Why Solange’s A Seat at the Table made my guilty white eyes cry this week
In the highly competitive battle for attention within my fickle wandering mind, two things have completely overtaken my thoughts this week:
- The tragic, gruesome and unjust death of a black man, George Floyd, at the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer (and his colleagues by complicity).
- Solange’s A Seat at the Table, an exquisite album that was my favourite of 2016.
In the space of 24 hours, we witnessed two disgusting blatant acts of racism; one fatal and another that could have ended just the same way based on what we saw of the other(s).
A bird-watching black man saw (and thankfully recorded) a white woman first threaten to, and then actually, call the police on him and tell them ‘there’s an African American man threatening my life’. All because he asked her to put her dog on a leash – in other words, to comply with the rules of the park they were both in. Apparently, she felt particularly ‘threatened’ when he tried to give her dog a treat. In her defense, she thought it might be poison. Why on earth would she think that, though? Oh, yeah.
More tragically, but founded on exactly the same type of privilege and racism, we saw a video of the police ‘force’ used against George Floyd that led to his death. For over 5 minutes the officer knelt with brute force and smug superiority on George’s neck as his pleas escalated from help, to air, then ultimately for his life. In between he desperately and breathlessly shrieked for his mother, who has been dead for two years.
And Breonna Taylor, who was recently shot and killed in her own apartment, by unannounced police officers with a no-knock warrant.
AND Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice or the hundreds of others both ‘seen’ and not by ‘us’.
I felt, and feel, heartbroken, angry, helpless … and guilty.
Maybe this all felt cumulative after Ahmaud Arbrey’s killing in Georgia came to our attention in recent weeks (despite happening in February). Ahmed was another young black man killed at the hands of three white men, including one former police officer and his son. Ahmed was out jogging at the time. After repeatedly being assessed as warranting ‘no arrests’ by the District Attorney (who later had to recuse himself from the case due to connections to the father and son responsible for the killing), it took the footage of the incident to go viral and the subsequent public protest to lead to charges ultimately being laid – 10 weeks after the incident.
On top of my own guilt riddled anger and sadness, seeing the reactions of my black friends, and other friends and people of colour this week, brought this home even more. Even those who usually play by the rules (the rules set by us white people, who get to make them based on what makes us comfortable) were brow-beaten and deflated. Sad, at least. Fearful, at worst. For themselves, their family and friends, and wider black community.
This wasn’t just the tragic death and another ‘newsworthy’ case of racism at the hands of white privilege. For them, and every other black person, it was a reminder of the lifetime(s) of racism and discrimination they have experienced. The blatant, seen with the naked eye racism, and the hidden, passive racism that must feel like death by a thousand cuts – the kind that eventually leads to fatal white knees to the throat.
In between this cycle of angrily and tearfully scouring social media posts, videos and comments from people in pain, people calling for action, people asking what to do, my musically inclined mind kept wandering to Solange’s A Seat at the Table.
If it thought it was going to find the sort of escapism it normally craves, it was mistaken.
I’ve listened to this album hundreds, upon hundreds of times over the last few years. I really do love it so much. It’s a soulful excursion that weaves a tapestry of the experience and perspectives of black people, of which Solange is a masterful storyteller.
My favourite moment on the album is an interlude just before Don’t Touch My Hair. Solange and Beyoncé’s Mom speaks freely on the short but powerful Tina Taught Me. Here’s a snippet:
Because you celebrate black culture does not mean that you don’t like white culture or that you putting it down. It’s just taking pride in it, but what’s irritating is when somebody says, you know, “They’re racist!”, “That’s reverse racism!” or, “They have a Black History Month, but we don’t have a White History Month!”
Well, all we’ve ever been taught is white history. So, why are you mad at that? Why does that make you angry? That is to suppress me and to make me not be proud.
I have loved this passage since I first heard it. So much, that last year I tried to silence a small after-after party to play this in support of my explanation of why Beyoncé and Solange’s musical vision and social commentary is so important.
