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June 14, 2024

Alliigator Tears is about respectability politics

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On the surface, “Alliigator Tears”, the Prince-inspired song from Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter album, is about a woman giving up her autonomy for “love”.

”I’ve been in this kind of relationship,” I see women share online.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been fortunate enough to not have firsthand experience with abusive relationships, but I heard the song and immediately thought:

This is a song about Black people’s relationship to whiteness.

I got more specific after a few more listens.

Alliigator Tears is a song about the relationship between respectability politics and whiteness.

Now that’s a relationship with which I have plenty of firsthand experience.

Let me make my case. Just for fun. 😉

The song is called Alliigator Tears, not crocodile tears—the more popular term. When have we heard Beyoncé talk about alligators in the past?

In Formation, Beyoncé sings, “I twirl on them haters, albino alligators.”

I’ve always interpreted that line as a calling out of white folks who’ve judged and gatekept and dismissed her.

With that reference in mind, Alliigator Tears becomes a song about white tears.

The first verse of the song reads:

High tides in the city, I’m in too deep
And I’m runnin’ on fear
Oh, dear, you and your alligator tears
Works me over and through

From the second line of the song, Beyoncé tells us fear is the root of the relationship rather than love. Yet even with the fear, the crier is still called dear. Their relationship is complicated. There’s fear and a desire for closeness that causes the protagonist to do things that ultimately cause them harm.

The first phrase of the chorus goes:

You say move a mountain
And I’ll throw on my boots

I’m reminded of the legend of John Henry, the steel drivin’ man. He, and the Black men he represents, carved tunnels out of mountains. For many, this work was part of a prison sentence. They didn’t choose to throw on their boots.

David LeFleur

For John Henry, the choice comes when the railroad introduces a machine that can do his job. As the story goes, he challenges the machine to a tunnel-off. John Henry wants to prove—to himself? his peers? the white powers that be?—that he’s more valuable than any machine.

In the legendary story, John Henry proves his point. Then he dies of exhaustion.

How many Black folks, Beyoncé included, have their own John Henry moments, killing their creativity, joy, and passion, in an attempt to prove a point to people who only valued them for their physical labor in the first place?

Later in the chorus, Beyoncé sings:

You say change religions
Now, I spend Sundays with you

Many interpreted these lines to mean that the protagonist no longer goes to church and instead spends Sundays with their lover. I heard it the opposite way.

When my ancestors were brought to America, our captors forced us to give up our ancestral religions. They taught us Christianity to police our behavior. Over time, the Black community upheld the church as a place where we could hold some level of power as pastors, deacons, and first ladies, even if it also meant contributing to our own oppression.

At the end of the chorus, Beyoncé ponders the power of the alligator tears:

Somethin’ ‘bout those tears of yours
How does it feel to be adored?

I imagine Black folks watching white women cry as they make accusations that will cost someone their job or their life. Meanwhile, their tears go unnoticed by design. They’re held in the back of their throat or quickly swiped away to avoid a worse punishment.

“How does it feel to be adored?” they ask.“How does it feel to exist in a society meant to protect you?”

For people hypnotized by the pull of respectability politics, the way to experience that adoration is to become as close to white as possible.

In his essay, the Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, Langston Hughes writes,

A frequent phrase from the father is, “Look how well a white man does things.” And so the word white comes to be unconsciously a symbol of all virtues. It holds for the children beauty, morality, and money. The whisper of “I want to be white” runs silently through their minds.

The first lines of the second verse sound like an extension of these Black folks’ internal dialogue.

Sunrise in the morning, you’re all I need
And all I need is rain or the roots get weak

The opinions of white people form the root of their identity. They’re only as good as white folks say they are, and this obsession with approval disconnects Black folks from their own beauty.

As Langston Hughes wrote:

This young poet’s home is, I believe, a fairly typical home of the colored middle class. One sees immediately how difficult it would be for an artist born in such a home to interest himself in interpreting the beauty of his own people. He is never taught to see that beauty. He is taught rather not to see it, or if he does, to be ashamed of it when it is not according to Caucasian patterns.

You’d think people would want to opt out of a shame-filled construct that says you and your culture aren’t beautiful, but there’s no opting out when proximity to whiteness is the prize.

The next lines of Alliigator Tears read:

Thinkin’ ‘bout leaving? Hell no
Squeeze every ounce of love from my body

They can’t think about leaving because they’re suffocating. What feels like the warmth and acceptance of people who say—

”You’re so articulate.”
”She’s not that kind of Black person.”
”I don’t see color when I look at you.”
”You’re an Oreo.”

— is actually strangulation.

They’ve forgotten what it feels like to take full belly breaths, to let the fullness of their being, their ideas, their experiences, and their voice show up in conversation.

Instead, they divert the little oxygen they have left towards venerating white supremacy and policing each other.

The song ends by repeating the phrase I adore you before asking one last time, “How does it feel to be adored?”

I adore, I adore you, I adore you, I adore, I adore (How does it feel to be adored?)
Alligator tears

Black folks will never experience the feeling of being adored for who they truly are in a society that wasn’t built with them in mind.

To answer the question, “How does it feel to be adored?”, we have to think outside of the current systems and standards—of beauty, professionalism, and taste.

It’s not lost on me that I read Alliigator Tears this way, on an album where Beyoncé weaponizes respectability by getting the reigning queen and king of country music to place their stamp of approval on the project.

Even as one of the most popular artists of our lifetime, Beyoncé’s still chasing approval and adoration. She’s wondering how it feels to win album of the year.

I’m wondering what would happen if she stopped chasing the establishment’s approval.

I’m wondering what would happen if I did the same.

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