This article analyzes Black feminist performance through two recently released live performance films. Set a generation apart, Amazing Grace (recorded 1972, released 2018), featuring Aretha Franklin, and Homecoming (2019), featuring Beyoncé, are artful and personal—both inspired by Black culture and the artists' personal histories, and offer virtuoso performances. The article operates in three modes: scholarly, personal, and remembered. The scholarship draws on the work of Hortense Spillers, bell hooks, Daphne Brooks, and others, while the personal and remembered portions consider significant sites of feminist formation that have shaped the author's perceptions and analyses of Black feminist performance in the present. These, along with close readings of the films, tap into Black women's ways of knowing and performing subjectivity.

Memory #1: It is late Saturday morning, a long time ago. An elementary-school girl with neat pigtails and bangs holds her mother's hand. The girl is wearing a stylish, casual outfit and her mother is a vision of current fashion in autumn rust and orange wools. The two are navigating crowds of other well-dressed, festive Black people moving along a Southern US street. The sun shines, and the air has a hint of salt. The fall day is crisp, slightly chilly, and perfect for the football game in a few hours.

I am the little girl holding my mother's hand, and we are out at the parade celebrating Homecoming at Hampton University. A historically Black school, Hampton is my mother's alma mater, as well as her sister's and her parents'—their “home by the sea” in coastal Virginia. Hampton University pride runs deep in our family, as it does in all these handsome Black people with whom we are parading through campus. At one point, the band's drumline steps out of formation and offers an impressively rhythmic teaser for the coming halftime show. A couple of blocks farther along, we encounter my mother's sorority holding an impromptu stroll and step show. I am astonished as my mother answers the verbal call to join the circle to step, sing, and dance some intricate rhythms and patterns from memory with generations of her sorority sisters.

Memory #2: Fast forward about five years to a weeknight at church. Now a middle-school student, I sit on a polished wooden pew in my family church doing homework while my mother and her friends, members of the church's new gospel choir, are rehearsing in the front. The director takes them through scales, warm-ups, and finally a couple of arrangements that will eventually become part of their repertoire. Not a piece of sheet music in sight, the choir members learn their sections by call-and-response with the director on piano. He sings a couple of bars to them, and each section sings it back, eventually making a whole chorus or song. Though I should focus on my English or geometry, my attention is glued to the dynamic sounds and sight of those grown-ups working on this fierce and full-bodied music. They are singing and moving—even laboring—to make sounds heretofore unheard in this “frozen chosen” sanctuary. The powerful gospel music sound disrupts the usual quietude of the congregation that, until this moment in its nearly hundred-and-fifty-year history, has been devoted to bourgeois propriety and stillness of worshipping bodies.

This is not an essay about my mother, per se; rather, it is an essay about Black feminist performance and the perceptual lenses that were formed in me through my mother's careful, though possibly unintentional, training and shaping of me. This writing articulates important formative scenes and experiences I had as a Black girlchild that have been conjured through my recent viewings of two new and significant live performance films. Released in 2018 but filmed nearly fifty years before, in 1972, Amazing Grace is directed by Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack and features Aretha Franklin. Homecoming (2019) is a Netflix concert film with an embedded documentary about Beyoncé, who is not only the star performer, but also credited (alongside others) as a writer, director, executive producer, music director, choreographer, and creative director.1 Both are artful and personal films that offer thoughtful perspectives on Black culture, Black feminist performance, and the junctures between them.

Let me be clear: I am a Black woman. My mother was a Black woman, and while this essay is not about her, I can also confidently say that it would not be percolating in me without the life experiences, cultural and religious priorities, and home training of my mother, Marguerite Mann Jordan, and her mother, and all of her grandmothers exponentially. My mother, of blessed memory, was born in 1935 and died in 2010. I know something about Black women's flesh and experience, because I live and move and have my being as a Black woman, but just as significantly, because I come from a Black woman's flesh and she came from a Black woman's flesh, and so on. My “generations,” as Gayl Jones terms it, have traveled around and through the Atlantic basin to worlds of feeling, moving, thinking, laboring, being, and fighting as Black women through the centuries have been called and required to do in the flesh. I say and feel with equal existential clarity that Beyoncé and Aretha are Black women.2 These thoughts converged for me as I watched Amazing Grace and Homecoming.

This essay is an academic article that is occasionally interrupted by personal “performances of remembering,” taking the form of brief “conversations” with my mother (in italics). These conversations are not scripts of actual dialogue, but rather based on the million large and small talks and experiences that my mother and I had throughout our shared lifetimes. They serve as a fathoming of my own sense and episteme of enfleshed origins. This lifetime of maternal nurturing and mentoring, strand by strand, came to shape my own positionality as a Black feminist. I write as a Black feminist seeking strips of Black feminist performance in these two films. My hermeneutic is born of flesh: my Black flesh responding to the enfleshed Black performance of Aretha in Amazing Grace and Beyoncé in Homecoming.

Black feminist performance here centers on the experiences, aesthetics, and affect of Black women materialized through the flesh and reiterated before the camera. It is rooted in resistance to hegemony, patriarchy, domination, and violence consonant with Black life in the African diaspora. The project of Black feminist performance is that of “developing an alternative subjectivity to the one that has been imposed … in order to challenge and dismantle the ideological structures that undergird the oppression [of Black women].”3

While both films have been distributed broadly to mainstream audiences, they nonetheless offer important evidence of Black feminist performance culture that operates on non-majoritarian frequencies.4 On the one hand, this culture articulates what Jacqueline Bobo names as a creative activist tradition. She contends that Black female artists bring a different understanding of Black women's lives and thus create work purposed to eradicate pervasive and harmful images, images that nurture and sustain Black life.5 Performance theorist Daphne Brooks expands on this theory of Black feminist performance culture through her illumination of “afro-sonic feminist praxis,” in which “the heterogeneity of Black female subjectivity … exists on another frequency from the hegemonic order.”6 Both Homecoming and Amazing Grace are, at their cores, propelled from this “other frequency.” It was the energy of these Black women's creative, artistic, and sonic frequencies that literally got under my skin as I viewed the films.

