Doing and Being Intellectual History: #Formation as Curated by Black Women

 "story behind my skin" by New Orleans artist Soraya Jean-Louis McElroy. Prints and more available here:
“story behind my skin” Soraya Jean-Louis McElroy, New Orleans. Prints and more available here: Ancestral Alchemy
“From the city of New Orleans, we unite these narratives to assert undeniably that WE REMAIN.” – Back Cover, Mixed Company: Stories (New Orleans: New Orleans Loving Festival, 2015)1

An intellectual history of black women is, at its simplest, a history of “black women as producers of knowledge.”2 A black feminist archival project is, at its simplest, a project designed to “document ourselves now, in ways that include, affirm, and activate our whole communities.”3 A black feminist and radical womyn of color politics of citation is one that acknowledges ways black women’s intellectual production has been and continues to be rendered invisible, exploited, or devalued, then both centers the intellectual artifacts created by black women and privileges black women as producers and creators with the sole and extraordinary right to determine their encounters with institutions (i.e. academia, mainstream media, law enforcement vis à vis the surveillance of social media platforms and the internet more broadly) and bodies of thought outside their own circle.

That is to say, black women have no obligation to speak to anyone beyond themselves, but when they do it is a gift, it is labor, and it is on purpose.

For the last week, traversing time and space, crackling across laptops and mobile devices, black women have been speaking.

There was no way to miss this video as it made its way across social media or this moment during Superbowl 50. Six days later, a body of work created exclusively by black women and women of African descent has emerged. They, more than anyone else, deserve to tell the story of what that video is, isn’t, and could be.

On February 8th, I wrote this on my Facebook wall:

“In case my politics of citation is unclear, I am sharing posts about ‪#‎Formation‬ written by black women, +1 for those written by black southern, NOLA/Louisiana women…You don’t have to agree or like Beyonce or the video, but you do need to listen when the kindred are speaking. This is theirs and they are ours and we are theirs and they’ve got something to SAY. If you fall in this category and I can share or boost, please send your link my way…”
I have discussed elsewhere ways black feminists and radical womyn of color have used digital and social media as a media—the blog post, the digital essay, the podcast, the Facebook and Tumblr post, the Twitter exchange—to create community, demarcate  kinships, and curate a uniquely 21st century exchange of ideas, political imperatives, and social obligations. I have described my role as a participant of the same. In less than a week, the world has seen these exchanges at work and witnessed practices of kinship stretch tight, sometimes tense, as black women debated what black women have debated since slave codes first came into existence–
“What were the intellectual traditions behind black women’s activism?” “How did black women engage objectification?” “What is the intellectual history of black women writ large?” “Can we recover the intellectual traditions of thinkers who were often organic intellectuals and whose lives and thoughts are only modestly documented?” “How have the challenges of (slavery, segregation, racial discrimination) shaped our ideas?” (From Bay, Griffin, Jones, and Savage, “Introduction,” Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women)
 "story behind my skin" by New Orleans artist Soraya Jean-Louis McElroy. Prints and more available here:
“we will not be erased” Soraya Jean-Louis McElroy, New Orleans. Prints and more available here: Ancestral Alchemy

This becomes a moment to return to ways those invested in black intellectual history and those working for racial justice in the United States remember the Storm just over ten years later. At the end of the day, Hurricane Katrina happened in and to New Orleans. Nothing is like it and nothing ever will be. Katrina is also an unhealed trauma that continues to touch those in the South beyond New Orleans and its diaspora because it is evidence of a longer history of structural neglect, impoverishment, environmental injustice, and racial terror enacted by state and federal governments on the Delta, a place many people of African descent (not just black Americans) in this country have and feel some kinship to.4

And well beyond the South, across the country and the globe, Katrina has also come to represent a moment of brutal unmaking, as federal, state, and city officials dismantled a community, and an unveiling, as these same officials expressed gleeful utter indifference to black suffering. This is what people compare when they compare Katrina to Port-au-Prince, or to Flint–a savagery that continues to unmake and unveil. Katrina is a metaphor for a gawking spectacle of death and inevitable mourning that continues to repeat itself again and again and still does not account for the dead.

