Young, Gifted and Black on Abundant Display in Beyoncé’s ‘Homecoming’
There are a million ways to resurrect what has been buried, to restore life. In Homecoming, Beyoncé acts as a conduit for all of them, while also making a modern-day visual quilt of stunning kinetic power to match some of the most well-known hits of her 22-year-career. The title itself, to the unfamiliar and uninitiated, may seem like a misnomer. For approximately six years, she’s been springing new iterations of her evolving self on us. Her most loyal fans, the Beyhive, have become familiar with this ability of hers. But by now, popular culture has also adjusted. It never gets old, it only becomes more soothing, just like home.
We know, by the time we come to the opening of Homecoming–pale desert, cumulus clouds and the faint sound of a smartphone-filled Coachella crowd–that Beyoncé is her own home, her own resting place. Her own source of self-regard, as the great Toni Morrison would say. So when Morrison’s words, in black and white, read: “If you surrender to the air, you can ride it,” it grounds us quickly in what it means for Beyoncé to become the first Black woman to headline this very white festival.
Her Sacred Inner Life
Beyoncé is the greatest entertainer of our era and one of the quietest, most silent workers in the game. But she’s a lot of other things, including a scholar. She doesn’t talk about it; she is about it. Her references make evident her awareness and respect for history. She wields silence strategically, working behind the scenes until she’s ready for you to see what she’s been doing. This, along with other methods evident in Homecoming, connects her to a tradition of Black women guarding our sacred inner lives–what historian Darlene Clark Hine calls a “culture of dissemblance.”
In the Reconstruction Era, the Historically Black Colleges and Universities to which Beyoncé pays homage directly in Homecoming offered alternatives to Black people in the South who had no other outlet for edifying themselves spiritually and intellectually. Black women perfected the art of protecting their inner lives through performing personae of intimacy and vulnerability. The damage slavery wrought to our spirits, bodies and position in American popular culture meant the broader world considered us worthless.
But we reclaimed our value and worth through the important, necessary alchemy of consorting with and among ourselves to transform ugly stereotypes. We would never be protected like white women, or valued in the same way, but we had ourselves. We had one another.
“Without community, there is no liberation,” Audre Lorde said.
“The most disrespected woman in America is the Black woman,” Malcolm X said.
A Modern-Day Nefertiti
The truths that unfurl in “Homecoming” flip what most people thought they knew about Black Girl Magic into a two-hour spectacle of reunion pageantry, Black Boy Joy intersecting with a Texas Bamma steeped in the glory of her abundant, glorious Black womanness.
Throughout the athletic and awe-inspiring performances that make up Homecoming, Beyoncé as always, does multiple things at once. She channels a spiritual clinic on how to birth one’s singular vision while also allowing us, as viewers, to project our dreams onto her everywoman canvas. She signifies with subversive and overt joy, refracting and projecting light that’s illuminated by a pulsing, alive darkness.
Beyoncé summons us in Homecoming to witness an intimate-looking, vulnerable and considered return to herself. This, she tells us, is her homecoming, too. We feel that without her having to say a word as the show begins. A Black woman drummer commands the camera’s attention with a ferocity that every living being on the stage will soon match. A modern-day Nefertiti saunters her way to her pyramid of vibrantly clad dancers, singers and a Black orchestra, a swelling, uproarious band that aptly represents the pinnacle of swag.
An abundant display of what it means in 2019 to be young, gifted and Black follows immediately. Black women of various shapes and talents, some in Sphinx-printed half bodysuits, dance their asses off. The Country Bamma Beyoncé emerges in her own embossed, glittering jersey, complete with cut-off shorts, flesh-colored fishnets and boots outfitted with resplendent sparkle.
The male members of the orchestra help her make it closer to our level and that of her audience. There’s a little of “Crazy in Love,” which transitions into “Freedom.” During this shift from the liberating present to the more difficult past, Homecoming gets a little political and somber when Beyoncé sings the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” That meditative, powerful moment segues into “Formation.” Now the real party can begin.
Exactly What Black Culture Needs
A Black Cinderella tale follows. It skips over the servitude and drama of bickering publicly with her haters to a Queen that’s morphed straight from princess status in Destiny’s Child. The documentary allows us to hear the how and why of this transformation through the voices of Nina Simone, Maya Angelou, Tessa Thompson, and Danai Gurira. They explain on their behalf, and hers, all the sacrifices and underlying motivations of Black women that otherwise go unnoticed.
