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Returning Home: Why ‘Black Is King’ Was An Affirmation Of My Search For Identity

I am both the pawn and a Queen.

Beyonce

Who am I?

For such a profound question, it's an answer that steadily changes. I am always metamorphosing into new versions of me. It's the reason why I've gone years without a bio on my personal blog. When I hit a moment of satisfaction or shame within myself, I can't sit with or savor it long enough before I am reaching and aiming for something else. Something new.


This is the process of someone piecing together parts to make a whole.

I am constantly refining and redefining who I am. I've wrestled with understanding my existence and wrote about my racial-ethnic identity as a Black Latina for xoNecole years ago. Publicly, I've documented a deteriorating relationship with my mother and the search for my other half through an unidentifiable father. By the other half, I do not mean in respect of another human soul intertwined in harmony with my own being, although not knowing the origins of my birth story did play a vital role in how I sought and see love. There are so many moving and missing parts to me. This evolutionary story of who am I and the road to self-actualization is why I find comfort in Beyoncé's visual albums, more often, than in the music itself. She is always giving me what I need when it comes to identity.

Beyonce Lemonade GIF Giphy

Bey's film version of Lemonade came at the right time in 2016. Perhaps even divine timing for most of us, myself included. We dissected pieces of the 65-minute film in academia, through blog posts, and over social media.

Her personal story—this beautiful fusion of intuition, denial, anger, apathy, emptiness, accountability, reformation, forgiveness, resurrection, hope, and redemption—mirrored our own Black lives.

Our womanism and the fruits of our wombs. Our homes and our healing. Lemonade's release happened around the time of my own birth, a Saturn return, the elements of water, and womanhood centering itself in my own world. It was life-changing for me.

Black Is King is no different.

Sunday was spent with my now three-year-old who thought an afternoon in bed would bring another edition of Frozen II. I wanted to push Black imagery to the forefront. To accompany the darkness of Black Is King's opening, we heard:

"I feel like I'm not a king yet. But, like, I got potential for it, you feel me? But I'm not there yet, you feel me? Like, I know I got the capabilities to. But sometimes I don't know how to navigate."

The opening felt like home, a familiar territory. I know that even with gaps in between the early chapters of my life, I still have lands I need to explore within myself. Who am I as the (great)granddaughter of Alabamian women and military men? Who am I beyond them? Black Is King's purpose is to transcend brick walls and to "come home to" who we inherently are. This has been the mission of my thirties thus far.

Black Is King/GIF

"Meant to celebrate the breadth and beauty of Black ancestry," Beyoncé said of the film's intent:

"We are all in search of safety and light. Many of us want change. I believe that when Black people tell our own stories, we can shift the axis of the world and tell our REAL history of generational wealth and richness of soul that are not told in our history books. With this visual album, I wanted to present elements of Black history and African tradition, with a modern twist and a universal message, and what it truly means to find your self-identity and build a legacy…This is a story of how the people left MOST BROKEN have EXTRAORDINARY gifts."

Black Is King/GIF

The Lion King was always that one childhood film that had endless knowledge to draw from, but I was always pulled to the lesson that it's important to (1) know who you are and (2) know where you come from. Bey's incorporation of Africa's lands, its native people, its color, and culture, alongside her family, reiterated just that.

Black Is King/GIF

It was in Blue Ivy's showcase of sass and stardom at the tender age of 8 that warmed me throughout, knowing there was a Brown skin girl who would grow up with the awareness of who she was and who came before her.

So many of us were once Black girls who transformed into Black women with no recollection of the past that made us.

With tears, I celebrated the rising star that fell from the sky in the form of a meteor within the film, knowing Blue and Rumi were the exception to this visual dedication to Sir, and hoping the same for my own children. This was a moment of hope.

It was in the mesh of flesh in Kelly Rowland and Beyoncé's intimate face-to-face embrace; Bey's insight on women as saviors and protectors with our own set of plights; the encouraging poetry of Warsan Shire in lines like "Life is a set of choices. Lead, or be led astray. Follow your light. Or lose it"; and the joyous inclusion of Afrofuturism at a time where tomorrows aren't promised for Black folks, that allowed me to see how Black Is King is more than just a retelling of a classic Disney movie.

Black Is King/GIF

Black Is King/GIF

It was in these visual connections and pleas to return to our ancestry that confirmed for me to drop my reservations about wandering into DNA-testing territory, in order to glue the holes of my story together for the sake of myself and the children rooted in me. Introspection is dark and heavy. I have yet to weave together the puzzles by way of genetic testing, out of skepticism. What will I find? What is in me? Who's "blood keeps the score of [my] blessings and [my] trials?"

Learning of your lineage and coming into yourself comes with criticism—internally and from outside forces.

Black Is King/GIF

As evident in the film's growing opposition. Appropriation, a lack of understanding to an unfamiliar culture that many are attempting to reclaim, and BIK being seen as "an African aesthetic draped in capitalism" are all understandable critiques worthy of a deeper exploration into where African-Americans fit in, and what table we get to sit at.

Beyoncé is no stranger to criticism, nor is she exempt because of her status in pop culture on an international scale, or how she's elevated Blackness in modern times.

But to knock the messenger before weeding out the message is something I can't get behind (and no, I have never been a devout member of the Hive). Jay said it excellently in Black Is King: "Understand that good and evil often appear together. Nothing is complete on its own...It's not always a battle; it's a conversation."

Maybe the art, the film's symbolism, and its relation to my own life blinds me to "the bigger issues", truth be told. But my identity and understanding my existence is just as important. To this I sing, "They'll never take my power, my power, my power..."

"To live without reflection for so long might make you wonder if you even truly exist."

Who are you?

For years, I was bound to the narrative that I was solely a descendant of enslaved people with ties to Latin cultures and African countries. After mass consumption of films centered on that history as a child, I was turned off by "urban novels" that pushed hood love chronicles, life in projects and poverty, and the countless ways incarceration plays a guest role in our upbringing, as classic as they are.

My Black card would be revoked for sure if I told you how many street lit books I didn't read. Not because of access, but because I wanted a new account of how my life could possibly be. Because the school wouldn't teach it. Because American history tried to erase it—word to Nick Cannon. It's why I've stopped watching movies on slavery made by white men that win awards and yearn for new stories by way of my own telling or others.

Black Is King/Disney Plus

Perhaps I am not an offspring of African royalty, a reoccurring point made by critics from the African diaspora on Black Is King. Everyone isn't cut from the finer cloths and Africa shouldn't be romanticized by fantastical accounts of its history and inaccurate reflections of its modern times. I know this. But what I also know is:

I know that my resilience as a Black woman stems from some deeply rooted part of me. I know that my ability to make do with little and transform it into the most as a Black mother is ingrained in the women buried inside. I know "the Orishas hold [my] hand through this journey that began before [I was] born."

As a storyteller, I know the most used line in The Lion King to be true: that "we are all connected in the great circle of life." I am trying to piece together my own constellations and find my way home in a human game of chess.

I am both the pawn and a Queen.

Featured image by Black Is King/GIF

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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