Rhythm without the blues

Amanda Bennett

On Saturday, SGA presidential candidate Caroline Morrison shared a video of a group of RipTide dancers performing the choreography to Beyoncé’s “Formation” video as each dancer held a “#VoteForMorr” sign. The dance was originally choreographed by Rip Tide in order to perform at and raise awareness for UADM. Of the five dancers shown in the video, only one is a black woman. The video is filmed in a parking garage, with most of the dancers wearing dark colors and combat boots in what appears to be an attempt to add edge and “danger” to the shoot.

Being black is and always has been a dangerous thing, and the original version of “Formation” that Beyoncé released fully grasps that. Blackness is not contained exclusively in a dance, phrase, meme or song. The art and culture that are produced within the black community are a direct response to the poverty, environmental racism, institutional barriers and extended genocide that have marred the black experience for nearly four hundred years.

Black art is a complex act of collective defiance, compelling the oppressed to find beauty and self-actualization in the face of unthinkable adversity and hatred. By all logic, black art should not exist. And yet it does, resilient and uniquely compelling as the black artist worries how much pain a body can take before it breaks.

A lot has been said about cultural appropriation and what it means for both white and black people, but what it truly comes down to is a simple lack of respect for the human beings within the ethnic or cultural group from which one is stealing. It is an audacity that defies all reason that entitles white appropriators to buy and sell black bodies for centuries, build roads and universities with their unpaid labor, and then feel no remorse when plundering the one outlet that black people have historically used to cope with the trauma of slavery and racism. White appropriators want the rhythm without the blues, the call without the response and the body without the soul, peering into the windows of the black experience like voyeurs outside of a house party to which they were never invited.

Beyoncé published the “Formation” video one day after what would have been Trayvon Martin’s 21st birthday and one day before what would have been Sandra Bland’s 29th birthday. Both Bland and Martin have functioned posthumously as important figures in the Black Lives Matter movement, and Beyoncé’s decision to release “Formation” on Feb. 6 was intentional. We like to forget that black people were left to die on overpasses in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or that viral videos of black people being shot to death by police do not rouse a fraction of the concern over human rights violations that they deserve. White appropriators have loved black culture since they thought that black people sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” because they were happy to be enslaved, but they have never completely found themselves comfortable with black people because that would require the acknowledgement of bloodstains that will never really come out.

We exist in a society in which the killing and mass incarceration of black people are remarkably profitable industries. Each of us becomes complicit in those industries when we fail to listen or educate ourselves about the institutional ways that racism affects our daily interactions and decisions. Black art is the dark crystallization of grieving mothers and exploited communities, and any attempt to interpret it independently of the black experience is to strip it to the bones in order to see whiteness again. 

Amanda Bennet is a senior majoring in English and African American studies. She has publicly endorsed Patrick Fitzgerald’s candidacy for SGA President.