Literary theorist Hortense Spillers makes a distinction between body and flesh that separates captive and liberated subject positions. While the notion of the body relates to histories of Black captivity, Spillers offers “flesh,” even as wounded, seared, and ripped apart, as a primary narrative regarding Black women: “The flesh is the concentration of ‘ethnicity’ that contemporary critical discourses neither acknowledge nor discourse away.”7 The liberated subject positions that Aretha and Beyoncé perform in their films converge powerfully for me, along with similar scenes and sites of Black remembering with my mother. These sites begin to conjure a Black feminist performativity that requires attention. What is materialized through these performances inspires (literally, “breathes into”) me, and causes me to lift my head and straighten my posture. As I watch these two Black women performers, I move into my own dignified “power pose” of fleshly subjectivity.

Enfleshed performance allows for self-naming while laying claim to liberatory power in articulations of a kind of mother tongue, as well as thorough formation in Africanist cultural practices. It is this Black steeping that brings me back to the conjured occasions with my mother that I described previously. Aretha and Beyoncé performed on frequencies that stirred natal sites of Black feminist performance for me, scenes in which I watched my mother inhabit her fleshly subjectivity more fully and through which I learned to materialize my own Black feminist subjectivity. The experience of seeing the two films within a single month was disruptive and transformative—physically, spiritually, intellectually. Both films record insurgent performances. Though quite different, they have in common that they are vehicles for Black women performing in complex times. Both materialize Brooks's notion of “afro-sonic feminist praxis.”

Amazing Grace was filmed in Los Angeles a few years into the post–civil rights era and seven years after the infamous Watts uprisings in 1965. Beyoncé, in Homecoming, was performing at a moment when the Movement for Black Lives and its hashtag activist appellation #BlackLivesMatter were calling thousands to protest killings of unarmed Black people by authorities in public spaces. Furthermore, at the time of both films' making, the respective performers were among the best-known celebrities in the world, each having dominated the music industry for approximately twenty years and received numerous accolades.8

Amazing Grace and Homecoming call upon deep wells of Black performance material. Both performers are virtuosos without equal, but neither performance was conjured or created solely by them. Like the Negro spirituals of previous centuries, the content of the films is drawn from African diasporic and African American cultural communities from which both artists emerged. As artists and visionary performance creators, both Beyoncé and Aretha dropped their metaphorical buckets into streams of culture they were raised in. They both chose to feature their own versions of what ethnomusicologist Eileen Southern identifies as “the music of a free people.”9 While the project of fulfilling the nineteenth-century Emancipation Proclamation for Black people in the United States is ongoing, gospel and the blues are musics of people free enough to move from Southern rural spaces to Northern urban spaces. Likewise, the historically Black college and university (HBCU) performance culture that Beyoncé and her team staged at Coachella represents a kind of post-emancipation freedom in which Black education is permitted and supported, and Black people extend themselves to lay claim to it.

In watching Amazing Grace and Homecoming, I have no measures for the stirrings I felt. Maybe I should have worn a blood pressure cuff, an EKG monitor, or a brain scan? My body temperature rose, yet goose bumps popped up on my arms. At moments I was compelled to wave my hands, holler, dab tears, or get up and dance along. Both films negotiate the performance of sacred and secular from non-binary perspectives—meaning, neither can be wholly constituted as sacred or secular. In this they evoke Africanist understandings of a sacred cosmos in which all of life and performance exists.10 This is why I responded in my flesh to each one.

This notion of a sacred cosmos of Africanist performance is contrary to mainstream majoritarian images and representational culture, which put forth a clear divide between the sacred and the profane and have overproduced negative images of Black people—and, especially for the purposes of this article, Black women in film and media. The camera has often been antipathetic to representations of Black women in the United States and in the African diaspora, replaying violence, death-dealing images, or hackneyed stereotypes such as the mammy, Jezebel, or Sapphire.11 In mainstream contexts, film has most often served as a delivery vehicle for knowledge and power that reproduces and maintains white supremacy. The filmmaking industry has consistently objectified and commodified Black bodies and negated Black representation in wide-ranging genres, from the “educational” documentary (for instance Jean Rouch's pseudo-scientific Les Maîtres Fous [The Mad Masters, 1954]) to mass-market entertainments spawned by corporate conglomerates (as in DreamWorks's The Help [2011], written and directed by Tate Taylor).12 Much of the mainstream Western film canon has disappeared Black bodies or showcased filmmakers' perceptions of Black pathologies, vulnerabilities, or disadvantageous difference, entertaining and comforting white consumers even as they maintain an anti-Black, hegemonic status quo.

Amazing Grace and Homecoming intervene in and transgress these filmmaking and image-production conventions and point toward Black feminist possibilities and strategies. bell hooks, in her iconic text Black Looks (1992), poses the question: “From what political perspective do we dream, look, create, and take action?”13 As visionaries, producers, and performers, Beyoncé and Aretha “dream,” “look,” “create,” and “act” in these films from the fleshly subjectivity of Black women who are artists of Black culture.14 Homecoming and Amazing Grace make space for Black women's self-invention in ways that strive toward the liberatory, even if the idea of liberation is not fully perfected in the performance. Self-invention, partial agency, and survival constitute points along the journey to full emancipation. These two works are profound additions to the filmic canon in that Aretha and Beyoncé, two generations apart, disrupt the status quo of film- and image making to offer enfleshed subjectivity and agency of Black women on-screen.

