Professor Omise’eke Tinsley’s Beyoncé & Rihanna Class At UT Austin Shows The Power Of Pop Culture
You can't deny that Beyoncé and Rihanna are the gold standard of pop: endlessly talented, continuously innovative, and so damn fun to watch. You don't have to be an admiral in Rihanna's Navy or a card-carrying member of the Bey Hive to see there's so much to learn from these two forces of nature. Luckily, if you're a student of Dr. Omise'eke Tinsley at the University of Texas at Austin, you truly get to do that. And, as you can imagine, there are no "typical" days when teaching a college class about Beyoncé and Rihanna is your day job.
Tinsley, an associate professor of black studies, is the creative mind behind "Beyoncé Feminism, Rihanna Womanism." In Tinsley's class, everyone's favorite pop queens become entry points to black feminism and womanism, a black feminist Civil Rights-era movement created by The Color Purple author Alice Walker. "It was Beyoncé and Rihanna because I like Beyoncé and Rihanna," Tinsley says in an interview with Elite Daily. "But also, because I was imagining teaching about African-American and Caribbean feminisms." As of August 2019, Tinsley has taught the course six times, including a fall 2018 run at Harvard University, and is planning on teaching it again in spring 2020.
Don't get it twisted: Tinsley's class isn't just about appreciating Rihanna's sartorial choices or Beyoncé's choreography. Instead, it's a space for students to examine identity in a pop-culture context. “It quickly became apparent to me that people were showing up to this class for Beyoncé and to think about what it meant to them to be black women and black queer people in the U.S. South," Tinsley says of her UT Austin students. An aspect of Beyoncé's work that's been particularly enlightening for students is how Queen Bey seamlessly blends African and African-American culture. Recently, Bey's talent was apparent on The Lion King soundtrack album The Gift, but also in Beyoncé's 2018 Coachella performance, which Tinsley's students got to study.
The students took the conversation in directions that started out from where I was starting, but went somewhere else.
From the start, Tinsley knew the class experience itself was going to be interesting. For her first day of teaching, Tinsley had prepared a PowerPoint, but she didn't get too far. "I got through two slides. In an hour and a half. Because the students had a lot to say," Tinsley explains. "The students took the conversation in directions that started out from where I was starting, but went somewhere else."
For example, a unit about Rihanna and public conversations about violence against women became a space for students to address violence against women in their own lives. One day, Tinsley was discussing a news story about a student who'd reportedly had items thrown at her while passing a frat house. One of Tinsley's own students raised her hand to say the same thing had happened to her. "It becomes a space where the black and Latinx women of the class are sharing stories of the different kinds of violence they’ve experienced on campus," Tinsley recalls. "And then creating a container where they support each other."
Black women in the South have long, rich traditions of creating meaningful lives for ourselves.
On top of students driving class conversations, Tinsley's class evolves a lot thanks to Bey and Rih's ever-changing album cycles. For example, the class was first taught in the spring 2015 semester, which means it was during Beyoncé's self-titled era, which started in 2013. But then "Formation" dropped on Feb. 6, 2016. The class session right after the release, the curriculum went out the window, Tinsley says. Instead, they spent the day trying to unpack Beyoncé's visual references.
Soon Lemonade, an entire visual album devoted to the black Southern experience, was released. So of course, Tinsley had to re-do the syllabus. But she didn't mind. "I wanted students to know — and I wanted to be reaffirmed — that black women in the South have long, rich traditions of creating meaningful lives for ourselves ... despite and because of the oppression around us," Tinsley explains. Lemonade gave her space to discuss the topic.
[It's] feminism that stirs sh*t up so that we can have productive conversations.
Rihanna's portion of the class has also blossomed over time. Tinsley's students dissect Bad Gal Riri classics like "S&M" and concepts of black women's pleasure. They also study "Work" and other Rihanna bops touching on Caribbean identity. And finally, Tinsley's students chart Rihanna's growth when it comes to revenge fantasies: from "Man Down, to "Needed Me", and, of course, "B*tch Better Have My Money."
"It just remains one of my favorite videos of all time," Tinsley confesses of the "B*tch Better Have My Money" video. "It sets the stage to talk about what hip-hop feminists call 'percussive feminism,' which is feminism that stirs sh*t up so that we can have productive conversations." The fall 2018 class also touched on one of Tinsley's personal favorite topics: Rihanna's lingerie line and the "Savage x Fenty paradise of all women, of different sizes and colors" that debuted in September 2018.
