The Cal Poly ethnic studies department is mixing pop culture and academia by offering a class on Beyoncé Knowles-Carter Spring 2017. The class is called Beyoncé: Race, Feminism, and Politics (ES 470).
The syllabus is modeled after Beyoncé’s visual album “Lemonade.” Each week the class will cover one of the 12 themes Beyoncé covers in the album: intuition, denial, anger, apathy, emptiness, loss, accountability, reformation, forgiveness, resurrection, hope and redemption.
The class will culminate in a Beyoncé conference called “Cal Poly Bey Day,” which will consist of a screening of “Lemonade,” faculty and student presentations, panels on Beyoncé’s work and student performances set to Beyoncé’s music.
The class will also construct an altar dedicated to Beyoncé and women of color who have been subject to police violence. The altar will be based on the African American Policy Forum’s “Say Her Name” Campaign.
Jenell Navarro, a self-described unapologetic Beyoncé fan, will be the first to teach the course at Cal Poly.
“We were looking at women icons of color in the 21st century and no one can deny Beyoncé that title,” assistant professor Navarro said.
Rutgers University has offered a Beyoncé course for about 12 years.
“Certainly, long before the rise of the ‘Lemonade’ album and that particular explosion in Beyoncé’s career, people have being using sort of academic life in conjunction with Beyoncé’s superstar status to really explore women of color feminism, anti-black racism as major themes that need to be explored,” Navarro said.
Navarro, who teaches in the ethnic studies and the women’s and gender studies departments, wants to teach a course relevant to students today.
“I don’t know if there’s anything more relevant in our current moment than dealing with police brutality, which Beyoncé has dealt with very overtly and evidently,” Navarro said.
Beyoncé’s performance at the 2016 Super Bowl inspired worldwide conversations about police brutality. She paid tribute to the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X and Mario Woods, a man shot and killed by San Francisco police in December 2015.
“I’m interested in thinking about ways to positively heal from racism and sexism,” Navarro said. “I think music is one way we heal. It is a medicine for us in so many ways. That’s why ‘Lemonade’ has been so striking for millions of people because they can resonate with so many of the themes on that album.”
Business administration senior Mary Butcher is interested in taking the class before graduating this June.
“I think it would be really interesting to take a different approach to someone that I admire and that is current,” Butcher said. “It’s not often you get to learn in a classroom about one of your favorite artists.”
Video by Megan Schellong
Navarro wants it to become a permanent class that more faculty members will choose to teach in coming years.
“Some have questioned if the course is too specific or irrelevant, but we teach a class on Jesus on this campus,” Navarro said. “There could be arguments made that that’s too specific or not relevant. It’s called academic freedom.”
Navarro wants to study how Beyoncé exercises her political and economic power to create a positive change.
The class will explore Beyoncé’s upbringing and Texan roots, including her relationship with her parents and her sister Solange.
Navarro says Beyoncé’s popularity makes it easier for people to have open conversations about race on a predominantly white campus. Navarro calls Cal Poly a “PWI,” a predominantly white institution.
“Her music and music videos lend themselves to critique and sort of the social fabric of U.S. life right now,” Navarro said.
The class is not a general education course and meets no degree requirement other than an upper division elective, so Navarro hopes only students genuinely interested in the material will register for the class. She is interested to see if the class will consist of mostly students of color, white students, or a diverse group.
Course materials will include texts from Beyoncé’s influences like bell hooks and Audre Lorde. Assignments will include group analysis of Beyoncé’s music videos that will encourage students to think critically.
“Black motherhood and even women of color mothering. What does it mean to be a politically charged mother? A revolutionary mother? What does that look like?” Navarro said.
“Honestly, the only good news we’ve gotten since Trump was elected into office is that Beyoncé’s gonna have twins. That’s the only good news we’ve gotten.”
Navarro has two children herself.
“I say it’s important to raise my kids on Beyoncé,” Navarro said.
Butcher says her excitement for the course is related to the professor as well as the content.
“I’ve had Professor Navarro before and she’s really cool and really knows what she’s talking about,” Butcher said. “Especially with Beyoncé getting so much attention in the media lately, academically it’ll be interesting to discuss her impact.”
Beyoncé’s influence spreads far beyond Cal Poly. She is currently the woman with the most Grammy award nominations of all time.
Beyoncé has six solo albums, all of which will be discussed in the class.
“All of them have themes I think have never really tired in her cannon,” Navarro said.
In her Video Vanguard Lifetime Achievement Award performance in 2014, Beyoncé performed her hit song “Flawless,” which samples author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to a backdrop reading “FEMINIST.” In addition to her more recent and overtly political performances in recent years, Navarro says Beyoncé has been a feminist trailblazer since her days in all-girl R&B group Destiny’s Child.
“Her black woman intuition goes back to Destiny’s Child,” Navarro said. “To have a song like ‘Independent Woman’ or ‘Stand Up for Love’, ‘Survivor’, that’s critical, right? That’s critical.”
Biological sciences sophomore Mandy Helle attended her first Beyoncé concert last spring at Levi Stadium during the singer’s Formation tour. Although she doesn’t yet have the necessary standing to register for the course this spring, Helle hopes to take the course later in her Cal Poly career.
“I think it’s awesome there is a Beyoncé class,” Helle said. “She is one of the most famous women of our time and I feel like she is inspirational to a lot of women everywhere, and she is amazingly talented. Who wouldn’t want to learn more about her?”