AMAZING GRACE

Amazing Grace documents the recording sessions of the now-iconic and best-selling gospel album of the same name. It was filmed at the New Temple Baptist Church in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, using five 16mm cameras (fig. 1). Aretha helmed the sessions with her voice, body, cultural and faith knowledge, and creative imagination. I do not remember ever not knowing this album. Before I ever sat at the back of my church and watched our gospel choir labor to be born, I had heard Amazing Grace. I have always sung along with it like an uninvited member of the Southern California Choir. Through this magnificent archival film, I not only heard and felt the album yet again, but now I saw the space and occasion of its recording. It was mind-blowing to finally see what I had always heard, as well as to rearrange what I had imagined the space to look like. I never met Aretha personally, but I have always known her in seemingly personal ways. Her voice was in our living room on the stereo, or in the kitchen on the radio. Her voice went to the beach with my family in the summer, and to our backyard cookouts when we were celebrating. Often when my mother referred to her, she would call her “Re-Re” while she popped her fingers and did a little dance.

FIGURE 1.

Aretha Franklin in a musical call-and-response with members of the Southern California Choir and Reverend James Cleveland at the New Temple Baptist Church, Los Angeles, 1972, in Amazing Grace (dir. Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack), 2018. Image courtesy NEON.

FIGURE 1.

Aretha Franklin in a musical call-and-response with members of the Southern California Choir and Reverend James Cleveland at the New Temple Baptist Church, Los Angeles, 1972, in Amazing Grace (dir. Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack), 2018. Image courtesy NEON.

I expected that seeing this film would only add some shading and color to what I already knew—and I knew that this collection of gospel songs was electrifying! The choir, the rhythm section, the Hammond B3 organ, Reverend James Cleveland's piano playing, the all-in congregation were already compelling. The filmed performance is filled with technical flaws, but is nonetheless substantial. Minimally retouched, what we see is what we get: Aretha, tangibly conveying her feelings and her faith throughout.

The contemporary viewer is left to wonder if the original film was ever clear and unblemished. Time has not been kind to the print, and nearly fifty years sitting in a warehouse has made much of the footage grainy and dark. There are odd and off-center camera angles throughout. We see yards of cords, microphones, and mic stands in the camera shots, and camera and sound operators scurrying into and out of the frame. There is a moment mid-film when the concert stops and an unseen announcer says: “A whole cup of water spilled into a great deal of electrical wires here.” At one point, Reverend Cleveland asks the congregation: “When [Aretha] is working from this microphone, can you hear her good?” The congregation responds: “No!” But rather than detracting from the film's effect, these flaws add compellingly to the sense of peering into a time capsule.

While watching, I wondered why they chose this church as the setting and not one of the many lavish cathedrals of Black religiosity around the country. I imagine that Aretha could have selected any Black church in the United States for this performance. The New Temple Baptist Church was (and is) a small, humble church in Watts, which seven years earlier had been the site of a violent rebellion by some residents responding to the Los Angeles Police Department's brutality against Black citizens, and other manifestations of structural racism. Like many Black churches, it was originally built for another purpose (in this case, a movie theater) and later converted. It has no center aisle, and instead of wooden pews, it is filled with flip-up theater seats. Three of the sanctuary's four walls are painted a 1970s dreary sky blue, but the fourth wall in the front is remarkable. This is the wall that originally would have held the movie screen, but in the retrofitted church space it holds a painting about the size of a small movie screen featuring a large, muscular, brown-complexioned Christ figure standing in a river with a white bird hovering above his head. There is one other male figure in the river and a number of background figures on the shoreline. The painting is an artistic representation of the Gospel story of the Baptism of Jesus, rendered in the political and theological direction of the freedom movements of the time. Aretha, the choir, and her ensemble perform in front of this Black liberationist Jesus.15

As noted, the flaws and awkward moments, rather than interrupt the film, magnify its enigmatic quality. To put it in popular science fiction terms, a rip occurs in the time-space continuum, and we contemporary film watchers briefly land our space capsules in 1972—not a theatrical re-creation of 1972, but the actual year 1972. In the real 1972 where this film lives, there are imperfections: some of the microphones do not work, and the clapperboard does not sync the sound with the video. In this real 1972, Aretha Franklin is young, beautiful, alive, and in charge. It is as if the closing song of the film is realized through the production and release of the film in 2018. That song, which Aretha sings and accompanies herself on at the piano, is called “Never Grow Old”: “I have heard of a land on a faraway strand / It was built by Jesus / There we never will die / “Tis a land where we will never grow old.”

Throughout, Aretha's voice and performance are peerless. The twelve songs are delivered with rich passion. Aretha does not appear to be showing off or seeking the approval of the congregation. She never addresses them in spoken words. She rarely looks into the camera, but she uses her eyes to message Cleveland at the piano, or the young choir director, Alexander Hamilton. Otherwise, her eyes are closed or focused heavenward. Nonetheless, all is fully affective—filled with feeling, sensation, inspiration. There is laughter here and there, but I am so aware of her tears, emerging, clearly, from the interplay of her well-documented life experiences and her practice of faith. To watch a young Aretha sweat and cry while asserting her agency and running her show made me understand that these familiar songs were much more emotionally captivating than I had thought in the aural space of my imagination. The emotions show up as evidence of spiritual formation and a profound interiority, and cause me as a spectator to lean in closer to try to understand and feel more. The word “sacrament” comes to mind: an outward sign of an inner spiritual reality. Aretha's gospel singing here is sacramental, an outward sign of her interior spirituality, which overflows and exceeds her inner space.

In hearing and singing along to the recording, I had never imagined such excess: excess heat, energy, 1970s aesthetics, sanctified church moves, spirituality. Throughout the film Aretha's skin goes from shimmering perspiration to pouring sweat. Without strain or apparent effort she hits every note, while her fluid body performs—her tears and sweat circulate throughout the performance (fig. 2).16 Her presence before me now, a year after her death, made possible through the technology of the resurrected film, multiplies the performative impact of this service.

FIGURE 2.

Aretha Franklin belts her feelings in song in the pulpit of the New Temple Baptist Church, Los Angeles, 1972, in Amazing Grace (dir. Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack), 2018. Image courtesy NEON.

