Gothic Horror & Iconic Southern Style Through a Southern California Lens: Beyonce’s “Formation” ‘Slays’

When looking at Beyonce’s “Formation,” keep in mind migration. Sometimes the best way to get a handle on a situation is to change geographic location.

In “Formation,” Beyonce’s epic video, we see an ode to a people’s relationship to both the land and the American cultural politics of geography. Mood? Dark. Chic. Magic. The video was released the weekend of Super Bowl 50, a contest pitting the Panthers against the Broncos. This video appears early in 2016, when echoes of American activism sift through layers of soundbites and marketing ploys.

Part of the conceit of “Formation” is a commentary on American cultural politics. The video was not shot in the South, but in California. Perhaps this suggests that when the subject of commentary is systemic structural inequality, the vastness of Los Angeles, with a nod to Hollywood’s Gothic Westerns, provides an artistic safe space for exploration and creation.

“Formation” collapses history by reinterpreting Southern life. With copious references to historic events in African American culture and the human will to survive, this video provides echoes of a traumatic past merged with the promise of a future. Today’s struggles, whether for clean water, as in #Flint, or the struggle to thrive, spotlighted by #BlackLivesMatter, are part of the tapestry of “Formation”.

Beyonce Political Philosophy 101

After watching Beyonce’s “formation” video, I wondered: What local institutions exist to protect minorities from those in power who do not prioritize the needs of the vulnerable? What colleges and universities (besides Virginia Tech) work in tandem with local governments to safeguard the public trust? Note the existing controversy about the failure of local academic institutions to intervene in the Flint, MI water crisis.

Beyonce brings her brand of feminism to the world and graduate women’s studies classrooms flip out. Women’s studies departments are debate-grounds for discussing feminist vs. womanist discourse during a time when the “vs.” part should be ignored in favor of solidarity. During a time in America’s history when the potential exists for voters to elect the first female President of the United States, controversy abounds as to why more Millennial women do not appear to be behind Hillary Clinton. Are traditional Second Wave Feminists counting on feminism to save Hillary Clinton? If the answer is yes, then someone better call Beyonce — or at least one of her squad — because feminism has changed since the rise of the Millennials.

Politicians on both sides of the political spectrum may have trouble negotiating with various diverse constituents including democratic socialists, liberals, fiscal conservatives, feminists, womanists, and POCs. But Beyonce’s-style of feminism resonates with many youth. But how well does it resonate with traditional Second Wave Feminists? This question is purely hypothetical and meant to illustrate a potential cultural gap that could have significant implications this presidential election season.

I personally know how hard it is to be a feminist, a womanist, and a female person of color. Although I rarely see my perspectives reflected in public policy or political discourse, I’m still an avid consumer of news and public policy “White Papers”.

Public policy decisions that impact people’s relationship to infrastructure concern me most. The tale’s been told before: the citizens of Katrina, the citizens of Flint, the citizens of Southern West Virginia: Poor people, at the mercy of public policy makers, risking lives to stay afloat, and to avoid tainted water.

One cannot help but grieve, whether the grieving comes filtered through the lens of womanism or feminism.

More About The Video

Arresting imagery from daily life in New Orleans is the focal point of “Formation”. We see Beyonce resting atop a sinking police car wearing a red-and-white gown, maintaining characteristic poise despite (in spite of) her precarious position. The scene dramatizes the relationship between nature, the State, and the black body. Always precarious. A water-logged police car slowly, slowly becoming indistinguishable from the muck. Thus, it begins.

Beyonce and Squad as Cultural Creatives

Another part of this video shifts the focus to domestic life and features antebellum architecture. Yet, Beyonce and her team shot the video in Southern California, not in the U.S. South. Beyonce’s team scouted the Fenye’s Mansion in Pasadena for the “Formation” mansion. Without giving too much away (although the link about Beyonce’s crew visiting the Fenye’s Mansion provides some details), the production team’s attention to history, and to re-creating and re-interpreting the past, deserves commendation. This is Beyonce, the artist with a team of cultural producers, creating art, re-interpreting history, making history.

