Fast Black knew how to put on a show in the kitchen, but even she knew that a little dab of hot sauce will near ’bout take you to heaven. Beyoncé knows something about that and I cannot say that I am surprised.
I’ve been lucky enough to eat in standing room-only, half-star diners, pricey haunts owned by celebrity chefs, and almost everything in between. But nothing has ever been so satisfying as a “Holy Trinity”—pan-fried buttermilk chicken, collard greens, and macaroni served hot from Fast Black’s stove. My beloved late grandmother, who earned her nickname for both her deep brown skin and her prowess at a card table, was among the finest cooks I have ever known.
Raised in Sugar Ditch, Mississippi, Alice Cole Robinson was never long on money. But my mama’s mama taught me the value of grace, not to write a check my proverbial behind could not cash, and to never leave the house without a bottle of hot sauce tucked inside my pocketbook.
Admittedly, like my grandmother, I am more than a little “old school” when it comes to my food. “You can’t trust everybody’s chitlins,” Alice would often say. The same held true for black-eyed peas, okra, and anything deep fried in Crisco. To each their own, but Fast Black would readily stand and testify to the virtues of Tabasco and its ability to liven any beast, fowl, or shrub from the good earth.
While the specific brand Beyoncé prefers remains unclear—Frank’s, Texas Pete, Tabasco, Red Devil, Crystal or, more likely, an organic concoction prepared by her personal chef—including a homage to the aged mixture of chili peppers, salt, and vinegar on her newly released single was an explicit cultural expression.
Dropped the day before she rendered a stunning performance at Super Bowl 50, Formation is a critical piece of art—not only because of its message against police violence and environmental injustice, but for its open and full embrace of blackness. Like an offering plate passed at an 8 a.m. church service, Formation is a proposition—an invitation to give freely of one’s humanity, to see life through a new lens.
It was no coincidence that Tidal, a music streaming service owned by her husband Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, donated $1.5 million to #BlackLivesMatter. Together, with the public contribution and using an artist platform, they invited each of us to join the “front line” in the fight for social justice.
Without question, the chart-topping singer-songwriter has been regaling audiences the world over for decades. Re-setting the standard with every new album, Beyoncé has always been a woman ahead of “the moment.” However, the truth is this moment is ours.
Formation is about all of us—you, me, my grandmother and yours— and every woman who (literally or figuratively) totes a bottle of hot sauce in her purse. It’s about how we season lives, even when what we’ve been served is less than we know we deserve. It’s about taking an unpalatable injustice—cold, stale and as rank as the ages—and reframing it, baking it in righteousness like a warm banana pudding. It is about holding fast to a discipline of dignity, that no power—neither the state nor racial supremacists—defines our limits or tells us who we are.
Formation is about lifting up what has been deliberately torn down.
Without apology, Beyoncé proclaimed her black—yours and mine—to be beautiful in all of its manifestations. Singing the anthem of our lives, her message was direct and delivered with a clarity often reserved for the pulpit of a black church. The video invoked haunting imagery from the devastation that engulfed New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, symbolic references to police brutality, and extolled the virtue of black financial power in the post-Jim Crow era.
Like my grandmother, who thankfully did not live to endure the grief of losing her sons and many of her grandsons, the music did not flinch or pull a single punch. Like Alice, the lyrics and the videography are raw, unrelenting and painfully beautiful.
Beyoncé did not need to call their names, but the juxtaposition of a young black boy dancing in front of a phalanx of police officers served as an unambiguous reminder of Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Rekia Boyd, Mariam Carey, Walter Scott, and the others who were killed either as police pursued them or in custody.
“Stop shooting us.”
There is nothing more blasphemous than a fresh bottle of hot sauce off the grocery store shelf. To get it right, Alice would say, you have to break the seal and let it brown some to let the essence flow through.
Formation is that essence. And Beyoncé broke that seal.