FIGURE 2.

Aretha Franklin belts her feelings in song in the pulpit of the New Temple Baptist Church, Los Angeles, 1972, in Amazing Grace (dir. Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack), 2018. Image courtesy NEON.

With her beautiful, unlined brown skin and short, perfect Afro blowout, Aretha vocalizes at times with bravura shouts and hollers, and at other times with subtle hums and moans. With the exception of a simple entrance down the side aisle of the church and two turns at the piano, she stands robed at the pulpit and sings with her artistic and spiritual agency in full effect. Her brother, the Reverend Cecil Franklin, once described her gospel singing style in this way: “[Aretha] does with her voice exactly what a preacher does with his when he moans to a congregation and somebody answers you back with their own moan, which means, ‘I know what you're moaning about, because I feel the same way.’ … [It's] like a thread spinning out and touching and tying everybody in a shared experience.”17 I observe the profundity of this description and its misogyny at the same time. It contains no imagination of a woman with authority in church as preacher or pastor; it discloses the fact that most Christian denominations historically prohibit the ordination and preaching of women (and some still do). These prohibitions are based on interpretations of New Testament scriptures that claim that a woman's rightful place in the religious community is to be silent, submissive, and obedient. Yet Aretha, a lifelong person of Christian faith and daughter of one of the most famous preachers in the United States at the time (fig. 3), steps into a liberated subject position in the pulpit and articulates her own self-naming.18 Like Toni Morrison's iconic preacher woman in the clearing, Baby Suggs, she names herself as artist, laborer, daughter, and mother, and invites her congregation to be whole.19

FIGURE 3.

The Reverend C. L. Franklin smiles and laughs in the front row beside well-known gospel singer Clara Ward, while his daughter Aretha is at the piano, in Amazing Grace (dir. Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack), 2018. Image courtesy NEON.

FIGURE 3.

The Reverend C. L. Franklin smiles and laughs in the front row beside well-known gospel singer Clara Ward, while his daughter Aretha is at the piano, in Amazing Grace (dir. Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack), 2018. Image courtesy NEON.

An important perspective on Aretha's enfleshed subjectivity occurs near the beginning of the film, when she steps into the chancel and performs behind the pulpit. The move is significant. Many churches that have disallowed the preaching and ordination of women require that women's bodies be excluded from the chancel and pulpit. A typical midcentury Black Baptist church would not have allowed women to even step up onto the platform where the pulpit stands. Women at the pulpit of any US Protestant Christian church would have been a rare sight in 1972. Aretha begins the concert by sitting at a grand piano to the left of the chancel, where she sings and plays the piano on “Wholly Holy.” It is clear that she could have done the whole concert from the piano, or the area on the floor beside it. Instead, at the conclusion of the first song, she stands and walks up the stairs to the pulpit, unbothered by traditional restrictions. In doing so, she inhabits her fleshly subjectivity and transgresses two millennia of Western Christian gendered bodily sanctioning.20

It would have been transgressive enough to simply enter there, but Aretha betters her own Black feminist transgression by opening her mouth and lifting her voice to sing (sang, ReRe!) her songs. It is with her breath, her intonation, her belt, her holler that this concert and congregation rise, float, and fall. When Aretha moans, the on-screen congregation wipes their tears. When she rocks, they clap and stomp. When she gives vent to the spirit, they shout and dance. Aretha's multivalent and polyvalent voice fuels the movement of the spirit in that sanctuary.

Unchoreographed, the congregation are what ballet master George Balanchine would call “poets of gesture” under Aretha's physical and spiritual orchestration.21 Their moves are gestures pulled from Black sacred corporeal lexicons of gesture: lifting hands, standing, rocking, clapping, heads bobbing. There was no need to choreograph the gestures because the moves already existed in the flesh of Aretha, the choir, and the congregation. A hand wave over there, an empathic smile and nod here, and eventually an ecstatic shout breaks out among some worshippers down front. In Amazing Grace, Aretha's voice and body materialize the power of the culture and the faith that were her resources.

Furthermore, Aretha leads the service with her head uncovered—another act that might seem insignificant to nonreligious viewers, but is deeply meaningful in the context of histories of religious practices. The covering of the head is charged with meaning across the religious spectrum: think of the Muslim hijab, the Jewish yarmulke, the nun's habit. These same proscriptions then prevailed in any traditional Baptist church, and indeed, among the filmed congregation at the New Temple Baptist Church we can see some women wearing hats. Aretha was raised in traditional Black Baptist culture and would have known of the tradition of women covering their heads. The film viewer can briefly step away from the 1972 time capsule to view a different choice Aretha made forty years later when asked to sing “My Country 'Tis of Thee” at President Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration. On that occasion she chose to wear a splendidly large and detailed example of a Baptist churchwoman's hat.22 But in 1972 at the New Temple Baptist Church, her head was uncovered.

What was perfectly visible, then, was the hairstyle she chose: a precisely trimmed and coiffured, dark brown, medium-size Afro (fig. 4). An Afro is “revolutionary hair,” an aesthetic choice that aligns its wearer with Black Power and Black standards of beauty. Regarding Black hair, Kobena Mercer asserts that “where race is a constitutive element of social structure and social division, hair remains powerfully charged with symbolic currency.”23 Her choice to wear her hair in the Afro multiplies the frequencies on which Aretha performs as a free Black woman.24 Not only Aretha, but also a number of people in the congregation, choir, and band are showing their “revolutionary hair.” In these acts of performing at the pulpit, these embodied aesthetics, keeping her head uncovered, and wearing the Afro, Aretha further enfleshes her subjectivity.

FIGURE 4.

A young Aretha Franklin at the piano in Amazing Grace (dir. Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack), 2018. Image courtesy NEON.

FIGURE 4.

