This year, Cal Poly offered up its first ever class about Beyoncé during spring quarter. The topic was Ethnic Studies 470 — Beyoncé: Feminism, Race & Politics. I, like many others, was incredibly excited at the opportunity to not only study one of the most prominent pop icons of modern day, but to look at her work through the context of Black feminist politics. As an ES minor and lover of Lemonade, I immediately signed up.
Needless to say, when the Ethnic Studies department broke the news about the class, there were mixed reactions all across the board. Many were a little skeptical about a class on a pop star, even one of Beyoncé’s status… which is understandable. But so many others were scornful, angry and even plain disgusted that Cal Poly would bother with this course on one of the most successful and socially conscious figures today. They argue that it’s too specific of a topic (ignoring the fact that we also offer courses just on Walt Whitman and Jesus), that Beyoncé is just another chess piece in the entertainment industry, and that there isn’t anything practical or substantial coming from a class like this.
But as a student taking ES 470, I can tell you that they are wrong. The Beyoncé class is one of the most important courses I’ve ever taken, and Cal Poly needs to keep it in its curriculum.
Although the class is grounded in Beyoncé’s music, Lemonade for the most part, we focus on notions of Black feminism, intersections of gender and race, and police brutality against the Black community. Every day brings new discussions themed by the movements in the visual album itself: Denial, Anger, Apathy, Forgiveness and so on. Readings from political activists and scholars, such as Audre Lorde and bell hooks, supplement the required listening of certain songs and in-class discussions. We use explore Beyoncé’s art, connecting her personal story to larger political/social commentaries regarding the dehumanization and marginalization of Black people and especially Black women. This is what the Beyoncé class does on a weekly basis.
Additionally, ES 470 has hands-down been the most racially diverse class I’ve ever experienced at Cal Poly. In a school where the overwhelming majority of students are white (myself included), classes often reflect this demographic, to the point where it’s easy to take a class with not one student of color present. But the Beyoncé class, despite its “specificity”, has drawn together all kinds of people, and therefore, all kinds of experiences and perspectives.
Although I identify as a woman and on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, I am also white and inherently have white privilege. This class on Black feminism has not only given me a thorough education in a field of study, but it taught me how to listen. In a polytechnic university, we often discard personal experiences for objective data, but that is both limiting and ignorant in itself. One of the most valuable lessons I, and other white students, can receive is that the stories coming from people of color must be listened to if we are to make any real progress in fighting against racist systems.
If you’re still not convinced, ES 470 will be hosting its first-ever Bey Day conference on Friday, June 2. It’s open and free to the public on Cal Poly campus, from 10:30am-4pm. Bey Day will involve student and faculty research panels, dance performances and an altar dedicated to Black women who have lost their lives at the hands of police brutality. This conference is the manifestation of everything we discuss in the class and more, so it’s definitely worth attending. And yes, we will be screening Lemonade because how could we not?
ES 470 is an incredible course that delves without fear into subjects that are extremely important to address. We’ve learned to critically think about Beyoncé’s music and apply it to larger social contexts, a skill often ignored by some of the haters arguing against the class. More importantly, the Beyoncé class reinforces how important it is to actively recognize and fight against the inherent racism found in modern day society — because Black culture, Black politics and Black lives all matter.