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Dear White Sisters: Please Don't Misuse Beyoncé

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I spent weeks contemplating whether to bring it up, and how.

This old friend of mine, she Instagrammed her feet, in roller skates, gliding through shadow and sun on concrete. She captioned it, I'ma keep running cause a winner don't quit on themselves #freedom. I thought of her fingers tapping out Beyoncé’s words phonetically, with adoration and correctness, I’ma.

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She’s been getting into roller derby, this dear friend; I assume the photograph was about her process. She’s practicing, falling and getting up, determined to roll across the streets of autumnal Detroit, where we once shared a house.

And I assume her caption was about getting into roller derby in particular, too. The little I know about the sport comes from watching one match. The players were a motley bunch, with sexuality that was both butch and pretty. The lingerie, the chunky thighs, the swirling, slamming speed—it was a refreshing expression of womanhood. I sensed a fuck patriarchy ethos in roller derby. I imagine that, at least for my friend, the transformation from spectator to player touches sex, power, pain, joy, fear, belonging, gender, and, ultimately, freedom.

So I think I understand the quote: She’s going to keep at it, struggle and all, because she isn’t going to quit. It’s worth the fight.

But a welt rose behind my sternum when I read the caption. Those words are mine!

I feel a peculiar sensation when white people borrow—take—something black: It’s like there’s an octopus in my chest, peacefully afloat, when danger suddenly appears. The animal contracts its jellied body and expels a gush of protective ink, then darts away in panic. That’s the feeling of it; the octopus is my heart, the ink is sadness, or anger, and the dart is my heart trying to flee. Pointlessly, because there is nowhere to go.

Don’t belittle "Freedom," I hissed inside. "Freedom" isn’t for a white person taking up roller derby. It isn’t about becoming a better skater, picking a clever name, finding a sexy-rough costume, learning the rules and lingo. It isn’t even about the grit of athletics, or feminism, or grabbing a challenge by the throat and squeezing until it’s slack and limp in your hand. Unless you’re black, and then it might be.

Because "Freedom" is a song, a eulogy, an anthem for black women. It was a gift for us even though it resides in the open world. Everything about the song (its lyrics of breaking chains, of running (north) through borders, of I can't breathe, of begging to be cut loose (from the rope), of wading in water, of waiting endlessly for freedom, never quitting) and everything about the video (its casting, the antebellum mansion, black countryside church, black ballerina, tree, gentile southern luncheon, black mothers of murdered sons) is a requiem for the daily and historical losses of black women, and an aria for how we survive and slay.

My friend is white. But I feel her, which is to say, she’s the kind of white person that a black person can often connect to even around race. Sometimes we look like sisters, with kinky soft hair and light eyes. When she moved to Detroit, she astutely observed that most people fear Detroit simply because they fear black people. In high school, she was odd and artsy, like me, never fully legible to the girls who, polished and popular, and culturally ultra-White, wore Jack Purcells without socks, drank cans of Diet Coke from straws, and drove old family Beemers off campus to give blowjobs to jocks. She’s Jewish, my friend; I, like a lot of black people, have a soul affinity for Jewish people, whatever their color, because they know.

But "Freedom" is black struggle; a song about Rodney King and food deserts and redlining and reparations and Lee Atwater. It’s about the carceral state, and Aunt Jemima, and Charlottesville, and all but one President of the United States, and Fenty, and the straitjacket of our anger. It’s about dating online (“no black women, please”) and the BMI chart and dying of breast cancer more, and dying in pregnancy and childbirth more, and our babies dying more. It's a song about coming to at the bottom of a well and treading water forever. It's about say her name.

It’s about the color of the light—a crackling, jaundiced yellow, flies suspended in the antiseptic glow—in the cement hallways of Marin City’s projects. It’s about Patsy, and the triumphant thrill of Lupita Nyong'o hawking Lancome. And the meaning of Michelle. It’s a song about Pigford v. Glickman and Forsyth County, Georgia and Hunter’s Point in San Francisco. And Chicago.

"Freedom’s" about that white man at the firm, a partner named Jack, who loathed Oprah, despised her, found her disgusting and self-absorbed and ambitious, and who said so, often, over dim sum lunches downtown, silky toothpicks in his ivory fingers. It’s about my client opining that blacks struggle in law school because there are no remedial classes. It’s about Elvis and Eminem. Prop 209. It’s a song about names like Lakisha and Emily. It’s about hydroquinone nipple cream and Tuskegee syphilis. It’s about nappy armpit hair (there’s a photograph of D’Angelo in a magazine, arm raised above his head, and someone said, “What’s wrong with his armpit hair?”), and the color of dead skin rubbed off on the towel (brown).