Below is a selection of posts on #Formation that approaches the video and its megastar creator from various perspectives. The list draws from a constantly updating archive published here. Given the elements in the video (submerged homes, interludes by Messy Mya, Big Freedia, and Kimberly Rivers Roberts, footage from That B.E.A.T., a young Mardi Gras Indian, and a sinking New Orleans Police Department cruiser), I’ve ordered the posts below to center New Orleans-based authors first, Louisiana, southern, and authors from beyond the U.S. South next, in that order. [Authors, if I have placed you out of order, please let me know! I will edit!]

Some are notes written by black women based in New Orleans posted across social media in response to the video. Others are longer essays published with mainstream and digital media. Still others are podcasts or interviews. Nothing was reposted from personal blogs without permission, but if you see something you’d like taken down, let me know. If you’ve written something you’d like me to contribute, let me know.

Here are black women, in all of our complexity and difference, doing the work: Engaging a text that delights and triggers,  reflecting on the ways various and varied race, class, gender, sexuality, region of birth, cultural and ethnic identifications impact how that text has or should be received, and building with each other. As many different opinions as there are, certain questions run like a thread through our stories: How is the work we have done with each other as loving, careful, and rigorous as whatever relic we created–but must ultimately leave behind? How do WE REMAIN and hold space for each other, for the cities we are from and the regions we represent?  What does it mean to REMAIN, to those in New Orleans and those fighting to get back; to black women/femmes/gnc across the South standing in their “reckless, country blackness;” to black women beyond the south and those across a global African diaspora?


New Orleans

Elena Bergeron, Watching Beyoncé From New Orleans : The Record : NPR

“Her representation has been lauded for being “unapologetically black,” an embrace of all the things that pop culture either whitewashes for profit or disregards entirely. So it’s either incredibly savvy or completely ironic that Beyoncé chose New Orleans as the backdrop for the assertive blackness of “Formation.” There is perhaps no city in America where being black has historically been defined, by law and by social custom, in so many different ways. Blackness here has been measured in drops and fractions, measured against paper bags and disguised with French and Spanish terminology, divided into backatown and Uptown neighborhoods and left to drown as a community. Blackness, here more than anywhere, is complicated, and Beyoncé’s experience of it may be unapologetic, but New Orleanians at Mardi Gras time didn’t exactly agree that it was theirs.

From Friday until Fat Tuesday, the biggest, brightest parades rolled day and night throughout the city. In between the dozens of papier mâché floats depicting Roman and Egyptian gods and Greek muses, mostly black high school bands, cheerleaders, dance teams, flag and baton twirlers marched in tight formation, executing songs and routines that had been polished to dazzle weeks before. The weekend parades, particularly the superkrewes that parade at night, count as prime time; inclusion in them is an honorific reserved for the schools that really get down, whose basslines and high-stepping is never not on point. Except this year, when, mid-eight-count, someone from the crowd yelled “You came to slay!” a sparkling majorette broke her gameface and threw a laugh of recognition in that direction, just this once.”

Yaba Blay, New Orleans, On ‘Jackson Five Nostrils,’ Creole vs. ‘Negro’ and Beefing Over Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’ | Colorlines  

“I cheer Bey on as she sings, “I like my Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.” But I cringe when I hear her chant, “You mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas bamma” about her Alabama-born dad and her mom from Louisiana. This is the same reason I cringed at the L’Oreal ad that identified Beyonce as African-American, Native American and French and why I don’t appreciate her largely unknown song “Creole.”