A young Aretha Franklin at the piano in Amazing Grace (dir. Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack), 2018. Image courtesy NEON.

My mother and Aretha are of the same generation of Black women, born and reared in the United States as the nation expanded the boundaries of emancipation beyond Jim Crow and racialized segregation. Their lives had some details in common—most especially being reared in middle-class Black Christian families and coming of age with the civil rights movement. As adults, they both raised Black children as unpartnered, professional mothers. As with my mother, I have found no mention of Aretha overtly applying the term “feminist” to herself. Even so, two of Aretha's songs reverberated through movements for women's equality: “Respect” (1967) and “Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves” (1985).25 Without claiming the term, Aretha performed a resistance to racialized and gendered marginalization. Her performance at the New Temple Baptist Church documented in Amazing Grace demonstrates her insurgent subjectivity on multiple levels.26

The gospel concert as worship service on film exploded my perceptual portals. My resonance and empathy were provoked by not just seeing, but being affected by those people now caught in an ectoplasmic time capsule. As I look into the time capsule, I can see how my mother would have fit right in.27

HOMECOMING

Not a worship service, though not without notable spiritual energy and some liturgical elements, Homecoming combines two ferocious concerts Beyoncé delivered in 2018 at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California. A memoir-style backstory documentary related to the rehearsal process is inserted at intervals. It shows Beyoncé's return to the stage following the recent birth of her twins, as well as the significant Black cultural resources that shaped her construction of this show. Beyoncé is the star and leader of a two-hundred-member ensemble performing the music and dance culture of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Like Aretha in Amazing Grace, Beyoncé gathers and curates elements of Black performance repertoires to create a significant production of Black culture that enfleshes and performs Black feminist subjectivity.

Beyoncé opens the show with a “royal” procession worthy of any high-fashion catwalk or Church of England coronation. Adorned in sequins and glitter, her costume affirms her queenly position in popular culture while incarnating royal Egyptian or Nubian imagery (figs. 5, 6). Wearing a crown and cape, “Queen Bey” enters the stage with her ensemble of dancers following like ladies-in-waiting. The leggy procession walks the length of the stage's runway extension and returns to the main stage. Think Nefertiti or Candace or Amanitore! In this opening spectacle, Beyoncé sweeps away many previously held tropes of Black female representation and submission on-screen, even while building upon some others. Highly visible and agential, she and her ensemble serve notice in the flesh that this concert aims to perform a “different text for female empowerment.”28

FIGURE 5.

Beyoncé and ensemble on a set resembling the bleachers of a sporting event, but also evoking the grandeur of Nubian or Egyptian pyramids, at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Indio, California, 2018, in Homecoming (dir. Beyoncé and Ed Burke), 2019. Image courtesy VanDam/Netflix.

FIGURE 5.

Beyoncé and ensemble on a set resembling the bleachers of a sporting event, but also evoking the grandeur of Nubian or Egyptian pyramids, at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Indio, California, 2018, in Homecoming (dir. Beyoncé and Ed Burke), 2019. Image courtesy VanDam/Netflix.

FIGURE 6.

Beyoncé, wearing a crown, walks the runway in her opening processional at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Indio, California, 2018, in Homecoming (dir. Beyoncé and Ed Burke), 2019. Image courtesy VanDam/Netflix.

FIGURE 6.

Beyoncé, wearing a crown, walks the runway in her opening processional at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Indio, California, 2018, in Homecoming (dir. Beyoncé and Ed Burke), 2019. Image courtesy VanDam/Netflix.

The precisely costumed ensemble includes dancers of all genders, a considerable drumline called Bzzzzz, brass and other standard marching-band sections, a violin section (acoustic and electric), a baton twirler, and Beyoncé's R&B band of Black women called the Sugar Mamas. In the credits, as mentioned above, Beyoncé is listed as writer, director, executive producer, music director, choreographer, and creative director. Her creative vision and labor shaped every part of this concert film and its embedded documentary.

The documentary material in Homecoming is rich with footage of rehearsals on a mock stage in an airplane-hangar-size studio. As we see Beyoncé and her team sweat through months of physical conditioning and rehearsals to prepare for Coachella, we gain a far more nuanced perspective on their fleshly labors. In the concert footage, Beyoncé's body is airbrushed to near perfection, with rarely a drop of perspiration visible—literally embodying her song title “Flawless”—even though the concert is occurring in the California desert. In the backstory inserts (fig. 7), shot in grainy lower definition, we see her perspire, cry, pray, work out, and substitute apples for full meals in order to lose the “baby weight” she'd gained in her recent pregnancy.

FIGURE 7.

Beyoncé, dressed down at rehearsal for her Coachella performance, in Homecoming (dir. Beyoncé and Ed Burke), 2019. Image courtesy VanDam/Netflix.

FIGURE 7.

Beyoncé, dressed down at rehearsal for her Coachella performance, in Homecoming (dir. Beyoncé and Ed Burke), 2019. Image courtesy VanDam/Netflix.

At one point she lays her cards on the table, explaining the underpinning purpose of the performances and subsequent film:

As a Black woman, I used to feel like the world wanted me to stay in my little box. And Black women often feel underestimated. … I wanted us to be proud of the struggle. Thankful for the beauty that comes from a painful history, and rejoice in the imperfections. … I wanted everyone to feel grateful for their curves, their sass, their honesty. Thankful for their freedom.

