This piece first appeared on the site Collected Young Minds, where I regularly contribute pieces of self-reflection, and thoughts on pop-culture and of course allyship and social activism.
Who would have thought that Jay-Z and Beyonce would have given America our most prophetic word for 2018?
If you haven't heard Jay-Z's 4:44 album, you need to get on that.
I will focus on his one track - Family Feud.
When I listen to it, I am immediately drawn to the personal nature of the song. This is Jay-Z sharing his perspective on very real and very personal problems he went through with his family that gained public steam after Elevator-Gate (shouts out to Solange for practicing Tae Kwon Do at the school of Hard Knocks).
Jay explored ideas of growth, maturity, and lessons he had to learn as a man who did not recognize that he had everything he could ever want at this point in his life. His indiscretions hinted at a deeper immaturity in his character, and he learned that even though he had his billions, put a ring on a queen, and had a family, the status symbols of stability meant nothing if he was the same man he was yesterday.
The song's ultimate message? The family is him, and he is the family. Any choice he makes affects the family, and everything he does is a reflection of it.
I already respected the humility and the vulnerability of that entire album, and in particular this gospel anthem for introspection and family reconciliation.
Fast forward to the beginning of 2018, and the video that they shoot and release for this song took that narrative beyond Jay-Z, Beyonce, Blue, and the Carter-Knowles Wonder Twins.
The Carter-Knowles family took a hyper personal song and used this video to add a layer on top that resonates beyond a family squabble or personal growth.
It's our story as America right now.
There are so many powerful lines throughout the video that precede the song.
At a time...when some people thought, making America great, meant making us afraid of each other.
We are in a time right now in American history where people with a voice and a position of influence are trying to fight the narrative of change that enveloped the country over 8 years ago. Leaders like President Trump want us to be afraid of our differences, and to make America great by undermining the very melting pot that defined the country we inhabit. America seems ever more divided, and every conversation more contentious.
...the worst of us, doesn't define us.
The events in the video are precipitated by a fight and a murder, which prompts a convening of leaders that discuss the crime, and what it says about the progress and growth of the nation. The point...the actions of a few did not have to define the nation everyone worked to build.
So to for America. We have seen protestors emboldened in Charlottesville to shout "Blood and soil", as though this land does not belong to everyone who's ancestors shed blood, sweat, and tears to make America great. Southern Poverty Law Center counted almost 900 additional documented incidents of hate or bias in the days following the election. Hate crimes increased in 2016 according to the FBI. Americans overwhelmingly feel and believe that this country has become more divided than ever.
Yet this dismal trend does not define our country, no matter how prevalent and persistent it may feel. It is easy to lose ourselves in that narrative - to lose hope that we can be better as a nation. However, there is a lot that is good about America, and the country is still young - relative to other developed nations. We have so much that we can still learn as a nation - but only if we are willing to.
Hope is what gives us the strength to endure the storm, because we believe that sunshine is around the corner. When we start to believe that the sun isn't coming, and that we no longer have the capacity to grow and learn as a nation, then the worst of us have won the battle for the soul of this nation.
America is a family, and the whole family should be free.
As poet Emma Lazarus is quoted as saying, "until we are all free, we are none of us free." Jay captured this in Family Feud, citing his personal situation as a teacher of this lesson. Our family is shackled by the choices we make, whether we are willing to acknowledges this or not. As a child, our decision to learn our parents lessons or disregard them can either shackle our parents to a life as caretaker, or as person free to define themselves beyond their role as father or mother. Parents can define the lives of their children for years to come based on their availability or their absence. Spouses can shackle their loved ones with the burdens that come from infidelity or liberate them with unconditional love. Even when we think we make decisions for ourselves, those that love us most share the emotional weight of those decisions, simply because they are bound by something deeper than biology.
This is the story of America and those that love her. We are bound by something deeper than blood (which, let's be honest, we are probably all related here by blood to some degree), and our personal decisions to hate or love others is a personal decision to hate or love ourselves. The fate of our neighbor is our fate as well. Whether we want to hate our differences or love them in one another, our economic and social progress is tied to that of our neighbor's.
...Nobody wins when the family feuds.
When we are divided, we will not succeed. Jay recognized this. It was his lesson to learn, but perhaps one that he and Beyonce wanted us to also learn as a nation. President Lincoln is quoted as saying, "A house divided against itself, cannot stand." At that time, it was addressed to a country torn by slavery. Brother fought brother, and lives were lost when the family feuded. The house did eventually come back together. And yet today, in 2018, a house is divided against itself again, perhaps more than it has ever been. Not across the Mason-Dixon line, or across the battle lines of Bull Run, Antietam, or Gettysburg...
...but across lines in the rhetorical sand between politicians, or across the barrier of misunderstanding between an immigrant and a person born in America. We are divided across lines of gender and race. We are divided across lines of wealth. We are divided across lines of access - to resources, to education, to information, to power.
And some would tell us that the people on the other side of that line, that's their fight. That is their prerogative. It's in our interest to keep them on that side of the line. Because them crossing that line would hurt our interests. It would make us unsafe, less successful, or less able to be ourselves.
But that's not true. The people standing on the other side of that line...are family.
Family first, and always.
Because nobody wins when the family feuds.