When pop star Beyoncé Knowles and rap titan Jay-Z Carter married in April 2008, the ceremony at Carter’s penthouse was small but lavish. “One hundred thousand white orchids were flown in from Thailand, forty guests were driven to the penthouse by private chauffeurs and a large rooftop tent (was) decked in royal-themed decorations for the occasion,” author Omise’eke Tinsley tells us in the introduction to her new book, “Beyoncé in Formation, Remixing Black Feminism.”
Tinsley contrasts the Queen B’s wedding with her own, a courthouse affair that took place on an icy Minnesota morning three years later. For the chart-dominating musicians, flying under the radar of the paparazzi was a wedding-day priority. A less glamorous but more consequential concern hung over Tinsley’s wedding. Her husband, Matt Richardson, had legally transitioned a year before the wedding, and though he held a driver’s license that identified him as male, the couple was worried about whether he would “pass” for the judge, who Tinsley says offered “unsolicited opinions on lesbian weddings,” which were not yet legal at the time.
With this story, Tinsley, a University of Texas professor who for years taught the popular Beyoncé Feminism and Rihanna Womanism class, sets up the structure of the book. She calls it a “femme-onade mixtape,” blending elements of academic analysis, Bey-hive adulation and personal memoir, and using them all as a lens to examine the rich symbolism of Beyoncé ’s 2016 audiovisual masterwork, “Lemonade.”
It’s a smart approach that keeps the text accessible to music fans while underlining the book’s central thesis: that “Lemonade” is one of the great black feminist works of this century and it deserves an exalted place in the canon of women’s studies.
(Full disclosure: In 2016, Tinsley participated in a Statesman-sponsored Beyoncé feminism event at the Alamo Drafthouse that gets a shoutout in the book.)
Tinsley digs into both the visual symbolism and the sonic legacy of “Lemonade.” On the surface, the track “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is a dark warning to a wayward husband that infidelity will destroy him. But Tinsley goes deeper. She notes that the song, which features blues-rock heavy Jack White, includes a sample from Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks,” a song first performed by blueswoman Memphis Minnie in 1929. Drawing on activist/scholar Angela Davis’ work on black feminism and the blues, Tinsley informs us that early blueswomen often “performed songs about lovers’ broken promises as metaphors for the unfulfilled promises of freedom.”
Tinsley illuminates the references to a historic struggle for freedom that emerge in “Lemonade” again and again. In the video for “Sorry,” a group of black women in “power shoes, artistic braids and white-painted Afromysterics designs” on their skin ride a bus with the destination sign “Boy Bye.” Tinsley notes that the bus, riding through a modern New Orleans, is anachronistic, with the lines of a midcentury vehicle, “the kind thousands of black Southern women rode daily in the era of civil rights bus boycotts.”
The song “Freedom” reclaims space on an actual Louisiana plantation. Tinsley quotes “Lemonade” stylist Marni Senofonte on the costume discussions for the video: “There was a question of, ‘Do we do authentic vintage or is it about wearing couture on the plantations?'” They joyously opted for the latter with Beyoncé wearing Givenchy while sitting in a tree. “It’s a juxtaposition of what historically black women on a plantation were,” Senofonte said.
Tinsley spends much time on embracing the “femme” in feminism. As a lesbian with a penchant for stiletto heels, statement earrings and miniskirts, Tinsley makes it clear that Beyoncé's unapologetic embrace of all things feminine speaks to her.
She explores the way Beyoncé links an aggressive sexuality to ancient female divinities, both the Yoruba water goddess Oshun, whom she embodies in “Hold Up,” and the Brazilian spirit Pomba Gira, whom she invokes in “6 Inch.” Prayed to by sex workers, Pomba Gira is described by Tinsley as a “divine harlot and mistress of red witchcraft.”
Feminists often say the personal is political, and some of the book’s most powerful moments come when Tinsley weaves Beyoncé’s symbolism with her own life challenges. Beyoncé celebrates black maternity in “Lemonade” through her daughter Blue Ivy’s appearance and the inclusion of Mothers of the Movement, women whose sons’ murders helped launch the Black Lives Matter movement. Tinsley’s own daughter, Baia, makes multiple appearances in the book.
Beyoncé’s openness about miscarriage has helped destigmatize the conversation in the black community where, Tinsley writes, “rates of every kind of pregnancy loss — miscarriage, stillbirth, preterm birth, infant death — are significantly higher for black women than any other racial group.” Tinsley writes gut-wrenchingly about her own struggles with fertility.ok, th
She also tells a devastating story about a cousin whose children were taken by Child Protective Services when she lost her apartment and was unable to find affordable housing in her overpriced Boston suburb. The story feels particularly timely and relevant coming on the heels of a Statesman report that black children in Travis County are eight times more likely to be removed from their homes by CPS than white children.
Also timely is Tinsley’s one big criticism of “Lemonade”: the failure to prominently feature a transgender woman in the videos despite the fact that NOLA bounce queen Big Freedia’s midsong declaration, “I came to slay, bitch,” is the backbone of the single "Formation." In Beyoncé’s defense, Tinsley notes, she did approach actress Laverne Cox to appear in “Lemonade,” but the timing didn’t work.
But for all the tough subjects the book tackles, its overall tone is one of jubilant celebration. Tinsley invites the reader to “sing the lyrics as you read them, try on a new shade of lipstick that matches the text (especially you, gentlemen), call your mother and ask a question about your grandparents.”
She beckons you into her world, “the boundless territory of the black feminist imagination,” a place where dreams take flight.