The Stunning Literariness of Solange Knowles

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by Panashe Chigumadzi (@panashechig)

“Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?”

An arresting, striking, seemingly rhetorical question that begins Toni Cade Bambara’s 1980 novel The Salt Eaters and grounds much of the experience of Solange Knowles’ A Seat At The Table.

When Knowles describes her album as a “project on identity, empowerment, independence, grief and healing,” I’m tempted to nudge her to go one further and describe it as a literary project, because if you are to listen carefully, it echoes a great archive of Black women’s literature. In particular, A Seat At The Table finds many resonances with the writing of the Black Arts Movement, the cultural arm of the Black Power Movement.

In an interview on “The Search for Decolonial Love,” Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz illustrates the influence of women of color writers like Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Leslie Marmon Silko, Sandra Cisneros, Anjana Appachana and Octavia Butler have had on race discourse in the United States by pointing to the the last sentence of Algerian anti-colonial writer Frantz Fanon’s seminal book Black Skin, White Masks: “O my body, make me always a man who questions!” arguing that these women writers were able to effectively rewrite Fanon’s statement: “O my body, makes me always a woman who questions!”

The question that begins Bambara’s novel comes from the lips of healer Minnie Random who is tasked with treating Velma Henry, a black woman activist “of the movement” who tries to commit suicide. As a literature that sought rhythm, narrative and lyric to the joys and pains of black people as they resisted, the note that was often struck was healing: Where do we go to for our spiritual, psychological and emotional well-being in the midst of our ongoing systemic dehumanization?

It’s this poignant note that Solange struck in the wake of the Charleston Massacre when she tweeted: “Was already weary. Was already heavy hearted. Was already tired. Where can we be safe? Where can we be free? Where can we be black?”

The chord is evident in “Weary” where she sings, “I'm weary of the ways of the world/ I'm gonna look for my body, yeah/ I’ll be back like real soon,” and “Borderline (An Ode to Self-Care),” where she sings, “Baby, you know you're tired/ Know I'm tired/ Let’s take it off tonight/ Break it off tonight/ Baby, it's war outside these walls/ Baby, it’s war outside these doors, yeah/ A safe place tonight/ Let’s play it safe tonight/ Baby, you know what you're fighting for/ Baby, you know what I'm fighting for.”

Knowles is explicit about the way in which literature is one of the safe houses she has sought and seeks as she works through the emotional trauma of anti-black oppression: “I knew I had all of these intense feelings and opinions on things, but I didn’t have the language. Constantly reading and trying to challenge the way I articulated things was a huge part of the writing process of this album.”

One book in particular, Claudia Rankine’s 2014 Citizen, centers the album. Largely shifting away from the grand gestures of racism, Rankine’s work is a meditation on the psychological and emotional dissonance experienced by black people in white spaces, at the granular and interpersonal level, a narrative chord that Knowles evidently drew on in her essay, that might more accurately be described as prose poetry, penned after experiencing a racist attack by a white woman at a majority white concert. And Do You Belong” is in concert with Rankine’s verse of on belonging sought in a world of un-belonging: “The worst injury is feeling you don’t belong so much to you-“. In beginning the essay, Knowles chooses to foreground the lemon thrown at her by the white woman but rather something more subtle, more visceral:

“The tone. 

“It’s the same one that says to your friend, “BOY…go on over there and hand me my bag” at the airport, assuming I’m the porter.”

“Claudia was someone who directly inspired my writing because her poetry cuts through in a really unique way. She leaves certain things up for your interpretation, while also being very direct. I identified with that so much. That has always been something, in terms of my songwriting, that I’ve strived for. I want people to have a personalized experience, but I want my role to be clear within that. Citizen just so powerfully expressed many things I’d been feeling that I just thought, Oh wow, okay. I can actually name these incidents in a very personal way. And I think that, in the past, I might have been a bit more reluctant in my songwriting to be so clear in the narrative — I use a lot of analogies, and I try to have a certain sense of poetry in my writing — but I feel like she really helped inspire me to be more direct in my feelings.”

Rankine’s Citizen is a work that defies boxes. Beyond saying what it’s not, its hard to categorise it and say what it is - part essay, part poetry, part prose poetry, part whatever. It messes with our received knowledge and convention on writing, and by extension the world. Rankine is not the only black woman writer whose work Knowles echoes in this way. Along with Bambara’s The Salt Eaters Yvonne Vera’s Nehanda and Ama Ata Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy are all brilliant examples of experimental styles of prose poetry. Experimental not for half-bakedness, but for their bold and successful risk taking. For black people, and black women in particular, experimenting and improvising with form is just as important as the narrative. It is a project of re-imagination and about reimagining ways of doing and ways of being in a world whose ways conspire against you.

The poetry of A Seat The Table is certainly felt in the form that the project as a whole takes. If, for example, you are to browse the digital book, you will get a visual sense of how important playing and experimenting with form was to Knowles.

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Together the visual power of the Knowles photo book and music videos alike seems to be deliberately deployed against the psychological trauma of the constant loop of dead and injured black bodies circulating on our screens.

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Ultimately, as we find the safe houses built by the rhythm, narrative and lyric of the works of Solange Knowles and black women writers, we may find that we learn to live, we may find ways to counter the dying of the meta-physical self, we may find that we might be brave enough to reckon with the questions they ask of us:

“And Minnie Ransom perched on her stool actually waiting on an answer, drawling out her hummingsong, unconcerned that any minute she might strike the very note that could shatter Velma’s bones. 

“I like to caution folks, that’s all.” said Minnie, interrupting her own humming to sigh and say it, the song somehow buzzing right on. “No sense us wasting each other’s time, sweetheart.” The song running its own course up under the words, up under Velma’s hospital gown, notes pressing pressing against her skin and Velma steeling herself against intrusion. “A lot of weight when you’re well. Now, you just hold that thought.”

Panashe Chigumadzi (@panashechig) is the author of the novel Sweet Medicine and the forthcoming book of essays "Beautiful hair for a landless people." She is also the curator of Soweto’s inaugural Abantu Book Festival.

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