The Crucial Lessons Solange Teaches In 'A Seat At The Table'
2016 was Beyoncé's year. Her album Lemonade is inarguably one of the most profound cultural expressions of black femininity produced this year (and, let’s be honest, ever). Her thought-provoking lyrics and beautiful visual album contributed to a national dialogue on race and racism in this country — a broader dialogue that even influenced the presidential campaign platforms and debates.
But this year could also easily be considered the year of the Knowles family, as September 30 marked the release of A Seat at the Table, Solange Knowles’ third studio album. The album, which had been in the works since 2008, is a 22 track-long magnum opus — a grand, magnificent, and intensely personal statement about being a black woman in America.
I am not a black woman. Neither of these albums were designed for me. As an outsider looking in, I can only attest to how they raised my awareness about the implications of being a black woman in America. I admit that I had never fully stopped to consider what that meant, what that experience is really like. While I was aware of, and always strongly advocated for, the importance of intersectionality in the feminist movement, I did so without fully understanding what my friends went through on a day-to-day basis. I didn't understand the frustration of feeling they had to relax their hair for college interviews, for instance, or the particular sadness they felt watching a token character of color die off on a TV show.
This is why A Seat at the Table particularly spoke to me. The album is a visceral work that is equal parts rage, desperation, sorrow, pain, and hope. That I cannot personally attest to the experience of marginalization it encapsulates is exactly what makes it all the more important for any and everyone to listen to: A Seat at the Table allows us a window of understanding into an experience the majority of America does not have. In doing so, it raises discussions and allows for the following fundamental questions to be asked and answered: What does it mean to be black in America? What does it mean to hurt as a black person in America? What does it mean to be at the upper echelons of economic status and still experience racial marginalization, as Solange describes in the album's lead single “Cranes in the Sky?” What does it mean to potentially never be able to escape the way you are seen by society?
For listeners who have personally had similar experiences to Solange’s, A Seat at the Table is a show of solidarity, a presentation of experiences that fall under a greater umbrella of oppression. For the rest of us, it is a defiant telling of experiences it knows we will never fully understand. But Solange tells us these stories anyway — to hold us accountable as a society and to highlight the institutions that reinforce the story she’s telling. This is what makes A Seat at the Table so important: You don’t have to be black to understand pain, but you have to be black to understand the exact type of pain exemplified in this album.
Perhaps most importantly Solange bridges this gap without the intent of explaining what she’s experiencing or convincing listeners to care. In fact, it’s clear she doesn’t care what non-black people think about A Seat at the Table. This is her version of the truth, and it is a version many people hold as the truth. And her presentation of this truth challenges us by making us question how we’ve contributed to the formation of this truth. How have we marginalized black people in America? How have black women particularly been affected by American values?
Most importantly, what can we all do about it?
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