A Black Feminist Roundtable on bell hooks, Beyoncé, and “Moving Beyond Pain”

Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade is one of my favorite new pieces of art for many reasons — not the least of which for the conversation it started, especially among black women, about feminism, liberation, pain, anger, vulnerability, and black love. So when the email arrived from Melissa Harris-Perry wondering whether Feministing could host a cross-generational conversation with brilliant feminists of color like Jamilah Lemieux, Joy-Ann Reid, and more about bell hooks’ recent blog post on Lemonade, I knew right away what my answer would be. 

In hooks’ post, published to her own site, she acknowledges that with Lemonade, Beyoncé has constructed a “powerfully symbolic black female sisterhood” which understands the importance of “honoring the self, loving our bodies.” But ultimately, hooks issues a damning critique, attacking Bey’s project as one in which “violence is made to look sexy and eroticized”; black females cannot yet become “fully self-actualized and be truly respected”; and reconciliation and healing still evade us.

When hooks speaks, we listen, especially as her critiques span academic, digital media, and pop culture, spaces we are all invested in and affected by. These conversations are urgent and timely, and many of us felt called to respond to hooks’ analysis. But did we dare to publicly disagree with each other, risking pitting some of the most meaningful and visible Black feminists on the planet against each other, for all to see? The powerful group assembled below decided: yes. While there are certainly a diversity of viewpoints represented in the resulting roundtable conversation, at the core is a shared desire to smash patriarchy and celebrate black womanhood — and a question about the extent to which these missions are linked and overlapping. 

One more note before we get to the good stuff: we are purposefully convening this conversation across genders and generations. We mean no disrespect to hooks and in fact recognize that our movement has a history of disrespect, and even matricide, towards our elders, a cycle we are trying to break. The below group post is our attempt at a fair, forward-looking response and dialogue on a topic that’s meaningful to us. Now, without further ado:

Michael Arceneaux: hooks is entitled to her opinion; I’m entitled to mine
Sesali Bowen: Auntie bell, I love you, but you gotta chill
Wade Davis: Different vantage points, same idea
Cassie da Costa: Where’s hooks’ imagination about black female images and bodies?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Lemonade reminds us that feminism can’t save us from our pain
Blair LM Kelley: We should be celebrating Lemonade — not picking it apart
Jamilah Lemieux: Not being petty, but I wish bell hooks could find her way to us
Collier Meyerson: Like hooks, I, too, fantasize about the end of patriarchy
Joy-Ann Reid: Lemonade is a powerful Black feminist aesthetic in its own right
Doreen St. Felix: I disagree with hooks, but it’s OK for black critics to think differently
Quita Tinsley: Black women should be allowed to tell their stories of pain without being reduced to victims

Michael Arceneaux: hooks is entitled to her opinion; I’m entitled to mine

As great a fan of Beyoncé as I am, I know no one is above criticism. Still, I find it equally fascinating and frustrating that bell hooks – the same person who once wrote so gleefully about Lil’ Kim and now champions the likes of Emma Watson – can in turn be so contemptuous about Beyoncé, and in separates cases, artists like Nicki Minaj.

hooks’ continuous condemnation of femininity is a petty critique gussied up with academic pretension. The idea that being ultra feminine is anti-intellectual is more damaging and reductive a sentiment than anything shown in Lemonade.

It’s also mighty rich for a woman who labeled Beyoncé a “terrorist” to now complain about female violence. By the way, when you’re as controlled an act as Beyoncé is, there’s something to be said about her allowing herself to publicly show that level of anger.

And someone who sells books and gives speeches at premier universities should also know that just because something is designed to make money doesn’t inherently mean it is corrupt or compromised. Then there is the reality that how we hurt and how we heal vary. This was her way and art is not intended to discuss such matters in absolutes. I imagine the same goes for Beyoncé’s ideas of feminism, the celebration of women, and femininity in general. bell hooks is free to continue feeling otherwise, but I’m glad the rest of us are not bound to.