Having grown up black-Black (read: dark-skinned) in colorstruck New Awlins, hearing someone, particularly a woman, make a distinction between Creole and “Negro” is deeply triggering. This isn’t just for me but for many New Orleanians.” – Yaba Blay, daughter of New Orleans ‪#‎formation‬

Desiree Evans, New Orleans, on Facebook:

“i keep thinking about people needing to make room for southern folks to talk about their truths.

there’s power in people from the south telling their own stories, giving context to their own histories, voicing their own lived experiences and cultural survivalisms. regionalism, racism, classism, etc. have so often framed how southern stories have been told, and who gets to tell them, especially the stories of women, black folk, poor folks. what does it mean to actually make space for folks from the south to talk about the power of their own narratives, their truths, their stories of migration, their cultural remembrances. folks are rooted in places and people and experiences, and understanding the complex ways we carry those things and are shaped by them, is important.

this is sort of about formation, but more about what it means for creators/artists to tell our own stories, to tell the stories of surviving and thriving in the south. what it means for your people to be from new iberia, to grow up in houston, and what you know and understand in all that your people carry from that. // i want more southern stories.”

Soraya Jean-Louis McElroy, New Orleans, on Facebook:

“[I’m dreaming of] a place to erect a pop up museum that celebrates black gurls and womyn. our everyday inner lives. i’m looking for this venue in New Orleans. i had a dream where i was discussing this with someone and i shared these words: y’all out here gagging and losing oxygen over a black womyn y’all will never know, an artist doing her work while y’all don’t bother to be connected with the sistahs y’all supposedly care about and love. talking about radicalism and accountability with folks you ain’t in relationship with, while simultaneously shitting on the everyday love works of your supposed sistah kin.

my dreams are insightful and colorful and informed by ancestors of every realm. the dream ended with me saying: i’m trying to lead and live this joyous life niggah!

Rasheedah Phillips, Fabiola Jean-Louis, Desiree Evans, and Jessica Marie Johnson, i know this dream came through because of recent reflections and convos shared by and with y’all? I’m ever lovingly grateful FAM!”

“Bey, I hear you trying to unapologetically assert your Southern Blackness when you sing, “My daddy Alabama, momma Louisiana. You mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas bamma.” I’m here for it. I can support that, even though you do not acknowledge the complicated, and often divisive, nature of colorism inherent in Creole identity politics. But, showing Hurricane Katrina inspired images and inserting yourself into the storm narrative is just as insensitive as using Katrina’s aftermath as a conversation starter when you meet a New Orleanian. Our trauma is not an accessory to put on when you decide to openly claim your Louisiana heritage.”

Shantrelle P. Lewis, Beyoncé’s “Formation” exploits New Orleans’ trauma | for Salon

“In “Formation,” which invokes both Katrina and the Black Lives Matter movement, Beyoncé attempts to politicize black tragedy and black death by using them as props for popular consumption. That isn’t advocacy. While some people are gagging at the idea of Beyoncé atop a New Orleans Police Department squad car or sitting in a 19th-century living room in plaçage attire, I’m reliving trauma. I’m thinking about how the system failed us. I’m thinking about how the central government and the head of state left us to die. I could speak about the incompetence of some local leaders, the breakdown in communication of authorities, the lawlessness of police officers and troops. I could speak about the vicious racist vigilantes who hunted evacuees down like dogs for trying to secure safe ground for themselves and their families. But I don’t.
Lydia Y. Nichols, New Orleans, on Facebook:

“Mardi Gras reflection and “Formation” commentary:

I walked from Canal and Rampart to St. Charles and Marengo on Bacchus Sunday to see these lil ladies, my favorite beings on the face of the earth – Janea and Christa Nichols-Marion, my nieces, my babies. They are the coolest people I know and two of my best friends regardless of the respective 11- and 15-year age difference.

