Author Jesmyn Ward won a National Book Award for Salvage the Bones, her gritty and lyrical novel of Hurricane Katrina-era Mississippi. In this essay, as in all of her work, she doesn’t mince words.
I was a freshman at Stanford University the first time someone called me a “bama.” One of my new friends from D.C. said it, laughing, and even though I didn’t know what it meant, exactly, I got that it was some kind of insult. I must have smirked or shrugged, which made him laugh harder, and then he called me “country,” too.
That’s when I understood what “bama” meant, and I didn’t bother denying it. I knew that as soon as I told my classmates I was from the South, they saw me as an under-educated, ignorant, foolish rube. Sometimes, in the rarefied environment of that elite college, I thought the same of myself.
I’m from a small town on the bottom edge of Mississippi, very near New Orleans and the Louisiana border. My family has lived there for generations. A few of us left in the ’60s for Chicago and Los Angeles and Texas, but whether for a visit or to retire, we always return. So when I saw Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, I understood. I knew who she was portraying in the video, and what she was trying to tell me and all the other bamas.
I been out in this world a while now, Beyoncé’s telling us, living other places, slaying and inaugurating and eviscerating audiences. Been setting the world on fire. But I ain’t never left home. Y’all in my heart. I ain’t never gone.
She sings to those of us who grew up black in the American South, who swam through Hurricane Katrina, who watched the world sink, who starved for two weeks after the eye passed, who left our dead floating in our houses. She sings to those of us who were displaced, to Las Vegas, to Los Angeles, to Hartford, who lived for months or years or still live in those other places, when the living heart of us is bound so tight with oak and pine we can barely breathe.
For those of us who buy Camellia red beans and creole seasoning and Louisiana hot sauce and White Lily flour when we visit home, and then are a little disappointed when it cooks differently in the high, thin air where we live.
For those of us who never left, who ride clean on old schools with pretty shoes, who drive spurs into their Adidas and ride horses down the middle of the street. For those of us who write our stories or sing our songs about the South, who are told over and over that there is no audience for our art. For those of us who know Death rides shotgun, that He flares his robes when the red and blue lights flash behind us.
If they want to call you bama, let ’em, Beyoncé croons. Let them hate on all this life, this beauty. Let them know we bear the weight of the whole country’s history, and we still love our Afros and Jackson 5 noses. That we still love our babies and our Negroes.
We needed to hear this.
But this song and video are not solely for those who left and those who remained, for our babies, and for our men. This is for the black Southern woman, too. Beyoncé calls the ancestors with the drums, embodies them in high-waisted, gorgeous dresses, fans our Creole foremothers to life with bunches of lace. She flashes forward to the future and invokes the daughters in the church, worshipping in their hats and starched dresses by reflecting their beauty right back to God. She invokes the daughters who usher the dead’s souls while shimmying down the second line. Invokes the daughters who frame the gorgeous shock of their black faces with pastel mermaid weave and wigs.
Let ’em talk, she says. It don’t matter. What matters is me singing, us dancing, us standing and rising and ascending through it all. They might not understand all this beauty now, but I’m going to make ’em see, baby.
These daughters who, at the Super Bowl, danced in formation, wearing Afros and Black Panther garb. And it was then that we all knew that Beyoncé was not only glorifying her bama blackness, but, with that kind of fashion iconography, American blackness as a whole. In the video, we saw her stand tall on that antebellum house porch, imposing in her wide-brim black hat, her long black clothes, the jewelry at her neck and wrists that flashed like knives, and we knew she stood for us, all of us, flipping her twin middle fingers at the world.
We love this blackness, says that stance, and if they don’t, f*** ’em.