While we were having carnival they had a Super Bowl over in America somewhere. New Orleans was oddly projected into the Americans’ festivities by halftime performer Beyoncé, who did the number she had released the day before as a song and video.
“Formation” is a visual essay exploring the meaning of New Orleans in the broader national, and specifically African-American, imagination. Most viewers tended to focus on the Hurricane Katrina imagery, but the costumed scenes invoked New Orleans in more historically conscious ways. National critical responses showed how, for most Americans, New Orleans remains an illegible cipher. Symbols of the city trigger strong emotional responses in the viewer, but the reasons why remain unconscious for most.
Social media shares of “Formation” were titled “love song to New Orleans” and “homage to Hurricane Katrina.” Many of the video’s images were central to New Orleans mythology, not just the flood scenes. If you don’t get the New Orleans imagery — both from Katrina and farther back in our history — you also don’t get why this particular song and video had to be set in New Orleans to achieve its effects.
The loudest critique of “Formation” has been about its use of Katrina imagery. Some local writers have denounced it as an act of cultural appropriation. This is significant because it shows what many national (especially white) viewers don’t seem to get: that black identity is not monolithic, that a universally lauded “celebration of blackness” is not really possible.
It’s also obvious that the easy emotional punch of Katrina floodwaters is a fairly cheap shot. It doesn’t seem to fit with the other imagery, either, since most of the video celebrates black power, while the Katrina imagery plays into the age-old American habit of treating all representations of black people in America as an invitation to disaster voyeurism: a big nasty painful mess. (Where you assign blame neatly sorts you as a liberal or a conservative.)
The intent of the video is clearly not to fetishize black victimization, though. Its intent is to celebrate black power in the face of epic obstacles.
While many national critics saw the dancing black boy in front of a line of cops as a nod to the “Black Lives Matter” movement, the role of black dancing as resistance is much older than that, especially in New Orleans. Since the video dropped during carnival, I couldn’t help picking up on parade “formation” as one of the title’s deliberate connotations. The quick shot of four Edna Karr drum majors makes the link more explicit.
The video is framed by Beyoncé on top of a New Orleans police cruiser as it sinks into the floodwaters, and of course New Orleanians know that dancing on top of cars is a frequent feature of second-line parades, those mass occupations of public streets that double as a raucous assault on America’s precious private-property rights.
Ishmael Reed’s great 1972 novel “Mumbo Jumbo” imagines an epidemic of funky dancing in 1920s America that threatens to overthrow and Africanize all of western civilization — the epidemic begins, of course, in New Orleans. One hundred and fifty years earlier, the calinda was a Congo Square song and dance genre that pointedly satirized and challenged white supremacist ideologies. The highly mythologized slave rebel Bras Coupé, betrayed and murdered in 1837, was also reputed to be a great dancer, an aspect of his character that is enshrined in the many retellings of his story, including George Washington Cable’s in 1880.
But the biggest difference in how New Orleanians and average Americans will view “Formation” is not about dancing or parading as resistance, and not about Beyoncé’s unauthorized and un-nuanced appropriation of Katrina imagery.
One of the biggest blind spots in the general American thesis that “Formation” is simply and “unapologetically black” is the typically American failure to note distinctions and conflicts within black society. New Orleanian Yaba Blay, in her critique of “Formation,” has noted the “color-struck” hierarchies and tensions between black Creoles and non-Creole blacks in New Orleans, though it’s worth remembering that this distinction involves not only shades of color, but Anglo/Latin cultural distinctions as well. Blay cites examples of self-identified black Creoles in New Orleans who were more proud of their European heritage than of their African roots. She might have added Jelly-Roll Morton’s answer to Alan Lomax in the Library of Congress interviews recorded in 1938: “All my folks came directly from the shores of … France.”
But Beyoncé doesn’t stop with appropriating the term “Creole” to describe herself, she also epitomizes the historical representation of Afro-Creole feminine sexuality. The voluptuous “quadroon” (technically, in early New Orleans, one-quarter African and three quarters European) is a character type that has lived on in American representations of race long since the term fell out of favor. Beyoncé is just the latest in a long string of black women who have played on that stereotype, consciously or otherwise. Her boast that she’s always got “hot sauce in (her) bag” is just one example of a self-image that links racial background to her claim of being sexually exquisite.
A celebration of mixed-race feminine sexual capital goes back hundreds of years in New Orleans. The Duke of Saxe-Weimar Eisenach, like many foreign visitors, was entranced by this new breed of femininity. It had already made New Orleans famous by 1825, when he wrote — as quoted in Herbert Asbury’s “The French Quarter” — that the city’s “quadroon” women resembled “the higher orders of women among the high-class Hindoos (sic); lovely countenances, full, dark, liquid eyes, lips of coral, teeth of pearl … their beautifully rounded limbs … might furnish models for a Venus or a Hebe.”