There’s a scene featuring Beyonce that also made me think of black-and-white photographs I have seen of the late painter Georgia O’Keefe who said, “To create one’s own world takes courage”. The word courage, typically associated with militarized tales of valor and bravery, takes on new meaning when applied to people of the Diaspora. Survivors feature prominently in “Formation” with all of the trials and tribulations. Despite the treachery of policy-makers and the betrayal of infrastructure, people survive to build new worlds.

Could Beyonce’s “Formation” be the beginning of a healing?



Want to Create a Safer World? Create a Safer Classroom

Recent events in Mali, Paris, Beirut, and Nigeria focus our attention on the problem of extreme brutality perpetrated against innocents. As politicians debate policy proposals for dealing with terrorism abroad, scholars, community leaders, and students should not forget the importance of creating a culture of care in the classroom. 

Mainstream media seems to have forgotten about the South Carolina teen girl who suffered mistreatment and humiliation in front of her peers and her male teacher in a classroom. 

Also forgotten — the Texas teen attacked after leaving a pool party. The latter incident did not occur in a school setting, however the incident was witnessed by the girl’s peers and adults, including males.

It is important to revisit the space of the classroom where kids interact and form relationships that exist both inside and outside of the institution. Does the classroom space as a site of safety fit into the American narrative of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

Educators and policy makers may reflect on how students’ affective classroom experiences impact their life choices. 

Research questions:

  1. How does witnessing violence in a school setting impact young people’s vocational and avocational choices? 
  2. Are kids who witness abuse of other kids in school more likely to choose authoritative jobs, or uninvolved   jobs (meaning jobs where they do not typically engage in boundary-setting with peers and subordinates)?
  3. Is someone who witnessed classroom violence more likely to become a leader or a follower?

Internet Freedom Situated within a Brazilian Frame of Reference

In her book, Sorcery of Color: Identity, Race, and Gender in Brazil, author Elisa Larkin Nascimento suggests it is crisis that sets the stage for social change. Nascimento writes, “While criticism induces the articulation of paradigms, it is crisis – criticism made tangible by social agents and movements and their impact – that creates the impulse for change in society and cultural movements” (13). Nascimento’s words set the context for my proposition, that a discussion of Internet Freedom is a discussion about crisis. Another template for a discussion on “Internet Freedom” is 1930s Great Depression-Era Brazil, which positioned cabaret and carnivale culture as an antidote to the alienation experienced by marginalized groups. The Internet is not unlike the commonplace of the 1930s Brazilian Lapa neighborhood with its proliferation of cabaret, carnivale, and spectacle in the midst of social turmoil.

The cabaret provided an alternative to alienating societal institutions of the time that excluded individuals based on class and other factors including sexuality and colorsim. Using the past to reflect upon the present, I see the Internet as an antidote to forms of social exclusion with neutrality being the mainstay of the Internet.

Questions we who are concerned about “Internet Freedom” may ask include:

  1. How is the Internet a political tool?
  2. To what extent is the Internet a politicized discourse?

I see the Internet as an effective tool for democratizing humanitarian action. Through the Internet, we send aid to victims of natural disasters. Twitter provides updates on news out of Ferguson, MO. Although the Internet reveals the best and the worst of humanity, what remains unclear is the extent to which the Internet can transmit acts of beneficence and reciprocity for diverse groups of people, and individuals. We must keep the Internet free and neutral in order to explore the limits of human potential.

Work Cited

Nascimento, Elisa Larkin. Sorcery of Color: Identity, Race, and Gender in Brazil. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007.

Social Media as Medium for a Message about the Environment: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle


Climate change, peak oil, reduce, reuse, recycle, simple living, these terms that I grew up hearing as a kid in West Virginia and Ohio are still relevant, today.

Research out of Great Britain shows, shows that a strategy of less consumption is associated with basic grassroots environmentalism (Whitmarsh, 2009). Researchers in Japan found that when newspapers focused more attention on environmental news, the public paid more attention to environmental initiatives. However, how best to inform the public about the topic of climate change is an area that needs more research.

