Black History Month felt like more like a boondoggle than a balm this year for many. Thank goodness for Solange. As February came to a close, the artist unveiled a hard-fought album and film that highlights how black people create various home spaces for respite and revival.
The Grammy Award-winning artist’s latest project, “When I Get Home,” serves in large part as a personal homage to her Houston, Texas roots and the city’s cultural artifacts. But one of the album’s strongest themes extends beyond Houston: How black Americans carve out collective safe spaces, whether manifested physically, spiritually, mentally or communally.
In many ways, Solange’s “Home” acts as a reclamation. Black Americans navigate a predominantly white society — one that’s often made the idea of having a home at all feel elusive or impossible. Indeed, throughout February, we were reminded of the many ways a mainstream white society continues to persecute, deny and minimize our experience.
Black Americans navigate a predominantly white society — one that’s often made the idea of having a home at all feel elusive or impossible.
To name a few examples, the governor of Virginia — the nation’s first slave colony 400 years ago —became one of several politicians who admitted to wearing blackface in the past, and in the process incorrectly referring to enslaved people as “indentured servants.” The film “Green Book,” which purportedly chronicled Dr. Don Shirley traversing the Jim Crow south while on tour, took the Oscar for Best Picture despite being panned by critics and his living family members as a white savior narrative that featured a “symphony of lies.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested rapper 21 Savage in a “targeted operation” days after the artist released a music video with lyrics critiquing the nation’s immigration policies. The rapper’s arrest, allegedly for overstaying his visa, prompted a barrage of memes that made light of the situation. Meanwhile, actor Liam Neeson revealed that power-walking helped quell his racist revenge murder fantasies. Jussie Smollett’s alleged hate crime hoax sparked new doubts about the veracity of the other real incidents. A black sixth-grader in Florida was arrested after the student opted out of the Pledge of Allegiance.
And of noteworthy coincidence, on Feb. 28, the day Solange announced the surprise release of “When I Get Home,” the Washington Post outlined the way racism and government policy rollbacks have resulted in a “heartbreaking” decrease in black homeownership.
So there’s something special about how “When I Get Home” openly claims and celebrates the sonic blackness of her Houston hometown, an area increasingly vulnerable to gentrification and the displacement of black residents following Hurricane Harvey.
The influence of the historically black Third Ward, where Solange grew up, can be felt throughout the album. This is also the area Solange returned to in search of “exploration of origin,” as she shared in conversation on March 3 with artist and curator Antwaun Sargent. (The album film was screened live in multiple Third Ward locations.)
From black cowboys and rolls down the street in slab cars with booming bass stereos to lyrics about a kickback lubricated by brown liquor and unapologetic blackness, “When I Get Home” gathers together many distinct feelings, experiences and sounds of blackness. It reclaims a sense of place among many elements that may seem fragmented and scattered, yet can still be reunited and made whole both individually and collectively.
“[B]lackness will never go away. It’s who I am. It's what I know. I’ll always be a black woman, I’ll always create work from this black woman's body,” Solange said during the conversation with Antwaun Sargent. “I’ll always be from Third Ward, where we had one of the first black banks in the country… where I spent summer camp learning about all of the incredible things that you see in this place, where I got to go to a black woman’s hair salon every day and hear the stories of women. This is just who I am.”
The concept of reunification — returning to the people, places and things that recall a sense of home — is one that historically resonates with black people.
The concept of reunification — returning to the people, places and things that recall a sense of home — is one that historically resonates with black people. Black family reunions are rooted in tragedy; slavery ripped families apart and the Great Migration spread family members across the country in hopes of a better life. Oftentimes, the reunions take place in the south, and family members come from all over the country to meet, some for the first time, and break bread together. There’s a reason Negro spirituals often reference “going home” to heaven as an escape from the troubles of the world.
In 2019, home spaces for black people aren’t limited to physical spaces, however — they also extend online, including communities like Black Twitter and its social media forebears like Black Planet. (Solange tellingly chose to promote “When I Get Home” on Black Planet.) Before Facebook and other platforms shot up in popularity, Black Planet rivaled the likes of MySpace, gathering millions of black people in an online community. Solange’s return to that space — that home — thus functioned as an online family reunion.
Black people always have, and always will, create home spaces for themselves, no matter how challenging or daunting. Sometimes, in the course of navigating American life and mainstream spaces, it’s easy to forget that legacy. But in releasing her new project, Solange has reminded black people that it’s never too late to reach back and reclaim the things that feel like home.