This statement sets the discursive terms for the entire project. Historically, Black women have been invisibilized or marginalized in various streams of media and public discourse.29 The “little box” can be understood as white supremacist perspectives of the Black female body as “a naturally submissive, sexually available, public, reproductive technology.”30 With this film project and her performance within it, Beyoncé resists common historical notions that objectify Black women. Her words offer “representational potentialities” for Beyoncé and the massive collective of Black women who are her audience, whose histories and knowledge differ from mainstream histories. Through these words, she endeavors to give voice to Black women's pain. It is consequential because, as bell hooks asserts, “without a way to name our pain, we are also without words to articulate our pleasure.”31 This naming is key to the critical analysis of both films. Though somewhat reductive, Amazing Grace leans in the direction of articulating pain. Homecoming could be understood as a two-hour staging of Black pleasure. Black pleasure derived from Black cultural sources is insurgent performance because it is not beholden to white supremacist “little boxes” for Black experience.32

Much of the Black pleasure in Homecoming erupts through the moving bodies on the Coachella stage; indeed, Homecoming is powerfully driven by dance as much as by the music. The choreography gives “visible form to the music” while also materializing political formulations that work through the whole performance.33 Homecoming stakes a different course from Amazing Grace in that it is thoroughly choreographed. Though the movements are lifted from stepping, “street,” and club dances, not a single one is improvised (fig. 8). Viewers see moves that are deeply influenced and motivated by the fierce beat of the music, but the movement is not subsumed to the rhythm. The array of dancers stomp, twirl, twerk, and bop on bent knees, close to the ground, emphasizing the midsection such that butts, legs, and thighs are most prominent. Black flesh in motion is the focal point of this film surrounded by what Beyoncé proclaims in Homecoming “so much damn swag!”

FIGURE 8.

Beyoncé with a subset of her two-hundred-member ensemble at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Indio, California, 2018, in Homecoming (dir. Beyoncé and Ed Burke), 2019. Image used by permission, Kevin Mazur/Getty Images Entertainment.

FIGURE 8.

Beyoncé with a subset of her two-hundred-member ensemble at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Indio, California, 2018, in Homecoming (dir. Beyoncé and Ed Burke), 2019. Image used by permission, Kevin Mazur/Getty Images Entertainment.

Beyoncé's production and her performance frontload the idea of feminism by boldly naming it in the scripted production. Audio excerpts from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's often-watched 2012 Ted Talk “We Should All Be Feminists” establish the feminist prerogatives at the root of Homecoming.34 In the second act of the show, Beyoncé and her ensemble offer an energetic presentation of the song “Run the World (Girls),” which was deployed in the Obama administration as an anthem to girls' empowerment and youth physical fitness simultaneously. The number closes with the female dancers in various sitting and reclining positions on the stage floor. As a coda, we hear Adichie's rich, Nigerian-accented voice:

ADICHIE:

We teach our girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller.

[Drumline sounds one time]

ADICHIE:

We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much.

[Drumline sounds two times]

ADICHIE:

We say, aim to be successful, but not too much, because it will threaten the man.

[Drumline sounds three times]

ADICHIE:

We raise girls to see each other as competitors, not for jobs or accomplishments, but for the attention of men.

[Drumline sounds seven times]

ADICHIE:

Feminist—

All Ensemble: Whoa!

ADICHIE:

A person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.

For all the choreography and dramatic tension built into this scene, the intellectual and choreographic climax is simple: it is the most direct and inclusive definition of feminism possible. If not an “altar call,” it certainly functions as an invitation to the audience of thousands in the desert, and by extension the millions watching the film. The bar to respond to this invitation is low: just show up and believe in the equality of the sexes.

Now, I return to my own natal site. My mother would not have called herself a feminist (Baby, “feminism” is what white women have used to say they can stop being housewives and go out and get jobs. What Black woman do you know who doesn't work?), yet Adichie's definition would have resonated with her. As a Black woman in the United States, my mother's life challenges as a college-educated, divorced mother, poorly paid educator, and domestic violence survivor would have cosigned Beyoncé's performance of Adichie's interpretation of feminism.

Furthermore, my imagination tells me that my mother would lean over quietly and without judgment ask me: But do you think Beyoncé's hip-shaking is feminist? This question reveals as much about my mother's experience as it does about larger debates and corporeal complexities regarding Black women's bodies in public. In particular, as a result of the camera locations, the viewer maintains a notable and persistent visual relationship with Beyoncé's derrière. The visual engagement with her hips is not coincidental. The primary shots were taken from a robotic camera on a small monorail-type contraption running the width of the stage, which consistently aims its lens between her knees and waist.

The hips, and more specifically the buttocks, have been complicated discursive sites for Black women since the beginning of the modern African diaspora—simultaneously a site of pleasure and sensuality, on the one hand, and shame and degradation, on the other. The infamous history of Saartjie Sarah Baartman, labeled the “Venus Hottentot,” haunts discussions of Black women's buttocks as sites of political contestation. Believed to be from South Africa, Baartman was compelled to leave home and go to London in 1810. Considered extraordinary and exotic, her buttocks and genitalia were the excuse for the racist, sexist, and anti-human exhibition of Baartman as a scientific curiosity or a circus oddity.35 While Baartman's situation is the most egregious known example, in a more general way Black women's behinds have served as representational stand-ins for Black female sexuality—both grotesque and enticing, representing pain and pleasure.

To explore the complexity of Black female derrière in the present, Black feminist choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar created a groundbreaking dance piece called Batty Moves in 1995. Zollar describes part of her inspiration in this way: “There is expressivity in the African-Caribbean [dance] way of releasing the hip or hyperextending the back. … In African dance, hip movement is accepted as an integral part of both sacred and secular dance.”36 Hip and butt movement derived from Africanist dances, as well as hip-hop and other quotidian dance forms, is an integral part of the Homecoming choreography. Nonetheless, my mother's imputed question evidences other troubled histories and hauntings related to the camera's persistent focus on Beyoncé's, and by extension, all Black women's behinds.37

Additionally, the question of the connection between “hip-shaking” and feminism that I attribute to my mother might easily, though erroneously, be dismissed as another example of apolitical Black respectability politics. As noted, my mother grew up as the civil rights movement was simmering across her native South. She graduated from an HBCU with a teaching certificate and a letter of hire to teach in a segregated public school in Richmond, Virginia. As a Black woman and laborer, she required a strategy to navigate what Brittney Cooper describes as “a hostile public sphere … to minimize the threat of sexual assault and other forms of bodily harm routinely inflicted upon black women.”38 My mother's strategy would have been to make her body as inconspicuous and sexually innocuous as possible, while still giving sartorial evidence of her bourgeois upbringing. This is a decided contrast from Beyoncé and the ensemble of Homecoming, who perform themselves as conspicuously sexual beings.

