Publication Date

July 26, 2023

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily, Perspectives Summer Columns


  • United States


African American, Cultural

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a two-part column. The second installment can be found here.

A Black woman stands in front of a white-columned, ivy-covered antebellum plantation house. The deep charcoal color of her floor-length gown is mirrored by the color of a wide-brimmed hat that partially obscures her face. Her body is centered at the bottom of the porch steps where she stands square and resolute, exuding control. To her right and left, several Black men dressed in clothing reminiscent of bygone eras appear to stand guard. The set of her shoulders, her planted feet, the way her body is centered in front of the building all make the viewer keenly aware that this woman is the owner of this house. Perhaps it belonged to someone else long ago, but it is hers now.

A Black woman wearing a black hat that covers the top half of her face, dark purple lipstick, her hair in two braids, and many silver chunky necklaces stacked from the top of her neck to her chest. She is standing between two Black men staring ahead.

“Formation” includes a now-iconic image. Beyoncé, “Formation,” Lemonade(2016)

This snapshot, one of the opening images from Beyoncé’s 2016 music video “Formation,” is one of many scenes in the video that take place in an antebellum-style setting, juxtaposed with depictions of modern Black life in post-Katrina New Orleans. For a music video that pays homage to the beauty of the Black South and shines a light on racial injustice and police brutality, the plantation setting plays an important, if unexpected, role. Rather than portraying the Black inhabitants of this antebellum house in positions of subjugation, Beyoncé recasts them as its rightful heirs and owners. Though compelling, these creative choices are not merely an artistic rendering of an alternate vision of the past. They also echo the many ways that post–Civil War Black Americans used the home as a site of self-affirmation and kinship and a safe haven from a hostile world.

An enduring practice in Black homeplace making is cultivating an aesthetic environment that reflects the desires of the home’s inhabitants. In one of “Formation’s” repeated vignettes, a group of Black women are seen enjoying each other’s company in an ornately furnished parlor. They sit or stand in various poses of rest and relaxation, each wearing a tailored gown in varying shades of ivory. The way they embody this space disrupts the confining image of the domestic enslaved woman of the 19th century or even the Black female domestic servant of the 20th century. This portrayal of Black female domestic luxury echoes the ambitions of formerly enslaved women who saw material comforts as integral to the realization of their freedom. Historian Thavolia Glymph has recorded the experiences of freedwomen like Jane McLeod Wilborn, who used her first earnings to purchase quilts, pillows, and other goods to beautify her home. One of the primary characteristics of enslaved life was material deprivation. And enslaved people were keenly aware of the contrast between the meagerness of their own dwellings and the comforts enjoyed by their enslavers. Even with limited resources and time, enslaved women often took pains to improve the aesthetics of their dwellings, hanging pictures on the walls or growing flowers in front of their cabins. In freedom, Black women continued and expanded this practice of adorning their homes with the best decorative items that they could afford. These seemingly small acts of beautification brought joy and pride to newly freed Black families and helped them to assert their personhood.

This portrayal of Black female domestic luxury echoes the ambitions of formerly enslaved women.

Another essential facet of the Black homeplace is the fostering of Black community. “Formation” exemplifies this theme in its depiction of the Black home as a site of multigenerational family life. During a scene where Beyoncé dances alongside several other Black women, the viewer periodically glimpses paintings of Black and African men and women—an apparent nod to the singer’s own ancestry. Later, the lens shifts from ancestors to the next generation inhabiting the same space. On the line “I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros,” the camera pans over three Black girls (including Beyoncé’s daughter, Blue Ivy) smiling and playing joyfully in the house. The historical resonance here is as poignant as it is pivotal. Family separation and the theft of childhood were among the most devastating impacts of chattel slavery that Black families actively resisted. Harriet Jacobs famously went to great lengths to shield her children from the dehumanizing life of enslavement that she had endured. After running away from her enslaver, Jacobs hid in a tiny crawl space above her grandmother’s house for seven years. Though the separation from her children took an extreme physical and emotional toll on Jacobs, her sacrifices allowed her to plan a future where she would eventually be reunited with her children on free soil. The joyful and carefree Black children depicted in the music video are a vivid manifestation of their ancestors’ dreams, not just of freedom but of the togetherness that Black families so assiduously sought.

The joyful and carefree Black children depicted in the music video are a vivid manifestation of their ancestors’ dreams.

As the music video draws to close, the camera once again pans over Beyoncé standing outside the house—only now she tips her hat back, makes eye contact with the camera, mimes holding money, and intones “best revenge is your paper.” These final lyrics hint at what the viewer was led to suspect from the beginning: she doesn’t just own this house; she has laid claim to it as an act of restitution. This layer of storytelling, too, has a fascinating antecedent in the 19th-century Black experience. Robert Smalls, born enslaved in South Carolina in the 1830s, became famous for his daring escape from slavery and his bravery on behalf of the Union Army. Perhaps less well known is a later part of his story. Upon learning that the house of his former enslaver was going to be auctioned off, Smalls returned to South Carolina and placed the winning bid. As its new owner, Smalls hosted gatherings for family and friends, people who just months before would have entered the house under conditions of bondage. In purchasing this particular house, Smalls claimed what had been a site of separation and sorrow and refashioned it as a place of kinship and collectivity.

“Formation” accomplishes a similar feat. By positioning the Black characters as owners and occupiers of an antebellum house, Beyoncé and her creative team masterfully subvert the viewer’s expectations and take us on a critical imaginative journey. “Formation” co-opts a place emblematic of Black oppression and asks the viewer to see it, and its Black inhabitants, in a new light. It is worth returning to this piece of art to remember and reflect how, even amid persecution, Black Americans have always cultivated spaces where they can realize full personhood, live in community, and enjoy a respite from fear and oppression. Perhaps it can also push us to consider how the historic places we continue to engage with today can more fully tell that story.

Bethany Bell is a master’s student at the University of Virginia. She tweets @bethanyannbell.

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