Only Halle, who had watched her movements closely for the last four years, knew that to get in and out of bed she had to lift her thigh with both hands, which was why he spoke to Mr. Garner about buying her out of there so she could sit down for a change. Sweet boy. The one person who did something hard for her: gave her his work, his life and now his children, whose voices she could just make out as she stood in the garden wondering what was the dark and coming thing behind the scent of disapproval.
I thought about the quote above, taken from Beloved, as I read Harry Belafonte’s critique of Beyonce and Jay-Z for failing to accept social responsibility. Those two, at least as conveyed through Beyonce’s camp, had no idea what Belafonte meant by his critique. The fact that Beyonce has performed at charity benefits and given money to worthy causes does not speak to the substance of Belafonte’s criticism. He didn’t say that she and her husband wouldn’t do what came easy to them, Belafonte was suggesting that they have not done what might be hard–like allow their images to suffer. Bruce Springsteen, the celebrity Belafonte endorsed, has shown a willingness to critically examine his cultural terrain, as “American Skin (41 shots)” certainly did. This song was inspired by the tragic police shooting of unarmed, Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo by police officers in 1999. Though Springsteen insists that the song is anti-tragedy and not anti-police, this did not prevent the Police Benevolent Association from discouraging its members from supporting Springsteen’s concerts with their labor as he performed the song in venues across the United States. Springsteen has since dedicated the song to Trayvon Martin. I may be wrong, but I haven’t known Beyonce or Jay-Z to have taken such chances.
In a previous post, I wrote about the limitations of the nearly hour long performance of “Niggas in Paris.” While Jay-Z and Kanye commanded the stage with their hit song while actually performing in Paris, they never sought to make a relevant connection to the lives of those who are actually experiencing being treated like “niggas” in Paris. The women in the video below being dragged, pregnant and with their babies on their backs, know a little something about dehumanization and yet no connection gets made
between them and what it means to be a “nigga in Paris.” Why not? I suspect it’s because being socially responsible in this way would have cost too much. It would have meant that people might have been uncomfortable; that they may not have purchased more concert tickets; sponsors may not have offered more endorsement contracts.
I read an article in The New York Times about the huge return that Jay-Z nets on a relatively small investment in the Nets franchise. I found it incredibly troubling that Jay used his influence–or at least he allowed his image to be used to promote the idea that a new basketball arena would create jobs. Of course it will create low-skill, low-wage jobs but it won’t lead to the creation of work that will generate a middle-class lifestyle; minimum wage does not do that. Perhaps Jay-Z understands this about the kind of work that the arena will produce but he didn’t make his understanding clear to those who trust and believe in him. Doing so would have certainly influenced whether or not he was considered an appropriate choice to be a stakeholder with the franchise. As the Times article notes, Jay-Z benefits financially from his relationship with the Nets but Belafonte’s point asks us to consider whether Jay’s personal gain satisfies the terms of social responsibility.
When Baby Suggs in Morrison’s Beloved considers the sacrifices that have been made for her, she finds few people who have made difficult choices in her honor; in fact, only one person “did something hard for her.” Not only has this measure helped me to be clear about who has shown me love and who I’ve shown it to in my personal life, it has also helped me to evaluate social responsibility. When Harry Belafonte made his critique of Beyonce and Jay-Z’s philanthropy, he had Baby Suggs’s metric in mind.