The Bold Empathy of "A Seat at the Table"

When Solange Knowles says, "This shit is for us," she means it.

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On the day A Seat at the Table was released back in September, Solange posted a conversation on her website.

The conversation, between her, her mother Tina Knowles, and writer Judnick Mayard, was a lot like the record itself—as much an act of provocation to white male supremacy as it was a celebration of black ownership.

The white mainstream has had few qualms with yanking the stories of black women over the years—especially when it comes to music—and molding our narratives into something more palatable for them. So, Solange's decision to self-publish an interview about her music drove home a line on "A Seat at the Table" that has since become a clarion call for black women: "This shit is for us."

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But Solange's idea wasn't a new one. Our people have celebrated being black before, some of us even used to rock clothes from For Us By Us (F.U.B.U.), which is also a title of one of the album's tracks. So, yes, A Seat at the Table is a celebration of us, but it's also acknowledgement and exploration of the pain from which black celebration is derived.

"It's not going to be pretty, it's not going to be fun, you may not get to dance to it." —Solange Knowles

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"I think A Seat at the Table for me is an invitation to allow folks to pull up a chair, get very close and have these hard uncomfortable truths be shared," Solange said in her Saint Heron interview. "It's not going to be pretty, it's not going to be fun, you may not get to dance to it, you're not going to breathe easily through it, but that is the state of the times that we're in right now."

The album came out after a summer littered by police shootings of black men, and of more than a few nights out that I spent drinking to cope with reporting on the aftermath of those shootings, of countless more white people touching my hair without asking. It felt like Solange's songs were extracted directly from my brain.

"In those moments I was seized by a panic: How was I going to protect my friends and family? How would I survive?"

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But, recently the album has taken on an entirely new dimension. On November 21, almost two weeks after the election, writer Brit Bennett tweeted, "So how many times have you guys listened to "Cranes in the Sky" since Election Day?" Responses rolled in, "Lost count but listened to it 5 times since 8 am," wrote one Twitter user. "349732047340237527 +1," wrote another.

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On the night Donald Trump was elected to the presidency, I wrote about a desperate loneliness that overtook me. "What I wanted on election night, and all the nights that have followed, was to be touched, held, and sometimes to be fucked," I said. But it wasn't just confined to election night, or sex. For weeks, I awoke in the middle of the night from nightmares, crying. The dreams were just out of reach, but each time I awoke, my heart felt like it was seconds away from puncturing my skin and exploding out of my chest. In those moments I was seized by panic: How was I going to protect my friends and family? How would I survive?

I tried to drink it away

I tried to put one in the air

I tried to dance it away

I tried to change it with my hair

I ran my credit card bill up

Thought a new dress would make it better

I tried to work it away

But that just made me even sadder

—"Cranes in the Sky"

But the inevitability of those nightmares didn't dissuade me from sleeping, because staying awake was more traumatic. In the daytime, I felt physically sick from those nightmares, from reading James Baldwin essays and books that spoke of a time 50 years ago that felt little different than now, from disappointing conversations with white friends and lovers. So, like Solange sings in "Cranes in the Sky," I slept a lot. And when I wasn't sleeping, I was "sexing it away," traveling, and drinking lots of tequila. Those distractions didn't work particularly well. Looming over me, always, was the feeling that things were about to get so much worse.

Judging by President Trump's dark inaugural speech, they probably will. But at least I've got A Seat at the Table—a body of work that moves and emboldens black women to keep our stories ours, a record that encourages us to fight against the white hegemon that is always angling to maintain control.

To keep up with Collier Meyerson's writing, follow her on Twitter @collier. And to buy A Seat at the Table, see itunes.com.

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