In New Orleans, the weekend that precedes Mardi Gras Day is always a frenzy. Even if one opts out of participation there is no negotiating with the way Carnival season affects daily life. This year, in its midst, Beyoncé released the song and video “Formation,” and followed it up with a performance at the Super Bowl. The night of song’s premiere, I stayed indoors, skipping one of the season’s biggest parades. Instead, I lay in bed watching a New Orleans Police Department squad car half-submerged in water with Beyoncé, the most famous woman in the world, squatting atop the hood and staring into the camera. A now-deceased Anthony “Messy Mya” Barré—someone many of us in New Orleans knew and loved—announces himself from across the ethers, over the video’s beat and flickering lights. Bitch, I’m back, by popular demand. I hear Big Freedia’s laugh, and with that I am transported back to those small clubs after Katrina, waiting for Freedia to take the stage and rap over an earlier Beyoncé hit, “Irreplaceable.” Funny how things change. Funny how they stay the same. I feel Beyoncé is giving a nod to that fact, so I follow her and the camera.
In the days that followed the release of “Formation” and Beyoncé’s Black Panther–inspired Super Bowl performance, a slew of articles were written. It came as no surprise to me that much of the critique of the song, video, and performance centered on questions of authenticity. How “real” is the depicter? The depiction? How real can it really be? Within the black diaspora, our cultures reflect the scope of our long walk across the earth. In “Formation,” I see a horseback rider, a black Indian in his suit, a man in a fez—all fragments of a story that scattered us, literally, all over the world. To be a black American is to reside in a place of existential mystery. Some things are impossible to know for sure. What we do have is the evidence of what we have been able to create in a space of loss and redaction that is the United States.
New Orleans is a culture defined by Middle Passage survivors and indigenous nations; it has always been involved in a complicated conversation about itself with the outside world. Generations of resistance to captivity birthed a complex set of rituals and practices, and an economy that thrived first off the bodies and labor of our people now turns on our traditions. This relationship between culture and commodity has consistently forced upon New Orleans questions about authenticity. Over the years, I’ve fielded many such questions and conversations. How “African” is it? How “Caribbean”? Are they really “Indians”? How black is this particular version of “American” black? These discussions usually leave me with questions of my own. Mainly, what does it mean to be from a people who have had their official origins erased and their legal identities mostly determined by outside forces?
Working through such questions has forced me to reorient myself, to attempt to understand my body in relationship to the rest of the planet’s citizens. My life in New Orleans is defined by the large bodies of water that surround me, and so I often look to other large bodies of water for guidance when trying to understand the imperial paradigm in which we all live. It is the water, after all, that brought me here in the first place. The Port of New Orleans has made possible a perpetual flow of goods, information, free and enslaved people, in exchange, across oceans and borders. In the present, this reach is extended by the ease of the Internet. I can see instantly all the places around the world that the culture of black New Orleans has touched. I am reminded that enslaved people have been crafting international relationships to agitate for freedom and to exchange culture for centuries, and this realization is what reorients me. The transnational alliances of the varying enslaved, indigenous, free, and maroon communities of New Orleans and its surrounding areas reveal much about the way forward through the current hostile racial climate.