I didn’t watch the Super Bowl. I did hear many people complaining about the halftime show. Many were upset Beyoncé had paid tribute to the Black Panthers.
I thought—seriously? That’s what people are upset about?
Had they all been living under a rock?
Beyoncé is a black American woman. She wouldn’t be the first black American to find something admirable about the group. Not even close. Our popular culture—from Muhammad Ali to Tupac Shakur—is shot through with 1960’s era black nationalism.
It’s part of our history, particularly black history.
The most conservative Justice remaining on the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, was attracted to black nationalism in his youth and long after. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot in 1968, Thomas said he donned “The goatee, the black leather jacket” and showed “solidarity with Malcolm X.” Four years before President Ronald Reagan appointed Thomas to the Supreme Court, Juan Williams (now of Fox News fame) still described the judge in 1987 as a “black nationalist” and Reason magazine noted in 1987, “He is not your typical Reagan appointee: he flirted with the Black Panthers; he still respects Malcolm X.”
Then I finally watched Beyoncé’s performance.
“That’s it?” I thought.
There were female dancers vaguely resembling military-fatigued, beret wearing black nationalists. Some performers additionally made statements on social media later. It was so tame. Rap legends Public Enemy went much further 30 years ago.
Hell, Clarence Thomas went way further than Beyoncé.
It bothered me that Beyoncé’s performance seemed to bother so many people, particularly white people.
I had watched that performance. It began with black men walking out in shackles as if they were in prison. I took it as a black artist, from Compton no less, making a statement about black men being in prison. Somehow that’s controversial.
Why would he do such a thing!?!
Probably because the number of “African American men incarcerated in the U.S. (is more) than the total prison populations in India, Argentina, Canada, Lebanon, Japan, Germany, Finland, Israel and England combined,” as The Huffington Post reported last year.
That’s problematic. Black lives do matter.
What’s wrong with saying so? What’s wrong with a black man saying so?
When I expressed my dismay at white critics who were outraged at these performances on Facebook, I was taken aback by the anger directed at…
Me. People were really pissed.
The level of vitriol over what I essentially considered to be non-issues really surprised me.
Many told me the Black Panthers were awful people who did awful things, including murder and arguably worse.
This is true.
Much of what the Black Panthers did and represented was bad. Much of it was also good. It’s a complex history, like most U.S. history particularly when it comes to anything involving race.
As a white Southerner, this is something I know well.
I made similar points in June during the Confederate flag controversy in the wake of the Dylann Roof murders in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. In an op-ed for The Daily Beast, I called for the removal of the Confederate flag from SC Statehouse grounds, as a former flag supporter.
But I also asked the rest of the country to be more understanding of Southerners who still revered the Confederate flag. I wrote, “Some of the people you’ve seen join hands with their Charleston brethren in recent days likely have supported the Confederate flag. Support for this symbol is hard for most outside the South to even understand.”
“I would ask readers to at least try to understand these folks. Many are not coming from a place of hate,” I said.
Indeed they aren’t. There are many Southern heritage groups who see nothing but honor, nobility and a heroic struggle of their Southern ancestors in that symbol.
Many others—particularly black Americans—see slavery, lynchings and Jim Crow.
Critics of the Confederate flag are not wrong. Supporters aren’t necessarily either.
Such is our complex history, particularly when it comes to race.
Even though today I believe the Confederate flag has become so tainted that it’s almost impossible to have many positive connotations, I understand and even sympathize with Southerners who hold a different view.
I understand where they’re coming from.
I don’t expect non-Southerners to understand it. But I would ask them to be civil and respectful to their fellow Americans who hold different views.
That’s what I would also ask of white Americans upset by Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar. These are African American artists who share the same history we all do, but also their own distinct history as black Americans—including their own heroes, tragedies and complex experience that won’t always mirror everyone else’s.
There’s nothing wrong with that.
There is something wrong with white people getting upset about it.