Sesali Bowen: Auntie bell, I love you, but you gotta chill

Even after her trite critiques, I’m still not sure what bell hooks wants from Beyoncé. After reading hooks’ latest critique, on Lemonade, I feel almost certain that what she wants from Beyoncé is something that she herself has yet to bring to the table. It must be stated that despite her brilliant theories on love, feminism, and imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that have enhanced the theoretical capacities of thousands, hooks has yet to “bring exploitation and domination to an end.” Even within the academic and social justice circles where bell hooks IS the Beyoncé of her genre (a superstar and artist with unique social capital and affluence), male dominance and white supremacy are still part of what it means to be Black and female (and often resting at other class, sexuality, and ability intersections). I do not doubt that in her personal life hooks has made the personal choices that she demands to see explicitly reflected in Bey’s artistry, i.e.: “To truly be free, we must choose beyond simply surviving adversity, we must dare to create lives of sustained optimal well-being and joy.” However, while those personal choices may create opportunities for hooks to “refuse to be a victim,” this has yet to become a widely understood reality for all Black women.

The source of contention I see from hooks on Beyoncé is a result of intentional blind spots that hooks uses in her analyses. For example, in her reading of Beyoncé’s “violent” scene in the visuals for “Hold Up” she ignores the blatant references to the orisha Oshun, and how she may have influenced Beyoncé’s creative direction. Furthermore, her use of the term, “glamorize” betrays a blind spot that fails to recognize Beyoncé’s humanity. Not sure about you, but I’ve definitely felt a desire to let people who have hurt me catch these hands. But because I agree with hooks’ assessment that “women do not and will not seize power and create self-love and self-esteem through violent acts,” so it is actually more productive for me to express those feelings in other ways. In the case of Beyoncé, she did so through her art. “Hold Up” is not a hit because women are reflecting on the violence they can, have or will enact as a result of rage. Viewers/listeners relate to the very real and very human emotion of feeling so hurt and angry that violence manifests itself as a thought. Despite the undeniable glamour of Beyoncé, to argue that revealing the complexities of her emotions equates to a glamorization of violence is a gross oversimplification.

In her critiques of Beyonce, hooks reveals the ways in which her utopian visions for humanity (that all of us intersectional, critical feminists respond to with heart eye emojis) also blind her to the daily realities that Black women – mainly black women who sing, named Beyonce – navigate. These realities are complex and made messy because of the love (or rage) we have for people in our lives, by the demands of our jobs (and make no mistake about it, despite her independence, Beyonce still has demands to meet), and our personal knowledge of liberation. hooks has been in the radical feminist game for over 30 years and still hasn’t freed us, or provided a perfect guide for how we can free ourselves. She wants too much from a woman who was only 3 years old when she released her first feminist theory text, and admittedly only began to research feminism a few years ago. Auntie bell, I love you, but you gotta chill.

Wade Davis: Different vantage points, same idea

In”Hold Up Beyonce explains, ‘I’m not too perfect to ever feel this worthless’.  These lyrics articulate what I believe both Beyonce and bell hooks are suggesting, just from different vantage points.  Beyoncé’s debunking her “Flawless myth by offering us her humanity in Lemonade. On the other hand, bell’s wants us (Beyoncé) to re-imagine ‘flawlessness’ or Lemonade as something that is a journey towards ‘self-love’ to remember our own humanity.

Cassie da Costa: Where’s hooks’ imagination about black female images and bodies?

bell hooks has always taken on popular culture in a rigorously-constructed political and social framework of ideas that centers around feminism and anti-racism. Lately, she seems to falter when it comes to anything current, anything that does not land firmly on its feet within the house she has built as a black feminist critic and theorist. In her blog post “Moving Beyond Pain,” she touches on the work of Julie Dash, whom she interviewed at length on Daughters of the Dust not long after the film was released, and Carrie Mae Weems, whom she wrote extensively about in Art on My Mind: Visual Politics. When she wrote about these artists, she considered the terms of their work as the work itself existed, and not held up against a backdrop of black female acceptability. However, in her essay on Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ video, she seems to oversimplify ideas about the “radical repositioning of black female images” and bodies as a way to self-righteously contest a video that does not check off a series of black feminist boxes that she has designated over the years.

