Black History Month is off to an abominable start. On February 1st, Donald Trump made remarks to a handful of black supporters, during a somewhat ironically titled “listening session.” He used the session to discredit the media, brag about how well he did with black voters (a lie) and make vague statements about black historical figures that left some to wonder if he knew of the people he was mentioning, much less their impact on black history, and American history, at large. The session went from structurally offensive, a black history month program that focused largely on Trump and made no specific mention of black history, to overtly offensive: Trump said, “You read all about Dr. Martin Luther King a week ago when somebody said I took the statue out of my office, and it turned out that that was fake news,” as if the only means by which people would have been thinking about King last week were in relationship to the president himself.
On that same day, February 1st, Beyoncé posted an announcement to Instagram, which became the platform’s most liked picture in history: she is pregnant with twins.
Now you may be of the opinion that these news pieces are wholly separate, that they happen in two completely different spheres: but you’re wrong. They happen in the same cultural space, nation, and electorate. We may be more divided than ever in many ways, but in one characteristically American way we are not. We are, as a nation, more in love with the idea of money and its corollary prestige than ever before. We hold anybody who has been successful in making a lot of it on a pedestal, clouding our evaluation of everything they do or say as somehow more important or deserving of attention, gravity, and praise.
On the other side of that very same coin, we have poisonous overarching beliefs about not having money. Trump was elected by poor whites who believed in his racist and white nationalist mythology that building a wall, would keep out “illegals” who are taking jobs and American resources. They also believed, that if it weren’t for these people, they too might be as rich as Donald Trump — poor whites are raised to believe that their economic failures are not their own responsibility. In a different shade, American beliefs about money posit black people who lack money, largely for intentional structural reasons which we might reflect upon in a month such as this, as inherently inferior and morally bankrupt. And even as the gap between the wealthiest 1% of Americans and the other 99% grows, we hold fast to beliefs that through hard work and determination, anybody can become a success in America. Republicans tout “bootstrap” perseverance while Beyhive registrants and casual admirers alike continue to repost memes about having as many hours in a day as Beyoncé. These are both slogans of the meritocracy mythology, and they are especially dangerous as our economy creates methods to monetize our digital attention.
Liberals of all colors look at poor whites who voted for Trump and scoff at their stupidity. They see so clearly that they were used for votes, that his interests do not align with theirs, that he is using their false sense of connection to his white nationalism against their own interests. I’m not certain how the relationship between Beyoncé stans and Beyoncé differs. Beyoncé gains attention from her pregnancy photo shoot similarly to how Donald Trump gains attention for hateful tweets. And to what end? Well, she would very much like for you to put down your Sunday plans the next time she releases a surprise video collection. And when all of these artsy prints come out in a coffee table book, she would like it to be on your coffee table. And when the next line of Ivy Park comes out, your happiness at having been allowed to see her vulnerable pregnant body will be part of your consumer awareness, spoken or subconscious. I’m assuming you don’t know Beyoncé. Like, personally. If you do, like have her phone number, have met or worked closely with her before, please ignore what I have to say on the matter – it doesn’t apply to you. But if you don’t have a personal relationship, as in she literally doesn’t know you exist – and she literally doesn’t care, you know nothing more about her than what she wishes for you to know. She has never called you and bared parts of her soul. She presents for you, a carefully crafted persona. Motherhood widens Beyoncé’s appeal. But the framing as at once goddess, and at once every woman is, while tremendously artful marketing, just that: marketing. You will be asked to buy something soon.
The hyper visibility of Beyoncé, especially as a mother, makes us feel more connected with her, but does this attention benefit us? Does Beyoncé work for a greater social good? Does her expression of pop domination empower black women? And no, I’m not talking about the dopamine rush that comes with seeing a gorgeous woman in black power and Oshun costumes. I’m not referring to the arousal that something good and powerful might happen at the mere sight of such powerfully evocative and beautiful imagery. I’m asking if “you know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation” (power and media domination), “slay trick, or you get eliminated” (prescribe to Beyoncé’s modes of behavior or be banished), and the obvious beauty and sexuality that accompany this messaging, work to make black women more esteemed and effective. I don’t think so, but I’m willing to be enlightened by a linguistically and psychologically specific mechanism as to how that works.
Understanding the nature of Beyoncé’s appeal and celebrity cult of persona is key to understanding why the timing of this announcement was so misguided. There has not been a more critical moment in recent history to focus on the struggles of blacks for freedom, civil rights, and the American dream. Where we need to be evaluating the organizing strategies of activists in eras previous to ours, where we need to be focusing on the seriousness of people who risked and lost their lives to bring us the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts, where we need to be gaining wisdom from ancestors, and those who marched before us, where we need to be reading Baldwin and King and X, to ground ourselves in the history of the struggle, where we need to be thrusting the honor and dignity of activism to the forefront of our attention, we have been distracted. It is not a mistake: this very craving for a sort of empowerment was capitalized upon by an exceptionally savvy media team. Where we needed history and activism, Beyoncé has asserted celebrity and wealth. It could have waited a couple of days, it could have waited a week, but why would Beyoncé’s team, have wasted this moment, so rife for selling imagery, celebrity, and who knows what the next product will be? When black pain can be commoditized, strike while the iron is hot, Beyoncé’s current media strategy seems to go.
As wealthy celebrities, things that Donald Trump and Beyoncé do have a patina of wealth and glamour. They seem inherently good, not to all, but to many. What is the real likelihood that one likes every Beyoncé song, garment, dance move and post? What is the real likelihood that the consumption of these products is merely a habit of commitment to her persona? What is the likelihood that Trump’s apartment buildings, golf courses, ties and politics are truly superior? What is the real likelihood that the consumption of these products is merely a habit of commitment to his celebrity? When we allow celebrity in of itself to conscribe our attention, dollars and votes, in lieu of quality, moral righteousness, and true leadership, the Celebrity, as an archetype, has lead us astray.
Beyoncé’s announcement is one to be happy about. I’m not aroused beyond my normal state, but any woman who is excited about her pregnancy makes me happy. What is inherently better, though, about Beyoncé’s babies? How quickly, how shamefully, we came to pronounce these babies as holy, as saviors. But they are not saviors, they are celebrities (celebrity fetus’, at least).
As we now have a social media dictator installed, quite accidentally, we must begin to give our attention differently. It is a commodity we have given away too cheaply, and the consequences are apparently drastic. At a time like this, we can no longer support a celebrity culture that obscures people’s true nature, work’s true nature, and the timing of it all because we’ve invested in their persona. We can no longer allow our artists to be our activists. We can no longer allow our entrepreneurs to be our political leaders. Beyoncé fans are just as guilty for lack of critical inspection as Trump fans are. So to put a very fine point on it: can you be aware of what’s going on and still be really excited about Beyoncé’s pregnancy? No. A large part of the problem is how we understand celebrity and you are a part of that problem.