The wisdom of my matriarchal line is apparent in these little ones. A legacy of Louisiana-born free women of color as far back as I can go (the mid-1700s). Leaders, mothers, land owners. I see in Janea and Christa the sacrifices that our ancestresses made and that their mother, my sister, continues to make for them to have access to power so as to reconceptualize it. That’s what it means to be southern-born, southern-living Afro-Creole women. We don’t work to own to prove, we work to own to liberate.

My great (x7) grandmother Marie Celeste LaMotte was born in 1760-something to a French colonist and his placee in Orleans territory. Daughter begets daughter begets daughter for ten generations. 400 weeks of pregnancy creating a matrilineage that leads to them, to Janea and Christa, to their older sister Jade (who I also love but wasn’t here for Mardi Gras cause she grown) and now to the baby, Amina, too. In all their intelligence, sweetness, and beauty. Girls. Black ones. Southern ones. I see them, and I remember the power of the womb.

Forget that capitalist, white paternalist icon Bill Gates… They just might be themselves in the making.

The best revenge is our self-liberation.”

Tyina L. Steptoe Beyoncé, Creoles, and Modern Blackness – University of California Press Blog

“Relations between Texans and Louisianans could be tense. Knowles Lawson told Ebony magazine that black nuns at her Catholic school in Galveston treated her poorly as a girl. Meanwhile, some black Texans claimed that Creoles acted superior. Indeed, as New Orleans native Yaba Blay reminds us, “people who are light skinned, with non-kinky hair and the ability to claim a Creole heritage have had access to educational, occupational, social and political opportunities that darker skinned, kinkier-haired, non-Creole folks have been denied.”

By the late twentieth century, however, “Creole” was less of a racial marker than an ethnic one. Catholicism, French surnames, Creole/Cajun cuisine, and zydeco music defined Creoles, regardless of whether their ancestors were free in 1860. Furthermore, generations of Creoles of color lived in or near black communities. In Houston and Galveston, the groups frequently shared neighborhoods and institutions. They also intermarried, as when Tina Beyincé married Alabama-born Matthew Knowles. The “Texas bama” roots mentioned in “Formation” refer to the merging of two cultures, one from the Anglophone southeast, and another from French Louisiana.”


Brittney Cooper, The Beyoncé wars: Should she get to be a feminist? – Brittney Cooper | Salon

“I know, I know. I don’t do well with the internecine kinds of vitriol and criticism that black women inflict on each other, in the name of critique and truth-telling. I’ve witnessed our vehement criticism of everyone from Oprah to Beyoncé, to the fictional Olivia Pope. So that’s the thing about this debate about Bey’s feminism. For all the intellectual posturing that frames it, our investment in whether Beyoncé gets to be a feminist or not is deeply personal and emotional.”

Crissle and Kid Fury, BEYmergency: Formation by The Read 

“Blue Ivy is going to grow up a little black girl who is very secure in her blackness and very well aware that she is the shit just as she is.” Posted three days early. Because this is a Beymergency.

Jesmyn Ward, In Beyoncé’s ‘Formation,’ A Glorification Of ‘Bama’ Blackness | Code Switch : NPR

“I’m from a small town on the bottom edge of Mississippi, very near New Orleans and the Louisiana border. My family has lived there for generations. A few of us left in the ’60s for Chicago and Los Angeles and Texas, but whether for a visit or to retire, we always return. So when I saw Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, I understood. I knew who she was portraying in the video, and what she was trying to tell me and all the other bamas.”


Regina Bradley, Getting in Line: Working Through Beyonce’s “Formation” | Red Clay Scholar

“Is it possible that Beyoncé, in her red and white dress, was summoning Mami Wata, the water deity who could be both a healer or lure travelers to their watery grave? I’m particularly fascinated by the end of the video, where Beyonce lies on top of the car as it drowns and an unknown man says “Look at that water boy! Oooh lawd!” One possible intention here is a visual reminder of the many unknown souls that drowned and possibly took their place by Mami Wata’s side during Katrina. Yet the commentary, paired with Beyonce and the car’s ‘drowning,’ doubly signifies upon how we fetishize black death and the feminine power of water and rebirth.” – Regina N. Bradley‪#‎formation‬