The lyric in “Formation” that Beyoncé could be a black “Bill Gates” should not distract us from the visual argument that the source of Queen Bey’s power is not technological innovation but sexual capital, in particular that of light-skinned black women, from Lena Horne to Vanessa Williams to Queen Bey herself.
The video’s depiction of her in early 1800s finery suggests the plaçée, as the free Afro-Creole woman in a plaçage relationship was known. Plaçage was the practice of formalized, long-term sexual relationships between free black women and wealthy white men in early New Orleans. That so many Americans elsewhere across the nation remained blind to this history partly reflected that they had no acquaintance with antebellum cities containing such a large population of free blacks. The plaçée’s free status is essential to understanding her sexuality in a non-victimized way, as Beyoncé intends. She makes the choice to exchange her sexual capital for the highest market value.
That’s exactly the calculation made in Afro-Creole accounts from the time of plaçage. As in Armand Lanusse’s 1843 short story, “Un Mariage de Conscience,” mothers and other women elders played a key role in establishing younger Afro-Creole women in the best (most remunerative) arrangements they could fetch.
When Beyoncé sings that she “rock(s) his rock necklaces” or that the “best revenge is your paper” — i.e. money — she is also suggesting the shameless marketing of her sexuality as a source of power. Indeed, plaçage did lead to significant wealth transfer into the hands of black women, usually in the form of real estate. It built economic equity among many Afro-Creoles that other American blacks did not have access to, and is one of the reasons that an economically empowered class of black leaders was able to shape the South’s most racially progressive state constitution during Reconstruction.
Some of the costumed scenes in “Formation” hearken to a later period of black women’s empowerment through sexuality, namely Storyville, the city’s iconic red-light district. Several scantily but richly clad black women in a 19th Century parlor are too ribald to be in conformity with the protocols of plaçage. They look much more like figures in a scene from Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall, or Emma Johnson’s House of All Nations, brothels that promised a kaleidoscopic range of nominally non-white skin colors for the adventurous white male traveler.
The legendary Storyville madams are also a much better analogy for the role Beyoncé plays in American society, since their every move was documented by the paparazzi of the day and recorded in popular scandal sheets such as “The Mascot.” It’s essential to note here, too, that these black women who earned money and a degree of social power through their sexuality did not view themselves as victims. When a new ordinance sought to segregate white and black brothels in separate districts, Countess Willie Piazza — along with 11 other sex workers of color — sued and won, a rare triumph over legal segregation in the early Jim Crow period.
There’s nothing passive about the way Beyoncé displays her sexuality; it may have a threatening edginess, particularly for white viewers. The clear insinuation is that she intends her sexuality to be a political challenge endangering white power.
Marie Laveau is history’s most famous Afro-Creole woman, and, though she avoided placage, stories about her have often been infused with sexual overtones. She is invariably described as a great beauty, and there were persistent, if unfounded, rumors that she procured young Afro-Creole women for white clients.
In “Formation,” Beyoncé picks up on the underworld-crime-boss aspect of the Marie Laveau story, recently popularized by Angela Bassett’s performance in “American Horror Story: Coven.” In the novel “Grandissimes,” George Washington Cable described his own fictional voodoo queen, Palmyre la Philosophe, as “a barbaric and magnetic beauty … like an unexpected drawing-out of a jeweled sword.” Here we see the same complex of beauty, wealth, power, and danger that Beyoncé conveys as she stands on a Spanish-moss flanked porch nodding her head menacingly, rows of strong black men behind her.
It’s up to us to choose what to make of Beyoncé’s clearly very conscious invocation of the history of New Orleans black women who have marketed the “hot sauce in [their] bags.” But we can’t expect that it will or should be without controversy. In a way, she’s re-dramatizing the old split between blues people and church people, despite the images of church that she throws into her perhaps toxic floodwater gumbo.
One of the reasons the video is valuable is how it associates with New Orleans — for those who are able to see — a history of black empowerment rather than the endless and circular media narrative of Southern black history as picturesque disaster. On the other hand, the particular form of black empowerment Beyoncé associates with her own image in the video — women selling sex — is one that is habitually viewed as degradation by puritanical Americans both white and black.
As for the charge of Creole exclusivity, we could actually view “Formation” as a repudiation of it. Unlike the plaçée, Beyoncé announces, through her preference for a “Negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils,” a commitment to black men not trying to downplay their blackness. In the era of Jay-Z, it’s no longer necessary to associate wealth and power with white skin. This does nothing to diminish the high sexual valuation of light-skinned black women, but perhaps Armand Lanusse would be pleased to note that black men are now as eligible as white men to attain the mythic prize of high-priced Afro-Creole femininity.
C.W. Cannon’s latest book is “Katrina Means Cleansing,” a young-adult novel about Hurricane Katrina. He teaches “New Orleans Myths and Legends” and other courses at Loyola University.