By Gianluca D’Elia
Many Rider students have witnessed the evolution of Beyoncé over the past decade, from being a member of Destiny’s Child to a now venerated, chart-topping cultural icon. Following the 2016 release of Beyoncé’s elaborate visual album “Lemonade,” students have the opportunity to learn about how her music and image have been shaped by centuries of African-American history.
Kelly Ross, assistant professor of English, said she was inspired to develop this course by a friend from graduate school who taught a course at the University of Texas at San Antonio, in which “Lemonade” was utilized to explore black feminist theory. Ross was also motivated by a crowd-sourced “Lemonade” syllabus that she found online.
“I love that people beyond the traditional classroom space are excited about collaborating on syllabi that focus on ideas, artists, thinkers and writers who have been underrepresented on college syllabi,” Ross said. “I’m excited to teach at a school that allows professors the freedom to be creative and unconventional in our course design.”
“American Studies has always been interdisciplinary,” said Jack Sullivan, chair of the English department. “It’s important to look at contemporary writers, artists and musicians — not just because it speaks to millennials, but because students need things from the past. In a field like literature or music, it’s important to discover what’s significant about what’s happening right now.”
Sullivan said that music and literature have always been intertwined, and universities around the U.S. have started to teach more English courses that examine music as poetry, and the composer as a poet.
“English is becoming more expansive, but it’s not leaving literature behind,” he said. “We’re just adding more texture to it.”
Though a course with Beyoncé in its title may seem unconventional, Ross stressed the importance of Beyoncé’s work in American culture.
“Throughout her career, Beyoncé has been deeply insightful about black girlhood, black womanhood, black femininity,” Ross explained. “She has crafted a persona that places black women’s experiences at the forefront of pop culture. ‘Lemonade’ is her masterpiece.
“Her success, her fame, and her legion of devoted fans — the Beyhive — have given her the freedom to take risks with her art,” she continued. “I think the more successful she becomes, the more creative control she has, and she’s using that autonomy to make rich, challenging, substantive art.”
The 300-level American Studies course, titled “Poetry and Poetics in American Culture: Tracing Beyoncé’s Roots,” aims to explore Beyoncé’s origins in African-American literature. Whether it is Rita Dove’s thinking on marriage and motherhood, Gwendolyn Brooks voicing the experiences of black girls coming of age, or Nikki Giovanni articulating “family love so fierce it can become oppressive,” Ross said black female authors of the late 20th century struggled with the same issues that Beyoncé addresses nowadays.
Ross said Beyoncé’s aesthetic visions are often linked to traditional African-American poetry. The themes in “Lemonade” reminded her of poet Countee Cullen’s sonnet, “Yet Do I Marvel,” which ends with the couplet: “Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: to make a poet black, and bid him sing!”
“The ‘curious thing’ in those lines is often misinterpreted as ‘a black poet,’” Ross explained. “In context, the poem indicates that the ‘curious thing’ is asking a black poet to ‘sing’ — that is, to make beautiful art of his experience — rather than to rage or scream or weep. I see that tension in ‘Lemonade’ — Beyoncé’s artistry and aesthetic vision, her pop sensibilities and her incredible voice, pushing up against the rage and fear and sadness that she is expressing. That conflict characterizes a great deal of African-American poetry, so I think we’ll have a lot of productive work to do tracing those connections.”
“Lemonade” is a particularly important album that stands out from the rest of Beyoncé’s discography because it “is vulnerable, raw, angry and introspective, yet it is also aesthetically innovative, complex and nuanced,” Ross said.
Sharing her goals for students, Ross said, “I hope my students will meet me at that point where the past and future merge, so that we can think about the rich tradition of African-American poetry that has influenced ‘Lemonade,’ as well as speculate about how ‘Lemonade’ will affect future conversations about race, gender and poetry.”
Printed in the 3/29/17 edition.