Work of Art / Art of Work

Occasional Reviews & Cultural Commentary from the Higgins Community

 

“For Us By Us: A Very Personal Set of Reflections on A Seat at the Table and Not at All an Album Review”

Charlice Hurst
Assistant Professor of Management
March 2017
 

When a n***a tryna board the plane/
And they ask you what’s your name again/
Cause they thinking, yeah, you’re all the same/

[“F.U.B.U.,” track 13]

When Solange wrote this lyric for her album A Seat at the Table (Saint/Columbia), released in late 2016, I doubt she anticipated that there would be a President Donald Trump and that his travel ban against visitors from seven countries, apparently along with anyone who seemed like they might be Muslim, would result in Muhammad Ali’s son being detained by customs officials. Solange probably isn’t prescient. She’s just grown up black in the United States, where the practice of reminding black people of our conditional citizenship is nothing new.

I brace myself every time I am preparing to pass through security in an airport in these United States. I know that when I step through the archway of that x-ray machine and stand on the yellow shoe prints, the next thing that will happen is that a latex-gloved woman will tell me she’s going to pat my hair and then go ahead and pat it in a manner so summary and superficial as to seem gratuitous. If I was going to hide contraband in my hair, wouldn’t they think I’d have done a good enough job to elude that trifling of an effort?

Don't touch my hair/
When it's the feelings I wear/
Don't touch my soul/
When it's the rhythm I know

[“Don’t Touch My Hair,” track 9]

Solange tweeted in 2012 that her hair had been patted down by TSA, inviting her followers to “play a little game called: ‘What did TSA find in Solange’s Fro’?” Her followers hilariously obliged. For all the levity, black women take serious offense at this practice. Joking about it is simply a case of “laughing to keep from crying,” as black folk have been exhorting each other to do since, I don’t know, 1607.

The TSA supposedly reached an agreement with the ACLU in 2015 to stop disproportionately targeting black women for hair searches. I can’t tell. I have never—not once—seen anybody non-black have their hair searched (although I regularly see brown people with straighter hair get pulled aside for more thorough examination than I’ve ever had to undergo). I once asked a TSA officer who searched my hair how they decide whose head to violate. She said they do it if they can’t see your scalp. I looked around. There was not a soul in sight whose scalp I could see. Yet, I was the only one getting her hair searched. What she told me was in conflict with the TSA’s contention on its website that agents only search hair if the x-ray shows an anomaly and that, since the person who does the screening cannot see the passenger being screened, decisions to search cannot be racially motivated.

What anomalies can the x-ray be picking up on every single time I travel when all I have in my hair is an elastic band?

TSA officers aren’t the only ones who have a jones for touching black women’s hair, often without even asking for permission. But, for all their curiosity, few people understand the relationship black women have with our hair. It is a metaphor. Solange’s song “Don’t Touch My Hair” speaks of the violation of boundaries that women—particularly black women—experience often. It affirms our right to say no. No, it’s not okay for you to touch me. I get to define what constitutes my personal space, even if you don’t understand or agree on the width of my borders. I spent loving time on this hair that the world says is not worth loving. No, you can’t touch it. It is a part of me. You can’t touch me.

Don't feel bad if you can't sing along/
Just be glad you got the whole wide world

[“F.U.B.U.,” track 13]

In its entirety, A Seat at the Table voices the small and major ways in which black people’s presence is called out and interrogated. It speaks of the assaults on our integrity and about how we work and love through it all. Though enjoyed by many, the album is, as Solange makes clear, for us by us. It opens a restful space for us to sit in and feel known.

That’s how I’ve been feeling about this album as long as I skip the many Master P interludes. I’ve wrestled with my feelings about him riffing on how he came from poverty, took the helm of his career rather than handing it over to record company executives, and built a multimillion dollar fortune. It’s the type of story that makes most black people proud. As long as those who’ve made it look back at the community and affirm their bond with us, we celebrate them. We claim them.

Candy red things gonna spin/
With that big body, boy, you're bound to win/
And that armor in your mouth/
You're gonna shine/
Your wrist talking, boy, it's only time

[“Scales,” track 20]

I’m somewhat impressed with Master P after hearing his story as told on this album. It’s easy to be impressed when one has come to expect as little insight as I have from him based on the music he puts out. This is not the lead-in to rehashing the well-worn critiques of misogyny and violence in hip hop music. I’m a lover of much hip hop that is neither clean nor respectable. What is bothering me about this album is that, as insurgent as Master P’s success may seem on the surface, it’s not really. Not all that much. It’s the American Dream in color. It’s the embrace of the every-man-for-himself, wealth-by-any-means-necessary, hypercapitalist ideal to which every American is taught to be loyal. For all the collective empowerment the album promotes, Master P’s narrative is about his wealth. He has taken the stories, the language, and the ethos of people who are black and poor and stuck, branded them, and packaged them for mass consumption with little attention to the social impact of his product. How different is that from the typical corporation?

