“Say My Name”: The History Behind Beyoncé’s “Formation”

Beyoncé in "Formation"Beyoncé in "Formation" (Photo: Flickr CC)

While critics of Beyoncé’s recently released video, “Formation” are right that it engages politics, even more profoundly it is about history. In it, Beyoncé rewrites Americans’ traditional understanding of black America, taking aim at traditional portraits of black people as subjugated, regimented, and unquestionably heterosexual. In place of those traditional bonds, she restores to them their multifaceted history.

The video begins with Beyoncé on top of a police car drowning in a river—immediately evoking the chilling events of Hurricane Katrina, of black people who were abandoned by the government and remained in their homes only to appear later in the media on top of roofs and cars and in boats.

From that point forward, the video unfurls political messages by exploring the forgotten historical contexts encoded within familiar stories. The video features Beyoncé in a nineteenth-century drawing room clad in Victorian era high fashion; then dancing in a dark-wooded hallway where portraits of African royalty and other elite black ancestors hang on the wall; then she is seated in a parlor surrounded by other black women, who like her, are dressed in regal, high fashion of a century ago. She then appears on the steps of a stately porch surrounded by black men, where again, her outfit and theirs mark an earlier historical period.

These historical images upend traditional representations of black people in similar settings. Usually, African Americans in those scenes are depicted as oppressed, injured, defeated, and barely dressed. Beyoncé appears in high fashion not to appear “white” or like the elites of older epochs but rather to acknowledge the history of elite classes of black people in New Orleans. Throughout the past, black elites occupied fine homes and wore fine clothes, but they often don’t appear in traditional historical narratives. The images on the wall of the ancestors, who hailed from royalty and other elite classes, not only illustrate a different past but also offer a glimpse into the interior of black homes that did exist.

The video also restores humanity and agency to black Americans by rejecting the traditional regimentation of black bodies. There, in the Victorian home, the video features Beyoncé’s daughter, Blue Ivy, in a parlor with two other black girls. All three appear in white dresses. Blue Ivy stands akimbo with the other girls behind her. At first, they recall the traditional narrative of black children forced to stand in formation. Like the other historical images, this too evokes a forgotten past. Since the mid nineteenth-century American audiences have been fascinated by similarly well-dressed black children, but they were careful to picture these children not as carefree, but as carefully regimented.

An infamous nineteenth-century daguerreotype of “white slave children,” featuring Rosina Downs, Charles Taylor, and Rebecca Huger, showed the children in a straight line, under the surveillance of the photographer. The images featured the children dressed in formal Victorian clothing, often appearing next to darker black children and adults in order to accentuate how fair they were. The image of Downs and the other black children appeared as sketches and photographs in the popular magazine Harper’s Weekly and other publications, illustrating nineteenth-century Americans’ obsession with noting gradations of color among people of African descent. Many historians have focused on these images as evidence of America’s complicated and fraught history of color and racism. Yet Beyonce’s video offers a new way of understanding these images; the poses of the children actually indicate how children of African descent have often been forced to stand in an orderly line. Blue Ivy and her friends break that line by running in a circle. Their frolicking in a formal space breaks the regimented formation to which even Downs and other black children, who were touted as celebrities, had to adhere.

Simple executions of movement in the “Formation” video telegraph these broader allusions. When Beyoncé appears on a stately porch surrounded by men in what appears to be a funerary scene, she bobs her head. The movement upsets the stately image of the photograph, evoking the costumes and setting from the television show, American Horror Story: Coven, which focused on history, witchcraft, and death in New Orleans. But the out-of-place movement also evokes the silhouettes that appear in modern artist Kara Walker’s The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven. There, in its own play on allusions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s canonical novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Walker displays black bodies performing sexual acts and gesturing in ways that disrupt traditional depictions of enslaved people at work on plantations. The “Formation” video takes its cue from these displays, portraying bodily gesticulations, movement, and expressions that undermine the stereotypical portrait of black suffering, loss, and even labor.

