Beyond the Veil: free your mind, free society

A scene from the “Formation” video

We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society – Angela Davis

In the past two weeks there has been a strong backlash against Beyoncé’s performance at the Superbowl Half-Time concert from the white, conservative media and its audiences.

Media, especially mass media, has long acted as a deferral of the real (in this sense, the real real).

Reality as it looks from the perspective of a black family in Flint, Michigan right-about-now-real. Or perhaps how it might have looked for anyone in Detroit during the 1967 Detroit Riots. Or, as the “Formation” video shows in its rendering of police brutality against the black youth of America: in the martyred figure of a boy facing a formation of police officers.

The boy is, in many ways, an embodied Ferguson; a microcosmic image for a macrocosmic shift. And this is the power of harnessing imagery: it leaves a statement in the mind that is hard to rid of once it is there.

The cause of the backlash against Beyoncé’s half-time show is the searing imagery of the Black Panther Movement that she employed with her dancers, including, perhaps most symbolically, the X formation the dancers got into at the end of the performance, alluding to Malcom X and his call to action in his famous speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet.”

The Black Panther Movement still continues to be villainized.

It is, according to the FBI, a terrorist organization. More truthfully, however, the Black Panthers were a nationalist group that armed itself, both physically and symbolically, against white supremacy in its many form(ations): the KKK, police brutality, segregation, systematic racism, and neocolonialism.

After the Superbowl, media outlets compared Beyoncé’s Black Panther imagery to the KKK; a subtle, but not-so-subtle, example of symbolic supremacy and a perhaps intentional misrepresentation of non-white history and iconography for irony’s sake.

Neither groups are benign: both the Black Panthers and the KKK are militant regarding their beliefs and ideologies.

Both herald a political extremism. Both wear uniforms – or at least clothing designating a particular ideology. Both utilize imagery to convey an unspoken message to a specified receiver (the fist and the burning cross).

However, the KKK maintains an unchecked violence in its past that led to the terrorization and murder of thousands by civilian execution (during the Jim Crow era, these murders were referred to as “vigilante justice” by the local printing presses). The KKK has never been officially designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government or abroad by the Canadian and British governments.

They have rarely served individual sentences for their crimes, ranging from harassment to lynchings. The Black Panthers, on the other hand, were dismantled, labelled a terrorist organization, and continue to be as evidenced by the reaction of white audiences to last week’s concert.

The table is clearly tilted. One amazing thing about my own white privilege is the ability for me to ignore. To look away. To disassociate and desensitize.

We can see beyond Dubois’s Veil, while simultaneously being blind to its effects. We can defend symbols of historic violence as emblems of bravery, war ethos and tradition.

One thing we can’t do: tie down liberated minds and liberated bodies. Because, hey: manacle a mind that is free and you will have a radical, a revolutionary, and a game-changer – history has shown this much in Ms. Angela Davis, imprisoned for a crime she was found not guilty of, the former Black Panther has devoted her life to teaching and activism against unjust imprisonment.

Her work, along with the manifold voices of civil rights leaders and activists, continue to remind everyone that a voice can and does transform a nation by forcing it to see itself for what it really is and not for the veneered rhetoric of its power structures.