"Freedom" is about synthetic braids. And the blond guy who, months later, pulled my loose braid out and said, “Gross! Did your real hair just fall out or is this fake? I don’t know which is worse!” Neither did I. But I wanted my hair to flow in the wind when I ran. I didn’t want my natural short puff, which the world gazed upon like a helmet of cartoon negroness instead of a Samsonesque crown of roots and potential.

It’s a song about Vaseline thick on my hairline, the pungence of relaxer, my eyes watering and scalp burning as I wait (tick) wait (tock) wait (tick) wait (tock) for the timer to ding, wondering anxiously, as always, whether my scalp is bleeding. (My friend has thick, frizzy hair and, like me, has chemically straightened it, hoping to belong. We share a kinship of hair. And yet...whether her hair is frizzy or straight, she’s white, and frizzy or straight, I’m black.)

It’s about asses, butts. Sarah Baartman. It’s about how we came to be colored with such spectacular tones—rape, love, and ocean crossings. It’s a song about symbolic annihilation, and Kerry Washington’s wet hair as she fucks President Grant. "Freedom" is about the cast of Friends, Girls, Sex and the City, Modern Family, the new Roseanne, Game of Thrones, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and The Handmaid’s Tale.

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It’s a song about hate mail addressed to Nigger Pig (that would be me). It’s a song about America, and lineage that goes no farther back than a wooden pier in the Alabama River. (I hear that creaking. And the river slup-slupping against mossy pier legs, and ghosts humming, translucent and face-down in the water.) It’s about neck-filled nooses.

Being a black woman isn’t just about these things. But "Freedom" is a hymn for the ways our lives uniquely are about these things. It’s a song about how we abide. (I’d never trade my blackness for whiteness. My double consciousness, my soul, my ancestral grid, my nose, my daughter, my grandma, and the secrets I know that people who call themselves white will never know.)

Seeing "Freedom" used by my beloved white friend who is getting into roller derby...it hurt like a fastball on bone. But that wasn’t the worst part.

The worst part was how I shut myself up for weeks wondering whether it was okay for me to speak when speaking might upset a white person, even one I love so much she was the first person other than me and my husband to hold our newborn daughter. Would it make her angry? Would I sound crazy? Angry? Was I wrong? (How can I be wrong about something that belongs to me?) What if she had a clever response that made me look stupid, or made me more upset? What is she was defensive and lashed out? Was I overblowing things? (If this is navel-gazing, it’s because they broke my neck.)

I rewatched Lemonade. I read reviews and articles and an interview with Beyoncé’s co-author, who corroborated my understanding of the song. (How can I be wrong about something that belongs to me?)

I typed unsent emails, suggesting humbly that "Freedom" is my song, our song, not her song, and that using it for a hobby, however important, belittled our hymn. I tried to say she can love it, but she can’t have it. I tried to say it’s sort of like why white people shouldn’t use the n-word. No, not as bad as the n-word—unlike the n-word, we can all like Beyonce—but as Ta-Nehisi Coates suggests, can’t we just have something that’s ours? Does the mere fact that Beyoncé’s words are public mean white people get to use them as they wish? I chewed this bitter cud for days.

I deleted my final attempt at a note, unable to speak and afraid of a response. I didn’t even want to hear, “You’re right, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way.” Because of course she didn’t; and because talking about (my own) black subordination makes me sad; and because asking a friend to look with you at the earth and worms under the rock of race is tricky.

So I thanked Beyoncé for singing to me, for me, at me, through me, with me, loudly. And I set about metabolizing my bitter, angry sadness, reabsorbing the ink, because there is nowhere for it to go. I know "Freedom" is mine, and that will have to be enough.

Post Script: When I learned this was going to appear on BUST, I called my friend. Through two phone calls and two emails, we struggled, but lovingly. Our 20 years of friendship helped. She reiterated how being Jewish makes her an outsider and how Beyoncé resonates with her, too. She asked what, if I’m right about "Freedom," a non-black person is supposed to do with their love for the song. I said, I don’t know. I said, my intention was to chronicle my experience, not to attack her; her use of "Freedom" surfaced emotions hotter and deeper than perhaps befit an Instagram caption, but they were real. We listened, but never did completely agree on who or what "Freedom" is for. I want it, she wants it, and nobody wants to let go. We’re old friends. I guess that’s common ground. It will have to be enough.

top photo: Lemonade

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Savala Nolan Trepczynski is a writer and social justice attorney in California.  Find her work in/on Medium, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Detroit Free Press, The Berkeley Blog, A Practical Wedding, and Equals Record. 

 

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