Afrofuturism, Dark Matter, and the Divine: A Conversation with Maxine Montgomery on Black Is King

Friday, September 18, 2020

In a year of surging police brutality coupled with the Covid19 pandemic, it has proven hard to make time for escapism and even harder to locate opportunities for celebration. Somewhere in the mix, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter revealed Black Is King, a defiant and dazzling hybrid work that compounds a trilogy of visual albums from the solo artist. Having viewed 2016’s record-breaking Lemonade as well as Homecoming which chronicled Beyoncé’s HBCU-inspired Coachella shows, I predicted that the artist’s newest visual album would blur lines between past and present, real and imagined life, and pain and pleasure. As I thought about Black women in these complex realms, my mind wandered to one particular seminar that I took at Florida State University: a course on the oeuvre of Toni Morrison taught by Maxine Montgomery. Having heard Dr. Montgomery’s lectures on Black womanhood, spirituality, imagination, and surrealism, I was eager to hear her thoughts on Beyoncé’s Black Is King. We held the following virtual dialogue as a collaboration between BIWOC. Together, we reflected upon epistemology, empowerment, and Black women’s histories in this striking genre.

TQ: One of my initial thoughts in hearing about Beyoncé’s involvement with The Lion King was, “Uh oh.” I think (even well-intentioned) artists have homogenized disparate African traditions of music, dance, and visual art to the point where they cannot be appreciated, studied, and respected as distinct and very much alive. This was how I felt after the music video for “Spirit” came out; the barefoot Black dancers, the face paint, the waterfall, etc. I thought, “That’s not Africa, that’s Disney.” Still, I can appreciate that the Middle Passage engineered its own cultural monolith since many Black people in the U.S. are not able to pinpoint where their ancestors came from. How do you see Black Is King navigating this? Since we are both scholars of text, how would you characterize Black Is King as literature?

MM: Black Is King, Beyoncé’s most recent visual album, seeks to situate itself in the interstices between generations with the conflicted relationship between Simba and Mufasa as a locus for examining a myriad of issues confronting melanated subjects across time and space.  Beyoncé frames the popular narrative from Disney’s The Lion King involving Simba’s search for self-identity within a kaleidoscopic rendering of signifying references to ancient and contemporary Africa—the Motherland—which assumes broad symbolic significance in an appreciation of a young boy’s growth into manhood. Efforts to retell the story of Simba’s coming of age prompt a reconstruction of a lost, fragmented African past. It is here that the album is at its most ambitious height and, in many respects, its most controversial dimension. Scenes of traditional African dances are juxtaposed with more contemporary representations of black dance in ways that gesture toward the Africanist roots of African-American cultural expressivity. In his move from adolescence to adulthood, from childhood to manhood, Simba becomes a tropological rendering for members of a post-slavery nation who must “find your way back” (as the second track’s title suggests).   

But the route home, at least as it appears in Black Is King, is not altogether clear or unobstructed. Neither are the social, political, or economic conditions prompting the need for a reclaimed Africa. Scenes featuring an urban youth culture dripping with money and grills offer no clue to the underlying causes of the materialist mindset on the part of Black and brown youths. Alas, the visual album leaves us with the programmatic Sankofa notion that the journey forward is linked inextricably with the journey back. And that journey takes place in relation to the feminine in an album that is at its best in its variegated representations of Black womanhood. 

TQ: Sankofa ideology and the journey “back” really help us to understand the grounding epistemology in BIK. Viewers who sit down for a linear, chronological narrative will be sorely disappointed. The opening two tracks rock us back and forth between the present—via the white-clad gangster in the industrial, urban setting—and the past, by way of the seemingly untouched natural landscapes. Perhaps this is implicitly the cornerstone of double consciousness in the DuBoisian sense?

MM: In this regard, BIK is in conversation with a range of texts in the tradition of Africana women’s literature and culture, including Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Paule Marshall’s Praisesong For the Widow, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, and Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf.

TQ: I would add Shange’s Sassafras, Cypress, and Indigo along with Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Black Looks: Race and Representation, although I know bell hooks is not too fond of Queen (King?) B. I wish Shange had been alive to see this. I see her lyrical style all over this piece.

