UT Professor’s New Beyoncé-Inspired Book Is A ‘Love Song’ To Black Southern Women

Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley uses Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” album as a jumping-off point for an exploration of feminism and her own family’s roots, along the Gulf Coast.

By Alexandra Hart & Leah ScarpelliNovember 6, 2018 12:01 pm|

Texas has produced its fair share of musical legends: Buddy Holly, Selena, Willie, just to name a few. But few performers, Texan or otherwise, have reached a level of international superstardom topping that of Houston’s native daughter, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. And while she’s racked up Grammys and performed sold-out world tours, she’s also helped redefine feminism or, to be more precise, the meaning of black feminism in America.

That’s the premise of a new book out Tuesday, called: “Beyonce in Formation: Remixing Black Feminism” by Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley. Tinsley is an associate professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and is currently a visiting professor at Harvard. Critics are calling the book a mixtape memoir, and Tinsley says that’s because she incorporates into it elements from her famous class at UT – Beyoncé Feminism/Rihanna Womanism – plus parts of her own life.

“This is about how the issues that Beyoncé brings up in her music opens space for us to think about what feminism means in our own lives,” Tinsley says.

She says that Beyoncé’s album “Lemonade” was, in part, a look into the artist’s own family history in New Orleans and Houston, and that inspired Tinsley to do the same in her book. Tinsley grew up in San Francisco, but her grandparents are from Louisiana and Alabama. She says the a majority of African-Americans in the Bay Area had relatives who came there from the South after World War II.

“The stories that they had of the South were of a place where there was no opportunity for them, but I was always interested in Where did my family come from?”

When Tinsley moved to Texas in 2012 to start her job at UT-Austin, she decided to investigate her family history more deeply.

“It became a different kind of opportunity for me to drive to Louisiana, to meet family who live here in Texas,” Tinsley says. “I had heard the stories about why it was important to leave, but also to hear the stories about what nourished people who stayed here.”

Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic, courtesy of University of Texas Press

Beyoncé performs at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards in 2014.

“Lemonade” has become a kind of cultural touchstone for many people, and Tinsley says that’s because, over the course of her career, Beyoncé has changed people’s perception of feminism. She says that started with the MTV Video Music Awards in 2014 when she performed songs from her self-titled album in front of a giant sign lit up with the word “Feminist.”

“The face of feminism could be not only undeniably popular, but unapologetically black,” Tinsley says.

Tinsely says in 2014, she thought Beyoncé’s album might not resonate with young American women, especially because it was “very cosmopolitan” – she says much of the album was set in Europe. But then Beyoncé changed course with “Lemonade” in 2016.

“She styled a universe in which black women reinhabit the plantations and cities of the Gulf Coast and turn them into spaces for our own healing,” Tinsley says.

Tinsley says a lot of her students are from Houston or have family roots in Louisiana; she’s learned a lot about black country music and other things specific to black life on the Gulf Coast that she says may not be apparent to outsiders.

“Songs like ‘Daddy Lessons,’ people recognize like, ‘Oh yeah’ – the images of black people riding horses in the city. They’re like, ‘This is where we’re from,'” Tinsley says.

But she says people also hold Beyoncé to a high standard, and are offended when they say she misrepresents Houston or the experience of black women. Tinsley says a common divide between her students is about how Beyoncé portrays sexuality. She says some find her celebration of sexuality empowering, while others say it makes them feel vulnerable.

For readers, Tinsley says she wants her book to be a “love song” to black women in the South.

“I hope that it reflects our lovableness, and for everybody who has black women in their lives, I hope that it inspires people to give the black women that they love – including themselves – and extra drop of honey-sweetened love,” Tinsley says.

Written by Caroline Covington.