hooks’s categorization of the “Hold Up” video—in which Beyoncé smashes car windows with a baseball bat and demolishes cars with a monster truck—as “female violence” isn’t jarring because it’s strong language, but because it’s unimaginative language. She turns a creative context into a stilted semiotic one, in which visuals are not composed or imagined into existence, but stamped onto the screen as signifiers. Beyoncé smashes window = Beyoncé affirms female violence. Aestheticized black female body = commodified black female body. Here, hooks seems to take note from the most useless of film reviewers: those who simply hold up a film to its symbolic mirror, tracing the signs with their own lexical egos. ‘Lemonade’ is not an assemblage of symbols or signifiers that affirm or condemn female violence, victimhood, or patriarchy—it is an imaginative work that actively struggles with them. It deals in imperfection and so, naturally, in imperfect images. (No matter how formally beautiful or aesthetically seductive they are, along with Warsan Shire’s poetry and Beyoncé’s lyrics, those images emphasize precarity.) It’s this kind of image-making I find much more useful, more artful, than what is firmly rooted—at least for hooks—as the radically represented black female body. Daughter’s of the Dust was not groundbreaking because it gave us aspirational images, but because it challenged us to imagine ourselves, and each other, as products of both our pleasure and our pain, of our futures and our pasts. In Daughters, the mark of slavery is indigo-stained hands. In Beyoncé’s imagining, those same hands, still marked, make lemonade.

Melissa Harris-Perry: Lemonade reminds us that feminism can’t save us from our pain

Beyond her concern with commoditization and sexy, representational violence, bell hooks’ most serious criticism of Beyonce’s visual narrative is that “does not bring exploitation and domination to an end.” I presume hooks does not expect a music video to end patriarchy – not even decades of hooks’ own feminist writing have accomplished that. But hooks dismisses Lemonade as useless for feminists seeking wholeness, equity, and partnership.

No matter how hard women in relationships with patriarchal men work for change, forgive, and reconcile, men must do the work of inner and outer transformation if emotional violence against black females is to end. We see no hint of this in Lemonade. If change is not mutual then black female emotional hurt can be voiced, but the reality of men inflicting emotional pain will still continue (can we really trust the caring images of Jay Z which conclude this narrative).

What an odd and wholly irrelevant question. It is really not our place to decide to trust Jay. More important, many of the visual images of Sean Carter are not about reconciliation, they are images from earlier years. They are Beyonce’s memories of her courtship, of her wedding, of the birth of her daughter. They are the beautiful, if hard, stones out of which adult lives of commitment are constructed. To have known desire, love, joy, companionship, marriage, children, accomplishment, is an extraordinary gift, but not a guarantee that the partnership will be free from betrayal, loss, hurt, harm, and pain.

Bell hooks should not lie to herself, to us, or to other feminists — feminism cannot save us from pain. Love cannot save us from pain. Lemonade is beautiful and empowering because it faces that truth so fully.  Even the pretty girls, and the rich girls, and famous the girls will feel pain.  Still untold are the stories of how many of these girls and women are also inflicting pain–because we are human. We also make choices that hurt and harm our beloveds – even when we are feminists.  Patriarchy is evil and must be dismantled. Intimacy can painful, but must be embraced.  

Indeed, feminism reminds grown folks to work through pain with honesty and to find the freedom and pleasure hooks seems unwilling to acknowledge in Bey’s Lemonade.  “We found the truth beneath your lies”  Beyonce tells us.  Why should we disbelieve her? May all feminists in heterosexual relationships find their bedside tables stocked with an ample supply of honesty, condoms, and Red Lobster gift cards.

