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Ain't I a Diva?: Beyoncé and the Power of Pop Culture Pedagogy

Ain't I a Diva?: Beyoncé and the Power of Pop Culture Pedagogy

Ain't I a Diva?: Beyoncé and the Power of Pop Culture Pedagogy

Ain't I a Diva?: Beyoncé and the Power of Pop Culture Pedagogy

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A pedagogical primer on integrating Black feminist thought, critical race studies, and America's most beloved pop star.

In 2010—long before the release of Lemonade—Professor Kevin Allred created the university course “Politicizing Beyoncé” to both wide acclaim and controversy. He outlines his pedagogical philosophy in Ain’t I a Diva?, exploring the process of teaching Beyoncé and what it means to use a superstar to blow up the canon. Allred brings his syllabus to life by pairing music videos and songs with historical and academic texts, and combines analysis with classroom anecdotes. Topics range from a capitalist critique of “Run the World (Girls)” to the politics of self-care found in “Flawless”; Beyoncé’s art is read alongside Black feminist thinkers including Kimberlé Crenshaw, Octavia Butler, and Sojourner Truth.

Interrogating the entertainer’s career through a media studies lens, Allred attests that pop culture is so much more than a guilty pleasure—it’s an access point for education, entertainment, critical inquiry, and politics.

"Proving himself a worthy member of the BeyHive, Kevin Allred takes us on a journey through Beyoncé’s greatest hits and expansive career—peeling back their multiple layers to explore gender, race, sexuality, and power in today's modern world. A fun, engaging, and important read for long-time Beyoncé fans and newcomers alike." —Franchesca Ramsey, author of Well, That Escalated Quickly

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781936932603
Publisher: Feminist Press at CUNY, The
Publication date: 06/11/2019
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 392
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Kevin Allred is a writer, speaker, and educator based in Brooklyn. HIs writing has been featured in Salon, INTO, NBC News, and other publications.

Poet, critic, and activist Cheryl Clarke was born in Washington, DC. She earned her BA from Howard University and her MA and PhD from Rutgers University. Clarke is the author of five collections of poetry: Narratives: Poems in the Tradition of Black Women (1983), Living as a Lesbian (1986), Humid Pitch (1989), Experimental Love (1993), and By My Precise Haircut (2016), which won a Hilary Tham Capital Competition. She wrote the critical study “After Mecca”: Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement (2005), and a volume collecting her poetry and prose was published as The Days of Good Looks: Prose and Poetry of Cheryl Clarke, 1980–2005 (2006). Many of Clarke’s most influential essays, including “Lesbianism: an Act of Resistance” and “The Failure to Transform: Homophobia in the Black Community,” first appeared in landmark publications such as This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981) and Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (1983).

Clarke was an influential administrator and teacher at Rutgers for more than 40 years. She founded the Office of Diverse Community Affairs and Lesbian-Gay Concerns, which became the Office of Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities, and retired as the Livingstone Dean of Students in 2013. For her service to LGBTQ communities, Clarke received a David Kessler Award. She currently lives in Hobart, New York, where she owns and operates Blenheim Hill Books with her partner, Barbara J. Balliet.

Read an Excerpt

I sat dumbfounded, jaw on the floor, for the entire 61 minute run time of Lemonade (including credits) and for a good a deal of time directly following its HBO premiere on Saturday, April 23, 2016. I couldn’t tear my eyes from the screen. It wasn’t just the sheer majesty and power with which Beyoncé presented a genre-bending narrative and catchy-as-fuck music—a fully realized visual album unlike anything prior—but the way she expertly, cohesively retold many of the same stories and conversations I’d been having with students in classrooms for years based off her other work. Of course, there was much that was new and particular to Lemonade. It was deeper, more complex, concisely refined and merged into one film, but there are elements of everything that came before blended into those tight eleven tracks, interspersed with British Somali poet Warsan Shire’s poetry and retold through lush visuals based on Julie Dash’s 1991 independent film Daughters of the Dust (the first widely distributed feature-film directed by a black woman). A perfect recipe; a groundbreaking artistic achievement. Lemonade out of lemons in a multitude of ways.

