FOUR YEARS LATER
How Ferguson Lit a Fire Under Beyoncé and Jay-Z — and Exposed America’s Racist Scars
On August 9, 2014, teenager Michael Brown was gunned down by police officer Darren Wilson. Days of protests and riots ensued. Four years later, what have we learned?
“Fix your face.”
As a kid, it was something my mother would say to me—usually through a stern whisper—whenever we were at some function that I would rather not attend and my disgust was visible. I’ve never had a great “poker face” and this was a phrase I heard countless times growing up. “Fix your face” also means getting yourself done before going out and snapping a pic. It always goes back to making sure you look “presentable,” so the world doesn’t think you’re messy or a pouting, petulant child. Sometimes it was easy to throw on the mask—other times it felt almost impossible to sell a lie. Sometimes I just could not “fix my face.” Because I had too much going on. Or because I just didn’t want to.
That phrase kept replaying in my mind as I thought back to August 2014. This week marked four years since the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. That killing sparked protests in Ferguson over the next several weeks, a national dialogue about policing Black communities and roused the Black Lives Matter movement. Mike Brown became a symbol for an ongoing problem, as his family rallied around the memory of their son and his community became a national flashpoint. Mike Brown, Sr. has rebuilt the memorial to his son that was erected in the spot where Mike Jr. was gunned down. Brown’s mother Lezley McSpadden announced that she is running for Ferguson city council. And in a major victory for the community, lawyer and Ferguson city councilman Wesley Bell won the Democratic primary over longtime prosecutor Bob McCulloch, the veteran D.A. who failed to get an indictment against Wilson for fatally shooting the unarmed teen back in 2014.
Four years after Ferguson, the affect that that summer has had on a generation is evident. Trayvon Martin's death and the George Zimmerman trial were catalysts for activism and advocacy, and the murder of Eric Garner was another heartbreaking line in the sand—but it was the killing of Mike Brown and the protests that took place in Ferguson throughout that late summer that truly marked the point where a community and a nation had to face what was being done to Black people, and recognize that it wouldn’t be allowed to “just happen” anymore.
In facing what was happening—that is, the rampant killing of Black citizens by officers of the law—America showed the world itself without “fixing its face.” Because for America, facing the reality of its own racism has never meant dealing with it in any measurable way. Technology forced America to see itself once again, but it has yet to cleanse the iniquity that’s been revealed. Instead, things happened—as they often do—in fits and spurts. The four years since Ferguson has seen a politically-charged generation come into its own, and popular culture has felt the effects—even as America doesn’t seem ready to learn and do the necessary to work to salvage its soul. But it has been interesting and confounding to watch it wrestle with itself via politics and pop culture.
Superstars like Beyoncé and Jay-Z have become vocal as advocates for everything from Black Lives Matter to prison reform. In 2012, activist/entertainer Harry Belafonte was critical of the power couple for their perceived apathy toward causes—sparking a regrettably arrogant response from Jay himself at the time. In June, Jay told The New York Times he regretted the episode. “I wish I hadn’t said [what I said then] because again, he’s someone who’s done so much work and I feel like what I felt about what he said should have been taken care of in-house, because we could’ve straightened each other out with a phone call without being on the record, or being on a record,” he said. But Belafonte’s words must have hit their mark. In the years since, the Carters have thrust themselves into the socio-political conversation—particularly following Ferguson.
Jay-Z has executive-produced acclaimed documentary projects about Kalief Browder and Trayvon Martin. After the 2016 killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police officers in Oklahoma and Wisconsin, respectively, Beyoncé issued a statement on her website: “These robberies of lives make us feel helpless and hopeless, but we have to believe that we are fighting for the rights of the next generation, for the next young men and women who believe in good.” Beyoncé’s Black Panthers-referencing “Formation” performance at Super Bowl 50 in 2016 was a pop-culture moment that may have been divisive to the NFL’s fanbase but was wholly empowering for so many people who watched her present a politically-charged act on the biggest American stage.
The Black resurgence at the box office and on television hasn’t simply been a case of middling, safe depictions of Black life and art. This particular wave has been shaped by the post-Mike Brown cultural climate, featuring stories that address the racism prevalent in our society, but also stories that embrace our humanness in the face of those that consistently diminish it. A generation of forward-pushing creatives like Ava DuVernay, Jordan Peele, Ryan Coogler, Barry Jenkins and Lena Waithe have cut a swath through the white and white-adjacent veneer of mainstream Hollywood. As broken Black bodies overpopulate our digital screens, they’ve been essential in telling the stories that make us who we are—beyond this week’s tragic headline.
The way that social media helped raise awareness about the killing of Mike Brown—even before mainstream media picked up on the story—was also an epochal moment in the way we utilized such platforms to rally the people. Subsequent hashtag movements like #OscarsSoWhite and #YouOKSis and #MeToo are born of the spirit that drove those first few days in August 2014 and remained throughout the protests and rallies thereafter. In making everyone realize the power of Twitter and Instagram, it gave everyone a blueprint for how to use those tools in more deliberate ways. It became the way to get the word out about any directive or assembly.
But the aftermath of Ferguson hasn’t been one of open and informed racial dialogue, and it hasn’t been one of heightened, topical art. Not really. Those things have remained adjacent to the glaring, undeniable hostility that has been widely documented via smartphones and social media; the hate that sits right at the surface of our society and that has manifested itself in both the individual customer who shouts at Puerto Rican employees for not speaking English at work and in the policies that decide to rip apart brown families and place children in detention centers in the name of curbing immigration. This is not a phase. And this is not un-American. This is who this country is. It’s just become too hard for some to deny it. And that fuels their rage.
Over the past four years, American racism has been front-and-center in our cultural conversation. The ongoing police violence against Black communities, personal aggressions against non-white citizens in the form of 911 calls or demands to “get out of my country,” and the controversy surrounding NFL player protests have only served as further evidence that this country’s cultural wounds have never healed. Those scars were given Band-Aids in the form of national holidays and appeasing rhetoric. But since 2014, it’s become harder for American denial to sustain itself, which is why contemporary American hatred is raging like a wildfire. The emergence of Barack Obama told one kind of American racist that their hatred was of the past and it told another kind of American racist that all of their hate was more justified than ever. These American racists converged via the political ascension of Donald Trump. From his birther rhetoric against Obama, to his campaign trail calls to “build the wall,” he became a spokesman for anyone who resented the Black Lives Matter movement for “taking us backwards” and for those Tea Partiers who believe the only way forward is to put or keep “certain types” back on the societal margins.
With a Trump presidency, the wizened visage of American diplomacy is dead. American dignity is dead. These were all smokescreens that helped make the more damnable offenses superficially palatable, and without them, America’s warts have and will come to define it. At a time when it is so desperately needed, the Black creative voice has communicated such urgency, passion, clarity and cleansing. It’s helped bring some semblance of peace in a time of interminable spiritual and psychological warfare. And it’s given voice to the voiceless. But it’s not the job of Black art to save America. And Black creativity has been amazing since forever, but it has not torpedoed the warship of white supremacy. It can stand counter to it, but until America extracts the cultural poison born of its heinous lineage, this will be our reality. At least until things get worse.
Because we can’t just “fix our face” and hope no one notices.