Beyoncé, again and again, affirms this truth: The celebration of blackness is a resistance.
“Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé,” premiered early Wednesday morning, with the East Coast BeyHive waking up at 3 a.m. to live-tweet her latest creation.
Queen Bey didn’t just debut her documentary on Netflix — which dubbed itself “Beyflix” for the release. She also released “Homecoming: The Live Album,” complete with a cover of one of the blackest songs ever made: “Before I Let Go,” by Frankie Beverly & Maze.
That song has been a staple at family reunions, weddings, and the last dance of a good black party since 1981. Bey’s version is equal parts New Orleans bounce, soul, and Cameo “Candy” funk.
And it closes the 137-minute doc about her 2018 historic Coachella performances. The film goes beyond her moment as the first black woman to headline the music fest. The show reminds us how the performances became black history.
Beyoncé crafted the masterpiece with black pride and the spirit of historically black colleges and universities. The Spike Lee “School Daze” skits, the sorority we all wanted to join, the stepshow theatrics, the majorette solo, and Malcolm X’s voice telling the crowd, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman.” This wasn’t a concert. It was a musical revolution. It was black love and black beauty.
“As a black woman, I used to feel like the world wanted me to stay in my little box,” she says in the film. “And black women often feel underestimated . . . I wanted us to be proud of not only the show but the process, proud of the struggle, thankful for the beauty that comes with a painful history and rejoice in pain, rejoice in the imperfections, and the wrongs that are so damn right.”
Beyoncé was the festival. It was embraced as Beychella, a tribute to the HBCU experience and black culture. Every hit, from Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” to Bey’s “Baby Boy,” was performed with a drumline, an orchestra, and a big marching band vibe to create a universal black American homecoming.
That transition from the pretty, faith-filled, and regal black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” to Big Freedia’s demanding intro to “Formation,” all swag and body roll — that is the nuance of black life, the range we exist in. We are not just one thing. And on black campuses, we are free to be everything.
In the film she shares her childhood dreams of going to a historically black college. Instead, she became Queen Bey before she could ever attend.
“My college was Destiny’s Child, my college was traveling around the world, and life was my teacher,” she says.
But she grew up going to Battle of the Bands and homecomings, soaking up the HBCU vibe. Her father is a Fisk University grad. And like most black people, she knows the history. Without the creation of HBCUs, so many of us wouldn’t be here.
I wouldn’t. As a proud Norfolk State University alumna, I couldn’t have survived in the whitewashed world of systemic supremacy and half-baked diversity without being fortified on a campus that believed black — in all its shades — was beautiful.
“There is something incredibly important about the HBCU experience that must be celebrated and protected,” a screen quote from “Homecoming” reads.
First created in the 1800s with the mission to educate black people, HBCUs became black sanctuaries in the country that enslaved us and, even upon freedom, found ways to oppress us.
If you grew up fighting for a seat in a white school, if you grew up in a black school, no matter how you grew up — HBCUs never changed the mission. The schools were built to educate black Americans in books and basics as well as the rebellious and vital act of being one’s black self in a world that would rather not have you.
In 1976 Boston, more than a decade after Congress officially defined HBCUs and the city was going through busing to desegregate, a 29-year-old black Yale-educated lawyer was attacked by racists against integration and nearly impaled by an American flag on his way to work, not resist. A picture, “The Soiling of Old Glory,” by Stanley Forman captured it all.
We’re still not done fighting to integrate. Earlier this month, Columbia University student Alexander McNab was singled out and asked for an ID on Barnard College’s campus and pinned down when he refused. The viral video led to an ongoing investigation.
Black colleges are solace in a world where black students are accosted on predominantly white campuses. White and Latinx students are part of the population. Inclusion is real. According to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, HBCUs disproportionately enroll first-generation, low-income, and academically underprepared college students and turn out most of the black judges and at least half the black lawyers and a lot of black engineers.
But too often, black schools, like black people, are dismissed as less than Ivy League universities and white colleges with big brand visibility and thirst so deep that parents scheme to get their kids in.
So for Beyoncé to give us 105 minutes of HBCU love livestreamed to some 43 million viewers around the world from that Coachella stage? It was a statement that will live longer than us.
Last year on stage, she thanked the California music festival for the opportunity to be the first black woman to headline Coachella, founded in 1999. “Ain’t that ’bout a bitch,” she unapologetically said right after. The shade was as intentional as the black excellence.
A Nina Simone quote used in “Homecoming” drives Beyoncé’s work.
To me, we are the most beautiful creatures in the whole world. Black people. My job is to somehow make them curious enough or persuade them by hook or crook to get more aware of themselves and where they came from and what they are into and what is already there and just to bring it out. This is what compels me to compel them. And I will do it by whatever means necessary.
This show was for us. Beyoncé is for us. She entered the stage dressed as an African queen, Nefertiti sparkling on her cape. She could have just sang her hits, she said. Instead, she brought black culture to slay the world.
“I wanted every person who has ever been dismissed because of the way they look to feel like they were on that stage, killing ’em,” Beyoncé said of her intention.
A year after Beychella, her pyramid bleacher stage is back on Coachella grounds as an installation to commemorate a historic performance as politically and culturally important as Woodstock.
“It just was a dream come true,” she says in the film. “And something I feel like I worked my entire life for. I’m so grateful that I was able to come home.”
Home is her family, but home is also that place where she can freely celebrate blackness with black people across the country. Within that is a love letter to black women.
To watch Beyoncé reunite with Destiny’s Child; have a dance-off with her sister Solange as they tumble on stage into a tangle of legs and love; see Jay Z as husband, dad, and co-star; to feel your heart burst as she teaches her oldest daughter, Blue Ivy, the words to the black national anthem, you are reminded this is also a lifetime on display — the evolution of Queen Bey. And most of us black women have grown into our womanhood alongside her.
“I’m just a new woman in a new chapter of my life,” she says. “And I’m not trying to be who I was. It’s beautiful.”
We were all reminded that Beyoncé does not just sing the songs that snatch edges and give life.
She doesn’t simply dance with the magic of the ancestors and a gift only God could grant. She provides a counter-narrative to everything that tells us black folk are the nobodies of the world.
In her performance, she amplified our somebodiness and fed it to our spirits.
“It was no rules,” she says of the world she created in Beychella. “And we were able to create a free, safe space where none of us were marginalized.”
And that’s what we all want the country to graduate to — a place where blackness can be as safe and free as Beychella. Then we can all come home.Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.