Blair LM Kelley: We should be celebrating Lemonade, not picking it apart

I am very sad to see once again bell hooks is spending her time trashing Beyonce rather than sharing with this generation a conversation about what we’ve done and what we still have left to do.

When I was an undergrad in the 90s, bell hooks’ writing was a real lifeline to me.  She charted a way for me to think critically about the world around me to engage with a variety of texts and for that I am forever grateful. However I’m sad to see bell hooks in this generation misreading and failing to engage with a critical conversation Beyonce is spearheading.

Many things happened in the hour that is Lemonade and it seems like bell hooks missed many of them. Here her brief essay focuses on the moments surrounding “Hold Up” and fixating on Beyonce prancing violently in the lovely yellow gown. Here hooks fails to recognize Oshun, the deity carrying her cleansing sweetwater while unfurling her anger on the world. Here Beyoncé reminds us of that sometimes the choice of anger is essential. Here her choice to be angry literally breaks the water meant to drown her, and pushing her forward, breathing in the recognition of her own need to survive. hooks under reads the symbolism of that moment and then lets her thin analysis cling there.

However Beyonce moves from this joyful anger to the particular pain expressed in “Don’t Hurt Yourself” which I read is Beyonce’s critique of the failure of traditional Christian marriage.  Here flesh of my flesh has betrayed itself. Beyonce demands an accounting from her other half about  the bonds that should have made them one. But Lemonade doesn’t end with anger; here instead it moves on to the recognition that indeed none of this is new. Beyonce says it’s a tradition of men in her blood; her mother and her grandmother have also been in this place. With this recognition she moves toward a community of black women and girls. These women and girls of all ages, sizes, backgrounds unite in proximity to what looks like a plantation, a space that once systematically devalued their humanity. But despite hooks’ assertions here these women aren’t commodities but women whole recognized for their humanity. The scenes here remind me of moments in the clearing from Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I am reminded of “Baby Suggs, holy” reminding people who had once been enslaved that “here… in this here place, we flesh; Flesh that weeps; laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard.” Beyonce is reminding us in her rendering that it is this work we must do together that indeed as Morrison said “this is the prize.”

In this moment, black feminism should be celebrating one woman’s work to portray her journey and her experience through her voice, her music, and her vision as a filmmaker. It’s not perfect, but just because it’s popular doesn’t make it a failure. In a world struggling against recognizing black women’s humanity, I think Lemonade is sweetwater indeed.

Jamilah Lemieux: Not being petty, but I wish bell hooks could find her way to us

I occupy a space of relative privilege in the Black feminist world, having been embraced by both scribes who helped to shape my gender politics. Michele Wallace entrusted me to write the forward to last year’s re-release of Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. Folks like Joan Morgan, Mark Anthony Neal, Michaela Angela Davis and Melissa Harris Perry have warmly affirmed my space in the world of Black public intellectuals. Kierna Mayo is, quite possibly, the air I breathe.  

Making play aunties, big brothers and sister friends of my heroes was no small feat, but it says so much more about them than it does me.  

These folks see us, you dig? They see this large, loud cadre of sharp-witted millennial feminists who are taking on the charge of their intellectual foremothers and instead of being threatened and girding the public space they occupy against the threat of youth, they embrace us. They acknowledge how we contribute to the genealogy of Black feminist thought, encourage us to do the knowledge and explore the work of those who came before us and they love us.

Quietly, I’d hoped for years that I/we would have this experience with bell hooks. Quietly, I’ve known for years that would not be the case.

I am not suggesting that having a personal or professional relationship with me or my peers is the litmus test for Black feminist authenticity. However, I’m bothered by when and where bell’s engagement of the right now of Black feminism shows up: via criticism of Beyoncé.

Maybe this is small and petty, but I want her voice loving on young Black women and appreciating those of us who put our tiny feet in the large footprints she’s left. Perhaps if she engaged with us more, her analysis of the pop star wouldn’t be so painfully narrow.

