Learning from Beyoncé

Beyoncé Knowles-Carter makes perfect pop songs that also lend themselves to nuanced discussion of race, gender, sexuality, class, feminism, social justice, and so much more. For the past decade, I have incorporated her music into my women and gender studies curriculum. In class, I pair her songs and music videos with writing by black women from throughout US history, honoring and centering their voices. This often leads to fun, memorable, and academically rigorous conversations about Queen Bey that also celebrate the history of black feminism—and challenge the overrepresentation of white male perspectives. (This includes my own: as a white male educator, I try to let the work do the talking.) Here are a few pairings that, along with books like Omise’eke Tinsley’s Beyoncé in Formation: Remixing Black Feminism, will jumpstart an exploration of the rich legacy Beyoncé’s work is in conversation with.

Civil Wars: Observations from the Front Lines of America by June Jordan (1981); Everything Is Love by The Carters (2018)

June Jordan was a prolific poet and writer, tackling nearly every genre with a love of language that shone in every sentence. Civil Wars is a fascinating collection spanning more than two decades of Jordan’s observations of American life and politics as a black, bisexual woman. In the title essay, she muses on the ways in which being polite upholds the status quo, reifies the system as-is in all its unfairness. But when you’re at war for your very existence, civility just won’t do. “The purpose of polite behavior is never virtuous,” Jordan suggests. “The goal of the mannerly is comfort, per se.” Enter Beyoncé and “Apeshit.”

Alongside the more stoic Jay-Z, Beyoncé enacts an aggressive critical disrespect in the video for “Apeshit,” filmed in the Louvre, a symbolic bastion of elite whiteness. The Carters turn their backs on the artwork, refuse polite behavior, and create a spectacle that both calls attention to the absence of blackness in the museum and injects that which is missing. The video poses questions about the historical value of the art society is told to respect, and holds up that which has been undervalued or ignored. Throughout Civil Wars, June Jordan also writes on the politics of love, hatred, and the intricacy, meaning, and history of Black English—essays relevant to many tracks on Everything Is Love.

Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979); Lemonade by Beyoncé (2016)

Kindred is Octavia Butler’s landmark science fiction novel in which Dana, a black woman, is transported back and forth through time between her 1970s California present and the antebellum South. Each trip into the past requires Dana to save Rufus, a white boy and then man, from imminent danger. The action of the novel slowly reveals Dana and Rufus’s unfortunate, inextricable link. In doing so, Butler shines light on the horrific and despicable American past that created our present. “I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm,” Dana recounts in the novel’s first sentences, indicating that the past always leaves its mark, even physically. The grip—the body-breaking hold/control white men have on history and the present—is a haunting metaphor that situates Beyoncé’s Lemonade in a larger political context.

I ask students to consider Lemonade, not just as a personal story of infidelity and broken promises (because Beyoncé has constructed specific barriers between her public and private lives), but as the larger story of black women’s treatment by America over time. Black women have been lied to and promises of equality have consistently been broken. Beyoncé travels back and forth in time throughout Lemonade too, to indict the past while also trying to reconcile with the present. Black and white scenes might be understood as out of linear time and, like Dana, Beyoncé highlights the pernicious treatment of black women as something that must be reckoned with, not ignored. Ultimately, Lemonade presents a new vision for a citizenship contract defined by black women—one that highlights mistakes of the past and holds them in tension so America never forgets—as the only way forward.

Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America by Melissa Harris-Perry (2011); BEYONCÉ by Beyoncé (2013)

Remixing the title of Audre Lorde’s iconic Sister Outsider, Melissa Harris-Perry discusses the ways stereotypes, including the often misconstrued-as-compliment “strong Black woman,” impact black women’s lives and abilities to be seen and recognized in America. She uses the metaphor of a crooked room to explain: “Bombarded with warped images of their humanity, some black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion,” she writes. “It is important to appreciate the structural constraints that influence their behavior. It can be hard to stand up straight in a crooked room.” Does one bend to fit the slant of the room or stand up straight, possibly disoriented? Harris-Perry’s crooked room brilliantly shows how stereotypes about black women are built into the very walls of the room, making them difficult—but essential—to dismantle.

