Beyoncé in Formation: Remixing Black Feminism By Omise’eke Tinsley
Austin, TX; University of Texas Press, 2018, 216 pp., $17.95, paperback
I remember where I was when Beyoncé dropped Lemonade (2016), a visual album that tells the story of a lover’s betrayal, the healing power of sisterhood, and black women’s magical ability to turn the haters’ lemons into sweet lemonade. For once that summer, the world was not watching black death streaming on our computers but black life in all its complexity, fabulousness, and vulnerability.
Lemonade is the mirror black girls like me never had in the white sea of mainstream pop culture. I saw myself in the heartbreak, the healing, the hopefulness on screen. When I watched Beyoncé and Serena Williams twerk at Madewood Plantation in the video for “Sorry,” I was reminded of when my Spelman sisters and I learned to love our bodies and each other over and against Southern racism and the pressures of respectability. When I saw young Blue Ivy and Quevenzhané Wallis holding hands in “Freedom,” I saw myself playing with my childhood friends. I was not alone in my awe. Black women knew one thing for sure: Beyoncé made Lemonade for us.
It has always been unclear just how much of Beyoncé’s work is inspired by her real life and how much is expertly curated storytelling. What’s undeniable, however, is Beyoncé’s (or her team’s?) ability to create narratives and metaphors that hit home for black trans and cis women who came to slay but are still trying to break free from generational suffering caused by slavery, imperialism, and misogynoir. In our group chats, living rooms, and hair salons, black femmes used Lemonade as a starting place for collectively unpacking our trauma and articulating new black feminist politics. But there is perhaps no one more qualified to decode Lemonade’s symbolism than Omise’eke Tinsley, who has taught a course entitled “Beyoncé Feminism, Rihanna Womanism” at University of Texas-Austin for years. In her new book, Beyoncé in Formation: Remixing Black Feminism, Tinsley invites us all into her classroom.
Beyoncé in Formation loosely follows the narrative arc of Lemonade through an introduction, three body chapters, and an outro. In the book’s first body chapter, “Family Album,” Tinsley considers Beyoncé’s persona as a daughter of the South, of the blues, and of Tina Knowles, and the lessons black girls’ learn from their various mothers about love and loss. In “‘Most Bomb Pussy,’” Tinsley focuses on Lemonade’s portrayals of black feminine sexuality in “Sorry” and “6 Inch,” and how they differ from Beyoncé’s earlier work. Lemonade does not shy away from the fact that femme-on-femme desire is often a source of pleasure, politics, and profit for black cis and trans women, and Tinsley argues that black feminism should follow Beyoncé’s lead by recognizing sexuality as a resource to embrace rather than deny. Finally, “Calling for Freedom” uses the songs “Freedom” and “Formation” as starting places for imagining reproductive justice for black women, who continue to create fictive, biological, and adoptive families despite institutional racism, homophobia, femme-phobia, and controlling images that deny black women our softness.
Tinsley writes unapologetically from Beyoncé’s flock of fans (otherwise known as the “Beyhive”), notorious for its unconditional and defensive love for all things Bey. A shameless “love letter to [her] sister Beyoncé feminists,” Beyoncé in Formation glosses over critiques by scholars like bell hooks who argue that Beyoncé has “utterly aestheticized” black womanhood, and Jennifer DeClue, who notes the curious absence of Big Freedia and other transwomen’s bodies from Lemonade.
Rather than trying to defend Beyoncé from her critics’ point-by-point, Tinsley acknowledges Beyoncé’s missed beats and meets them with optimism and forgiveness. Beyoncé in Formation chooses to “consider how unfinished visions like Beyoncé’s offer space for black women to creatively reinvent our genders, pleasures, and alliances in unexpected ways.” This is what Tinsley means by subtitling the book a black feminist remix; the memories and identities people bring to the listening experience, Tinsley posits, change Lemonade’s sound. We all hear Beyoncé through the beat of our own histories, and we can dance to that beat however we please.
Beyoncé in Formation’s style is itself a remix, with Tinsley playing DJ. This book is part cultural analysis, part memoir, and part black femme-inist manifesta. Tinsley anchors her analyses of Lemonade’s black feminist symbolism with anecdotes from her own family, as well as the biographies of Southern divas like Memphis Minnie, Oprah, Black Chyna, and Maya Angelou who paved the way for and alongside Beyoncé. Tinsley’s telling of these women’s stories together with Beyoncé’s rethinks the respectable narratives black communities often selectively tell, and highlights the roles that twerking, ratchetness, and femininity have played in these matriarchs’ empowerment. Bey’s critics regularly throw shade on Lemonade’s version of feminism, but Tinsley points out that black girl magic has always and should always include the body, passion, and selffashioning.
Tinsley’s tone and use of first-person perspective throughout Beyoncé in Formation invites readers to likewise contemplate their relationship to Lemonade’s themes. She writes with familiarity and authority all at once. I thought I “got” Lemonade before, but Beyoncé in Formation inspired me to dig deeper. I found myself reconsidering my relationship to twerking as a granddaughter of the South, and how the black girl games I played may have created space for me to explore my body within the confines of a conservative Southern Baptist upbringing. I also found myself saying “yasss” while re-writing my Instagram photo captions using a mash-up of Tinsley’s and Beyoncé’s words—a remix of the remix.
Those looking for Beyoncé In Formation to resolve Beyoncé’s curious silence about her artistry and its symbolism will not be consoled by this book. Many will begin reading Beyoncé in Formation as skeptics, who have wondered if Lemonade was intentionally political in any way. Is Beyoncé-the-black-feminist wishful thinking on our parts? Was Lemonade a shrewd attempt by an artist to capitalize on the fervor of the Black Lives Matter, feminist, and LGBTQ movements? By the end of Beyoncé in Formation, I suspect you’ll join the Beyhive’s chorus singing, “Does it matter?” Tinsley convincingly argues that it does not, and her insistence on seeing queer femme-ness in Lemonade’s femininity is enough to help the reader imagine a freer freedom and a more radical black feminism. In short, Lemonade, like life, is what and how you make it.
Chelsea Johnson is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Southern California whose work focuses on beauty politics and race. Her coauthored children’s book about intersectionality, IntersectionAllies: We Make Room for All, is forthcoming Spring 2019 from Dottir Press.