Beyoncé appears as the Madonna in several parts of the visual album. In some parts, she toys with images of the divine and the sublime. In other scenes, like the opening sequence, B appears on the beach in white, sending a basket into the water. She also cradles a newborn, so that evocative quality is earnest. But as we saw in Lemonade, Beyoncé also embodies Oshun, Erzulie, and various loas and/or orishas. She even revisits the bright yellow dress, notably while surrounded by a Black gospel choir dressed in violet. How would you describe the use of spirituality and faith in BIK?

MM: While the album opens with a visually-stunning scene reminiscent of the biblical Moses’ mother placing him in a basket in a river, it returns us later to this space, presumably to the Nile, the presumed cradle of civilization, with inferences of the Middle Passage and the multi-dimensional journey between Africa and a New World setting, between past, present, and future.  

Issues of spirituality and faith abound in Black Is King, and in ways that signal Beyoncé’s efforts to elide a white, patriarchal Judeo-Christian gaze. Here, again, the trope of the Middle Passage is instructive in unpacking the religious syncretism resulting in a blend of epistemological beliefs, from African or African-Caribbean traditions with Erzulie, Osiris, Satet, Oshun, and Mami Wata (Mother Water) to inferences of a Black Madonna. One sees a confluence of beliefs drawn from a range of systems in a non-hierarchical fashion so as to reveal the cross-cultural influences between and among African diasporic nations. 

Perhaps fittingly, and as a nod to the traditional Black church, the album culminates with Beyonce’s singing with a choir and intoning “Spirit.” But clearly, the album posits the notion that the church is a social construct, and presents a theological positioning that is rooted in an African spiritual epistemology that privileges women as creators. Beyonce weaves herself in and out of the album as a whole as a unifying device linked with the maternal. The “spirit” referenced by the moving song is one that transcends orthodox Christianity, as is evidenced by the album’s reworking of the Old Testament story of Moses, a type of Christ, and the Song of Solomon.

TQ: Particularly in this cultural moment with racial tensions and anti-Blackness soaring sky-high under Trump, many would prefer not to reckon with the intrinsic Blackness and brownness of figures in the Bible. We have seen countless groups weaponize the myth of a white, blue-eyed Jesus as a way of gatekeeping and situating certain communities as saved or chosen while damning others. We know that this rhetoric has been used over centuries to justify slavery and anti-Black mentalities. Some readers of the Bible appear to divorce the stories from their geographic settings. Which scenes in BIK work to correct this whitewashing of the Bible and geolocate its stories in their proper context? How does BIK undo this whitewashing by empowering Black viewers of faith and/or linking Black American spiritualities with Christianity?

MM: BIK endeavors to re-race and un-gender biblical lore and tropes in ways that underscore the role that Africans and African-descended people have played in shaping a Judeo-Christian epistemology.  Like Toni Morrison, whose landmark essay Playing in the Dark directs attention to an Africanist presence as a mediating influence in constructions of whiteness, Beyoncé raises key questions about issues of racial representation and the unacknowledged contributions of blackness to world culture. Beyoncé advances the notion that the black church is as much in need of redemption from its internalization of a Western gaze as is Simba himself.   The album’s retelling of familiar biblical stories, especially those involving the mother-child relationship with the account of Moses in the River Nile or the narrative surrounding the birth of Christ, encourages a rethinking of Africa and its role in shaping the larger narrative of Western or European culture and the spaces out of which such stories evolve.

Mirrored accounts of a mother’s placing a child, presumably Simba/baby Moses, into the Nile and later rescuing him frame the album as a whole, offering a discursive structure for BIK’s re-inscription of signal events marking the Black presence in a New World setting: slavery, the Middle Passage, and colonization. Here, though, that journey is a multi-directional one leading to a confluence of varied cultural traditions representing a variegated diasporic heritage that undermines strict notions of time, space, and identity. It is this futuristic world, one where the boundaries demarcating past, present, and future, sacred and secular, no longer exist that will welcome and nurture an adult Simba.

TQ: Futuristic! That is a word that we associate with cyborgs and digital technology, but there is so much that is both primordial and futuristic in BIK. Going back to the role of Africa as the Cradle of Mxn and the site of cultural production, I think this is where the mythic, Afrofuturistic space of BIK is most impactful. The visual album is not really set in any part of “Africa” as we know it. These are Black spaces as they could be and should have been, perhaps even Black spaces unsullied by chattel slavery. While the idea of “Wakandafication” grew from Marvel’s Black Panther, BIK doesn’t plunge us into pure fantasy. Instead, we get a transnational, para-historical realm where we must interrogate our own understandings of Black identity and history, especially those of us who are non-Black viewers.