“Life was my teacher,” Beyoncé says, narrating some of the grueling eight months of rehearsals. She dreamed of going to an HBCU, like her father did, but traveling the world and building a career was her college degree. We are the better for it, as a culture, that she marries education with an unparalleled inclusivity on stage.
“I wanted every person who has ever been dismissed because of what they look like to see themselves on that stage,” she says.
If they don’t see themselves there, it’s not because she hasn’t chosen the proper avatars. In Homecoming we welcome Beyoncé back, not for her sake (she’s good, love, enjoy) but for our own psyches. She’s not the voluptuous Black Barbie that our society would place in a little box, but a fully-formed, empowered and complex version of herself. She’s everything she has ever needed and she knows she’s exactly what Black culture needs, too.
She’s always been on, she’s always been here, as she reminds us to a very country, screwed-up beat. As director and conduit of a global African diaspora on a traditionally white stage, she also controls a shift in the lens from the questions of her personal business to elaborate iterations of Black Boy Joy. Le Twins and other Black male dancers summon the kind of maneuvers that HBCU graduates may be accustomed to, but the rest of us will see as Beyoncé frames it as just “limitless swag.”
The same, of course, goes for the abundant levels of Black Girl Magic at work. She flirts with a few lines from what must be some of her favorites in her catalog while returning to “Flawless” in spirit and in lyrics throughout her athletic sets.
When her orchestra appears broken and lifeless, “Drunk in Love” animates them again. Beyoncé, a Phoenix from the ashes, rises above the crowd on a crane, gyrating in her booty shorts with a harness attached, as though everyone below her wouldn’t risk their lives to break her fall should the opportunity arise.
Society often considers Black women the afterthought instead of the default when we rise. Not so in “Homecoming.” Through transforming Coachella into Beychella, Beyoncé conjures a new world, one in which Black womanhood in all its grit and splendor demands renewed, replenishing respect.
Wife, Mother, Queen
Lest we forget that she’s a wife and mother, devoted to her husband, she offers her body as a sacrifice that has to be taken care of for them while explaining that she suffered pregnancy complications that affect Black maternity disproportionately all over the country, culminating in an emergency C-section.
In the past it ‘s been somewhat awkward to watch Beyoncé blaze, an abundance of material glittering, her skin shimmering in place of more material, juxtaposed against the flattened Brooklyn sounds and sights of Jay-Z raps. Her unfolding, though, is his too in “Homecoming.” Undoing toxic masculinity liberates men trapped by its dehumanizing mores.
Jay-Z cheers on his wife, the mother of his children, when manages to fit into her old outfit sacrificing carbs, meat (not even fish!), dairy and alcohol in favor of The Work. He rubs her belly after muscle spasms. He stands on the sidelines with the talented Blue Ivy, his consistent poker face unchanged but for the chewing of gum.
By the time he appears for a coy, sweet performance of “Déjà Vu,” we understand that she’s always included him. He is not so much a guest appearance as a familiar inevitability, especially since throughout the film, Beyoncé references his music and blends it into her discography seamlessly.
When she welcomes Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams in the third act of this tour de force, she reminds us how much she loves her family. Should you be in need of inspiration at any time, fast forward to Solange’s jubilant run toward her big sister onstage from the wings during “Get Me Bodied.” Immersed in what would usually be an impromptu shaking loose of worry, fear, and pain in front of a mirror at home, holding brushes or combs as fake microphones, Solange and Beyoncé truly dance like no one is watching them, elevating their jubilation to a high art, inviting all of us in.
In modern memory, who’s hired this many young black people, instructing them and leading them back to themselves? What legacy has been built like this before? Trauma and pain and drama unfolds for the Black in this moment. But there’s also more to us than just any darkness.
A darkness does appear in Bey’s raincoat, which evokes Missy Elliott’s in her early videos. Except this one has a matching garter belt to hold up matching black patent leather boots imprinted with a rainbow. The outro as the credits roll gives us snippets of more behind-the-scenes footage during a welcome remix of “Before I Let Go.” You get the sense that Beyoncé has come home to herself, this one last time, but the truth is she never really left. The question is, what will she do next?