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'Politicizing Beyoncé' Reveals a Deliberate Queen B

It’s not every day that you get to combine complex sociological conversation with pop culture, all while getting the chance to win tickets to one of the most talked-about concerts of the year—but this past Thursday, many students got the opportunity to do just that.

Against the backdrop of classics like “Drunk in Love,” “Single Ladies,” and “Déjà Vu,” students gathered in the Walsh Function Room on the evening of April 21 for “Politicizing Beyoncé,” an event put on by the AHANA Leadership Council which, according to the talk’s Facebook description, aimed “to think through contemporary U.S. society and its current racial, gender, class, and sexual politics using the music and career of Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter alongside historical and contemporary black feminist texts.” ALC welcomed Kevin Allred, a feminist writer, speaker, and educator, as the featured presenter for the event.

After the attendees settled in, Akosua Opokua-Achampong, MCAS ’18 and Director of Outreach for ALC, introduced Allred as “a feminist author, educator, and undoer of the status quo” and “a shameless outlaw of academia” who believes everyone should have access to knowledge and education.

Allred, a professor at Rutgers University, has been teaching a class called “Politicizing Beyoncé” since 2010, and envisions a “healthier, more integrated society” in which “true acceptance is the redefined norm, a world in which everyone is celebrated because of, and not in spite of, their differences, with the safety of freedom to express their full selves and thrive.”

“His mission is to facilitate conversations about alternative narratives, histories, and ideologies that confront mainstream America’s current definition of normal,” Opokua-Achampong said, concluding her introduction and welcoming Allred to the podium.

Addressing the room with charm, wit, and a smile, Allred explained that the day’s presentation would focus on the music videos for “Partition” and “Jealous,” two songs from Beyoncé’s 2014 self-titled album, Beyoncé, which are the only two videos on the visual album that are directly visually linked—where the “Partition” video ends, the “Jealous” video begins. With his guidance, the group was to carry out a smaller-scale version of one of his class meetings and analyze Beyoncé’s music “to have conversations around gender, race, feminism, sexuality, class,” and other issues.

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Before delving into the musical and political genius of Beyoncé, Allred gave an introduction to black feminist texts and ideologies, starting with Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality. Now widely used in feminist theory, Allred defined intersectionality as a way of “taking into account all the different ways that oppression and identities intersect with each other,” specifically regarding race and gender when referring to black women.

He went on to discuss Melissa Harris-Perry’s text Sister Citizen and her “crooked room” metaphor, which was explained through a quote by Harris-Perry:

“When they confront race and gender stereotypes, black women are standing in a crooked room and they have to figure out which way is up. Bombarded with warped images of their humanity, some black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion … To understand why black women’s public actions and political strategies sometimes seem tilted in ways to accommodate the degrading stereotypes about them, it is important to appreciate the structural constraints that influence their behavior. It can be hard to stand up straight in a crooked room.”

From here, Allred explained the three main stereotypes that black women face: the Sapphire, or angry black woman, stereotype; the Mammy, a desexualized caretaker stereotype rooted in slavery; and the Jezebel, or hypersexualized, stereotype. This served as a jumping off point for a discussion of Beyoncé’s subversion of these stereotypes, particularly the Jezebel, through her performances in “Partition” and “Jealous.”

The final piece of “homework,” as Allred called the background information which would serve as readings or research in his own Politicizing Beyoncé class, was Kara Walker’s 2014 exhibit entitled “A Subtlety.” The work consisted of an 80-foot-long and 40-foot-tall sugar sculpture in the style of the Sphinx which incorporated the stereotypes of black women in America. Here Allred drew parallels between Walker and Beyoncé, as both artists toy with audience interaction through their art and at the same time exist as multiple beings—an artist and a subject.

“The one theme that resonates with ‘Partition’ is the way she was trying to play with audience interaction with the sculpture, and the way that Kara Walker exists as more than one Kara Walker,” Allred said. “Because she’s the artist, she’s removed from the exhibit, but she’s in some ways also representing herself as a black woman through the art.”

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Allred played both the music videos for “Partition” and “Jealous” next, then opened up a dialogue in which the audience worked with him to analyze the pieces and how Beyoncé was able to, at the same time, perform her sexuality and also cast off stereotyping and objectification. He emphasized that, because she is so meticulous in her artistic choices, “everything has multiple meanings in a Beyoncé video,” while students offered insight into the visual and lyrical elements of the works.

The discussion culminated in the conclusion that Beyoncé introduces a wide range of visual and symbolic partitions in the “Partition” music video, all of which she tears down in the “Jealous” video. One such metaphorical partition is stereotypes, a point that brought the conversation full circle.

“Stereotypes are partitions, because they divide a person from the rest of the world,” Allred said. “Whether you’re a person who believes a stereotype or a person who a stereotype is put onto, there’s a division created between you and another person, or you and yourself, sometimes.”            

In both videos, Allred suggested that the onlooker figure, who is never fully shown, is obscured purposefully because they are supposed to represent Beyoncé’s audience, thus drawing in the concept of audience interaction in her art and the parallels to Walker.

“Really what she’s talking about is an interaction between her, Beyoncé as a black woman generally, and the public,” Allred said.  

To wrap up the event before opening up the floor for additional questions, Allred asserted that Beyoncé, in turning the tables and reflecting her performance in the videos onto the audience, calls out the issue of stereotyping black women. Though “it’s not like she solved stereotypes by doing this artistic performance of ‘Partition,’” Allred concluded that the dialogue she sparks through her work was a political move.

“It’s all individual; we all have to do something to unlearn the stereotype and break it down in our heads so it doesn’t get projected back onto the world again,” he said.

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Following Allred’s presentation, three lucky attendees won pairs of tickets to Beyoncé’s upcoming concert at Gillette Stadium this summer. Many more students, however, left the event with a new sense of appreciation for Beyoncé’s creative choices, increased knowledge about the experience of black women in today’s American society, and heightened anticipation for the looming release of Beyoncé’s new album.

For more information on Allred and the points he presented, visit his website, Politicizing Beyoncé.