Nonetheless, to dismiss my mother's (albeit imperfect) strategy would overlook countless survival strategies employed by working Black women through generations of violent, death-dealing circumstances. Brittney Cooper articulates helpful complications through her reading of prominent African American scholar Anna Julia Cooper (1858–1964), who named her goal for Black women as “undisputed dignity,” rather than “respectability.” Anna Julia Cooper's notion of undisputed dignity is not contingent upon social class and requires the “fundamental recognition of one's inherent humanity.” Such a Black politics of dignity is coherent with Adichie's definition of feminism that Beyoncé and ensemble perform. Nonetheless, my mother's perception of performers like Beyoncé was bound up with what she knew about a world hostile to free Black women's flesh. How could I help my mother with her questions, which for her originated in her Black church and Black college experiences—the very cultural institutions venerated in these two documentaries?

It is worth revisiting Eileen Southern's framework of “the music of free people.” Beyoncé underscores Black women's enfleshment and potential liberated subject positions through words, insistent corporeality, and full-voiced vocal performance. Widening Southern's frame: this is the enfleshed performance of free people. Beyoncé asserts in the film: “It was important that I brought our culture to Coachella.”39 She and her ensemble enflesh Black feminist subjectivity through many facets of this film. It is full of carefully selected words, music, and dance that index hegemony and dispossession consonant with Black life in the African diaspora. It sees and names the historical and present-day pain, particularly of Black women, but rather than submit to it, resists through the flesh of the performers. This resistance comes through assertive vocals, powerful rhythms, of moving bodies, and music. The enfleshed subjectivity performed in Homecoming invites its audiences—most especially Black women—to step more fully into their own enfleshed subjectivity.

Memory #3: I am a little girl anxiously waiting for my mother to return home from a convention. I finally hear her footsteps on the porch, so I run to her. She comes in and greets me warmly. Before too long she pulls from her bag a “souvenir” for me—a copy of a book whose author spoke at her convention. I am kind of disappointed that there are a lot of words in the book and very few pictures, but I thumb through to find these words from Anna Julia Cooper in the epigraph from 1892:

Only the BLACK WOMAN can say, “when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there … the whole race enters with me.” 40

Like the souvenir from her convention, at a deeper level this article represents a gift from my mother to me. The gift from my mother erupted in my own enfleshed response to both Homecoming and Amazing Grace and their featured stars' powerful performances of enfleshed Black subjectivity. Over our shared lifetime, my mother knit within me the gift of a lens and heart for Black feminist subjectivity.

On that day a long time ago, I opened the package to find the now-classic text When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (1984) by Paula Giddings. Inside the front cover was this note from the author:

To Kim Jordan,

I hope you enjoy this gift from your mother,

and find some meaning in it.

Yours …,

Paula Giddings

NOTES

1.

Amazing Grace, directed by Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack (New York: Neon/40 Acres and a Mule et al., 2018), 89 min.; Homecoming, directed by Beyoncé and Ed Burke (Los Gatos, CA: Netflix, 2019), 137 min.

2.

See Gayl Jones, Corregidora (Boston: Beacon, 1987). I refer to both performers by their first names herein because Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is almost universally known by her first name, and Aretha Franklin, while formally known as such, is colloquially and familiarly called Aretha in many Black communities. My choice intends no disrespect to either, but rather connotes the deep sense of connection and familiarity they both inspire.

3.

Kevin Everod Quashie, Black Women, Identity, and Cultural Theory: (Un)becoming the Subject (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004), quoted in Farah Jasmine Griffin, “That the Mothers May Soar and the Daughters May Know Their Names: A Retrospective of Black Feminist Literary Criticism,” Signs 32, no. 2 (2007): 495.

4.

Homecoming is available by subscription to Netflix, which as of this year has 167 million subscribers worldwide, 60.4 million of whom are in the United States. Joe Flint and Micah Maidenberg, “Netflix Subscriber Growth Falls Short in U.S., but Leaps Abroad,” January 21, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/netflix-misses-its-subscriber-forecast-11579641293. Amazing Grace was originally distributed widely in the United States and abroad in movie theaters, and then briefly to PBS. At the time of this writing, it is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video and Hulu.

5.

Jacqueline Bobo, Black Women as Cultural Readers, Film and Culture Series (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 5–6.

6.

Daphne Brooks, “Afro-Sonic Feminist Praxis: Nina Simone and Adrienne Kennedy in High Fidelity,” in Black Performance Theory, ed. Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 207–8.

7.

Hortense Spillers, “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” in Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 206–7.

8.

Aretha signed her first professional recording contract with Chess Records in 1956. By the time she arrived in Los Angeles to make the film and album that became Amazing Grace, she had recorded fifteen albums, including a two-volume greatest hits collection, on Columbia Records and received five Grammy Awards. Mark Bego, “Discography,” in Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul (New York: Skyhorse, 2012), 357–419. Beyoncé likewise came into the Homecoming recording at the top of her career, having had her first number one song in 1999 with the R&B group Destiny's Child. Her solo career began in 2003. At this writing, Beyoncé has won twenty-two Grammys and holds the distinction of being the female performer most nominated for that award. For discography and Grammy statistics see https://www.grammy.com/grammys/news/who-are-top-grammy-awards-winners-all-time-who-has-most-grammys.

9.

This is the title of the final section of Southern's anthology of writings on blues, cakewalk music, jazz, gospel music, and more. Eileen Southern, ed., Readings in Black American Music, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1983), 212.

10.

