Two weeks ago, I visited Kenwood House, a stunning neoclassical villa on the outskirts of London. Dido Elizabeth Belle (from the movie Belle), daughter of a slave likely called Maria and of Sir John Lindsay, nephew of the house owner William Murray, grew up there. She is also one of the rare, non-servant, non-slave women of colour featured in 18th century art - it’s her in the portrait above, posing alongside her cousin.
So by the time the Carters’ Everything is Love dropped on Saturday, I had been thinking a lot about the representation of black people in art, one of the themes of their Apes**t video. It was shot at the Louvres, where I spent many hours as a child, never realising the fact it was a privilege that most people hanging on the walls looked like me, or questioning how there was such a great number of Egyptian artefacts on display.
Napoleon is part of the “how.” In power in France for about 15 years, Napoléon truly was the worst, though if you attended school in France, you wouldn’t know it. Napoléon is tightly linked to the perpetuation of slavery in France, along with his first wife Joséphine whom he crowns in David’s painting above.
Joséphine de Beauharnais was born in Martinique to a wealthy, white, Créole family that exploited a sugar cane plantation with 150 to 300 slaves. Because of the time and place of her birth, Joséphine’s image in history has been built around racist tropes of her time, tropes that are still visible in representations of black people today. There is the “magical n***a” stereotype, when an aging female slave predicted she would become queen; "the benevolent slaveholder," as growing up she played with slave children on the plantation; and finally, the trope of “sinful” interracial love, as her former lover, Revolutionary General Paul Barras, wrote in his memoirs that she’d had multiple affairs with black men and bore a mixed-race child.
However beyond a history that relies on racist stereotypes, what is most important is the rumour, rooted in Napoléon’s Memoirs, that Joséphine assisted him in re-establishing slavery across French territories. Its 1794 abolition had been ignored by most French colonies, and in 1802, Bonaparte decided to go back to it. Slavery wouldn’t be fully abolished across French territories, particularly the French Caribbean, until 1848.
Beyoncé knows her black history as well as she knows her art. Her mother Tina’s parents “were both French-speaking Creoles of predominantly French, African, Spanish and Native American descent”. There were millions of artworks to choose from at the Louvres, so every piece of art featured in Apes**t, including Napoléon’s Coronation, is significant.
Beyoncé and her formation aren’t just dancing in front of a self-proclaimed emperor crowning his wife, with the singer perfectly positioning herself in front of Joséphine. They are dancing in front of a big part of France’s heritage of slavery, which Beyoncé is somewhat linked to through her maternal ancestries.
The “symbolic retrieval of stolen power” goes further than reclaiming art and museum spaces - the Carters are actively defying a couple who created, profited from, and perpetuated systems of oppression to make sure people who looked like them and their dancers wouldn’t get equal access to spaces like the Louvres. The fact that they are doing it in France, where we still aren’t facing the question of race, in front a man like Napoléon, who we are still largely obsessed with and proud of, is even more meaningful. Your move, France.
Lucie Goulet is the founder and CEO of Women in Foreign Policy.