• Normal Girls: On SZA, Nella Larsen, and the Varieties of Black Feminism

    I am not Beyoncé. Never did I feel this more strongly than when I sat high above her, watching her tiny figure strut across the stage at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina. Screens several stories high projecting her image hung like banners for some erstwhile fascist leader. It was in many ways not the ideal concert — it was outdoors, and a thunderstorm sparked a temporary evacuation of the stadium (“Please remain calm, Beyoncé is not leaving” someone said over an intercom). But what struck me as least ideal was the staged-ness of every word and gesture, everything scripted from the high kicks, to the thank yous to her loyal and dedicated fans, to the rote delivery of the songs meant to be uplifting and to get us “in formation.” Did she know the tears I had shed in the dark over “Sandcastles,” the reckless careworn times in my car when I drove on the highway just to turn up “Sorry” loud enough to drown out my pounding heart? Did she not know the emotional catharsis I wanted to share with her at that concert? Apparently not.

    My experience seeing SZA in August at the Royale in Boston was quite opposite. A line of glamorous black youth with septum rings snaked around the block hours before the concert began. The venue was a dance floor with everyone packed in, every single word to “The Weekend” and “Love Galore” uttered in unison like an incantation that would transmute the pain into wine and flowers. I don’t even remember what SZA was wearing or what color her hair was that day — what I remember was the crowd, mostly black women and femmes, and the way it felt to press in close to these familiar strangers and say, “Real n***** do not deserve pussy.”

    Both Lemonade and Ctrl, the most recent albums by Beyoncé and SZA respectively, are epoch-defining works of black feminism. Both ask the listener to consider love and sex as the acts of reciprocity on which our society rests, and both happen to articulate this message from the space of black womanhood, a space that seeks to love while simultaneously bearing the weight of a social structure of which we make up the bottom rung. Both albums are masterpieces, and I hope that the ethical and philosophical questions raised in each are grappled with in a public forum for years to come. However, the only one included in syllabi and touted as a feminist icon is Beyoncé. SZA, meanwhile, has sparked rumblings of discontent from black Twitter as a supporter of cheating and a patron saint of thots (for the uninitiated, thot stands for “That Hoe Over There.” And no, it is not a compliment).

    The popular historical memory of black feminism tends to remember women through a lens of either triumph or tragedy. We half-jokingly portray Harriet Tubman as a gun-toting badass; on the other side of the coin, who can forget Alice Walker hacking her way through weeds and snakes in 1973 to find Zora Neale Hurston’s unmarked, forgotten grave? And, in a strange mixture of triumph and tragedy, Hidden Figures is literally about black female rocket scientists whose achievements were obscured by racism. Our heroines are never women; they are always monoliths, symbols of the way in which strong, spectacular black women either triumph over or are crushed beneath the forces of racism and misogyny. But the surge of support for and identification with SZA among black women in the wake of the June 2017 release of Ctrl shows black women do not always see themselves in these narratives of the heroic black womanhood.

    Therein lies SZA’s intervention, adding a breath of messiness to the straight-laced heroism and strength demanded of black women’s narratives. The content of SZA’s songs range from revenge sex with a partner’s best friend to boredom and dissatisfaction with working life to dating other women to the emotional woes of side-chickhood. Hardly the subject matter of a Strong Black Woman.Ô However, in the song “Normal Girl,” SZA makes a tongue-in-cheek nod to norms of black womanhood by wishing she were “The type of girl you wanna take home right up to mama /The kind of girl, I know your fellas, they’d be proud of,” only to constantly undercut the message by repeating “I’ll never be, I’ll never be” and “No fantasy, no fantasy.” Until the song’s triumphal end, when SZA projects herself into “this time next year, won’t remember no pain […] won’t remember your name, I swear.” The beat fades away and is replaced by a sparkly series of arpeggios that sound straight out of a Disney princess cartoon, as SZA says, “Before that you figured out that I was just a normal girl.” In “Normal Girl,” SZA takes an axe to (or perhaps shoots fireworks at from her own fingers, as she does in the delightfully wicked video for “Supermodel”) the concept of normalcy. It is the very idea that there is such a thing as a “normal girl” that allows men to label some women thots and other women wife-material, some women side-chicks and others main girls, some women dykes and former men rather than simply “women.” The very concept of the normal girl is a fantasy rather than a description of an actual type of woman. It is a way of disciplining women into accepting white, hetero-partriachal conceptions of their self-worth as determined by their marriagability and reproductive capacities. The true “normal [black] girl” is a nuanced and complex person who can never entirely reduce herself to the fantasy of the ideal black woman: loyal, long-suffering, and two-dimensional.