I am thinking of how Saidiya Hartman asks “Which Africa?” in Lose Your Mother thereby indicating that there is no such monolith. As Hartman travels the slave trade routes, she shows us many spaces within the continent, multiple possibilities and countless forgotten pasts. In BIK, we are both nowhere and everywhere. The American flag rendered in red, green, and black silk establishes this clearly; it shines as an emblem of possibility. The nowhere/everywhere combination connects back to the recurrent image of the crossroads. While Papa Legba featured more prominently in Lemonade, we still sense the power of the crossroads throughout BIK: the ocean and the coast, the city and the countryside, life and death, the material and the ethereal. All of these are grounded firmly in a circular Afrocentric ontology; I see the crossroads embedded within the iconic Circle of Life. The two are inextricable from one another. 

MM: Much of BIK is situated in a geographic space where the dialectical tensions between good and evil, sacred and profane, no longer exist. Everything is spiritual—the trees, water, the hills—and that spirituality needs to be named and reclaimed. That the album culminates with “Spirit,” arguably one of the most moving selections in the album, prompts a rethinking of Judeo-Christianity and its misuse in furthering the oppression of women and people of color and an embrace of an epistemology that transcends denominational bounds. 

Ultimately, the album calls into question any belief system that seeks to separate communities of faith from each other, or from the larger cultural or historical traditions that inform the religious practices of African and African-descended people, in empowering Black believers in the quest for a belief system that acknowledges a history of oppression while pointing the way to a higher, more transcendent way of life.

TQ: W. E. B. DuBois grounds double consciousness in the self, but we can see in BIK how space renders Blackness hypervisible. This is how I read Stephen “Papi" Ojo as he dances and poses painted in haint-blue. The pigment calls to mind the various dusts and ingredients used in conjure. He draws your eye, but also stands at Beyonce’s side as though he is tethered to her somatic body and to Simba’s. At night and in dark spaces, his vivid turquoise is otherworldly and practically fluorescent. Ojo’s masterful dancing and gesticulations signal a refusal to be mistaken or kept still. And his contrasting physique makes Beyoncé’s body that much more apparent. 

MM: In Lemonade, oratory from Malcolm X reminds us that “the Black woman is the most disrespected woman in the world.” But the myriad personae that Beyoncé assumes not only in Lemonade, but also Black Is King seek to disrupt the controlling images of Black femininity that Patricia Hill Collins mentions in Black Feminist Thought. What views of womanhood, motherhood, or female sexualities does BIK present, and does the album’s reliance upon a vision of Black femininity based in what Teresa Washington calls aje or woman-power as a quintessential essence derived from an Africanist geo-political space redeem Black women from the oppressive roles to which Western or European culture would consign them? 

TQ: People willfully misunderstand the complex Black women’s subjecthood that Beyoncé embodies in BIK. I get so exhausted by people who see a Black woman dancing, using her breasts and booty as instruments, and castigate this act as obscene. They need to read some of Carolyn Cooper’s work on dancehall in Noises in the Blood. The body, hair, even clothing is percussive in BIK. The discursive function of several of the dances seen is confrontation. Many West African dance styles emphasize confrontation, even mimicry, offset by a groundedness through which a dancer demonstrates control of both their body and the audience’s attention. And control is key.

BIK also takes an active stance in complicating what women look like and should look like. There are dancers of all body types, skin colors, and hair textures. Though Beyoncé is light-skinned and has a traditionally attractive, curvaceous body, she is also flaunting her figure in a way we rarely see mothers encouraged to do. She writes sensuality and sexiness back into the equation, frequently wearing second-skin garments and gowns with thigh-high slits. In this way, Beyoncé defies the insult implicit in words like “matronly.”

MM: I am intrigued by your reading of Black femininity throughout BIK and the ways the album takes aim at the color fetish association with Western culture. The range of skin tones directs attention to life in a melanated society that privileges blackness while not being circumscribed by essentialist notions, and the album also destabilizes representations of Black femininity based in a dichotomy between maternity and sexuality. 

