Until roughly 11:30 a.m. last Friday, it’s safe to say that the number of people who knew that President James Madison once owned a crystal flute — let alone that it’s now in the possession of the Library of Congress — could likely fit comfortably inside a high school auditorium. (Honestly, maybe even a classroom.) That was when the librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, tweeted out an invite to singer, rapper and classically trained flutist Lizzo to check out Madison’s flute and the rest of the library’s collection while she was in town for a concert.
Fast-forward a week and suddenly people have thoughts about the propriety and sanctity of Lizzo gleefully playing a few notes on that flute on a stage in Washington on Tuesday. It’s somehow a tragedy and a scandal that anyone would dare be so crass as to remove a Founding Father’s obscure tchotchke from its place of safekeeping to be used as a prop for a twerking symbol of America’s moral decadence.
When I say “people,” what I really mean is “a handful of men who love to be mad on the internet.” And their sudden surge of interest in early American musical instrument lore is as transparent as the crystal flute itself.
The backstory of how the flute went from a hidden-away catalog to appearing on stage in Lizzo’s hands is actually pretty heartwarming. She accepted Hayden’s offer to visit the library’s extensive collection of flutes, spending three hours on Monday exploring and trying out the instruments on hand, according to The New York Times. That included the crystal flute that Hayden had teased in her tweet — and which the superstar asked if she could play during her D.C. performance on Tuesday.
You may be thinking that the criticism is centered around what seems at first like a valid fear: She could have broken this priceless artifact. But nobody cares more about protecting historical artifacts than professional librarians and archivists. These are people who believe so deeply in safeguarding the past that they voluntarily wage an eternal war against unvanquishable enemies like light and dust. These are people who would rather drop-kick a grubby-handed toddler bearing down on a piece of parchment than be responsible for damage to an item in their charge.
To wit: “Before Lizzo arrived, the Library’s curators in the Music Division made sure that it could be played safely and without damage,” according to a press release the Library of Congress issued on Wednesday. When items are briefly lent out for display — or in this case performance — “curators ensure that the item can be transported in a customized protective container and a Library curator and security officer are always guarding the item until it is secured once more.”
These are people who would rather drop-kick a grubby-handed toddler bearing down on a piece of parchment than be responsible for damage to an item in their charge.
You could see that those protective steps were in place in video from Tuesday’s concert, where Lizzo reverently holds the crystal flute when it’s handed to her. She plays a few notes, runs a trill, does a little twerk in the process, and then hands it back to Hayden, who tucks it into the padded case used to transport it.
That should have been it, an all too rare, nice moment of a famous person exposing a broader audience to a bit of historical trivia. Instead, we’ve now had a day of people projecting their own weird hang-ups onto an object that they had never heard of until maybe 24 hours beforehand.
“The thing that is obvious but people don’t want to say is that this is about humiliating white people, about desecrating American history and heritage,” Chronicles magazine senior writer Pedro L. Gonzalez tweeted, comparing Lizzo hitting a few notes to the Muslim conquest of Spain in the Middle Ages.
Conservative instigator Ben Shapiro decried on his podcast the “vulgarization of American history” that Lizzo represents and how the Library of Congress is “supposed to be a place where you preserve historic instruments and respect them, not a place … to twerk with those instruments.”
(My personal favorite was a Twitter user who declared that Lizzo playing the flute was “to remind you that nothing you care about has any value.”)
They are mad because someone who is living her life as unapologetically fat, Black and female dared have a good time in public.
These outraged screams aren’t because the flute could have been damaged, or because Tuesday’s performance cheapened the monetary or historical value of the item or denigrates Madison’s legacy. Instead, they are mad because someone who is living her life as unapologetically fat, Black and female dared have a good time in public. They are mad because something that was once owned by a slaveholding Virginian aristocrat would be introduced to America as part of a concert where Lizzo dared jiggle her ass for a second or two while playing it.
The anger directed at her feels like a direct offshoot of the reactionary backlash that we’ve seen to Blackness in pop culture in recent weeks. If anything, Lizzo — who declared to her audience after returning the flute “HISTORY IS SO FREAKING COOL!” — showed more reverence and respect for history in her time at the Library of Congress than many of the conservatives who would prefer to see America’s backstory sanitized into a homogenous sludge of patriotic but ahistorical hero worship.
Do these cranks actually believe what they’re saying? I have doubts — what we’re seeing is the online equivalent of an involuntary spasm in a muscle touched with an electrical wire. But do prominent commentators like Shapiro know that their audiences will have felt a reflexive feeling of revulsion toward Lizzo and want to capitalize on it? Absolutely.
Again, this is not that deep and so I conclude with a simple request: Just let Black people have things, y’all.