Regina Bradley, Before Beyoncé made ‘Formation,’ Zora Neale Hurston laid out her roadmap | The Washington Post

“Even in front of the largest audience in the world, it was a daring act of vulnerability, offering up a rendering of black protest and recognizing the historical and cultural agency of black folks on the biggest sports stage available. As my friend Crystal Hayes wrote, Beyoncé is “no longer legible to America.” She is stepping away from a more universally appealing trope of feminine blackness in favor of an experimental and boisterous black womanhood that has room to make critique of social-economic issues. At this point in her career, she has slayed most of the challenges – and bank accounts – where her creativity and longevity were questioned. Being conscious, bringing attention to her black community, is a final destination.”

Zandria Robinson at New South Negress, We Slay, Part I 

“While “No Angel” gave us a Texas Bama vision of Houston, the visuals for “Formation” offer up New Orleans as convergence place for a blackness that slays through dreams, work, ownership, legacy, and the audacity of bodies that dare move and live in the face of death.” – Zandria F. Robinson ‪#‎formation‬

Zandria Robinson, Beyonce’s Black Southern ‘Formation’ | Rolling Stone

For the unsoutherner.

Omise’eke Tinsley and Caitlin O’Neill, Beyonce’s ‘Formation’ Is Activism for African Americans |  for Time Magazine

“But don’t get it twisted: Bey’s black feminism isn’t only for cis-women. The song starts with a voiceover from media personality Messy Mya, killed in an unsolved transphobic murder in 2010, who tells us “Bitch, I’m back by popular demand.” “Formation” also features queer New Orleans queen of bounce Big Freedia and footage from Abteen Bagheri’s 2014 documentary That B.E.A.T, which explores New Orleans bounce music and queer culture. Femme and fabulous, Beyonce’s formation loves and celebrates the art of black femininity in every kind of body brave enough to own it.” – via Omise’eke Tinsley and Caitlin O’Neill ‪#‎formation‬


Luvvie Ajayi, Beyonce’s Formation is Her Best Thing Yet and it’s the IDGAF Anthem |  Awesomely Luvvie

“This video is Blacker than onyx (the color AND the rap group from the 90s). It is Black pride, Black love and Black people being brilliant and bold. And the fact that it dropped 6 days into Black History Month is the cherry on the sundae of deliciousness. What they did there? I see it. And I appreciate it.

It is so unabashedly NOIR that it is bound to piss off some white folks. If you are a white woman or man and you’re about to write a thinkpiece about how any part of that video offends you or put you off, please put your pen down because we do not give a nary of an ounce of damb. We are not here for it. And you should just sit this one out. Phone a friend if it made you made because it wasn’t for you. Take a ride elsewhere, chile.”

Danielle Belton, Beyonce Drops ‘Formation’ For the People, the Black People – The Root

“But I don’t like ‘ratchet’ trap Beyoncé,” says someone, somewhere who wishes she’d go back to singing “Single Ladies” or “Irreplaceable.” Someone who likes their booty-popping as far removed from Louisiana bounce as possible. Someone who can’t handle all this blackness and just learned that the world “ratchet” was a pejorative, another way of saying “ghetto.” Another way of saying something is black. Another way of calling you “hood,” “thug” or “n–ger.”

