Seven years ago, Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter called us into “Formation.” And by us, I mean Black femmes. According to Dr. Zandria Robinson, “[s]he center[ed] the voices and visuals of [B]lack women and queer [B]lack people so that they can give and get in-formation and bring the roots of current [B]lack justice movements into view.” The song elicited think pieces from everywhere–news media, bloggers, and scholars, like Robinson.
At the time, I hadn’t really come into my current appreciation of the artist. It wasn’t until a few months later, when Lemonade was released, that I took notice. Lemonade is the first Beyoncé album I downloaded in full after watching the visual release several times. “Formation” is what turned my head toward Beyoncé.
When I was a girl in elementary school, I dreamed of becoming a majorette. I had a baton and would march through the house with the drumline in my head. The very idea of getting in formation appeals to something deep inside me. The synchronized movements are artistry and athleticism, but it’s when different groups do different movements yet are still both in formation and in sync with every other group that I see music. I see rhythm. I see something that takes a great deal of work but produces an undeniable triumph of unity.
On this 7th anniversary–this year of completion, when we take a breath and get ready for a new cycle–I’m reflecting on the kind of formation that can lead to liberation.
Spirit in Action’s Theory of Transformation has occupied my thinking for some time. It’s a deceptively simple theory that asserts the power of different approaches working together for social transformation.
Accepting the idea that approaches which may seem to be fundamentally different from one another can actually work together is getting in formation. The recognition that it is possible to agree with more than one of these approaches is getting in formation. These are the formations that speak to my soul. This is also the reason I am so often heartbroken by the divisions that disrupt our progress toward liberation.
SIA’s Theory of Transformation is almost complete; it lacks only one additional approach–revolution. I imagine it’s missing because revolt evokes violence, and we are biased in the U.S. toward non-violent action for liberation. Yet that inclination may be naive. A complete version of formation for transformation requires that we acknowledge that the disposition toward revolution exists.
In my experience, the most common conflict is between resistors and reformers. I have heard resisters denigrate reformers as sell-outs and simply stupid for thinking they can accomplish anything inside the systems that oppress us. I have also heard reformers accusing the resisters of being naive and angry. This is a false duality: We are all angry, and the resisters can provide fuel for reformers to push for change. Imagine how effective they all could be if they used this dynamic intentionally.
Some of the stereotypes about these categories of transformation have evolved into malignant conventional wisdom:
Reimaginers have their heads in the clouds.
Recreators are unrealistic.
Resisters are naive.
Reformers are sell-outs.
And revolutionaries? Insane.
bell hooks described Beyoncé’s Lemonade as “the business of capitalist money-making at its best.”
I see it, I want it …
I dream it, I work hard, I grind ’til I own it
I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making.
The message hooks saw in the album–including “Formation”–was antithetical to liberation. This was two years after hooks called Beyoncé a “terrorist” because of what hooks saw as Beyoncé’s anti-feminism.
Yes, Beyoncé is a capitalist. Capitalism is not liberatory. And, Beyoncé loves blackness and Black folk.
I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros.
I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.
How powerful would it have been for bell hooks, one of the most influential Black feminist scholars of all time, to disagree with Beyoncé’s elevation of capitalism and appreciate her love of blackness and Black liberators? Why label Beyoncé an exploiter of Black women’s bodies?
As Roxane Gay wrote, “Obviously Lemonade positively exploits images of black female bodies – placing them at the center, making them the norm.”
Is it obvious? Though I disagree with the Gay’s use of “exploit,” I think it’s possible that Beyoncé and her dancers are choosing to display their bodies as they want to. And on that we agree.
Which raises a key question: Is there really only one approach to Black feminism? To liberation? In truth, we don’t really know, because after 403 years, Black folks haven’t yet experienced liberation.
In the spirit of this reflection, I appreciated when hooks wrote in the same critique of Lemonade: “To truly be free, we must choose beyond simply surviving adversity, we must dare to create lives of sustained optimal wellbeing and joy.”
She’s right. It’s not enough to make lemonade out of lemons. We can plant peach trees. And still we must acknowledge that choice is a tricky word. Choosing to survive is a victory.
What is obvious in all of this is that not all people experiencing oppression are interested in our shared liberation. Some people just want their piece of the spoils of oppression for themselves, making their blatant actions against liberation visible to all. Even though some of them are less visible, we know they exist.
But for those of us walking, pulling, pushing in the direction of liberation, there could be tremendous power in getting into formation, believing that more than one idea can work together for change. There are often calls for unity in the struggle for justice, but formation is not so idealistic. Formation can give us space to move in a way that suits us as long as we stay in rhythm and on beat.
February 7, 2023, begins a new cycle, seven years after Lemonade. It offers us another opportunity at formation. And in these dis-United States of America, we certainly need it.