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Causing Conversation: Civil War Memory in Beyoncé’s “Formation”

By Annika Jensen ’18

Not only did Beyoncé slay in her latest music video, but she got historical. Her single “Formation” touches on feminism, oppression, sexuality, and police brutality, and her video offers a visual representation for the overall theme of African American cultural ownership. It is, of course, an essential message for contemporary discussion, and the formerly-silenced subject is beginning to achieve prevalence in the music industry, but there is something special and bold about Beyoncé’s take on race: by appealing to Civil War memory and forcing viewers to accept the African American struggle for life, freedom, and success, she is shattering perceptions of one of our country’s most popular areas of historical study. What’s more? She’s a woman.

In some scenes, the iconic singer reconnects with her Southern roots by appearing in a Civil War era Southern-style parlor with other women of color, all sporting opulent Victorian clothing. In another, she stands clad in black outside what appears to be a large plantation home and, in an act of rebellion, flips off the camera. These historical allusions certainly create a powerful image of African American social progression, but they also present a more subtle message about the memory of slavery and the Civil War. Beyoncé is denying any attempt to erase her from our history while presenting the complexity of black lives during the Victorian era. She carefully lays out the connotations of black and white, of woman and man, and of power and submission.

Beyoncé gets historical in her latest music video. Photograph via Billboard.com.

What unites the historical scenes in the “Formation” video is power. Inside the mansion or plantation home, Beyoncé is dressed in ornate clothing and presents herself with dignity, demonstrating poise in her perfect posture and flowing hand movements. Aesthetically, she is the image of southern beauty, but she also has an air of domination. Traditionally, women would be considered inferior to men in the Civil War Era South, and women of color especially would be viewed through the lens of slavery, many being subject to sexual abuse and rape by their male owners. However, there are no men in the parlor scenes, only Beyoncé and a number of other well-dressed African American women, and the video certainly insinuates that they are neither owned nor abused by whiteness. The power being demonstrated in these scenes is internal; Beyoncé is not actively speaking or acting out against white oppression, but she is asserting her social dominance by commanding a presence as the head of a household and establishing black excellence. She is proving to her viewers that the African American woman in the Civil War Era is not to be interpreted as weak or insignificant; instead, her memory and identity should be respected. Additionally, Beyoncé’s daughter, Blue Ivy, appears with two other African American girls, all in flowing dresses with natural hair, an example of cultural ownership and refusal of assimilation. Their excited, energetic movement attests to the freedom they exercise over themselves, another illustration of internal power.

Power is also evident in the scenes outside the plantation home, but it is an external power; these scenes are more overtly defiant. The most obvious difference is that Beyoncé is dressed in black rather than cream-colored garments as was seen inside the house, evincing a clear motif of black pride and representing a departure from the proper. She stands before a group of African American men not only to show camaraderie within her race but to demonstrate female empowerment. Once again, this juxtaposes the traditional view of African American women in the South—particularly slave women—who are often portrayed as objects at the hands of their masters. Beyoncé does not hold back; she is not dressed conservatively, nor does she act politely because her power stems from frustration and a need for more competent historical understanding. It is my belief that Beyoncé is, quite frankly, sick and tired of misinterpretation and ignorance all together.

Beyoncé thus presents a Civil War Era history that emphasizes black empowerment rather than victimization or blame. She is reminiscent of the female insurrectionists of the South, former slave women who defied the peculiar institution after the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation and endured the struggle of fugitive status to escape to freedom. While former male slaves were able to escape by working or fighting for the Union army, women lacked this advantage and were thus presented with a greater challenge. Thus, Beyoncé’s message incorporates feminism and the steadfastness of African American women in the South.

However, the overall takeaway that Queen Bey encourages is that the traditional presentation of African Americans in the South skews the way an entire race is viewed through a historical lense; while the study of the Civil War era focuses most heavily on slavery, Beyoncé is demanding a reform of the image of blackness. Through demonstrations of internal and external power, the singer expresses her frustrations and encourages African Americans, particularly women, to be empowered and work together through various emotions—anger, frustration, resentment—to establish and claim their identity.

The implications of Beyoncé’s contemporary commentary of the Civil War Era are huge; though she has received backlash and scorn over her politicization of the Super Bowl 50 halftime show, her daring and colorful messages visible in “Formation” bring light to historical issues that have residual effects. She is bringing formerly-silenced racial questions into the public sphere. And, of course, she is making excellent music.

Keep slaying, Queen Bey.


 

Sources:

Downs, Jim. “”Say My Name:” The History Behind Beyonce’s “Formation”” We’re History. February 10, 2016.

Glymph, Thavolia. “Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction and Slave Women’s War for Freedom.” South Atlantic Quarterly 112, no. 3 (Summer 2013): 489-505. America: History and Life.

“SOUTHERN CUSTOMS – A Mr. Houston, of Darien, Ga., Had His S…” Frederick Douglass’ Paper (Rochester, NY), September 3, 1852. Accessible Archives.