Listening this week, though, Tina and Solange struck a different chord in me. A deep and emotional nerve. I realised that Tina’s words are what was drawing me back to listen to this album, ‘now’.
My favourite song on the album is Mad. Over a reluctantly buoyant melody (perhaps an eye-rolling nod to society’s expectations), Solange role plays a conversation with ‘a girl’, who asks her the loaded question of why she’s always so mad.
It’s a track that usually leaves me upbeat. I had heard the words before. I know them all by heart, even the Lil Wayne verses (his best since The Carter III and his most poignant since Tie My Hands).
I ran into this girl, she said, “Why you always blaming?”
“Why you can’t just face it?”
“Why you always gotta be so mad?”
“Why you always talking shit, always be complaining?”
“Why you always gotta be, why you always gotta be so…”
I got a lot to be mad about (Be mad, be mad, be mad)
I knew what the song was about. So why did this just make me cry for the first time this week?
Not loud uncontrollable sobbing, or the little pissy tears I get when I watch TV. These were tears of realization. Thinking about this song in the broader context of what’s happened – and really been happening for generations – packed a punch.
How could I have been so superficial and naive? I‘ve been enjoying the music and acknowledging its message, but without acknowledging or feeling the pain. But is it possible to really hear and understand, let alone deserve, the music without it?
The same is true for Don’t Touch My Hair, Weary, Rise, Where Do We Go, and the rest of my favourites on this album (and who knows how many other albums from the black artists that have given me so much over the years).
They all now take on a new meaning to me. Closer to the source of their birth, I suspect.
While I’ll never know what it’s like to be black and all the oppression and aggressions that come with that, I will listen more carefully. I will ask more caringly. I will challenge people like me more consistently. I will educate myself.
Being gay, I had loads of allies. They were a key part of the gay marriage vote passing resoundingly in Australia and acceptance increasing in many parts of the worlds people like me live.
But black people aren’t going to just keep randomly popping up in white people’s families like that. White people won’t organically adjust their views because they suddenly have a black son/daughter/brother/sister.
It shouldn’t take events like this week for us to care. To help. To dismantle the biased world and heirarchy our ancestors created. One which we continue to reap the benefits of. The world that has allowed us to succeed and live at the expense of others.
We were born into privilege because of our skin. A privilege that is itself born of either slavery, colonisation or oppression.
As a result, black people on average have less opportunity – educationally, economically, professionally … in these constructs we have created. By design, not by chance.
It’s time to follow those teachings of Tina and learn our black history, because our own is completely whitewashed without it. This also goes for Indigenous history in places like Australia, and others destroyed by colonialism.
If I was arrested instead of George Floyd or offered a woman’s dog a treat while bird watching, or took a jog, no one would call the police, and if they did the police wouldn’t use excessive force on me. Let alone kill me over an alleged fraudulent cheque.
I could – and still do – hide being gay to a point, in situations where I feel threatened, or unsafe. Thankfully those occasions are becoming increasingly rare.
Black people have no such luxury. They shouldn’t have to.
I still feel heartbroken, angry … and guilty.
I no longer feel helpless, because I now know I am not. That is one thing that has become really clear this week.
White people invented the type of racism that persecutes black people. We are therefore the only ones who can – and should – dismantle it. It’s not fair to lay the responsibility on black people, who are already suffering enough, with this and the continual discrimination since their birth.
As Solange sings at the end of Mad:
I ran into this girl, I said, “I’m tired of explaining”
Man, this shit is draining
But I’m not really allowed to be mad
My fellow white people: It’s time to get mad. Time to get educated. Time to recognize our privilege and use it for something other than our collective selves.
PS. I listened to Don’t Touch My Hair whilst reading; so had the surround sound experience 🙂
Thanks for writing and for sharing. Eloquent and honest. We have a lot to do.