We Out Here: The Gospel of A Seat at The Table

Vanessa Willoughby on the resonance of Solange’s unapologetic blackness

Doubleday & Cartwright

When Solange released A Seat at the Table, it was like listening to a mother tongue that had been temporarily displaced. As a young black woman who barely stomached a childhood of white suburbia and its cocktail of microaggressions and blatant racism, it’s a rarity to encounter art that not only allows marginalized peoples to have a voice, but encourages unapologetic blackness. At 28, I’ve grown accustomed to not seeing myself in mainstream media. Unlike Solange, my formative years in my Connecticut hometown were shaped by my proximity to whiteness. The danger in never seeing your reflection in the world can be a slick and quiet death, like a daily dose of a simple poison. You are not quite invisible, because white people will bring up your existence and its authenticity at the most inconvenient moments. Yet you do not have super powers, because you are not immortal. Racism doesn’t care if you were on the honor roll or simply buying a bag of Skittles on your way home from 7-11. Its death blows are delivered without discretion. White supremacy only subsists on the total degradation and consumption of the black body. We are living in a country that needs to be reminded that the declaration “Black Lives Matter” is not a terrorist threat or a product of cartoonish black militancy dressed only to annihilate white rage. Blackness is more than rage or despair or ingrained cynicism. In the realm of A Seat at the Table, unapologetic blackness is undeniable proof of life: We’re here. We’re still here. We ain’t never left.

The world, or rather white supremacy, has never been kind to black pride, therefore making blackness a punishable offense. America elected its first black president in 2008 and again in 2012, and somehow this wasn’t seen as a fluke or evidence of what types of “blackness” are palatable for the average white person. President Obama’s consecutive election victories were viewed as the ultimate defeat of racism and bigotry. White people reveled in the notion that we’d achieved a “post-racial” America, failing to understand that the denial and burial of racism did not constitute its destruction.

Obama was pushed as the black messiah of a utopian narrative. White people and colorblind people alike never considered the consequences of a failed legacy.

Unfortunately, Obama’s presidency didn’t put an end to police brutality and the sickeningly common pattern of white cops gunning down unarmed black men and women. Following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Obama expressed his own frustrations during a press conference. He said, “These are not isolated incidents. They are systematic of a broader set of disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.” Obama’s presidency didn’t magically solve educational disparities directly connected to race, nor did it stop white college students from donning blackface or hanging nooses around their campuses. Obama was pushed as the black messiah of a utopian narrative. White people and colorblind people alike never considered the consequences of a failed legacy.

When I listen to A Seat at the Table, I am reminded that my blackness cannot be bought or sold. But the salvation of self-acceptance demanded years of cyclical growing pains and the restless feeling of never feeling at home in my bones. My blackness was a clear mark of Otherness. My white peers wouldn’t let me forget it. I remember riding the bus home from middle school. A white boy came slithering up the aisle and sat behind me to tell me a “joke.” The “joke” ended with racist rhetoric, comparing the color of black people’s skin to literal shit. I remember the hyena-laughter of my classmates. I don’t remember anyone speaking up to defend me.

As my classmates and I got older, the racism took on the face of pointed microaggressions and downright isolation: the New Englander’s version of polite bigotry, a defense mechanism honed by WASPs who were horrified to be accused of racism, who thought that calling someone racist was a racist act itself. No one was calling me “ugly for a black girl” to my face, but people made sure to specify how I was ugly: My lips were too big, nose a little too wide, my hair too wild and frizzy, seemingly made for white girls to tug and pull and use as target practice for compact bits of trash. White friends were always recommending that I date one of the few black boys in our grade. When I pressed how they came to their decision, they stuttered and tripped over their words, protesting any perceived ill intentions with the high-pitched desperation of a mouse squealing between the metal tongue of a trap. “You two would look good together,” they offered. Going to public school indoctrinated me into the self-destruction of the soul, where black joy and black pride were weaponized against me. I bottled up my emotions and became severely depressed, even turning to self-harm. I turned my anger inward, hoped the bile would turn to rot. I tried to find distractions, tried to sleep it away, tried to read it away, tried to drown in work. I suffered in silence until I couldn’t function. I didn’t seek professional help until I had left home.

