“We don’t always hear about the people who we know as legends in the ways that they were very true to themselves. I’m more interested in the moments when they were uncompromising and they were fearless” – Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah.
Black art (music, literature, fine art, etc.) does not get the nuanced, adeptly researched analysis it deserves. It’s a fact Solange touched on in a series of tweets calling out white publications’ ill equipped attempts to write about black art, black culture, black life. Solange is not the only artist to have complained about the paucity of adequate reviewers of black art and life, Nikki Giovanni’s poem Nikki Rosa speaks of the apprehension of having one’s life written by a white biographer:
“They never understand that Black love is Black wealth and they’ll probably talk about my hard childhood and never understand that all the while I was quite happy.”
Toni Morrison also spoke of her critics, in conversation with Nellie McKay, who do not “evolve out of the culture, the world, the given quality of which I [Toni Morrison] write” and how they always leave something to be desired:
“I long for a critic who will know what I mean when I say ‘church,’ or ‘community,’ or when I say ‘ancestor,’ or ‘chorus.’ Because my books come out of those things and represent how they function in the black cosmology.”
That longing seems to have been fulfilled in Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah and her profile of the Nobel Prize winning author. Ghansah refers to the piece as her way of “lay[ing] flowers at the feet of this woman.”
Ghansah delivers the most comprehensive profile on Morrison yet. She digs into Morrison’s criticism from black male writers and black contemporary critics. She shows us Morrison before she was the literary deity we view her as today. We begin to understand her form of protest, which was not in marching in the streets, but in publishing the words of the those who did. From Muhammad Ali to Angela Davis to Huey P. Newton, Morrison commemorated the voice of a generation that would have otherwise been lost. And while reading the piece we not only learn about Morrison, Ghansah adds depth to Morrison’s story with an understanding of The Black Arts Movement, and the black women writers emerging from this literary period, while still managing to review Morrison’s latest novel, God Help the Child, and reflect on the author’s relevancy in the age of the millennial. Ghansah’s authentic ethos, dense research, and powerful layering presents to us a woman, a scholar, a critic, a storyteller, a literary genius.
Before Ghansah wrote her piece on Morrison she was already answering the author’s call for an astute intracultural critic in her pieces on Dave Chappelle, Kendrick Lamar, Jimi Hendrix. In her profiles, Ghansah has established not only a nuanced style of long form writing with extensive bibliographies, but a context for black art and black life. A consistent theme of Ghansah’s work is how black artists have shaped their own narratives through an exertion of autonomy not usually afforded to black people. She then weaves those threads of resistance into the larger tapestry of black history, giving breadth to figures and actions mainstream media views as existing in a vacuum.
“There’s an interior reality that not everyone understands about an existence, what is important is that we have the ability to tell those stories, to say this is what it’s like,” Ghansah once said. She not only comes from an interior reality of blackness, she studies the dynamics with acute precision and reveals her findings in magnificent pieces that teach you as much about the subject she’s profiling as the history from which they emerged. The story of the subjects she profiles are parameterized around a larger tale of the history of the geography, significant events, and predecessors that shape the individual. In her profile of Dave Chappelle, Ghansah is somehow able to uncover a link from a young boy in Yellow Springs, OH to liberation leaders in the Congo that not only highlights Yvonne Reed’s (Chapelle’s mother) political activism, but the diaspora connection that contextualizes our lives, cultural practices, and social ingenuity. Perhaps it is Ghansah’s own Louisiana and Ghanaian roots that allow her to connect the Schmurda dance with 300 years of dance styles from the West Indies to West Africa, however, as Kameelah Janan Rasheed says, Ghansah’s ability to “follow the ghosts and pick up where a footnote has left off,” shows that she is not just a journalist; she is a historian, a geographer, a biographer, a preservationist. All of these disciplines inform her dense work and reveal a multilayered pluralized story of Africa and the children of her diaspora.
Ghansah’s profiles stand in stark contrast to those recently done on Nicki Minaj and Rihanna–two of pop culture’s biggest influencers. In both instances the story of black-caribbean-female artists were placed in the hands of white female journalists who fumbled not only in their handling of race — as it prevailed in the interviews — but their understanding of these women and their dimensions. While Minaj was berated with antagonistic questions that had more to do with beef that didn’t concern her–ultimately forcing her to leave the interview — Rihanna’s profile was centered almost exclusively around the interviewer. And when the subject of race did breech Rihanna’s interview, the profiler admitted to being afraid to ask the question as she viewed the starlet as being “post-racial.”
