Beyoncé’s Homecoming and the Everyday Work of Decentering Whiteness

Beyonce on bleachers in a pink sweatshirt surrounded by marching band and dancers
Screenshot from Homecoming, Netflix, 2019

When I was 15, I went to high school and joined the marching band for a year. Now I’m almost 40, with multiple degrees and years of university-level teaching under my belt. But I still think of that time as one of the most important educational experiences of my life.

I hadn’t planned on joining the band in high school. I played the flute in the junior high band and loved the experience, but thought it was time to move on to something else. In fact, I had received a preliminary acceptance to a local area arts school, where I wanted to learn how to play jazz. But alas, the logistics of attending were too complicated and expensive, and so I just bummed around that summer, accepting my fate that I would never be a famous jazz flutist.

All the while, my BFF at the time had decided to continue with band, and she kept coming home telling me about the cool stuff she was doing during their summer training. So when school started, and I transitioned into high school feeling lost and overwhelmed, I decided to join up.

The experience ended up being much more than a grounding activity; it played a pivotal role in helping me understand how power and culture are essential to consider in an educational setting. You see, our director was an alumnus from Southern University, one of Louisiana’s famed HBCUs with an equally (or maybe even more) well-known marching band. I began to learn about traditions that had mostly been outside of my world up to that point: the importance of band battles (particularly the annual Thanksgiving weekend Southern vs. Grambling Battle of the Bands), stepping, drum lines and the significance of being a drum major, and generally, the beautiful style that is unique to HBCU marching band performances.

Beyoncé brilliantly features this same beauty in her Homecoming documentary. Her celebration of black traditions highlights the unique artistry that has been nurtured for years on HBCU campuses, where community and belonging (rather than what is too often experienced  as isolation and rejection) are central to how students, teachers, and yes, administrators learn and grow. The magic is in how she emphasizes not just the creativity and skill of these long-standing cultural practices, but also their underlying significance. She made the film, it seems, to secure the meaning for audiences, to help orient their interpretation in a way that allows it to be more than a surface display of Other People’s Culture.

Beyoncé’s performance is important for the same reason that it was important for me to have  a black band director who didn’t just teach us about black cultural traditions, but celebrated them in a way that I had never experienced in an educational setting. It was the first time that I had been in a context where the (slight) majority of students were white, but we were following the rules and methods of black culture. There were certainly awkward moments of cultural appropriation, and I’ll never forget the tension when our drum major for that year was chosen— a handsome, “all-American” white boy who loved to dance. But even still, someone was finally pushing white students to think about the power of perspectives and traditions beyond their own.

In Homecoming, Beyoncé notes without apology that she wasn’t going to Coachella wearing a flower crown; as the first black woman to headline the festival, she wanted to bring her culture to the audience. And because she’s Beyoncé, she did it big. Really big. The roughly 200 performers with their horns blaring and swinging, dancers with different body shapes and unique styles of movement, and the elaborate bleacher routines together recall what only some in the audience might have understood. Many others were probably a little confused, overwhelmed, and hopefully working to take it in. By the end of the two hour performance, though, Beyonce had offered a new framework, so much so that something like the step routine (rooted in black fraternity traditions) came across as perfectly legible, a seamless part of the overall performance.

Like she always has, Beyoncé offers here a challenge to the dominant culture, which very often fails to recognize the beauty and strength of black femininity, of women’s cultures, and of people of color in general. One of my favorite aspects of the performance is how she featured so many of her performers alongside her. This blending of the “star” with the entire crew of dancers, singers, musicians, and other artists happened through elements like costuming and choreography, and through the way their bodies blended into a massive on-stage communal celebration. Bringing her family—-from her husband to her sister to her best friends from Destiny’s Child—highlighted the theme of community to challenge the individualistic tone of white supremacist, bourgeois U.S. culture.

Sadly, in the years after I left high school, things changed. Our band director moved on (and has since died). Now, my friend’s son is in the same band, and he loves it. But I go to his concerts, and generally, what’s happening on stage is pretty white. Don’t get me wrong: they’re great. There’s even a jazz band that is coveted by the students, for only those at the highest level can join. I probably would have loved the program when I was their age.

But when I was  high school, we played old funk music from the ’70s (it was the first time I had heard “The Fifth of Beethoven,” which continues to be one of my favorite songs). I learned to celebrate being loud and on display, as we swayed back and forth in the stadium stands during football games. When we weren’t marching in a Mardi Gras parade, I was on the street watching for the legendary historically black high schools, who were an inspiration to us small-town country kids. In essence, I learned to not just appreciate cultural practices that had been unfamiliar to me, but see their beauty and value through a lens that was unavailable in the dominant culture. And I did so on a visceral, everyday level. It also happened in an institution where challenging existing hierarchies in such a way could have an immediate effect on one’s opportunities.

So like many, I’m happy Beyoncé did this documentary because representation matters: she’s making something visible that had been largely invisible in the dominant culture. But in an era when affirmative action measures are being challenged and dismantled, where inequality is growing rather than decreasing, bringing positive cultural representations to popular music and film is only a step. We have to remember that it’s also necessary to bring this magic to our everyday lives, and to the social institutions through which these lives happen. Undoing material barriers that keep white people in positions of power (including teachers) — that takes a little more work. But if we stay aware of it, we just might be able to start their unraveling. In the meantime, I’m sending a big thanks to Beyoncé for adding to the world something that helps to keep that awareness growing.

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