Other evocative moments in the video attack the stereotypical view of black Americans as exclusively heterosexual. At the 1:10 mark in the video, Big Freedia, a New Orleans pioneer rapper, drops a voiceover, “I came to slay,” which is slang for her success. The lyric illustrates the larger narrative of the song about Beyoncé’s return to her ancestral hometown of New Orleans and her iconic status as a performer. Yet, Big Freedia’s voice in the video signals a queer subtext within the song, evoking an often unrepresented black queer presence in the Deep South. It alludes to a tradition that can be traced to Jennie Livingston’s classic documentary, Paris is Burning, about the subterranean drag ball culture of NYC in the 1980s. Like the portrait of the elites that quickly alerts the viewer to a larger historical context, Big Freedia’s voice combined with shots of other black male apparently queer bodies twerking illustrate a larger subtext of sexuality, sex and the body that has often been policed—seen but not heard—in the South.

After her video first appeared on Saturday, Beyoncé performed the song at the Super Bowl halftime show where she has been criticized for being too political because her backup dancers were dressed as Black Panthers. Yet this accusation fails to recognize the intellectual and historical connotations embedded within the song and video.

To claim that Beyoncé is too political overlooks the fact that she was almost certainly invited to perform at the Super Bowl in the first place for political reasons. The organizers likely believed that they needed to include a black performer, yet when she appeared on stage with a hard-hitting performance that tapped into the larger cultural, progressive ethos that is pulsating throughout the country from the Black Lives Matter movement to electorates “feeling the burn,” she was criticized as being too political.

All of this, too, reflects black history. Black artists often carry the burden of evoking history in their work in a way that white artists do not.

Last year’s most popular music video was of Adele running through an abandoned house with a flip phone, trying to get in touch with a lost lover: that is what history meant to her—reaching out to a past lover. History and politics rarely intertwine in the music of artists like Adele; white artists have the privilege of separating the two. But Beyoncé starts her video by calling on the history of Katrina, for it weighs on her, calls her to action, and conjures the history of the late nineteenth century.

History and politics have been paramount to black artists for generations. From Billie Holiday’s haunting song “Strange Fruit” about lynching, to Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn,” which she wrote in response to both the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and four black girls in a church in Alabama to Janet Jackson’s album Rhythm Nation 1814 that highlighted the social ills of the 1980s, black artists have struggled to use music to document the past, assert political claims, and shatter the mythology of the South as an agrarian utopia of American values. As the video “Formation” ends, Beyoncé drowns on top of the police car that sinks underwater.

In “Formation”, Beyoncé follows in the tradition of other black artists: she remembers the past, she conjures the ancestors, she breaks convention, she pays homage to the queens, and, in so doing, she reminds us all why she is destiny’s child.

About the Author

Jim Downs

Jim Downs is an Andrew W. Mellon New Directions fellow at Harvard University and an associate professor of history at Connecticut College. He is the author of Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation (Basic Books, 2016) and Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford U.P. 2012).

Author Archive Page

5 Comments

  1. Very intelligently written about the history of our African American people. I will now look for your books to further educate me. Thank-you

  2. I enjoyed the article and love Beyonce, but I was a little confused at the Adele comment. It seemed odd to point out another pop song and make it indicative of a connection between race and history in music. Does Beyonce have another popular song that has as much emphasis on history? Single Ladies, Halo? I agree that plenty of black artists have made history center pieces in their songs, but is there any evidence that it is at a higher rate than any other race or culture? The article points to white privilege, but I think it needs more than anecdotal evidence of a random hit Adele had last year. I don’t think that any of last years top ten songs from any artists, regardless of race or ethnicity, were specifically historical or political. I guess it is cool to say that this year, Beyonce gave us one.

    I grew up listening to Canadian band Rush, who sing about loads of historical/political things; like the Manhattan Project, concentration camps, Bastille Day, the drug trade, and even Kubla Kahn. Consider a band like U2 that has career out of songs like Sunday Bloody Sunday, New Years Day, Pride, and Walk On. Off the top of my head: Sting’s “Russians”, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”, Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name.” I guess it is in how you define it. But I think it is more interesting to show the rich history of how black artists use politics and history, and maybe more pop artists in general should consider talking about history and politics.

  3. I would recommend as another example Emmylou Harris’s song My Name is Emmett Till which can move one to tears.
    Harris was born in Birmingham, Alabama and grew up in North Carolina and Virginia.
    Here is a link to her performance of the song
    Emmylou Harris – My Name Is Emmett Till – YouTube
    Video for emmylou harris emmett till▶ 5:51
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8uNOyn_75o
    Jul 13, 2014 – Uploaded by OldTmye TunesFive
    Emmett Louis Till (July 25, 1941 — August 28, 1955) was an African-American boy who was …

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