To that person I say, “You’ll be all right, because Beyoncé doesn’t belong to you.”

dream hampton, Beyonce’s ‘Formation’ Is A Visual Anthem : An Interview with Dream Hampton – NPR

“I think it’s a stretch to call Beyonce an activist. And I don’t know that activist is such a compliment. What we need out here is organizers. No, what she is is a cultural force and artist and icon. She might be her own goddess, might have her own little Orisha power, but she’s not an activist. I think that she’s someone who is paying attention like anyone her age to what is going on. This is her generation’s movement; she’s absolutely a millennial, and she’s tuned in to what’s happening like we all are. So she doesn’t live on some other planet, which I think we tend to think of pop stars, and Beyonce in particular. [Laughs.] She’s very much in this world, paying attention to what’s happening, and affected by it. You know, she’s raising a daughter.” – Dream Hampton ‪#‎formation‬

Janell Hobson, Beyoncé as Conjure Woman: Reclaiming the Magic of Black Lives (That) Matter  | By MsMagazine 

“The black conjure woman herself has long been a figure demonized in American culture. But black culture has survived due to her resourcefulness in preserving the cultural memory from the African continent by remixing it with other cultures here in North America through food, healing rituals and practices and chanting—note how the song itself falls somewhere between Beyoncé singing and rapping. Her lyrics are deceptively simple, reduced to local Southern lingo and repetitive phrases. In reclaiming black life, Beyoncé returns to a simplicity of language, in which the simplest phrase—”Slay trick, or get eliminated”—is loaded with exponential meaning.” – Janell Hobson (with references to Kintra Brooks and other black Southern women scholars)

Mikki Kendall, Hot Sauce in Her Bag: Southern Black identity, Beyoncé, Jim Crow, and the pleasure of well-seasoned food– | for Eater

“There may be white Beyoncé fans who also carry around their own personal bottles of hot sauce, but hearing her say she has hot sauce in her bag isn’t a shout-out to them. She’s talking to the Southern and Great Migration Black Americans listening — to them, to us, it hearkens to home. To childhoods spent at fish frys, church picnics, and visiting relatives. It’s a reference to a cultural connection, one that spans the diaspora of Black American identity. You might prefer Crystal to Louisiana, you might only use it on greens that your Grandma didn’t cook, you might rely on someone else having it, but you definitely used hot sauce. You definitely grew up seeing it used by the people that raised you, the people who gave you a sense of your roots, no matter where you were in America.” Mikki Kendall on blackness, history, and the food politics of ‪#‎formation‬

Tiffany Lee, If You Ain’t Got In-“Formation” – Black Girl Dangerous

Many of us who watched this video over and over and thought about all them water references and how it connected to the mermaid colored hair on the girls in the weave shop. We’re the people who, when we think of New Orleans, we don’t just think about the levees. We remember the flood of people who moved down to New Orleans after the storm, buying up all our people’s houses when they couldn’t afford to fix them.

"love womyn garden," Soraya Jean-Louis McElroy, New Orleans. Prints and more available here:
“love womyn garden,” Soraya Jean-Louis McElroy, New Orleans. Prints and more available here: Ancestral Alchemy
For the full archive (still updating) click here.

Edit: Updated 2016 February 16 | 23:27:22 to add Elena Bergeron’s essay to the list. Will continue to update with articles and notes from black women of New Orleans and Louisiana. Articles and notes from black from other places will be added to the full archive.

 Edit: Updated 2016 May 12 | 08:07:11 to add Tyina Steptoe’s essay to the list.
  1. Hilt, Jeri, and Kristina Kay Robinson. Mixed Company: Stories. New Orleans: New Orleans Loving Festival, 2015.
  2. Bay, Mia, Farah J. Griffin, Martha S. Jones, and Barbara Dianne Savage, eds. “Introduction: Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women.” In Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015.
  3. Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. “Seek the Roots: An Immersive and Interactive Archive of Black Feminist Practice.” Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women’s Studies Resources 32, no. 1 (2011): 17–20.
  4. For more see Woods, Clyde Adrian. Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta. Verso, 1998.
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Jessica Marie Johnson

Jessica Marie Johnson is an Assistant Professor of History and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Her research interests include women, gender, and sexuality in the African diaspora; histories of slavery and the slave trade; and digital history and new media and has appeared in Slavery & Abolition and Meridians: Feminism, Race and Transnationalism. Follow her on Twitter @jmjafrx.