As someone with a deep abiding love for sex, money and men, I have long accepted that hooks and I will not always see eye-to-eye on how to do this gender shit—and that’s fine. However, I am disappointed that her commitment to challenging the hypersexualization of Black women reduces Lemonade’s “display of Black female bodies that transgresses all boundaries” to a “commodity.” I wish she’d consider the sex positivity that is at the heart of the feminism that us younger folks have come to embrace, that she’d considered the joy many of us find in our bodies, in sex and yes, even in the male gaze that she seems to find inherently tied to the evils of patriarchy  — as if we are violating a code by wanting to be wanted.

There’s this profound public conversation about Black women, pleasure and our relationship to Black men taking place that is guided by the folks like Feminista Jones, Lori Adelman, Mikki Kendall and yes, me (for EBONY Magazine, of all places— what a time.) And our mother elder bell is hugged up with Emma Watson’s participant ribbon ass brand of feminism and holding Beyoncé up to an impossible rubric of curious value.

I hope bell hooks can find her way to the young Black feminists (and not just those of us with blue checks on Twitter or honorarium checks in our mailbox) who both love her so and deserve so much more than the callous disregard of our sexual agency. I hope that she will one day see us, and Beyonce, with the love we deserve.  

Collier Meyerson: Like hooks, I, too, fantasize about the end of patriarchy

I do not wish to admonish bell hooks for her dreams of a diminished patriarchy. I too fantasize about a world in which a black woman’s body isn’t oversexualized or commodified. And, no, Beyonce’s Lemonade did not singlehandedly reject patriarchy. But she certainly didn’t reinforce it.

That hooks thinks Beyoncé is even capable of being a force in dissolving the patriarchy is laughable. It just simply isn’t the job for a woman whose main currency is fame. How do you separate capitalism with fame in America? lol. Nothing produced by America’s preeminent black pop star is ever going to resemble anything close to the complete unraveling of hundreds of years of subjugation and mistreatment. Patriarchy is the disease, not Beyoncé.  

Lemonade is a messy, dramatic portrait of black women’s life and that is a form of patriarchal resistance. hooks attacks Beyoncé for staying with the man who cheated on her, for not shooting him down (something hooks probably wouldn’t approve of anyway since earlier in the piece she excoriates Beyoncé for glorifying violence). But that is precisely how Beyoncé tugged at the patriarchy in Lemonade. With her humanity and with the humanity of others. Beyoncé, with her very human story, forces the voice of black women’s experiences into the mainstream. And that’s not victimization.

Joy-Ann Reid: Lemonade is a powerful Black feminist aesthetic in its own right

When my daughter first watched Lemonade with me, my shy, dark skinned, proudly single and defiantly independent 21-year-old lept out of her chair and claimed it as an hour long anthem. Despite it being, as bell hooks – and let me pause for a moment here, and take a knee, acknowledging hooks as the Mother Supreme of Black feminism – an extended reverie on a girl done wrong by her man, which is not exactly next level, I gently disagree that Lemonade is not a powerful Black feminist aesthetic in its own right.

Beyonce is performing a very specific kind of feminism in my view; one that insists that black women are, first and foremost, women – deserving of and belatedly claiming the right to the kind of adoration and admiration of the feminine that white women have always taken for granted. You might ask why this would matter to a woman who proudly proclaims “I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making.” The answer, embedded in the Antebellum images of Lemonade’s extended video album, is because from our first steps onto the American continent (North, South and Caribbean), we were not women at all. We were things. The commodification of our bodies was written on our skin – or rather branded on it. We were objects, to be owned and traded and sold or hung from trees like laundry (which makes the gorgeous images of blacl women sitting, purposefully, in southern trees in the video so powerful). We were listed in ledgers like the cattle; our marriages and families were considered as ephemeral as the mating and breeding of pets. The inclusion of those bereft Black mothers in the video album drives home the continued relegation of our families as ticks off a ledger box. And the inclusion of so much natural hair, so many skin shades and body sizes in Lemonade – not to mention those Yoruba painted women on the bus, and Serena Williams, perhaps the most bestialized, ill-portrayed, underappreciated black woman in America – unabashedly twerking til the break of dawn, drives home the point that black women, and particularly dark skinned black women, have still not escaped the “dewomanizing” of our bodies. If Beyonce is commodifying our sexual beings, she is doing so by seizing the the receipts from the dominant culture’s hands. If she is demanding our place on the pedestal in front of our men, she is doing so by shoving “Becky with the good hair” off those heights. If she is delighting in vengeful destruction in a sexy, flouncy dress, she’s taking that baseball bat to the notion that no matter how we strive to be “soft,” to be “pretty,” to be “more silent” and figuratively under water, as the Warson Shite poem beautifully illustrates, that we are still not fully feminine.  

