We are called to be beacons of hope and compassion. We have been formed for times like this. We are called to anchor deep in the bedrock of compassion, a radical equality, fairness, pluralism, human dignity, a reverence for the natural world, and the interdependent web of all existence that holds us all, whose strands are more powerful than any Supreme Court Justice and any Administration. Everything that we do – inside and outside this congregation – is about making these convictions real, because they’re not just ideals – they are what saves life and creates life.
This message was offered to the Unitarian Church of Quincy and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse in October 2018.
There was once a rich and powerful king who had a large and very unusual ruby that was beyond price. This jewel was the basis of his renown, wealth, and power. Each day he would look at it with great pride, turning it around and around to see how the sunlight sparkled through it. But one day, he was horrified to see that the ruby had upon it a scratch. How did this happen? And what could he do to get rid of that scratch?
He called each of his palace jewelers to come and examine the scratch and see what could be done to get rid of it. They all told him that nothing could be done without damaging the ruby even more.
The king was very upset and he offered a huge reward to any jeweler who could repair his ruby. Several jewelers came and tried, but all of them said the same thing. Nothing could be done.
Some days later, one of the king’s servants said she had heard of an old retired jeweler who lived in the country who was said to be very experienced in working with damaged gems. So he was sent for, and a few days later he arrived – a little, bent old man, dressed pretty shabbily. The king’s advisers looked at him and told the king he was wasting his time. But the king insisted that the old man be shown the damaged ruby.
The old man looked at it for a long time and he said, “I cannot repair your ruby, but if you wish, I can make it more beautiful.” The king was desperate to have something done, so he agreed. The old jeweler set to work, cutting and polishing. Days later, he came back. Upon the king’s precious ruby he had carved the most delicate rose, its stem being formed by the scratch. (Folk tale. Author unknown.)
Video. Beyonce’s Formation. (This video was not shown in the service but recommended for home viewing the week prior) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDZJPJV__bQ
Our theme this month is formation – how we are formed, composed, built, strengthened, nourished, guided. Every one of us is like that ruby, priceless and beautiful, but with that inevitable scratch, and we’re always making choices about what we do with the hard things that happen to us. How do we, in spite of the many scratches, become good people and stay good people? It can be so hard not to give in to hatred, fear, resentment and vindictiveness when faced with so much pain and injustice. So how do we recover our hope, recenter in our convictions, and continue the struggle?
In preparation for our service today, I suggested watching Beyonce’s video, Formation, which was released in 2016, because I think it has a lot to say to us in this time.
If you don’t know much about Beyonce, she is an incredible singer, dancer, and composer. She’s been on the American pop music scene for more than 20 years, and she’s only 37. Born in 1981, she’s from Houston Texas, and it became pretty clear when she was a child that she had a gift. With her father as her manager, her first breakthrough on the national scene came as a member of Destiny’s Child, a girl group dancing and singing songs about teenage love and boys and heartbreak. They kept churning out the music until they were the most successful girl group ever. Then in her mid 20s, Beyonce went solo, and really started to develop her unique voice. Already famous, already financially secure, she kept singing songs about love, but now she was singing about men instead of boys. Her fame grew, but there was also criticism that she had erased her blackness to be successful. She was the safe black female singer with safe meaningless lyrics. And it worked, her critics said.
But about 10 years ago, she started being a lot less safe. She wanted to break out of that mold where singers and dancers are women and musicians are men. She wanted girls to see strong female musicians. So she let go of her band. Ten were chosen from the 10,000 women who applied. And then there were her dancers. She shifted away from the industry standard of super skinny dancers, all the same height, same hair, copy cat images of each other. Her new dancers have all kinds of body shapes and heights and styles.
Beyonce’s music has taken on a political edge where she brings her politics, her black identity, her feminism, her history, and the scratches on the ruby. The song that really made this shift was Formation. It was released in 2016, the day before Superbowl New Orleans, and she was center stage in the Halftime Show. Formation is informed by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the reality of being a woman of color in the United States.
The video starts not with her voice, but with Messy Mya, a well-known New Orleans rapper who predicted that he would die too young. And he did. He was gunned down leaving his fiancée’s baby shower, and his murderer has never faced justice. Those who love him blame the New Orleans police for that. So at the beginning of the video, there’s his voice, “What happened in New Orleans?” he asks, and there’s Beyonce, kneeling on top of a police car that is going under water in the flooded city.
This is an in-your-face song of resistance, rebellion, and dignity. In a culture that values whiteness, she proclaims that she will love her daughter’s black hair and wide nose. In a culture that sees only black or white, she claims her black, Creole, and Native American roots. She is a creation of the south, with a mother from Louisiana and a father from Alabama. They raised her in Texas, and she will always have hot sauce in her bag. There are scenes of a magnificent New Orleans home, where she and her ladies pose in crisp suffragette white dresses, fancy hats, and parasols, typical of high fashion in the south around the time of the Civil War, but now they are no longer cleaning the houses, they own them.
