A Seat at the Table, Between the World and Me, and Modern Blackness
By Jaylin Paschal
Managing the modern sociopolitical scene is difficult. How do you combat racism--socially, politically, economically, and psychologically--in a world that insists on being post-racial? How do you fully understand the stigma, or beauty, attached to your melanin when no one sees color? How do we initiate dialogue, when the people we need to speak with think the conversation is already over?
How do you navigate blackness in the twenty-first century?
It's no secret that racism has taken a new form and now plays a more complex role in society. No longer are the days of explicit racism; of fugitive slave laws and "Whites Only" signs. Now we face systemic, subliminal racism that exists beyond the surface, in the shape of policy implementation and microagressions.
More and more often, when facing this evolved form of oppression or discrimination or hatred, we find ourselves asking author Ta-Nehisi Coates' key question in Between the World and Me, a letter to his adolescent black son: How do I exist in this black body?
This question becomes more pressing when applied to a more modern context--the modern context in which we live in an America with a black first family, and an ungodly black prison population; a modern context in which more black women are taking on powerful leadership positions, and employers can legally discriminate against people with locs; a "post-racial" racist context. Coates expresses, "I don't know what it means to grow up with a black president, social networks, omnipresent media, and black women everywhere in their natural hair (Coates 21)." He picks up this thought pages later:
"I think that is why you may feel the need for escape even more than I did. You have seen the wonderful life up above the tree-line, yet you understand that there is no real distance between you and Trayvon Martin, and thus Trayvon Martin must terrify you in a way he could never terrify me. You have seen so much more of all that is lost when they destroy your body (Coates 24)."
When I first sat down to listen to Solange Knowles' LP, A Seat at the Table, I was reminded of this passage, and Between the World and Me in its entirety.
In the second track of the album, "Weary," Knowles' explicitly expresses grappling with Coates' question, beginning the song with "I'm weary of the ways of the world," and following up with, "I'm gonna look for my body yeah/ I'll be back real soon."
Here is a black woman, unapologetic and gorgeous and raw, presenting an analysis on the current condition of black womanhood. The Daily Beast describes the album as "a bold, poetic meditation on being black in America." Her work speaks on contemporary facets of racism, and our emotional responses to them. Knowles acknowledges the current (and historical) disconnect between black and white people, and, in a 21-track studio album, addresses this gap in understanding. She insists you don't touch her hair, tackles the trope of the Angry Black Woman, and pays a possessive homage to F.U.B.U.
Solange sums up the album with this declaration: “With the state of our country and all of the messages that we are constantly being fed about not being good enough, not being beautiful enough, not being smart enough, not having the economic power enough, and constantly being told that we’re not enough, I wanted this to literally be an hour long PSA that we are beyond enough. That we have always been and we are not asking for your permission. We are building our own.”
Essentially, she offers an answer to Coates' question, and shows us how she has learned and decided to live in her black body.