On the subject of Africanist understandings of the sacred see Jacob K. Olupona, African Religions: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 1–2, 38; Peter J. Paris, The Spirituality of African Peoples: The Search for a Common Moral Discourse (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 33–34; Bernice Johnson Reagon, “The Songs Are Free,” Bill Moyers Journal, February 1991, http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/11232007/profile3.html.

11.

On the mammy and Jezebel stereotypes see Deborah Gray White, Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South, rev. ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 33, 49–50; Miriam Thaggert, “Divided Images: Black Female Spectatorship and John Stahl's Imitation of Life,” African American Review 32, no. 3 (1998): 487. bell hooks offers foundational scholarship on theories of Black women's spectatorial practices in “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End, 1992; repr., New York: Routledge, 2015), 116–17. Michele Wallace offers the following: “The fact is that there's a gap between what blacks would like to see in movies about themselves and what whites in Hollywood are willing to produce. Instead of serious men and women encountering consequential dilemmas, we're almost always minstrels.” Michele Wallace, “Blues for Mr. Spielberg,” in Invisibility Blues: From Pop to Theory (London: Verso, 1990), 75.

12.

hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze,” 117.

13.

bell hooks, “Introduction,” in Black Looks, 4.

14.

hooks, “Introduction,” in Black Looks, 3–5.

15.

For more on Black liberation theology see James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1975), 108–37.

16.

Barbara Browning theorizes the notion of the fluid body: “The fluidity of the body, literally and choreographically … is about the capacity of the fluid body both to infect, and to heal.” Barbara Browning, “Breast Milk Is Sweet and Salty (A Choreography of Healing),” in Of the Presence of the Body: Essays on Dance and Performance Theory, ed. Andre Lepecki (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004), 97.

17.

Reverend Cecil Franklin quoted in Mark Bego, Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul (New York: Skyhorse, 2012), 121–22.

18.

For more on self-naming and subjectivity see Spillers, “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe,” 208. For more on Aretha Franklin's father, the Reverend C. L. Franklin, see Nick Salvatore, Singing in a Strange Land: C. L. Franklin, the Black Church, and the Transformation of America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006).

19.

Baby Suggs, Holy, is a character in Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Penguin, 1988), 87–89.

20.

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul wrote letters to the church at Corinth telling them that women were to keep silent in the community of faith, not for the sake of silence as a spiritual practice, but to open more space for the voices and authority of men. For example, 1 Corinthians 14.34 (King James Version): “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.” See also 1 Corinthians 11:5–13; Ephesians 5:22; 1 Timothy 2:11–12; 1 Peter 3:1.

21.

George Balanchine (1904–1983) was the cofounder and artistic director of the New York City Ballet. He used this phrase to describe ballet dancers. See Kristy Montee, “Poets of Gesture,” South Florida Sun Sentinel, November 7, 1993, https://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/fl-xpm-1993-11-07-9311050564-story.html.

23.

Kobena Mercer quoted in Daphne Brooks, Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 18501910 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 229. See also Noliwe Rooks, “Wearing Your Race Wrong: Hair, Drama, and a Politics of Representation for African American Women at Play on a Battlefield,” in Recovering the Black Female Body: Self-Representations by African American Women, ed. Michael Bennett and Vanessa D. Dickerson (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001), 279–95.

24.

For more on the politics of Black hair see Brenda Dixon Gottschild, The Black Dancing Body: Geography from Coon to Cool (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 108, 205–18.

25.

The song “Respect” was written and first recorded by Otis Redding in 1965. “Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves” was written by Annie Lennox and David Stewart of the British group The Eurhythmics, and was recorded as a duet by Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox in 1985.

26.

Spillers, “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe,” 228–29.

27.

The biopic of Aretha Franklin's life, titled Respect, has recently concluded filming. Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha, and Tituss Burgess plays the Reverend James Cleveland. As of this writing, it is scheduled to open in a limited run in December 2020 and broader release in January 2021.

28.

Spillers, “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe,” 228–29.

29.

For more on the discourses of Black women's silencing see Wallace, “Blues for Mr. Spielberg,” 74.

30.

Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 44–45.

31.

hooks, “Introduction,” in Black Looks, 1.

32.

For more on the theory of self-naming and subjectivity see Hortense Spillers, “Interstices: A Small Drama of Words,” in Black, White, and in Color, 152–54.

33.

John Miller Chernoff, African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 144.

34.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “We Should All Be Feminists,” Ted Talk, December 2012, https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_we_should_all_be_feminists?language=en.

35.

Nadine George-Graves, Urban Bush Women: Twenty Years of African American Dance Theatre, Community Engagement, and Working It Out (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010), 55.

36.

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar quoted in Ananya Chatterjea, Butting Out: Reading Resistive Choreographies through Works by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Chandralekha (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004), 182.

37.

Both Chatterjea and George-Graves note the significance of this history, and the connection is worth exploring in depth in future projects. Chatterjea, Butting Out, 184–85; George-Graves, Urban Bush Women, 54–59. See also Sander L. Gilman, “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature,” Critical Inquiry 12, no. 1 (1985): 206–18.

38.

Brittney C. Cooper, Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017), Kindle edition, loc. 204.

39.

Beyoncé was the first Black woman to headline Coachella in its nearly two-decade history. Her Destiny's Child reunion at the Homecoming concert was in line with past Coachella patterns of staging high-profile, much-anticipated reunions of bands that have broken up. The Coachella franchise began in 1999 and has become a multimillion-dollar business that takes place annually over two consecutive weekends; a country music festival takes place on another weekend. The general admission price in 2018 was $349 per person for the three-day festival, and tickets sold out in less than an hour. The main Coachella festival features nearly forty performance venues of various sizes. The acts are usually rock and roll, and more recently hip-hop. Read more at http://www.coachella.com/ and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coachella_Valley_Music_and_Arts_Festival.

40.

Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (New York: W. W. Norton, 1984), epigraph.