Lorde famously said that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and Beyoncé, from her hard-won position of power in the industry, blends those words with Harris-Perry’s crooked room in her visual album BEYONCÉ, exposing the crookedness of the room while simultaneously pushing against its walls. Songs/videos like “Pretty Hurts” and “Partition” address stereotypes of beauty and sexuality and are infused with Beyoncé’s own critiques of both, always centered at the intersection of race and gender. And in “Grown Woman,” Beyoncé uses past footage of herself to rewrite her own story, ultimately ending the video by escaping the walls of society’s crooked rooms—figuratively and literally as walls recede from the frame and the video ends with only a green screen as the backdrop.

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock (2014); I Am . . . Sasha Fierce by Beyoncé (2008)

Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More is her story of growing up a black and Hawaiian trans girl in a cruel world. But, as the title says, it’s also so much more. It’s a passionate polemic against the limits a Western gender binary imposes on society’s ability to imagine any possibility outside what we’ve been taught counts as “real.” “Simply, ‘realness’ is the ability to be seen as heteronormative, to assimilate, to not be read as other or deviate from the norm,” Mock states. “‘Realness’ means you are extraordinary in your embodiment of what society deems normative.” Recognizing this is essential, because those deemed unreal or less legitimate via an exclusive gender binary often face violent repercussions on micro and macro levels. Through her story, Mock redefines the entire concept of realness and encourages readers to unlearn and question the ways we’ve unwittingly internalized ideas about gender that make it impossible to recognize the infinite options that exist.

Read alongside Mock, Beyoncé’s conceptual performances as alter-ego Sasha Fierce throughout her album I Am . . . Sasha Fierce take on new meaning. Sasha Fierce does the most, and the entire record is set up as a binary opposition—two discs diametrically opposed to one another, both with particularly gendered lead singles. The videos for “If I Were a Boy” and “Single Ladies” highlight the limits and histories of strict gender assumptions and stereotypes in order to explode the binary. The interplay between lyrics and visuals of the former illustrates how heteronormativity organizes society, even when masculinity and femininity are inverted. The latter, through artistic sleight-of-hand, attempts to explode those boundaries and question the idea of gendered limits themselves through an overblown Sasha Fierce, whose gender isn’t easily captured.

Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987); B’Day by Beyoncé (2006)

Toni Morrison’s classic Beloved is based on the real-life story of Margaret Garner. Garner escaped slavery and killed her own child rather than see that child forced back into violent servitude. The novel follows Sethe as she does the same: she murders her daughter, known only as Beloved, in an incomprehensible act of love. But Beloved-in-the-flesh later walks out of the water to haunt the lives of Sethe, Sethe’s surviving daughter Denver, Paul D, and all of society. The novel revolves around Morrison’s concept of “rememory”—the notion that actions temporally exist and perpetually repeat in the locations where they first took place—as both a warning and a witnessing. Sethe tells Denver, “If you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you.” Rememory is everywhere, too, in Beyoncé’s work on B’Day.

Daphne Brooks offered one of—if not the—first critical political analyses of Beyoncé’s work in her 2006 article “Suga Mama, Politicized,” for The Nation. (The article itself was the impetus for my full course.) Brooks saw something more in B’Day—what she called one of the “oddest, most urgent, dissonant and disruptive R&B releases in recent memory.” B’Day’s artwork and the video for its lead single “Deja Vu” imagine Beyoncé reckoning with an antebellum South in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. The video captures multiple time periods and shuffles between them to convey history repeating itself. Beyoncé is almost always alone in the frame, terrified, eyes darting every which way. A black woman running from rememory, being chased by the past. It’s happening again in the places where it first happened, whether 1850, 2006 or 2019, and Beyoncé tries to alert viewers to ghosts walking out of the water just like Beloved; ghosts that will later appear more concretely in Lemonade.

Kevin Allred is a writer, speaker, and educator based in Brooklyn. His work has been featured at INTO, NBC News, the Washington Post, and more. His book Ain’t I A Diva?: Beyoncé and the Power of Pop Culture Pedagogy is currently available for preorder and out June 11 from the Feminist Press at CUNY.