Beyoncé’s Spiritual Formation

Austin Channing

While I have always appreciated Beyoncé’s presence in the entertainment business, I never donned wings for the BeyHive. What I have loved most about Beyoncé is how hard she works — she dances hard, she sings hard and she goes hard on the creativity. (I mean, dropping a video with no announcement — like whoa!) In addition to her career, she seems to take very seriously the relationships in her life as daughter, sister, spouse and mother. It’s unlikely that her life is perfect, but I don’t need it to be. Beyoncé puts in werk. (Yes, werk.) For that and a handful of songs that make me dance around my living room, I give thanks.

So when I heard that we had a new video from Beyoncé, I was prepared to watch it one time, give Twitter one good scroll for black Twitter reactions and move on with my weekend. Instead, it was two hours before I finished processing “Formation.” Truthfully, I might still be processing it. And after her live performance during halftime of the Super Bowl, much of the nation is trying to make sense of it too.

Now, I cannot tell you what Beyoncé intended with “Formation.” I wasn’t there as she made each choice. There are some references that are clear. "I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros" doesn’t require a whole lot of analysis. Beyoncé fired back at anyone who assumed her daughter Blue Ivy’s fro was an accident, a mistake or due to a lack of time for a busy mother. Nope. Beyoncé is digging her child's natural hair texture. My point is that I have no intention of trying to tell you what Beyoncé was trying to do. I can only look at what she did and tell you how it made me feel. And here is what “Formation” does:

Beyoncé on top of a police car in the flooded waters of Katrina.
A grill that glows like the lights of a police car.
A corner store.
Multiple elements of Mardi Gras.
The hair store filled with wigs.
The twang that screams Southern life.
The porch.
“Negro” and “Creole.”
“Hot sauce in my bag.”

Even the church house made an appearance, as well as repeated use of the word “slay.” For those of us who grew up in the black church, watching those going through hard times in life become slain in the Spirit was a regular Sunday ritual. We came to church in our Sunday’s best, but it was not uncommon for men, women and sometimes children to be so overcome by the presence of the Holy Ghost that there was nothing left to do but surrender the body. Laid out on the floor, church ushers and nurses would attend to those slain in the Spirit, covering their bodies, waving fans, holding them close as they came back to us. For those of us watching it was ritual; to those experiencing, it was transformation. In “Formation,” Bey gives this a nod as we watch the preacher help the congregation transcend the pains of the day and shout toward hope.

While I probably would have loved this video no matter which pictures of black Southern life she chose, it is not lost on me that Beyoncé chose the ones that are considered by the American mainstream (and, let’s be honest, the bougie among us) to be the most disreputable. Beyoncé could have taken us to the South and showed a grandmother cooking macaroni and cheese with some candied yams and biscuits in the kitchen. Or black folks in their church finest raising a handkerchief in the air, nodding contentedly at the sermon. Or college students walking the campus of a historically black college carrying heavy backpacks. Or a couple jumping the broom. She could have given us some red beans and rice, a black marching band rocking the stages at a football game or black and white photos of the Civil Rights Movement. All entirely honest and respectable.

Beyoncé released a video that asks, Does anything good come out of Nazareth?

Instead, she gives us afros, blue hair and blonde braids. She gives us “Negro” and “Creole” and “Jackson 5 nostrils.” She gives us “hot sauce in my bag” while declaring that she won’t ever submit her country roots to our respectable, bougie politics. Here, she doesn’t mean "country" as the equivalent to Southern. She means "country" as in socks with sandals, twerking in the parking lot, pulling out hot sauce in a restaurant, wearing furs when it’s clearly not cold, doing whatever I want with my hair including blue, orange or platinum blonde, eating crawfish on the curb, dancing till my curls fall out in church. And she even refuses to silence the ways black queer culture has been inseparable from defining Southern black life.

Beyoncé released a video that asks, "Does anything good come out of Nazareth?" and answers, "I slay. We slay.” I think that’s a yes.

If that defiance wasn’t enough for us, she goes two steps further. In the midst of all the voices telling black Americans that if they would just be obedient to authority, then they won’t be shot, “Formation” depicts a little black boy in a hoodie dancing with abandon before a line of police officers in riot gear. Dancing with abandon. Fearless. Far from bowing down to the formation, he stands as one, so confounding them that their hands raise in surrender.

And then the police car sinks under the weight of Beyoncé’s body in the floodwaters of Katrina.

The layers. I am still processing this, but suffice it to say, Beyoncé has given us an anthem that challenges us to rethink who is respectable, dignified, worthy. She even reminds us that Martin Luther King Jr. was "more than a dreamer," but also defiant against the established order. When alive he was far from being considered respectable.

All of this while giving us a battle cry for all black women to dream, work hard and own it, to get in formation with one another, to never forget the childlike joy of running in circles with your friends. As her body slides under the water, she reminds us that our work is not in vain. Our formation is defiant. Our formation acknowledges its roots. Our formation contains joy and sadness and isn’t always respectable. Our formation matters.

Thanks, Beyoncé.

Topics: Music