Three weeks ago, “negro” became the most important word in my vocabulary. You remember it—what began as any other Saturday became the day Beyoncé surprised everyone with a new single, which became the day Beyoncé reclaimed the word that I can’t get out of my head.
Negro isn’t a word I hear often. I’ve written before about how “nigga” is deeply important to my speech, but custody of that term is sometimes shared between the black and Latinx communities it affects. “Negro” has no such shared history. Negro is black. Negro is mine.
With “Formation,” Beyoncé took renewed ownership of the word “negro,” using her slender, manicured fingers to pull it from our past and into my present. “I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils,” she sang, her head and eyes looking up and then to the side and down, a little like she was doing the sign of the cross. Maybe she was: Negro is a term we’ve paid for. “Formation” is a song we’ve earned.
This week, it became clear that too many people aren’t considerate enough of who this “we” entails. Videos and vines of white people unconcerned and unaffected by the reclamation of words like “negro,” “bamma,” and “yellow bone” let these words slip out of their mouths. White listeners responded to this call to “get in formation”—appropriating its lyrics, adapting its images into Instagram bios—as if it were their number Beyoncé dialed. For those, allow me to clear this up for you: You have not been summoned.
With “Formation,” Beyoncé makes very specific references, pulling from a history that is proudly hyper-narrow. This is about ownership and art, and who has a right to what spaces and which songs. The media we consume is vetted by producers, created and recorded to be palatable to the taste of a white public, relatable to the white experience of America, dressed to be found desirable under the male gaze. “Formation” ignored this, demanding that we—black women—can boldly assert our power and humanity in one song.
The entire experience of “Formation”—its lyrics, video, anti-brutality imagery, and the fact that it was performed at the Super Bowl—gets at a larger argument about womanhood, feminism, activism, and blackness in the public domain. Our culture recycles and appropriates products of black artistry, work often made specifically by black women and black queer men like the faces that populate Queen B’s most recent hit’s frames. Brands like southern fast-food chain Whataburger re-establish their cultural relevance online by joining Twitter jokes about Meek Mill and Drake’s rap beef. The creators of “Damn Daniel” made it onto Ellen, but when will we acknowledge Peaches Monroee, whose eyebrows brought “on fleek” into our national consciousness? The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was started by April Reign, a black woman who is edited out of the movement’s origin story. Beyoncé sees this and responds to it: “Formation” posits that our culture might not be negro-owned, but it’s negro-operated.
In an essay for New York Magazine’s blog The Cut, writer Allison P. Davis got to the heart of this struggle. White men making acoustic covers of “Formation” go beyond appreciating or appropriating, ultimately depoliticizing Beyoncé and images celebrating blackness. “Let me be clear: [‘Formation’] is for everyone to download, listen to, think about, learn from, and discuss. But it is not for everyone to take ownership over: This song, and its message, belongs to black people. And everyone needs to be okay with the fact that some moments in pop culture mean more to one group of people than to others.”
In the case of “Formation,” this is a moment for black women. We all ought to be better about acknowledging this. If you never understood what it means to “stunt, yellow-bone it,” by all means, keep listening—but don’t sing along. I’m writing this in defense of the “bye Felicias” and the bounce music, the “Can I lives” and the cornrows: Black cultural statements are taken, absorbed into the mainstream, and spat out as hashtags and t-shirts, unrecognizable from the black lives in which they originated.
I heard a friend in my sorority quote lyrics from “Formation” recently, playfully flipping her blonde hair out of her face as she said that she “might be a black Bill Gates in the making.” The revolution those words suggested was so clearly lost on her, a woman whose success would be, in our patriarchy, difficult. But as a white woman living in the 21st century, it would not be improbable, criminalized, or both. “Formation” is for women who look, feel, and act like Beyoncé—black women with afros, black women who love black men with negro noses, black women who are proud to love their own negro noses. “Formation” is for this specific population, whose contributions are uncredited, edited, consumed, and then dismissed.