Hilton Als’s Kindred Spirits


So much has happened. This is the point The New Yorker‘s Hilton Als makes in his essay “Prince, Cecil Taylor, and Beyoncé’s Shape-Shifting Black Body,” my read for the week. (A close second is Questlove’s remembrance of Prince in Rolling Stone.) All I can do is quote this. About Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” Als writes:

Toward the end of the film, as the singer moves further back into the past and examines her roots, we see any number of sharply dressed women sitting in the natural world, talking among themselves. This will remind readers of that extraordinary scene in ‘Beloved,’ when the elder, Baby Suggs, commands those who have gathered in a clearing to love their hands, themselves—because if they don’t, who will? While that sentiment is clear in Beyoncé’s film—she includes an audio clip of Malcolm X talking about how black women are the least defended in the world—it’s Butler’s fantastic evocation of the history of black women being unloved and somehow finding a way that is the spiritual source of ‘Lemonade.’ To live, the bright, resourceful heroines of Butler’s fiction must shape-shift to fit into various societies.

I often talk in classes about the voices that shape our vision of the world; I often encourage students to determine just who those voices belong to for them. Here Als moves seamlessly from Beyoncé to Toni Morrison—unnamed, but Beloved says it all—to Malcolm X to Octavia Butler. He’s already covered the “titanic pianist” Cecil Taylor, pictured above, and Prince, whose end remains unregistered because he “never ended anything.” (Als also issues this sharp critique of the words words words that have flowed following Prince’s death: “the avalanche of words marking his passing felt, for the most part, like dead leaves being blown about by the force of his ever-shifting continuum, which continues.”) So many visionaries shape Als worldview. In this essay he finds his own voice among theirs, in conversation about bodies and spirits, love and unlove. Go read.


3 comments on “Hilton Als’s Kindred Spirits

  1. After reading Hilton Als’ article he has made quite an interesting point near the end when he speaks about the relationship with a person’s body and its soul. An interesting line to take me into my discussion—, “No amount of fame affords her the freedom to escape blackness, or the past, nor would she want to.” I find that Als’ answer to the relationship of body and soul is just that— they are so connected that one can only inform the other. Just as Beyonce’s blackness is inescapable, so is my whiteness. Unfortunately, we embody our ancestor’s burdens (victim or victimizer) through the color of our skin and we must work our whole lives in order to rid ourselves of this burden. Some believe the only relief comes in death, departure from the secular. However, in “Lemonade,” Beyonce offers us a different alternative. She demonstrates it is acceptance and embrace of one’s self as well as profound informative thought that allows us to live and work past these burdens. Even when we have souls that reject the body it inhabits or people who tell us that we should hate the body we have, it is this path that we must strive towards—freedom from our torturer, which can often times be ourselves. So how does the body relieve itself of its counterpart? One idea would to believe that all of us(every human being) shares one soul, but occupies different bodies. When Beyonce informs us that she suffers the same pain that her mother went through, she suggests this sense of solidarity and oneness with all. And though through social constructs like race we have been made to believe and enforce the binary (black v. white), what if we all stemmed from a single soul that is forever striving to reassemble?

    • This is an interesting theological argument about oneness—and you make the claim that one can achieve this oneness before death, in part by altering the way one perceives the world. This notion of reassembly finds a prominent place in some Jewish thought. “Tikkun Olam” means “to repair the world,” which suggests there’s something broken in it. The Conservative Jewish understanding of this relates directly to racism.

  2. I understand now the feeling Butler called “hyper empathy.” I felt Cecil Taylor’s emotion as he pressed those keys. I actually went on youtube to listen his performance in Perugia in 2009 as I read Hilton Al’s article. It begins so unpleasant in a harsh slam of the keys, but his fingers are placed so perfectly where it never sounds like a mistake. I keep asking myself how I can connect with this form of suffering, and then I realize, I cannot. As they cannot connect to my form of suffering. We are shown music videos like “Lemonade” and given books like “Kindred” (which I read for my middle school English class) to give us a sense of realization. Beyonce set this goal for herself to remind people it may be getting better but it sure as hell hasn’t gotten better. The pain of the years may have been numbed a bit but there is nothing we can do to remove that scar, to remove that wound. Fame, money, talent, these things do not remove what has happened to their ancestors. We must read this article over and over again until we realize we cannot continue to justify the past with promises of the future.

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