There is ample room to critique that as a starting point for a feminist narrative, but there’s a lot of room to build on it, too.

Doreen St. Felix: I disagree with hooks, but it’s OK for black critics to think differently

We can count bell hooks’ critique of Lemonade as the second reckoning just this month between two generations of black critics and black consumers. Earlier this month, where you fell on the “nigga” debate, following Larry Wilmore’s set at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, corresponded with your age and the general attitudes that come with it, as writers like Vann Newkirk II so eloquently argued. bell’s Lemonade analysis hits a similar nerve. I’m interested in her critique to the extent that it shows strong diversity of thought in black feminism, to the extent that it shows that black critics think differently. There’s a lot of femme-phobic and conservative thought that can be, on its face, compatible with black feminism and it’s important to observe that. I disagree with almost everything hooks argued, especially the final point that Lemonade‘s weakness was that it “glamorizes a world of gendered cultural paradox and contradiction” because I think its tautological and facile. In fact, hooks’ past critiques of Beyoncé have also felt facile in this way, in that she’s much more concerned with the imagined effect of any given Beyoncé cultural product than with the fact that Beyoncé literally is a black woman. Furthermore, her disdain for femininity and eroticized bodies doesn’t hold when she’s analyzing perceived “less oppressive” darker skinned, black bodies like Lil Kim. See this Paper interview to see how hooks treats eroticism within patriarchy.

Finally, the bar for “glamour” is low—literally any pop object displayed on a screen, made with some kind of budget, can constitute glamour. hooks’ own relationship with Emma Watson should make that clear.

Quita Tinsley: Black women should be allowed to tell their stories of pain without being reduced to victims

In her critique of Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade, bell hooks describes the album as staying “within a conventional stereotypical framework, where the black woman is always a victim.” But, Black women should be allowed to tell their stories of pain, hurt, and betrayal without it all being reduced to a story of victimhood. In doing so, we as Black women and femmes are taking control of the ways in which we choose to be full, autonomous humans in a world that constantly dehumanizes us. In my opinion, this visual album tells the story of a woman who refuses to be the victim and reclaims her agency after betrayal and infidelity. From smashing cars to going out with friends to staying with her husband, Beyonce talks about a journey of emotions and ultimately, choices. Her choice to stay with her husband who has cheated is not continuing to be the victim, but is an indication of her choice to love and forgive someone who has hurt her. This choice speaks to her power and agency within her relationship with herself, as a mother, as a daughter, and a wife; and not a dynamic of patriarchal expectations.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman started blogging with Feministing in 2008, and now runs partnerships and strategy as a co-Executive Director. She is also the Director of Youth Engagement at Women Deliver, where she promotes meaningful youth engagement in international development efforts, including through running the award-winning Women Deliver Young Leaders Program. Lori was formerly the Director of Global Communications at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and has also worked at the United Nations Foundation on the Secretary-General's flagship Every Woman Every Child initiative, and at the International Women’s Health Coalition and Human Rights Watch. As a leading voice on women’s rights issues, Lori frequently consults, speaks and publishes on feminism, activism and movement-building. A graduate of Harvard University, Lori has been named to The Root 100 list of the most influential African Americans in the United States, and to Forbes Magazine‘s list of the “30 Under 30” successful mediamakers. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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