Contextualizing and Decoding Beyonce’s “Becky”
Updated: a day ago
Beyoncé has taken a lot of heat lately for being a powerful, beautiful, talented, wealthy Black woman. Her blackness seems to be the sticking point for those who heretofore viewed her as an entertainment icon transcendent of race. Meaning, she is not black. She is simply an attractive woman that all races of men and women equally idolize and castigate for being too sexy, too curvy, too confident and now…too black.
After she and her team of dancers dressed in all black during a Super Bowl performance of the song “Formation,” Beyoncé was accused of inappropriately saluting the Black Panthers civil rights group (in front of so many white people and their children). She was also accused of being anti-police. In fact, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani emerged from his crypt to excoriate poor Beyoncé for sustaining tensions between blacks and the police, instead of duly acknowledging the disproportionate amount of homicides committed by police against the black community.
Saturday Night Live even satirized the crux of the backlash in a skit called, “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black.” Newscasters reported on the “unapologetically black” imagery in her video for the song “Formation.” Who knew that Beyonce’s embrace and display of her African American heritage would be considered political subversion?
The “Lemonade” Controversy
On Saturday, April 23 Beyoncé released a new digital album titled, “Lemonade” during a one-hour visual presentation on HBO. The title alludes to the platitude, “When life hands (gives) you lemons, make lemonade.” So far this year, Beyoncé has gracefully endured numerous professional and personal attacks, with her marriage being the latest target. Many fans and critics speculate that Beyoncé ‘s provocative lyrics confirm rumors of her husband Jay-Z’s infidelity.
In the song “Sorry,” Beyoncé admonishes an adulterous lover to “call Becky with the good hair.” Her hard-core fans called the “Beyhive” accused two women of being the adulterous “Becky” that Beyoncé refers to in her music: Fashion Designer, Rachel Roy and singer, Rita Ora. Both of these women fanned the flames of contention by posting tongue-in-cheek textual and visual references to Beyonce’s song on social media, seemingly in efforts to disrespectfully taunt Beyoncé and her fans.
The use of the name “Becky” comprises the center of the controversy. Among African Americans, “Becky” refers to an otherwise culturally insensitive white woman who wants to get down with the swirl - to interracially date a black man or to otherwise insinuate herself into black life.
Why are white women called “Becky”?
Unbeknownst to many, the characterization of white women as Becky can be traced back to Jean Toomer’s seminal work, “Cane,” published in 1923. In the titular short story, “Becky” is a disgraced white woman, with two negro sons, who lives in isolation between two communities separated physically by railroad tracks and ideologically by race: blacks on one side, whites on the other. Blacks regarded Becky as an infiltrator to stonewall, whereas whites saw her as a traitor to ostracize. Therefore, white women, particularly those romantically involved with black men, are referred to as “Becky,” in this author’s opinion.
Since love is supposed to supersede race and declaring that black lives matter in America is treason, some people find the term Becky to be offensive. Interesting. Black women, the mules of the world (coined by Zora Neale Hurston), have long been called Jemimas, hottentots, monkeys and all manner of dehumanizing appellations, but white women find the name Becky offensive, and are mad at Beyoncé for daring to utter the name in a song.
When the rapper Sir-Mix-a-Lot sang about “Becky” in “Baby Got Back,” the blowback was not as harsh. Perhaps white women felt complimented by Sir-Mix-a-Lot, but reproved by Beyoncé for stealing her black man. In response to the Becky controversy, Iggy Azalea, a white entertainer engaged to a black basketball player, boldly told audiences to never call her a Becky. Translation: All hail the privileged white woman who seizes the black man while devaluing the black woman.
In the words of bell hooks appearing in the preface to Sisters of the Yam, “Widespread efforts to continue devaluation of black womanhood make it extremely difficult and often-times impossible for the black female to develop a positive self-concept. For we are daily bombarded by negative images.”
Attempts to strip away Beyoncé’s feminine fierceness and demote her from pop princess, wife and mother to scorned woman tell black women that we cannot have it all, and how dare we try. Even the formidable Beyoncé loses ground in the face of privileged patriarchal prescriptions of what black women are entitled to in a world where race still matters, but black people are not allowed to publicly challenge systemic racism or extol blackness without intense reprehension. Especially Beyoncé. Why is she suddenly so pro-Black? Why is she using her art to make political statements in favor of black people?
In so many ways, Beyonce’s “Lemonade” is more than a musical tour-de-force. It is a springboard for necessarily upsetting discussions of racial privilege, the specificity of race, anti-black feminism and womanhood.
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Ashan R. Hampton is a long-time English instructor turned entrepreneur. Through her company, Onyx Online Education & Training, she offers digital courses and print books on grammar, proofreading, business writing and communication for personal and professional development to individuals and corporations. To find out more about Ashan's work, visit www.arhampton.com.
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