Some would counter by pointing out how much money Master P has given back to the community. That, too, is well within the bounds of the hypercapitalist model. Charity by the rich is not revolutionary. It is required. It assuages their conscience and, more importantly, staves off rebellion by the masses without creating systemic change.

Mimicking hypercapitalism advances individuals but does nothing to dismantle injustice. If it is a solution to the ills that disproportionately afflict African Americans, it is a slow-going one. Black millionaires are not many in the making. I’m not sure we have enough time.  

When you know you gotta pay the cost/
Play the game just to play the boss/
So you thinking what you gained, you lost/
But you know your s**t is taking off

[“F.U.B.U.,” track 13]

On the other hand, one could look at Master P’s story within the context of the tradition of African American entrepreneurship, from “Black Wall Street” and Madame CJ Walker on up to Oprah. As my historian friend Richard Pierce pointed out during a talk I gave recently for the Higgins Labor Program at Notre Dame, there is a long, thick vein of entrepreneurship in the African American story. How could there not be? With so little access to jobs and prohibited from being able to patronize stores—or patronize them with dignity—what else would black people before, say, 1965 have done but start businesses? Only after integration did this community-based economy falter. Even now, black women start businesses at a higher rate than any other racial-gender identity group. I can’t think of a black woman I’m close to who doesn’t at least have a “side hustle,” a little venture she’s using to supplement income from her job or build into a full-time business. That’s a regular and expected thing with us.

Many black women are driven to entrepreneurship because they realize the futility of trying to reach their potential within the framework of limited opportunity that corporate America and other institutions offer, not to mention the emotional tax of pursuing those opportunities. Just today, a friend of mine with an Ivy League engineering degree, an MBA from a top ten school, and over twenty years of corporate work experience was stressing out over having to go through five interviews for an internal position when others in her company with less experience and less prestigious degrees have been hired into similar positions without so much as a single interview.

I’m weary of the ways of the world/
I’m leery of the ways of the world
[“Weary,” track 2]
 

I know, Solange. I know, girl. Many women with children are weary from trying to handle this full-time-gig-and-raising-kids thing. We fully get why moms have a difficult time even remaining in the workforce, let alone advancing to senior positions. Institutional schedules are inflexible, job demands unrelenting. The pathways to power were not designed for people with substantial parenting responsibilities, and those are usually women. White women are more likely than black women to resolve this dilemma by leaving the workforce or going part-time. Comparative lack of wealth makes this less of an option for black women. Perhaps more importantly, research has found that black women are more ambitious than both white women and Latinas. And black women have more support at home because black men, to whom most professional black women are married, tend to be more egalitarian with respect to domestic work and child care than are white men. What black women tend to need most is greater control over our work lives. Entrepreneurship offers that, despite the fact that we face lack of access to capital to a much greater degree than other groups. In keeping with the black tradition, black women do our best to make a way out of no way.

Obviously, Master P is not a woman. But he makes clear that he came up with the idea for his business strategy by watching the Avon lady in his neighborhood working her side hustle, selling products out of her trunk. A black woman schooled him. In general, Master P is reminding us all of a history of resourcefulness and perseverance that we need now more than ever. Looking at it that way is helping me make peace with his presence on this album.

Making peace—finding healthy ways to cope with it all—is kind of what this album is about. It’s like calling a friend to talk about the personal and the political and how they are all woven together for black women in a very particular way that is hard to convey to anyone. Just trying to convey it is draining. Even with the best-intentioned people, you usually end up with someone who has never even touched a toe to the inside of your shoes telling you what it feels like to walk in them. Which just makes you madder. Which is easier to deal with now because you can go back to your desk or your car, put on your headphones, and preserve a little bit more of your peace of mind than you might have before this album came out.

Don't let, don't let, don't let anybody steal your magic, yeah/
But I got so much y'all/
You can have it, yeah.

[“Interlude: I Got So Much Magic, You Can Have It,” track 15]

 

Further Exploration:

Solange released a digital book with the same name as the LP, A Seat at the Table, which includes lyrics, photos, and more.

The online music magazine Pitchfork designated Solange's A Seat at the Table the best album of 2016.

 

Prior Work of Art/Art of Work entries:

Dan Graff celebrates the film Hidden Figures (February 2017).

Dan Graff dissects Henry Mosler's painting Forging the Cross (March 2016).

Jon Coleman sees labor haunting Alejandro González Iñárritu's The Revenant (February 2016).

Nicole MacLaughlin reviews David Simon's Show Me a Hero (January 2016).

Dan Graff interrogates Nancy Meyers' The Intern (November 2015).