In 2015, Professor Omise’eke Tinsley made headlines with the announcement of her new course, Beyoncé Feminism, Rihanna Womanism. While critics despaired over the inclusion of pop divas in academia, undergraduates at the University of Texas at Austin happily showed up for the course in record numbers.
“I was naive about a lot of things back then, but one was how much Beyoncé means to Black students in Texas, particularly Black women,” Tinsley, who currently teaches the class as a visiting professor at Harvard University told Broadly. “That was clear to me on the first day.”
With the added reference materials of Beyoncé’s groundbreaking 2016 visual album Lemonade, semester-long dives into Queen Bey have now popped up on campuses internationally. Tinsley’s new book, Beyoncé in Formation: Remixing Black Feminism, expands on her popular course in a vibrant blend of memoir and cultural analysis.
The book opens on the queer, California-raised professor’s move to Austin in 2011. With her young daughter in tow, Tinsley returned to the South, a place her own immediate family had abandoned during the Great Migration. After marrying her husband, a trans man, she found herself suddenly passing for a straight, Texan mom.
Searching for models of femininity, Tinsley found alignment with one of her idols, who was raised in Houston. “Oh my god, here’s this other Black, Texan wife, and mother who uses gender and sexuality and race in creative ways. Beyoncé can show me where Texas and Louisiana can be spaces of possibility, and not just stories of why people left,” the professor explained.
Tinsley’s personal reckoning with the South inspired the course’s regional focus. But the class also delves into modern feminist theory with readings from Angela Davis, dream hampton, Rachel Griffin, Brittney Cooper, and Melissa Harris-Perry—to name a few.
The syllabus reads: In this course, we follow Beyoncé’s invitation to consider the U.S. South as a fertile site for Black feminist imaginations and projects. Beginning with close readings of Lemonade and Beyoncé, we enter into conversation with other Black feminist texts that engage Black women’s aesthetic, spiritual, erotic, and political traditions in Louisiana, Texas, and Alabama.
Fervent Beyoncé fandom, as well as demand for a Texas-centric primer to Black feminist studies, fueled student excitement over the course. The first semester, Tinsley was forced to find a bigger lecture hall.
“These students are coming to UT and really not getting affirmation that they, as Black women and queer people, have important things to say,” Tinsley said. “By unpacking the layers of Black feminist history, I can show how they come from someplace with a deep, abiding, and powerful culture.”
Sarah Ogunmuyiwa, a Black student who identifies as non-binary, agrees that they felt unsupported upon arriving at the large, predominantly white state university. Ogunmuyiwa is a double major in Women’s and Gender Studies and Philosophy. They credit Women’s Studies-affiliated classes, like Beyoncé Feminism, as the only forces encouraging them to stay at UT.
“They [the classes] were my safe space, and I honestly don’t think I would have survived without that,” said Ogunmuyiwa, now a junior. “If any experience is centered in a lot of UT classes, it’s that of white and male students. That would have pushed me away from the school if I didn’t have a community to retreat to.”
Tinsley sets emotive guidelines for a respectful learning environment within the syllabus: In this course, students engage texts that deal explicitly racism, misogyny, poverty, marginalized religions, unconventional sexuality, and racialized and sexual violence. While the professor will provide academic frameworks for discussing these issues, students may experience emotional responses as they confront their own privilege and oppression, ignorance and knowledge. The professor asks that students pay attention to such feelings and note where they challenge their ability to approach texts analytically. I also ask everyone to come to class willing to discuss difficult, complex topics with openness and respect.
Before taking the Beyoncé-centric class in the spring, Ogunmuyiwa was taught by Tinsley in an impactful introductory Women’s Studies course. Ogunmuyiwa described the content as “basically how to survive UT as a Black or Latina woman,” including discussions of how to make the school safer for women of color.
According to fall 2018 data, Black students make up only 4 percent of the total student body at UT, while the Black population in Texas makes up 12.7 percent.
Angel Ulloa, who took Beyoncé Feminism during the summer, especially appreciated the inclusion of class time at the end of the semester for a group discussion of university life. “It was supposed to be one day, but there was so much to say that it became two. We talked about if we’ve ever felt uncomfortable or like we didn’t belong at UT, and why. That was the first time I’ve been in a class where our professor actually cared about that,” said Ulloa, a Mexican-American student.
Tinsley is quietly legendary on UT’s 431 acres for donning sky-high platform heels, as well as blue lipstick or other vibrant accessories. The professor’s high femme identity plays into her new book, self-described as a “femme-onade mixtape.” Although Beyoncé herself doesn’t identify as femme or queer, Tinsley finds inspiration embedded into the imagery of Lemonade.
“[The album] shows a U.S. South in which Black women live on their own love, and that love sustains them,” Tinsley said. “Beyoncé allows us to see those possibilities, but also provides a mirror to the way that we construct over-the-top, unapologetic, no-holds-barred femininity.”
Devin Bowman, who admired the class online before even enrolling at UT, said Tinsley’s lessons allowed him to more deeply understand his love for Beyoncé as a feminist icon. He went on to take more Women’s and Gender studies courses as part of his Psychology degree, where he sometimes encountered the performer being dismissed for her feminine visual aesthetics.
Bowman also recalls Tinsley hosting a twerking workshop for extra credit on the week of President Donald Trump’s inauguration. “[Tinsley] didn’t explicitly say it, but basically she was like, ‘We’re shaking our ass in the face of Trump,’” the student said.
Tinsley started writing the book following the 2016 election. Parallel to her subject’s own roots (my daddy Alabama/ momma Louisiana), the author traveled through the South to interview family members. Personal memoir runs alongside a compelling overview of country and blues history in relation to Beyoncé’s oeuvre.
“My family’s experiences as Southerners, as difficult as they were, give me strategies for survival and joy and pleasure in the present moment,” Tinsley said. “People of color and queer people need some of those lessons that our grandparents hadn’t bothered to pass down.”
The final section of Tinsley’s syllabus lands on a forward-thinking examination of #BlackGirlMagic, examining the plights of Amandla Stenberg and Blue Ivy. Both young stars appear in the visuals of Lemonade, which Tinsley summarized as “grown-ass Black woman magic” in an op-ed for Time.
“When Black women come to believe in our own love and beauty as fiercely as we believe in any other god, we become everyday alchemists and good witches, the Oshuns of fire hydrants and Nefertitis of box braids,” she writes. “And that, yes, is a Black feminist political act.”