So many incredible black women critics, activists, thinkers, and artists quickly—with lightning speed actually—produced scholarship geared towards a deep understanding and analysis of Lemonade ; far too many to name in these pages . The speed with which critical engagement appeared spoke both to the complex artistry of the narrative and the deep desire for more nuanced black women’s stories to be featured and available in the mainstream. Engagement far surpassed typical reactive think-piece fodder, deeply mining cultural references and celebrating experiences that aren’t typically celebrated and centered, even still. A particularly robust and comprehensive list of writing on Lemonade was compiled by Janell Hobson and Jessica Marie Johnson for the African American Intellectual History Society and published online only three weeks after the album’s release, “#Lemonade: A Black Feminist Resource.” Additional college courses emerged devoted fully to Lemonade. The achievement truly catapulted Beyoncé and the way the public at large viewed her work into a new critical galaxy.

As a brand new addition to the syllabus in 2016 and given its explicit focus on the experience of black women—moreso than anything in Beyoncé’s catalog prior—I immediately jumped to pedagogical and personal questions about where Lemonade fit into “Politicizing Beyoncé.” How could I carefully and honestly address and position Lemonade in a way that wouldn’t overstep any boundaries, but still allow students from various backgrounds to respectfully grapple with this brand new cultural touchstone as the next piece of Beyoncé’s growing legacy? We’d always looked for the subtle politics layered into Beyoncé’s work in the classroom, but with Lemonade so many of the explicit politics were shamelessly on the surface. Because the entire conceit of my course is to not assign writing about Beyoncé, I needed to get even more creative and unconventional as most everything possible to say was immediately and importantly said, and continues to be said, by black women critics and scholars.

While the narrative is a deeply personal and painful story of an infidelity and its aftermath, a Southern gothic love letter to black women as celebration of vulnerability and strength., Beyoncé also created Lemonade in such a way that we all, no matter our own identities, play a role. There are ways in which Beyoncé invites our participation as long as first, we meet her and black women at the center. As a celebration of resilience in the face of a lie, the album is also an indictment of the lie itself and an exposé of a broken promise. The rest of us are positioned on the margins by Beyoncé as the liars. We can only enter the narrative of Lemonade through that broken promise; as part of the culture that devalued black women so much so that celebration and reclamation was necessary in the first place. Just like the perfect balance of sugar and lemon in the water that makes lemonade, Lemonade is a meticulously balanced blend of celebration and indictment.

America as a whole broke its promise to black women. Removed from any gossip about Beyoncé’s personal life, that’s the truth at the core of Lemonade. There are a multitude of conversations to be had around the album and all are necessary. Some conversations are for black women alone; others are for wide, diverse groups of people. As always, I’ve tried to highlight aspects of Lemonade in class that invite us all to talk about complicity and responsibility in critiquing the same world that devalues black women as part of that same world, while connecting her work to texts from the past that aren’t about her work. In the aftermath of Lemonade, part of that impulse also became connecting moments and themes from Lemonade back to her previous work as historical texts themselves. This opening chapter will talk about some larger aspects of Lemonade, but many other moments get looped into following chapters by theme. Lemonade itself creates a performative historical loop in Beyoncé catalog, one that moves back and forward in time. “Formation” is Lemonade ’s prologue chronologically, but featured on the album as epilogue, which causes the viewer to find prologue further back—in the ghosts of B’Day and “Deja Vu,” where some of Lemonade ’s ingredients can also be found. With many stops in between. A much longer story that remains the overall focus of “Politicizing Beyoncé.”

By itself, Beyoncé weaves a critical tale with Lemonade that attempts to rewrite the social contract itself, to imagine a different world. She offers instructions to repair what has been and continues to be broken by examining what the Combahee River Collective named “Black women’s extremely negative relationship to the American political system” in their famous 1977 “Combahee River Collective Statement.” In addition to all else that it is, Lemonade is an examination of that negative political relationship, that broken promise. It also highlights our own complicities in the system that is devaluing and lying to black women continuously. Ultimately, Lemonade leads the audience on a journey that exposes freedom itself as nothing more than America’s most intimate lie, a perpetually broken promise by design.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Cheryl Clarke

Introduction: Schoolin’ Life

Part I.

Chapter 1: Mixing Lemonade, Re-Mixing America

Chapter 2: In/Formation

Chapter 3: Ghosts of Slavery Past

Part II.

Chapter 4: A Crooked Room of One’s Own

Chapter 5: Don’t Partition Me

Chapter 6: What’s So Queer About Sasha Fierce?

Chapter 7: The Whole Damn System Is Guilty as Hell

Part III.

Chapter 8: Out of the Ruins

Chapter 9: Politics of Resentment

Chapter 10: Fresher Than You

Epilogue: Let’s Start Over

Appendix: Master Syllabus

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