, including myself, read Ochun off her Lemonade and her Grammy performance. The thing is, feeling that energy from a performance is not me conflating symbolism with Beyoncé’s own spiritual journey; rather, the archetypes blended through her work last night, be it Ochun, Virgin Mary, Aphrodite, Venus, Inanna, or any other divine deity that Beyoncé evoked in her viewers, are the multiple dimensions of the womanhood experience. One does not have to be initiated into these religions to understand what these goddess archetypes represent – love, fertility, sensuality and the erotic. One also does not have to be initiated to let these archetypes influence and guide their work. Archetypes are themes – collectively-inherited unconscious ideas, patterns of thought, images, etc., that are universally present in individual psyches. For women, we have the maiden, mother and crone; those can be conceptualized as The Queen, The Mother, The Wise Woman and The Lover. It is in these archetypes that we manifest ourselves as powerful, creator, spiritual being and erotic human to varying degrees as individuals. Beyoncé’s work throughout her performance and her two recent albums explore these themes of womanhood, inviting each of her viewers to take this journey with her.
She in no way speaks to the lives of every woman, and I am aware of the lack of representation for diverse body sizes and the full breadth of Black womanhood and motherhood. Beyoncé instead speaks to her own life with common themes and necessary affirmations for the struggle to protect, honor and respect Blackness. This representation is important, particularly the elevation of the Black woman as a goddess, because we are often depicted as everything but powerful and divine. Furthermore, Beyoncé chose to still embody her sexuality in her presentation, which is also important. Pregnant women are sometimes criticized for being a mother and also daring to still be sexual. She was able to be fierce in her sensuality, showing us that pregnancy and sexuality are not mutually exclusive; in fact the complete opposite is true – sex and sexuality permeate our very beings from the moment of conception. We often forget that we were born and we came out of a part of our lives that is demonized and taboo to talk about in a comprehensive way.
Throughout my birthwork and journey in womanhood, as well as my training in Television/Radio Productions in my undergrad, I have been sensitive to how the media influences our perceptions of ourselves and of the stages in our lives. Pregnancy and childbirth have been depicted in grossly dramatic and inaccurate ways, demonstrating medically erroneous progress of labor, out of control laboring women and complete submission to medicalized birth. Moreover, people of color are not afforded the space in the media and the collective conscious to be represented in healthy families, beautiful pregnancies and optimal birth outcomes. This is why the image of Beyoncé, Tina Knowles and Blue Ivy struck me. It is rare to see intergenerational depictions of Black families, and this speaks to the strength of our matriarchs that we hold dear in our families with our mothers and grandmothers. While the societal issues that plague people of color in all aspects of their lives are perilous, especially in health and maternal care, we struggle to see our lives celebrated. There is not enough celebration of Black motherhood; we are instead reminded that our infant and maternal mortality and morbidity rates are awful, our families are being ripped apart by the criminalization of people of color, and that we can only amount to being “Welfare Queens”. Beyoncé’s awe-inspiring performance, as well as her pregnancy photo shoot is important for me. I am not suggesting that the way our families and communities exist is shameful but I am saying that we have the right to exist in a variety of realities, both onscreen and in real life. I remain aware that there is much work to do in our communities but am moved by seeing a Black pregnant woman celebrate and share her ability to carry and sustain life. Beyoncé also reminds me that affluence for people of color means little when it comes to life course outcomes – affluent women of color suffer the same birth outcomes regardless of their finances and expanded options for maternity care due to the stress of racism.
I hold that it is revolutionary for people of color to give birth in a world that is actively trying to carry out the genocide of our people. We need images such as Beyoncé to aid in the narrative we are creating for our present and future – one of claiming and protecting our joy, daring to dream of liberation and seeing ourselves in the media we consume as whole multidimensional beings. Another reason her Lemonade album and last night’s performance was so profound is the incomparable Warsan Shire’s poetry woven throughout the images and lyrics. Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth and for women who are difficult to love contain parts of the words Beyoncé recites that drive home the message of strength, heartbreak, resilience, womanhood, and power. “Do you remember being born? Are you grateful for the hips that cracked the deep velvet of your mother and her mother and her mother?”, she asked. It is relevant that Warsan Shire is a Kenyan-born Somali poet and writer who uses her work to document narratives of journey and trauma. The words allow Beyoncé to share her own pain from her miscarriage, maturity, heartbreak and being her whole self in a real way that is both vague and specific. Poetry has a way of touching the depths of our subconscious and evoking feelings with such few words. The visuals and the poetry are what brought me to tears.
Seldom in our society do we see childbirth and the power of pregnant women celebrated. The violence experienced by birthing people in their labor and delivery journeys is horrific, as well as the fact that pregnant women are vulnerable to more violence during their gestation. Beyoncé calls forth the need for us to put women, particularly Black women, in a place of dignity and reverence. We need more depictions of Black families and Black birthing people in not just despair but also glory; I hope that other people bring forth these images and not condemn Beyoncé for not being able to capture every experience not represented. There is still a lot of work to do. A performance is not the end all be all, but I refuse to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I believe bodies that give birth are the closest to God we can ever get. Her work is demanding ever so gently and firmly that we love God herself, and specifically love Black women in all their dimensions.