Tinsley's class is the culmination of years of academic work, but it wasn't always her plan. Originally, she thought she'd be a high school French teacher. "I just loved French in high school!" Tinsley gushes. Still, going into college, Tinsley picked up on a bigger academic and political picture. “I studied French. I was often the only black person in my courses. I had this kind of naïve imagination, that when I became a teacher, students — women and women of color — would feel more like they could talk in class," Tinsley says.
Somewhere along the way, Tinsley discovered feminism and switched gears. She did her senior honors thesis on Caribbean women’s literature and earned her doctorate in comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Her first gig was as an English professor at the University of Minnesota. “[At the time,] I was writing a book on the literature of Caribbean women who loved women — all of which I loved," Tinsley says fondly.
I’d had a joke about what would make students go up for a Caribbean feminism class: It would be Rihanna.
It wasn't until 2012, when Tinsley got to UT Austin, that she started drawing connections between her academic passions, her professional career, and the kind of atmosphere she dreamed of creating in the classroom. “It became clear to me [that] part of the reason I taught literature is: When I was in school, that’s where black feminist work was being done. That’s where you had those conversations."
Those conversations weren't happening at UT Austin. As Tinsley puts it, female students of color at Austin were "hungry for spaces to come together and find community." Then came a meeting among UT Austin's professors about bumping up course numbers. “I’d had a joke about what would make students go up for a Caribbean feminism class: It would be Rihanna," Tinsley says. “And I was like, ‘No, but really: I already use Rihanna and Beyoncé to teach. What if I just trim this into a course?’"
Both the Black Studies and Women's and Gender Studies departments were super supportive of the idea — even when Tinsley thought only "like 40 people" would show up. Despite her colleagues' enthusiasm, some Texans weren't super lit about a Beyoncé and Rihanna class. “There was both a lot of excitement and support, and a lot of predictable chafing from conservative elements," Tinsley says.
All curricula at UT Austin needs to go through the state legislature for approval. To ensure it passed, she came up with a 19-page syllabus to demonstrate "Beyoncé Feminism, Rihanna Womanism" was a real course. She had to prove her class "was not learning about Beyoncé’s biography," but rather "an introduction to black feminism media studies, and talking about Beyoncé and Rihanna."
It was approved, but not without some trolling first. "My favorite [comment] ever was someone who said, ‘Professor Tinsley is an embarrassment to all women,’" she remembers. "I was like, ‘Really? All of us? Wow, I’ve done something!’"
Having ‘Beyoncé’ in the title tells students of color: 'This class is for me.'
Intense research to demonstrate the gravitas of these pop queens' impact has always been Tinsley's key to success. In November 2018, she published a book about her work, Beyoncé in Formation: Remixing Black Feminism. “I did not rely on my love and knowledge of Beyoncé videos to write the book I wrote about Beyoncé," Tinsley explains. She did research, picked academics' brains, and scoured blogs. "I treated that subject matter with the same amount of rigor that I would treat anything else. That I did on Haitian queer art."
Besides discussing how much political depth there is to Bey's and Rih's work, Tinsley says her favorite part of her job is her students and the academic atmosphere she's finally created. “The first time — every time — I teach Beyoncé/Rihanna, the front rows are dominated by black women and black queer people. And they get that this course is for them, and that they’re the experts," Tinsley says warmly. "That’s what having ‘Beyoncé’ in the title tells students of color: 'This class is for me.'"
While Tinsley's job is rewarding, she does have words of caution for folks looking to pursue a similar career. "The idea that this is the only way to be a public intellectual is one that I really want to push back against. Getting a Ph.D is not easy," Tinsley warns. "It’s not a process set up for women and queer people. And the job market in academia is getting tighter." As research demonstrates, academia can be biased against women and people of color. As of 2016, 41% of full-time faculty positions were held by white men alone, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. On the flip side, only 3% of positions were held by black women.
Don’t listen to traditionalists who say, ‘People won’t take you seriously.’
If you're interested in studying, teaching, or writing about pop culture, Tinsley advises not to be afraid of interdisciplinary programs. Typically, she says, students worry about not being able to find a job with a women's and gender studies degree or a black studies degree, and will pivot to film or literature instead. "I think that those disciplines that were born out of social justice struggles allow us to think about contemporary issues in different ways, and open space for pop culture," she says. "Don’t listen to traditionalists who say, ‘People won’t take you seriously.’"
Drawing out those personal-meets-political threads in pop culture can make complex ideas — like black feminism and womanism and the importance of representation for marginalized communities — accessible to students. “I get the feeling that people are taking these courses not to graduate, but for their lives," Tinsley says of her work. "And I’m teaching it for my life, and the life of people I love and care about."