Independent non-profits such as the legendary Greenpeace, and the new Organizing for Action, use social media and special events to raise public awareness about climate change.

One hypothesis may be that social media is replacing newspapers as the medium whereby most people receive information about the topic of climate change.

Social media seems to provide the kind of immediacy on the topic of climate change that traditional print media does not provide and therefore offers a fast method for getting out the message. The Tweet below from OFA demonstrates the phenomenon of issue-oriented Tweeting:



Sampei, Y., & Aoyagi-Usui, M. (2009). Mass-media coverage, its influence on public awareness of climate-change issues, and implications for Japan’s national campaign to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Global Environmental Change, 19(2), 203-212.

Whitmarsh, L. (2009). Behavioural responses to climate change: Asymmetry of intentions and impacts. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 29(1), 13-23.

Should you have additional questions about climate change and social media, contact researcher, Gail Taylor. OFAction Summer Fellow.

Studying World Politics with Undergraduates: A Life-Changing Experience

What can be gained by teaching first-year university writing courses to traditionally-aged undergraduates? A deeper appreciation for the way teenagers see the world. No matter how much knowledge I attain through continuing study and travel, seeing the world through the eyes of 17-to-19-year-olds is a rare treat and a never-ending journey of amusement, wonder, and expectation.

When I think of undergraduate writing students, many of whom are multi-lingual, and bi-cultural, I think of the tremendous amount of effort the students put into sharpening their skills of observation, question-asking, and analysis. For example, one semester, I asked my students to consider the world events known as The Arab Spring. Most of the students were familiar with the tremendous changes happening abroad. Most got their information through traditional news channels. Many were also familiar with social media. Some wondered about the connection between social media and, what was commonly called, The Egyptian Revolution.

After reading Wael Ghonim’s book, Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People is Greater than the People in Power, and engaging in discussion and writing assignments, students engaged the question of the degree to which existing social structures facilitated information-sharing regarding the political situation in Egypt, vs. the degree to which social media facilitated the sharing of information. Then, students were given the task of conducting research on this question. They broke into teams and each team created a group annotated bibliography addressing this question, and other discoveries pertaining to the topic.

For the students, this was an exercise in critical thinking and an opportunity for them to hone valuable analytical skills. For instance, the students had to learn how to navigate the library. To help them gain a foothold, I arranged for the research librarian to meet with the students. They learned the basics of conducting research, and they learned the difference between a peer-reviewed journal article and a general-interest newspaper article. The students sharpened their literacy skills by learning how to critically read and analyze a journal article looking for assertions, evidence, and commentary. Students further analyzed the claims of articles to see how facts were supported. 

This annotated bibliography assignment, which took about two weeks, was but one assignment of several designed to get students familiar with academic scholarship, and to welcome them into the community of scholars. A key component was self-reflexivity, meaning, I asked the students to reflect on their own experiences with social media, and the world at large. Surprisingly, several said that they refrained from using sites such Twitter and Facebook. When I asked why, they stated that the sites detracted from the quality of time spent with friends and family in real-time. This changed my perception of youth and new media. Previously, I assumed that most teens were active users of social media. I had to adjust my assumptions and question what led me to believe the stereotype of teens always connected to technology. 

The end result of this foray into critical thinking, media, research, and world politics was a combined annotated bibliography that all of the students could read since I placed their work on the e-learning platform Blackboard.

Through this group annotated bibliography project, my students learned to work as a team and they saw themselves as creators and disseminators of not only information, but also knowledge.

I am especially proud of the fact the students tackled this tough assignment together. Over the years that i have taught introductory writing courses, I have noticed more and more students who are majoring in the sciences, or business, as opposed to the arts and humanities. I am not sure if this is the case, in general, or if it is a regional trend. What I find interesting is that the process of collaboration is one that is generally accepted in the sciences, but marginally recognized in the humanities. Therefore, I take pride in this annotated bibliography project. I endeavor to demonstrate symbiosis between disciplines.