    Because of the long history of the respectability demanded of “normal girls,” SZA’s particular form of feminist protest against codes of black women’s normalcy also has deep historical roots. In 1928, Nella Larsen, the mixed-race daughter of a Danish immigrant to Chicago, exploded onto the literary scene of the Harlem Renaissance with her charged and deeply unsettling stories of black women who simply refused to conform to norms of black middle class society. Nella Larsen’s heroine in Quicksand, Helga Crane, is a mess. Helga, always already precluded from being a “normal girl” by being born mixed-race and working class, is a 1920s thot: she can’t hold down a job, throws her luxurious multi-colored wardrobe all over her room while searching for the perfect outfit, and kisses other women’s husbands at dance parties. She travels all over the world — Chicago to Harlem to Denmark to the American South — and everywhere she goes she finds herself in an “unhappy, questioning mood.” Her journeys, however, represent a utopian impulse to find a comfortable space for black womanhood somewhere in the world. Only when Helga resigns herself to marrying an Alabama preacher and descending into a hellish trap of constant childbearing, does the possibility of a utopian elsewhere reveal itself to be a nowhere and crumble in her hands. “Less of self and more of thee!” shouts the congregation at the revival ceremony during which Helga decides to marry the preacher; and indeed, Helga relinquishes her sense of self as a scarlet-dress wearing “jungle creature” who revels in the bodies and rhythms of Harlem dance floors, to become a childbearing vessel half-dead from endless pregnancies. Normalcy, in Larsen’s conception, equals death.

    Both Larsen and SZA, in addition to sharing an ethos, share the theme of “quicksands” in their work. The title of Larsen’s novel and a SZA single for the soundtrack to the second season of HBO’s Insecure, the two quicksands chart a restless black feminism. For these two women, normalcy is a kind of quicksand, a seemingly solid ground into which black women slowly and unwittingly sink. Their feminism does not seek comfort in empowering representations of black women finding individual fulfillment through relationships or through ownership of their own houses, cars, or jobs. It is a way to valorize the thrill of the chase for pleasure in all of the myriad ways one can experience it, because, in Larsen’s words, “the essence of life [is] in bodily motion.” It is a way to valorize all the different shapes intimacy can take, and all the people that, in SZA’s words, are “still good, just not yours exclusively.”

    Beyoncé is, in many ways, the fantasy of normal black girlhood we all sometimes wish we could embody: a career-woman, a mother, the kind of woman who by virtue of her utter perfection deserves no slight at the hands of any man. Just because I do not personally identify with or aspire to her particular brand of heterosexual monogamy does not mean I resent her for having it, especially given the history of black women’s fraught and foreclosed relationships with the “traditional” values of marriage and motherhood. And it certainly does not mean that I do not find her music incredibly cathartic and empowering. However, even flawless Queen Bey cultivates her own particular kind of messiness. The one off-script moment of her performance in North Carolina, after the thunderstorm had left her with a diminished and sodden audience, she held up her hand to the sky and said, wonderingly, “The rain is actually beautiful.” That unexpected, messy thing, that thing that almost ruined the whole concert, that left everyone irritable and inconvenienced, was the thing that made Beyoncé crack her pristine psychic showcase and say something real. Leading me to believe that Beyoncé, too, craves narratives in which she does not have to be flawless. Of course, bell hooks warns us not to be fooled by Beyoncé’s exterior; according to hooks, “her construction of feminism cannot be trusted,” and because of its superficiality and indebtedness to capitalism, it is a “fantasy feminism.” But shouldn’t black feminism be capacious enough to leave room for the conflicted, the complicit, and the troubled voices of non-heroic black women?

    I may be more of a SZA than a Beyoncé, more of a Helga Crane than a Harriet Tubman, but like them I must be a black woman in this world that was not meant for me, and they all make up my roadmap. Some trace mountains and others chart the depths of the sea, some show what highways I can take to distance myself from all of this, some are global and others provincial. But I need all of them to find my way onwards and outwards.