During an interview with Stereogum, Solange confessed, “The idea of having to fully understand where you’re from – when I say that, I mean it in a variety of ways, not just your history but some of the family heirlooms and traumas that might have been passed down to you, your overall existence – I set out to create a body of work that reflected that.” A Seat at the Table speaks to personal and cultural battle scars amassed as a black woman existing in a society complicit with white supremacy. These traumas don’t necessarily have to be grandiose moments of enlightenment. The song “Don’t Touch My Hair” is just one of the finely-crafted examples of Solange’s ability to use a personal experience that is also deeply political. My hair is certainly a part of my blackness, often a source of frustration. I did not learn to love or appreciate it until I became an adult. In a 2016 interview with NPR, Solange said about the track’s inspiration, “I think overall, black hair has such a significance in black culture. And also, it's such an insular experience.” She continued, “Growing up, being a young girl, transitioning to junior high school, then into adulthood, the hair journey of a black woman is so specific… But again, it's a broader message for black empowerment.”

Solange - Don’t Touch My Hair

I’ve had too many white people touch my hair like I’m the latest attraction at a petting zoo. Many of those white people challenge the notion that such an act is not only a gross violation of personal space, but motivated by racism and/or fetishization and stubborn ignorance. It’s never just hair, per the backlash faced by Shea Moisture’s most recent advertisement. I learned to hate my hair by watching television and seeing an absence of brown faces who looked like mine. I learned to hate my hair by consuming every teen movie makeover where the girl’s once curly locks are ditched for long, pin-straight hair. I learned to hate my hair every time it broke a brush or refused to stay straight after hour-long sessions with the straightening iron. I learned to hate my hair when my third grade teacher made fun of my hair during class and belly-laughed with the rest of my classmates. I learned to hate my hair all over again when white people questioned if it was “real.” It wasn’t until I went away to college in Boston and graduate school in New York City that I found there was power in making peace with my natural hair. The diversity of city living washed away those lingering feelings of girlhood inadequacies, showed that freedom and empowerment were sometimes the same dream. The indoctrination pushed by white suburbia needed to be exorcised.

A Seat at the Table is not an album dedicated to white saviors or white guilt or the blinded vision of whiteness propped up by blackness. Discussions of personal and racial identity are not cultivated in a vacuum, but via a collective of individual and shared experiences that reveal a larger, sometimes thorny truth. Like Matthew Knowles, Solange’s father, my own father experienced racism at a young age. As one of the few black students at his nearly all-white high school, the same high school I would later attend, racism was practically a daily obstacle. He learned to fistfight out of necessity. Teachers assumed that he wasn’t smart because he was black. The guidance counselor assumed that because he came from a black family, he couldn’t afford to go to college. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, white classmates went out of their way to find him and offer condolences, as though King were my father’s favorite relative who made an appearance at every Thanksgiving dinner. Classmates who never even paid him the time of day said, “Sorry about your leader.” The words may have seemed like innocent empathy, but my father knew that their empathy was not an expression of solidarity. It was just another razor blade-laced offering, another reminder that he was a stranger in a strange land. My father, like Knowles, had “a lot to be mad about.”

Anger can be an undisciplined form of passion, but A Seat at the Table isn’t paralyzed by anger incited by the injustices of racism. The album’s narrative views anger as an expected part of the black experience, a family heirloom. Anger is a step in the healing process. The names of victims such as Jordan Edwards, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland and Kayla Moore would not have been thrust into the national spotlight without the catalyst of outrage. For black people, the personal is political. A Seat at the Table recognizes that black empowerment is not a monolith, but it cannot happen without unapologetic blackness. I am still learning, still growing, still contemplating what it actually means to drape yourself in the comforts of unapologetic blackness. Unapologetic blackness may not spare you from the teeth of white supremacy, but it can turn shackles into ghosts. The ghosts refuse to stay quiet. They are my hungry little marauders seeking to feed on the pain of past traumas. I recite the following mantra like a well-worn prayer:

I am not my trauma and my blackness is not the source of my trauma.

I am not my trauma. My blackness is not the source of my trauma.

I am not my trauma.

By Vanessa Willoughby on May 17, 2017

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