Recently, @_sadblackgirl, provided her own reasons behind Beyonce’s polite refusal to grant interviews. Simply put, they–white journalists–cannot adequately write about her.
This mishandling of such stories is precisely why Beyoncé has kept journalists away from her narrative, and it is precisely why we need critics like Ghansah, Jenna Wortham, Fanta Sylla, Danyel Smith, Shannon Houston, and more.
Beyoncé’s latest offering of Lemonade has further solidified her icon status while revolutionizing the way music is marketed and consumed. In the digital age, where the Internet can be an entertainer’s worst enemy, Beyoncé has made it her ally — shielding herself in secrecy she no longer has to rely on someone else to get her message across. She is eradicating the idea of a radio single, instead, calling for the delivering of a comprehensive album equipped with cinematic visuals that not only appease the eye but challenge the mind. But even this ingenuity does not exist in a vacuum. One cannot understand Beyoncé without understanding Prince, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Dorothy Dandridge, Josephine Baker, Fredi Washington, and Oscar Micheaux. These innovators are not mutually exclusive, they serve as a comprehensive cloth from which Beyoncé is cut. Ghansah’s historical eye would see that. She’d watch Lemonade and see Daughters of the Dust where other nonblack women and men critics saw a Malick-esque influence. In the midst of all of her record breaking, genre-blending, medium-mashing achievements, Beyoncé has solidified herself as a feminist and centralized her focus on the experiences of black women. She, however inadvertently, echoes the calls for intersectional feminism campaigned for by Audre Lorde, Patricia Hill Collins, and even bell hooks. Beyoncé’s story is too rich, too weighty, too dynamic to be profiled by someone who has not emerged from within the same culture.
Though Ghansah spoke on Queen Bey in her profile of Yoncé’s infamous Beyhive, she has the ability to understand, as @sadblackgirl put it, “the confluence of race and gender in America.” Ghansah is also not the only one. Miriam Bale spoke of Beyoncé’s revolutionary black feminism work. Fanta Sylla touched on Beyoncé’s ties to Julie Dash’s film. Janet Mock saw Janie Crawford in Beyonce. Even I couldn’t resist adding to the collection plate of analyses. Black women critics have an intrinsic understanding of Beyoncé —the brand and woman— and the symbiosis behind her strict control on how the world sees her, literally. While Beyoncé once received backlash after rumors of her involvement in a film about the life of Saartje “Sarah” Baartman, she is also a part of Beyoncé’s collective history, as is the thousands upon thousands of women whose rights to control their image, their body, their story were forcibly stripped from them. Black women critics are necessary in reclaiming those stories and understanding the context they provide for the hair, the physiognomy, the fashion, the language that is much celebrated and widely appropriated today.
“It’s an undeniable truth that when African-American writers write about African-American musicians, there are penetrating insights and varieties of context that are otherwise lost to the nonblack music aficionados of the world, no matter how broad the appeal of the musician under scrutiny,” James McBride wrote in his book about James Brown. But what happens when women of the African diaspora write about our musicians and writers and artists? How much more insight and variety of contexts are revealed that are otherwise lost not only on nonblack music/literary/art aficionados but nonblack female music/literary/art aficionados? The black female critic is one who not only understands, and can analyze, the intersection of race and gender, she lives it. Who else would pick up on the nuances of Beyoncé’s career in relation to her southern roots and the black female entertainers who came before her? After Wortham’s discussion of Beyoncé’s “Formation” video she was sent flowers by the Queen herself with a note that read, “Thanks for understanding my heart.”
It’s not just the heart of a black woman that black female critics understand, it’s the texture of their lives, the cosmology of our own subcultures, the nuances of their own styles. If there’s one thing Beyoncé’s latest work has revealed, it’s the plethora of black women ready, willing, and able to do the work of adeptly critiquing black art. The insight they have shared, the varied contexts they provide add flesh and bones to our many histories across the diaspora. Ghansah, and her peers, continue to build, with their writings, bridges that connect us from across seas and allow us to examine what we share and respectfully appreciate what we don’t. Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah and black women critics are our 21st century griots, while they may not always use an oratorical approach to sharing stories, they are keeping our history alive, they are adding to the black cosmology, they are providing context to black art and black life.