42 comments on “Causing Conversation: Civil War Memory in Beyoncé’s “Formation”

  1. mrheart408
    March 17, 2016

    Awesome!!!

  2. Pingback: Civil War Memory in Beyoncé’s “Formation” – Friends For Life By Bhat Umar

  3. The British Asian Blog
    March 17, 2016

    You’ve nailed it in this post – excellent.

  4. marche10
    March 17, 2016

    Ho

  5. ADK Akshay Kedia
    March 17, 2016

    Wow

  6. clstanton11
    March 17, 2016

    Bravo

  7. funwithbloging
    March 17, 2016

    Well written

  8. charlestonguide1
    March 17, 2016

    What compelling research and content. Expertly written too. Thank you

  9. Pingback: Civil War Memory in Beyoncé’s “Formation” – kaykay4blog

  10. Pingback: Civil War Memory in Beyoncé’s “Formation” – rynelemardis

  11. Make it count.
    March 18, 2016

    The content is great!

  12. Pingback: Civil War Memory in Beyoncé’s “Formation” | reputation4ublog

  13. Alexis
    March 18, 2016

    I don’t agree with you on all the points, but excellent writing. I don’t need to agree with you on everything to note that much. Keep it up.😉

  14. justloafing
    March 18, 2016

    Really excellent analysis.

  15. jesuslover300
    March 18, 2016

    Wow

  16. heidiblakebeauty
    March 18, 2016

    This is wonderful. This video and song are the epitome of of southern lady charm. Demure and (somewhat) subtle but hiding a right hook which hits you at the end.

  17. Wilson
    March 18, 2016

    beyonce is a millionaire and married to JayZ who made money off a song where he had 99 problems but a bitch aint one.

  18. anonymiss
    March 19, 2016

    Whoaaa

  19. The Black Panther
    March 19, 2016

    Reblogged this on theuglyworldwelivein and commented:
    I Loved This.

  20. Samantha James
    March 19, 2016

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    Beyonce’ makes #feminism a new trend, along side #civilrights

  21. yaritzaivette
    March 19, 2016

    Excellently written. You’re historical, gender, and racial analysis definitely slayed!

  22. Pingback: Civil War Memory in Beyoncé’s “Formation” – Asia Kyreé

  23. poems of life
    March 19, 2016

    Good one

  24. James Parkley
    March 20, 2016

    If anyone slayed, it’s the author of this incredible piece of literature. It’s definitely one of the most complex and in depth compositions that I’ve been fortunate to read on the topic. I’ll be having to share this with some others. Cheers! 🙌🏽

  25. Megan
    March 20, 2016

    A lot to digest, yet a lot to be twisted and turned into something it may not have even been. Nowadays, when I see famous artist pulling a stunt like this, is only to get more attention. There is no denying what white people did to black people or as a matter of fact to the rest of the world, should not be forgotten. And our generation needs to be reminded of history every now and then. Overall the outcome of that video, did remind us of what we had to put up in the past.

  26. Medina
    March 20, 2016

    excellent argument

  27. Meenah Inspira Blog
    March 20, 2016

    Nice 1

  28. Violet Gerard
    March 20, 2016

    Awesome Post!

  29. mslally9
    March 20, 2016

    Love it! Music and socio-cultural awareness is directly correlated to music. More power to Kendrick, J.Cole and Bey.

  30. Pingback: Civil War Memory in Beyoncé’s “Formation” – fatynzainuddinyahoocom

  31. moreminimalism
    March 22, 2016

    Really great response, enjoyed reading x

  32. scwilli5
    March 23, 2016

    Great read!

  33. cookiecutterslayer
    March 24, 2016

    I loved this

  34. Pingback: Civil War Memory in Beyoncé’s “Formation” | preshmainment.com

  35. abichica
    March 25, 2016

    I really loved reading this. I loved the subtle messages in the video, and i definitely love the song itsself. Beyonce has long been a feminist and fighter for girl power.. Like with “Run the world” and “Grown Woman”… I love all her songs

  36. iliveon10
    March 25, 2016

    Interesting points. I think her video was meant to generate this type of discussion and like all art, it’s meaning will vary by each interpreter. Nicely written.

  37. honestiv
    March 27, 2016

    Excellent interpretation!

  38. Pingback: Causing Conversation: Civil War Memory in Beyoncé’s “Formation” — The Gettysburg Compiler – barlowgenius

  39. leandraitoblog
    April 14, 2016

    Reblogged this on Leandra ito.

  40. fullofknowledge
    May 30, 2016

    I can’t say enough great things about this wonderfully written post!! Well written, this gives the readers a clear understanding of Beyoncés message!!!

  41. Pingback: A wonderfully Written Blog (Beyoncé Formation – womanwellrounded

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This entry was posted on March 9, 2016 by in Current Events and tagged , , , , , , , , .

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