Creator of UT’s Famous ‘Beyoncé Class’ Combines Memoir and Study in New Book

In one of the closing scenes of Beyoncé’s “Formation” music video, the final segment of her 2016 viral visual album Lemonade, she stands in front of the camera in a black gothic gown. Silver chokers cover her neck. Two long braids extend from a black wide-brimmed hat that hides her eyes. Slowly, she tips up the brim and stares straight into the camera, declaring, “You know you that [expletive] when you cause all this conversation.” Indeed she does.

When Beyoncé surprise-released Lemonade, an album and accompanying sixty-five minute film that aired on HBO, the internet and the “Beyhive”—how her most devoted fans refer to themselves—exploded. The album, which draws on marital infidelity and encompasses a wide-range of genres like blues, pop, country, and hip hop, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and was the third-best-selling album of 2016.

UT African and African Diaspora Studies Professor Omise’eke Tinsley knows what it’s like to inspire conversation, too. In 2015, she launched the undergraduate course “Beyoncé Feminism, Rihanna Womanism.” Before the course even began, Tinsley found herself fielding calls from news organizations and making headlines on Buzzfeed, Yahoo News, and CNN. The reactions weren’t all positive, though. Online, some critics assumed she was teaching young women how to model themselves after celebrities and that UT was going to hell in a handbasket.

In reality, the course was a rigorous introduction to black feminism. “It’s about how Beyoncé’s work opens space for black women to talk and think about the issues that matter to them,” Tinsley says. She launched the course after realizing she could shape an entire class around these conversations.

After Lemonade’s release, Tinsley decided to refocus class on the visual album. “Lemonade was this imagination of what it would look like to be a black woman in the U.S. South in the past, present, and future.”

Beyoncé and Lemonade resonate with Tinsley on a personal level. She has identified as queer, someone whose sexual orientation is not exclusively heterosexual, and femme, a queer person who presents herself in a feminine manner, since 1995. One way she expresses her femininity is through her clothing, wearing bright colors, big earrings, and high heels. Throughout college and grad school, people recognized her as queer. But when she married her husband, a transgender man, in 2011, she suddenly found herself passing for a straight, married woman. She struggled to identify with other straight, married women and was eager to find a model of femininity that worked for her. Beyoncé was that. “She’s a wife and a mother, and she has these images of moving with and through black femininity as a force of creativity and not as one of constraint,” she says.

In 2016, Tinsley began compiling her thoughts about Lemonade into a book. Out in November, Beyoncé in Formation: Remixing Black Feminism provides a cultural analysis of the iconic Lemonade and discusses aspects of black women’s gender and sexuality. Tinsley weaves her own experiences with interpretations of Beyoncé lyrics and visuals. This “femme-onade mixtape,” as she refers to it, posits Lemonade provides a space to imagine a world where black women and queers are celebrated.

Alcalde: Has teaching this course changed you?

Omise’eke Tinsley: I learned so much from my students. One of the things that came from the Beyoncé course is that people started sharing stories of different kinds of violence that they’d survived as students on UT campus. It was women of color who were leading the conversation. Somehow students knew that this was a space for them. I saw what it looked like to have young women of color and young queer people of color think of themselves as powerful intellects, and it was amazing.

What was it like writing this book and teaching this class in Austin, a place where there is a racial divide and a diminishing black population?

I think this was an underlying concern of mine as I was writing this book. [In Lemonade] Beyoncé imagines this kind of magically self-sufficient community of black women living in the U.S. South. Especially since I have a young daughter now, I’m thinking about where it is that black people can live and be safe. I’m coming to terms with how there are ways that no place is that place and there are certainly ways in which Austin is increasingly not that place. She gets to go to a public Montessori school, but I’m tired of her being the only black kid in her class every year. So where can we live and where can we live in community is something I got to imagine in Beyoncé as I wasn’t experiencing it here. How can we create communities that may not exist? We have to visualize them in order for them to exist.

You Write that Beyoncé and Lemonade help black femmes and queers imagine realities where they are celebrated. What’s important about that?

We’re still imagining that black femininity is only valuable when it’s validated by difference: masculinity smiles on it or whiteness smiles on it, or both. If we can’t imagine black women and black femme folks loving one another, what does that say? It tells us that black femininity isn’t lovable and valuable for itself. Imagining a future in which black women can love each other every way possible is necessary for freedom.

What do you hope people get out of reading this book?

I hope that it allows black women to take a moment to experience self-love, and for everybody who reads it, too, that it adds to their love of black women, whether you’re a black woman or somebody else. What I really want to do in this life is to add to love for black women and black girls.

OK … tell me about your shoes.

I think shoes are fun. I’ve always liked platforms. It’s also a refusal to give into a femme-phobia that I’ve encountered throughout my career. In graduate school, I did my PhD examinations dressed all in pink because I like pink, and I had comments from people on my committee about my fashion choice. I’ve had people encourage me to dress less feminine because they think if people see me dressing feminine, they’ll sexualize that and take me less seriously. How are people ever going to take women and feminine people seriously, if in order to be taken seriously we have to be masculine? I really want to push back against this femme-phobia that I think teaches everybody that women and femininity are less than.

[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

Photograph by Matt Wright-Steel

 
 
 

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