What Beyonce draws together, frame by frame, are all the things that have formed her as a black woman. She is unapologetic about the fact that she’s wanted power and wealth and found a way to get it. “I see it, I want it,” she sings. “I dream it. I work it. I grind ‘til I own it.” And then she names what it takes as a black woman to claim what’s hers. “I twirl on them haters. Albino alligators.” And then she turns back to who she’s really speaking to. “I might be a black Bill Gates in the making,” she croons. “You might be a black Bill Gates in the making.”
And there’s this line that she sings over and over, “I slay.” The phrase “to slay” emerged from within gay drag culture, and it means “I’m awesome.” It was a way for people to claim dignity, worth, and achievement in a society that would rather they didn’t exist. The phrase has become heavily in used in young black circles. So when Beyonce makes “I slay” the dominant phrase of the song, she is using lingo developed in one oppressed community to claim power in her own. She’s slaying it.
And then she calls all her ladies into formation, and together they dance. They are dancing for their lives at the bottom of an emptied pool in a community center. Now here is where some understanding of history is important. There were a lot more public pools in the US before desegregration. But after desegregation, a lot of whites wouldn’t go to public pools anymore. This is when the private pool industry took off and a whole lot of white people put pools in their back yards. When whites stopped going to public pools, somehow the tax money wasn’t there anymore to keep them up and many pools were closed. So by filling the bottom of a empty community pool with their strong bodies, dancing and singing “I slay,” Beyonce and her Ladies make a statement.
The video is filled with images of New Orleans life – parades, church services, people on the streets, in front of their homes. At the end of the video, we see a young African American boy, dancing. We see the spray-painted words “Stop Shooting Us” and he’s dancing in front of a line of police officers in riot gear. Beyonce keeps saying, ‘Ok Ladies, let’s get in formation. I slay” as the boy dances. Suddenly the police officers put their hands in the air, as if surrendering. The video ends with the New Orleans cop car also surrendering to the water, and Beyonce with it, sacrificing her black body to bring down the structures of systemic racism and injustice.
The day after the video went live, Beyonce, her Ladies, and her 10-piece band showed up in Black Panther costumes and performed a child-appropriate version of Formation during the Super Bowl half time show, in the Superdome where thousands of New Orleaneans, mostly black, sought shelter during Hurricane Katrina and were then stranded with no food and water, no medical care, no bathrooms, and with police officers who aggressively contained them rather than take care of them. In a Superdome that had been quickly rebuilt while bureaucracy and land grabs prevented many people from returning to their homes, in this symbolic place, Beyonce, her Ladies, and her band, slayed.
Today the Black Panthers are often portrayed as terrorists, but in truth, the Black Panthers emerged as a response to police brutality. Because California had open carry laws at the time, young black men armed themselves and hung out in groups on the streets. If a police officer showed up, they would simply stand and watch while the police did their work to ensure that any police brutality was witnessed. Not surprisingly, police brutality declined. That is, until the Black Panthers were deemed a terrorist group and the full might of the federal government was brought in to take them down.
So what does this video have to do with what we’re going through now? What’s happening today in our political systems, and what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and racial profiling and police brutality, are grounded in the same system of white supremacy, the painful scratch on the ruby that is this nation. They are painful manifestations of the intersection of patriarchy, racism and authoritarianism which is part of this nation’s formation story.
What stays with me is that there is no attempt to soften her message, to make it safe, nice, there are no apologies. She and her ladies have channeled their anger and pain and transformed it into a power that is taken rather than asked for.
There are millions of us in this nation wondering how we are going to take back our power. We need to be strong. We need to slay. We need to be in formation.
On a personal level, each of us can claim our story. There are scratches on our rubies, and the circumstances of those scratches are often hard experiences we have tried to forget or minimize. And yet they have formed us, both in the thing itself and what we are doing with it. Each of us finds our own unique way of moving through. And some of us have been able to carve the rose and some of us are still figuring it out.
And while we’re on these individual journeys, we can figure out how to be in formation.
This congregation is a formation. We are individuals who have come together into covenant because we know that we are stronger together than apart. And our shared mission is to fill with love and compassion what has been emptied with hatred and fear, just like Beyonce and her Ladies filled an empty pool with music and dancing. We do this in two ways:
1) We can offer refuge to those who are tired, fearful, and demoralized. We should be able to bring our true selves here and find comfort and hope in the bonds of beloved community. This is not a place where you should be expected to bear a stiff upper lip in order to be deemed enough. This is place where we can claim our anger and regain our strength, and carve a rose around the scratch.
2) We are called to be a beacon of hope and compassion. We have been formed for times like this. We are called to anchor deep in the bedrock of compassion, a radical equality, fairness, pluralism, human dignity, a reverence for the natural world, and the interdependent web of all existence that holds us all, whose strands are more powerful than any Supreme Court Justice and any Administration. Everything that we do – inside and outside this congregation – is about making these convictions real, because they’re not just ideals – they are what saves life and creates life. They form life.
So let’s get in formation, and let’s slay.
Amen and blessed be.
This message is the intellectual property of Rev. Krista Taves. This material can be used provided that credit is given.