Cardi B. and Black Women’s Political Discourse
In January 2019, rapper Belcalis Almánzar, popularly known as Cardi B., took to social media to condemn President Trump for perpetuating the longest government shutdown in American history. On January 16, after Trump announced that he would order 50,000 of the 800,000 furloughed government workers to return to work without pay, Almánzar posted a video which later went viral. Correctly characterizing the real life consequences of the shutdown, which drained many federal workers’ savings accounts and left them at the mercy of food banks, as some “really serious sh**,” Almánzar expressed her frustrations with Trump for refusing to relent on his demands for border wall funding.
Immediately, Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren mocked Almánzar’s commentary on Twitter, writing “looks like @iamcardib is the latest genius political mind to endorse the Democrats. HA!” Four days later, Almánzar responded to Lahren demanding that she leave her alone or be “dog walked.” After Lahren doubled down on her earlier comments, calling Almánzar’s “political rambling…moronic,” Almánzar responded with a tweet accusing Lahren of racism. She wrote, “you’re so blinded with racism that you don’t even realize the decisions the president you root for is [sic] destroying the country you claim to love so much. You are a perfect example on [sic] no matter how educated or smart you think you are you still [sic] a SHEEP!”
Conservative media pundits, however, weren’t the only ones to weigh in on Almánzar’s Instagram video. Liberals also devalued her intervention. Democratic senators Chris Murphy and Brian Schatz, who agreed in principle with Almánzar, publicly debated whether to retweet the video. Schatz egged Murphy on, urging him to retweet Almánzar with the caveat that “retweets are not endorsements, especially the language.” Murphy finally declined, telling Schatz not to hold his breath. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer later continued the joke tweeting, “Guys, I’m still holding my breath…Are you gonna RT Cardi B or not?” Most commentators have characterized this discussion as “hilarious” and “laughable,” ignoring the implications and the micro-aggressions present in the act of three powerful white men publicly questioning whether the opinion of a Black woman was valuable enough to cite, and if so, only with a disclaimer. By contrast, freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Latina woman from the Bronx, supported Almánzar’s clapback on Twitter and stood in race, gender, and class solidarity with Almánzar. She wrote, “why do people think they can mess with Bronx women without getting roasted? They act as if our borough hasn’t been perfecting the clapback game since the Sugarhill Gang.”
Since mid-January, there have been a handful of think pieces coming to Almánzar’s defense and noting her long history of well thought out political speech. Commentators, however, have been slow to delve into the structural dynamics of not only Lahren’s, but also Schatz, Schumer, and Murphy’s, unfortunately unsurprising dismissal of Almánzar and her right to engage in political discourse. Their reactions are historically informed by misogyny and anti-Black racism and neatly fit within a familiar tactic of framing Black people, and Black women in particular, as hysterical, unreasonable, uneducated, and incapable of political analysis.
Because Almánzar is a young Afro-Latina woman who speaks in fast, working class, Black, Bronx slang, she is readily dismissed by white viewers in ageist, gendered, racist, and classist ways. Like many Black women, such as former video vixen Amber Rose, whose entrepreneurial success, feminism, and political activism is ignored because she is perceived as an oversexualized Black woman, Almánzar is dismissed for similar reasons. Critics often point to Almánzar’s past as a stripper and criticize her for showing her body in Instagram posts and music videos.
The uphill battle that Almánzar and other women like her are engaged in is reinforced by looking at the long-standing dismissal of even hyper-educated, experienced Black female politicians. In 1968, when Shirley Chisholm ran against James Farmer to become the first Black woman elected to Congress, he demeaned her as just a “little schoolteacher,” telling voters that they needed a “man’s voice in Washington.” This statement demonstrated how Black men have also been historically implicated in the dismissal of Black women. Fifty years later, during a contentious battle for the Georgia governorship in 2018, President Trump baselessly characterized Democrat Stacey Abrams, a Black woman, as “unqualified,” urging voters to “look at her past.” Pointing to her status as a business owner, her education at Yale Law School, and her public service, Abrams defended herself, saying that she was actually “the most qualified candidate.” By contrast, President Trump defended Ron DeSantis’s bid for the Florida governorship, citing his undergraduate education at Yale, law degree from Harvard, and his past service in Congress, aspects that he ignored in Abrams’s case.
