In Beyoncé in Formation: Remixing Black Feminism, Omise’eke Tinsley says that the world typically responds with a shrug, if at all, when black women declare themselves feminists—except for Beyoncé. When Queen Bey stands in front of a giant, lit-up sign that reads FEMINIST, says Tinsley, “a generation of young women are growing up with something we’ve never seen before: an image of feminism that’s overwhelmingly positive and undeniably black. And that’s something that all feminists should pay attention to.” So is her book, which our reviewer says is “sure to appeal to scholars and pop-culture enthusiasts alike.” Here, Tinsley, an associate professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, talks with us about “blinged-out, stilettoed, sparkling black femininity,” sexual subversion, and getting in formation.
Will you talk about “black femme invisibility” and the ways Beyoncé in Formation works to counter it?
Femme invisibility—the assumption that feminine-presenting women are less queer or less serious than our masculine-of-center counterparts, typified by the surprised “You’re queer? But you’re so pretty!”—is amplified for black women. There was a lesbian bar in San Francisco, The Lex, where butches and femmes went to meet and enjoy the sexiness of their queer genders. White femmes were doted on by butches and transmen, but I—who went dolled up in platforms, skirts, and lipstick just like them—was treated as an annoying interloper, a silly straight-presumed girl in the way of their serious butch cruising. When I was writing Beyoncé in Formation,I was thinking a lot about what it means to celebrate black femininity on its own terms: not as a counterpart to black masculinity or white femininity, but beautiful and creative and powerful by, for, and in itself. So I wrote foregrounding my own position and autobiography as a black femme who’s empowered by the amazing, worldwide visibility of Beyoncé’s over-the-top, hyperfeminine, blinged-out, stilettoed, sparkling black femininity. Beyoncé’s call to get in formation and slay all day reminds me that those of us brave enough to embody black femininity can be serious as a flood about gender and sexual subversion, too.
You describe Beyoncé in Formation as a “textual mixtape dedicated to all the women and femmes who listen to Beyoncé while we try to make fem(me)inist sense of our lives.” Why a mixtape, and what were some of the pros and cons of the format?
Beyoncé’s music is powerful in its ability to start conversations that matter to black women’s lives. Taking my cue from her, I wanted to put Lemonade in conversation with all kinds of black Southern femininities: from blues to New Orleans Bounce, quadroon balls to the Country Music Awards, and Love and Hip Hop Atlanta to #SayHerName. Without really knowing what I was doing, I pieced together bits of popular culture, academic texts, and personal experiences to make something that sounded to me like all of that. I was halfway through when I realized I was making a textual mixtape: taking a mishmash of texts, like songs, and looking for where and how they could harmonize and flow together. It was hard—scary at times, really!—but it let me be creative and enjoy writing this much like I enjoy putting together a playlist.
Your University of Texas class “Beyoncé Feminism, Rihanna Womanism,” on black feminism, drew national media attention and packed the lecture hall. How did the class affect you and your students?
The class completely changed how and why I teach undergraduates. From the first day of the first lecture, when black women and black gay men crowded the front row and lovingly took charge of the conversation, I felt how much students of color in PWIs [predominantly white institutions] need courses like these. I felt how much it meant to them that a professor was taking Beyoncé seriously. That someone was reflecting back that the lyrics they sing, the songs they dance to, their shirts that proclaim “I Slay” just might be important and worthwhile—just might be the meaningful sources of empowerment they always felt them to be.
Who are some of your favorite contemporary queer writers?
So many! Nalo Hopkinson, Alexis De Veaux, Dionne Brand, Sharon Bridgforth, Dane Figueroa Edidi, Yvonne Fly Onakeme Etaghene, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Ana Lara….
What are you working on next?
I’m writing about black femme power in Janelle Monáe’s “Pynk” and Janet Mock’s work on Pose. I love my work!
Karen Schechner is the vice president of Kirkus Indie.