Part memoir, part pop-culture scholarship, this slim, engaging book uses Beyoncé as a springboard for wide-ranging ruminations on sexuality, motherhood and activism.
Omise’eke Tinsley made headlines in 2014, when the University of Texas at Austin announced that she would be teaching a new course titled “Beyoncé Feminism, Rihanna Womanism.” The class quickly drew a long waitlist, and non-students reached out to Tinsley to ask how they might participate. One student even postponed her graduation to be able to take the course. Clearly, Tinsley was on to something. Rihanna and Beyoncé were sharing important messages about their lives as black women, and people were eager to unpack them.
This was made even clearer when Beyoncé released Lemonade in April 2016. The visual album explored love, family, fidelity and female independence against a tapestry rich with influences from across the African diaspora. It incorporated Yoruba Orishas, dancehall sounds, New Orleans aesthetics, Malcolm X’s voice and imagery reminiscent of Eve’s Bayou. Within a matter of weeks, black women from around the country had collaborated to create the “Lemonade Syllabus,” a 36-page document listing just some of the album’s many literary, religious, cultural and feminist influences. The syllabus, curated by writer Candice Marie Benbow, is available for free and has been downloaded more than 600,000 times.
As Tinsley describes it, Lemonade was “Beyoncé’s invitation to consider the U.S. South as a fertile site for black women to reimagine gender, sexuality, and personhood.” Beyoncé in Formation: Remixing Black Feminism is Tinsley’s response to that invitation. She adds to the ever-expanding feminist scholarship on Beyoncé by analyzing Lemonade through a personal lens as a black, queer “femmenist” with connections to the South. Part memoir, part pop-culture scholarship, this slim, engaging book uses Beyoncé as a springboard for wide-ranging ruminations on sexuality, motherhood and activism, among other big ideas. The book also begins to fill a black femme void in feminist and queer academia.
In the first section, titled “Family Album: Making Lemonade Out of Marriage, Motherhood, and Southern Tradition,” Tinsley explores her own feelings on marriage as a queer woman and travels back into her family history. In the second section, “‘Most Bomb Pussy’: Toward a Black Feminist Pleasure Politics,” she calls on pop culture staples like Joseline Hernandez and Blac Chyna alongside Pomba Gira, a Yoruba Brazilian goddess of female sexuality, to explore the personal, social and financial layers of black femme sexuality. Throughout the book, Tinsley frequently quotes theories from other women (the index at the end has more than 400 citations), weaving family history and personal narratives together with the voices of many cultural commentators, feminists and activists, as well the influences already available in Lemonade. This approach makes for a robust work of scholarship, but sometimes results in Tinsley’s own thoughts feeling lost among so many lengthy quotes. There are also a few moments when she tries to establish connections that seem too tenuous, such as one out-of-place story about her grandfather.
The book shines, however, when Tinsley writes about the joys, challenges and dangers of black motherhood. She draws from the arresting moment in Lemonade where Beyoncé sings a capella to the gathered “Mothers of the Movement,” the mothers of black people who were victims of police brutality and racial profiling. There’s also a trenchant analysis of the criminalization of poor black mothers and the high maternal mortality rate of black mothers in Texas. For Tinsley, the reproductive justice and freedom she sees Beyoncé addressing in Lemonade is best characterized by Loretta Ross, an Atlanta activist who explains that reproductive justice is a three-part concept encompassing the right to not have children, the right to have children and the right to parent in a safe environment. As Tinsley thinks about raising her own daughter in Texas, she looks to Beyoncé’s vision of freedom for her own daughter, Blue, a freedom which Tinsley imagines will resemble “a tree of life: a transatlantic revision of the African baobab, which flourishes for millennia in the arid savannah and whose leaves mothers mix into babies’ baths to help them grow strong and big.”
Tinsley anticipates that her book will have shortcomings. That her work will have “holes, flaws, and inconsistencies” is central to its nature, because she eagerly awaits how future generations of black feminists will build upon it. While scholars today are increasingly eager to treat Beyoncé with the seriousness she deserves, they’ve only scratched the surface. A future in which there will be an abundance of such scholarship is inevitable as long as there are women such as Beyoncé and Tinsley to dream it up.