The fact that Lahren found it unthinkable that Almánzar could have a well-informed, factually correct, and empathetic political opinion and characterized her ideas as “moronic” is indicative of a larger historical trajectory of overlooking Black agency and potential. Make no mistake, like many successful battle rappers who must think quickly on their feet, Almánzar is able to make salient, logical connections between the political and the personal. In essence, her raw knowledge plus her personal experience growing up as a working class Black woman gives her a unique perspective on the way that lawmakers enacting legislation and implementing policy impact real people in practice. As an instructor, I’ve had many “Cardi B.s” in my classes–students who have a keen sense of injustice, are able to analyze primary source material, and whose analysis is greatly enhanced by their own positionality and view of the world. Many times, these students, who are often underrepresented minorities, are underestimated and overlooked. Because they have often not received intensive preparation in formal writing and rhetoric, they are often unable to distill and articulate their ideas in a language that we as academics have determined appropriate. However, as linguist John McWhorter has argued, the refusal to recognize vernacular forms of English as legitimate manifestations of the language is steeped in racism. These students may need more help but often do not receive extra assistance because they don’t know how to ask or are looked at as lost causes. Those in charge of gatekeeping at the university level either don’t see their potential or don’t want to invest the time to help distill their ideas. Their success is viewed as simply unimaginable.
As Michel-Rolph Trouillot reminded us, part of the reason that the Haitian Revolution was successful was because, while simultaneously characterizing Black slaves as inherently violent and savage, the white ruling class did not consider that slaves had the intellectual capacity to organize and conquer an entire island. In other words, as Almánzar noted in her response to Lahren, they were so “blinded by racism” that they didn’t see what would inevitably lead to their demise. As the example of the Haitian Revolution tells us, this was a hard-learned reality check that had reverberations throughout the world.
This specter of unthinkability persists to the present day, reified by the erasure of Black intellectuals and their contributions from American history. Poignant examples include the revisionist histories that forget Martin Luther King, Jr.’s radical message and frame Malcolm X as nothing more than a demagogue advocating unprovoked racial violence. Or the manner in which W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey’s personal conflicts with each other are often emphasized at the expense of more critical analyses of the internalization of structural inequalities, like colorism, which enhanced their disputes. Moreover, the women who stood next to these men, like Amy Jacques Garvey and Betty Shabazz, were often seen as incidental. In the last two decades, however, historians have begun to tease out the lives of these women. In works like Russell Rickford’s 2005 biography of Betty Shabazz, Ula Taylor’s 2002 biography of Amy Jacques, Keisha Blain’s 2018 monograph of the intellectualism of Black nationalist women, and Blain and Tiffany Gill’s 2019 edited volume on Black women and internationalism, we come to appreciate Black women as intellectuals in their own rights and as essential parts of Black radicalism both alongside and independent of men.
In the twenty-first century, the dismissal of Almánzar exemplifies how Black women, and more broadly Black people, are historically constructed as false witnesses to their experience of America. The persistence of Black women falls within a long trajectory of resistance and intellectual production. Am I arguing that Almánzar is a Gramscian organic intellectual? Maybe. That is not my task here, but I invite other scholars to take up or dismiss this challenge. What I am arguing, however, is that the wholesale dismissal of insightful analyses from Black women has historical context and is steeped in a racist and sexist tradition of the policing of intellectual ideas and of the title of “intellectual.” Historians and academics have an obligation to highlight these intellectual contributions, but politicians should pay attention as well. Our history demonstrates that ignoring Black intellectual production is, and always has been, a foolish and dangerous strategy.permission.