The Mask as Technology Part 3:
Although I tried not to add onto the dozens of think pieces that are already out there about Beyonce’s latest video, “Formation,” sometimes I like to jump on the bandwagon to either use it momentarily like a free ride to a needed destination or to veer it off into my own direction.
The video has opened the door for much conversation and possibility of new connections, which to me is the main benefit of it, and there has been valid thoughts on all sides about it from the possible meanings of its symbolic artistic imagery and bringing some focus to black cultures that often have been forgotten, marginalized or denigrated, even by black people themselves, to the critiques that highlight the problematic centering of a cis-gendered, non-queer, high class, wealthy, light(er)-skinned, thinner celebrity against the marginalized realities of poorer, lower-class, heavier-set, darker-skinned, queer and transgendered people. Looking at the video and listening to the lyrics, it is difficult to ignore its use of Western capitalistic and white-centric measures of power, including Givenchy and Bill Gates, and their stark contrast against the images of disasters that affected those marginalized communities and black traditions that helped us to survive the violence and trauma created by the former. It does appear on the surface to be a form of capitalist opportunistic exploitation, appropriation and a softer silencing/erasing of marginalized cultures despite the “inclusion” of their imagery.
But as a creative writer/artist myself, I tend to look at culture and imagery more ambiguously. In trickster philosophy, various contradicting realities and meanings exist at once; we all wear various conflicting masks to negotiate with and maneuver through society at large. At the end of the day, Beyonce is a pop artist, not an activist per se, and just as I can learn and be inspired by various sources, I can be inspired by her work and apply it back to my own work.
Certain aspects of “Formation,” and responses to them, kept stirring thoughts in my mind, especially in relation to recent posts I had on this blog. Not saying all the thoughts below went through Beyonce’s mind, but these are the thoughts her video inspired in me. Let us look beyond Beyonce because it, for me, is not about her but the larger symbolism and archetypes that are part of human psyche and social cultures.
Here is a list of my (random) thoughts:
*The line “get in formation” and the play with words and semantics that is part of subversive performance in black cultures. Black double speak/messaging, signifyin’, and code-switching as a tool of black survival, the symbolic, ritualistic possibilities of language.
*Nettrice Gaskins said this in her post about Black secret technology/ black techno-vernacular: “The idea of a secret technology recalls a time when certain African expressions were prohibited in the Americas (i.e., drumming). Symbols and rituals were hidden and embedded in art/crafts (ex. quilting), dance and rhythms, all of which formed the basis for black cultural production that eventually spread around the world.”
*Beyonce’s allusions to Louisiana and Mardi Gras, a Southern U.S. carnival/masquerade tradition, such as the Mardi Gras Indians, Masquerade engages with the ideas of spectacle and secrecy, something that Beyonce as one of the biggest pop stars knows well. The use of secrecy and silence to retain safe spaces and deeper and alternative meanings beyond simplified symbols and images. The musical jester who hides messages within the entertainment while seeming somewhat innocuous to the king.
*Through the mask, we see the relationship between social ritualistic masquerade, dissociation or multiple personality disorders (often coping mechanisms for trauma), alter egos, art and storytelling, black survival performance and devices that open spaces for changing or creating new worlds (the changing of forms, the changing same). One example for me is Nalo Hopkinson’s “Midnight Robber,” where Tan-Tan develops an alternative personality, the carnival-based character Robber Queen, to move beyond the trauma of her father’s sexual abuse.
*Beyonce’s dancers wearing Black Panther costume homages at her Superbowl Halftime performance and the subversive use of only women dancers pointing towards the sexist and misogynistic part of Black Panthers’ history, where some of its leaders diminished the role of and abused black women.
*Someone I read online criticized Beyonce’s video and performance as minstrelsy or her cooning, and it reminded me of Louis Chude-Sokei’s work on Bert Williams and minstrelsy. Read my interview with him here. Chude-Sokei compares blackface minstrelsy to the rituals of masquerade in many Afro-diasporic cultures in the sense of the use of masking in social performance. Minstrels originally were medieval singing entertainment for high-class, who were also clown and jesters at times. They were ambigious, slippery figures and could even be spies because like tricksters and conjurers, they traveled between worlds.
*Articles have referred to Beyonce as a “conjure woman” and is reclaiming the magic(k)al rituals of black lives, and I think of ritual magic’s relation to the stage magic, magic tricks and the use of illusions and images to perform magic.
*I emphasized the word trick because of its relation to prostitution, and sexual, queer and gender politics in addition to magic.
*As we can see from her actions in the past several years, Beyonce is a great at marketing and how to sell her product and it highlights the connection between marketing, masquerade and magic.The term market is related to the word Mercury, who was the god of tradesmen and thieves (his other name is Hermes, god of messengers, crossroads, psychopomps, travelers, and secret dealings, and Eshu/Papa Legba and Papa Gede/Baron Samedi, who usually wears a black top hat, are also related figures), and his name also sounds like words related to mother and ocean, Mer (Mary, Mami Wata, Yemaya, Maya). Mercury is associated with fluidity and mobility. So, Beyonce submerging herself with the car at the end of the video hinted her taking the form of a psychopomp, steering a vehicle and traveling underwater to birth new worlds.
*Finally to the last part of my title: Black Spies!
There has been several black spies in history, including Harriet Tubman herself! Spies are known to disguise themselves to gain access to certain information and are messengers between places, speaking in code. They are infiltrators by nature, flowing through small openings of access.
The image of the black cowboy in “Formation,” associates also with the messenger/courier, psychopomp image, which includes spy work, as well as spirit possession rituals in voodoo (vodou), which are described as being ridden like a horse and involves some sort of masquerade and acting as another persona.
Other well-known black spies and dispatchers have included Mary Touvestre/Mary Louvestre, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, John Scobell, James Lafayette Armistead and various other known and unknown black women and men. A number of fictional movies and books about black spies also exist from “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” to Matt Johnson’s “Incognegro,” and could possibly extend to other works like John Akomfrah’s “Last Angel of History” with the data thief, Hopkinson’s “Midnight Robber” and Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.”