TQ: Exactly. Though some may critique the decadent fashions of the visual album, the haute couture is a way of honoring the body and laughing in the faces of those who would deny such opulence to Black women. The processes of correction are nuanced here. I’m reminded of Ateetee, a music-based practice used by Arsi Oromo women to serve justice and protect one another. Ateetee predates the formal governance that exists in Ethiopia today, so it suffices to say that the women's ritual resonated over time. In scenes where Beyoncé and Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child sing to one another, we see the inherent communalism of Africana womanism/Black feminism. Beyoncé’s eldest child, Blue Ivy sings and dances prominently, proving that the bonds of kinship are strengthened and that an Afrocentric message of empowerment and joy will be secured for posterity.

With that Malcolm X quote in mind, BIK flips the script. “King[liness]” is actively redefined here; a “king” is not a birthright passively inherited by a man. In BIK, to be a king means you have the power to be held accountable. Kingship means that you can maintain control, but also that you will take care of those close to you.

MM: I notice that Beyonce dedicates BIK to Sir Carter, her only son. What has BIK to say about gender roles, or the role of Black mothers as gatekeepers who have the power to guide their sons away from toxic masculinity? Is this role any different from the “true and ancient properties” Toni Morrison ascribes to a community of diasporic women in the epigraph for Tar Baby?

TQ: Since nurturing roles stand in diametric opposition to toxic masculinity, Beyoncé sets a social precedent for her son in the visual album. Black women had to learn to multiply their ability to care for and protect others tenfold. A huge part of why I study food is because many would have us believe that the kitchen or the hearth is simply a space of oppression. But there is immense power in sustaining life through the feeding of others. That’s one of the “true and ancient properties” Morrison spoke of. That’s one of the features of aje.

MM: Black is the always-already of cultural expressivity in a diasporic geographic. Early on, Beyonce intones the words, “dark matter,” one in a litany of coded utterances lending themselves to interpretation and re-interpretation through a complex signification pointing to the album’s myriad and, at times, competing genealogical sources. The term is at once both a reference to the unmediated blackness figuring among African and African-descended people, and it also gestures toward the non-material forms of expressivity associated with the spiritual realm. I am reminded of Sheree Thomas’ seminal anthology, Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, with its inclusion of Afro-futurist fiction and nonfiction prose directing attention to cultural traditions passed along trans-generationally. BIK’s reliance upon the trans-generation continuities between and among women (including Beyoncé’s mother, Tina Knowles, Beyonce, and Blue Ivy) centers Black women within a timeless tradition of healers, diviners, and goddesses who carry out the spirit-work essential to the survival of the diaspora as a whole. While the mother represents the past, it is the child, not only Blue Ivy but the baby Beyoncé nurses, who serves as a tropological representation of the future, yet unformed, unrealized, but none-the-less visible. 

TQ: What is at stake in Black Is King?

MM: Afro-futurist tropes involving time travel across the cosmos, cultural clashes with the other, and encounters with newness lift BIK out of the temporal and locate the production in a timeless realm that encourages a rethinking of established time, space, and identity. While some critics take issue with the seeming romanticizing of Mother Africa, much of the album’s force issues from the power of a remembered past—one that may or may not exist in its originary form, as Beyoncé seeks to explore the genealogical roots of contemporary black culture. In the landmark essay marking the beginning of the formal study of Afro-futurist literature, Mark Dery questions whether members of marginalized cultures intent on recovering a lost, fragmented heritage can envisage possible futures. Not only does the album position itself in conversation with Dery and others, BIK’s engagement with “dark matter,” the invisible structures of expressive culture defining an African diasporic geography, point to the ways in which vernacular structures implying futurity trouble a narrow critical framework such as the one that Dery deploys in his naming of an Afro-futurist literary canon—one that includes a mention of only Octavia Butler among a catalog of U.S. Black male writers. The unconventional temporalities that figure into BIK beckon us to abandon received ways of seeing and being seen, to cross over into an original social and psychic space. What is at stake in an appraisal of the visual album is a critical methodology that takes its discursive cue from an unwritten body of expression marked by nuance, complexity, and contradiction, one evolving from and leading to an enriching multiplicity of meaning.