An Interview With Dr. Kinitra Brooks, Who Teaches A Class On Beyoncé
Dr. Kinitra Brooks
A few weeks ago, I saw on Facebook that somebody was teaching a class on Beyoncé and specifically Lemonade at the University of Texas-San Antonio. I thought to myself, that’s pretty cool. Well, as luck would have it, a friend of hers who reads VSB reached out and said that the professor was both an avid reader and sharer of VSB articles. Well, since I appreciate avid readers and sharers of VSB articles and since I was intrigued by the idea of the class itself, I said to myself, “Self, mayhaps you should reach out and talk to said professor, Dr. Kinitra Brooks, about the class, if she’s open to it.” Turns out she was. Below is the email exchange interview we had about her, her class, and Beyoncé as an academic subject. Shouts to Dr. Brooks for being awesome.
Panama: First, tell me (and the people) a bit about yourself. All I know so far is that you teach at the University of Texas-San Antonio, and that you’re teaching a class called “Black Women, Beyoncé & Popular Culture” and Lemonade will feature prominently, I believe. Which is awesome. Like, I can’t tell you how awesome I find that. But what’s your background? Who exactly are you?
Dr. Kinitra Brooks, Ph.D.: I am a New Orleans native. I have my PhD in Comparative Literature from UNC-Chapel Hill. I specialize in African American and Afro-Caribbean women’s literature and film. I am actually a horror scholar. I have a scholarly book coming out Fall (2017) titled Searching for Sycorax: Black Women Haunting Contemporary Horror and I also co-edited (with horror poet Linda Addison and fellow scholar Susana Morris) a creative anthology titled Sycorax’s Daughters which features short horror fiction written by black women.
I am interested in how black women remix, revise, and reimagine the horror genre both as characters and creators of horror. So, I have a scholarly article published about Michonne and Selena in The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later, respectively.
I am most interested in how black women take folklore and syncretic religious practices (so spiritual practices that mix West African religion with Christianity) in their creative fiction and use it as a place of power and subversion against the horror genre and classic readings of black women’s literature.
I read Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day as a great example of black women writing horror which focuses on a Conjure Woman and her lineage. I read Nalo Hopkinson’s fiction as this wonderful manifestation of Caribbean horror–which stems from the folklore.
P: You know how you ask somebody a question and the answer you get is nothing like you expected? That’s exactly what just happened. For starters, I’ve never heard the term “horror scholar” and it’s not because I don’t get out enough. What got you so interested in the horror genre? Especially to the point where you decided to make it into a scholarly endeavor? For the record, I dodge horror films as a rule. It’s not that I’m scared, it’s just that the way my imagination is set up, after watching Stephen King’s IT, I didn’t sleep for, like, 10 years. I’m still tired.
KB: LOL! I know, what I do usually sends folks left. I got into horror from my Dad (and his side of the family). My Dad was a blerd before we even knew what it was. We did an interview with him about it here at the Black Speculative Arts Digital Archive. My book opens up with a memory of the first time I saw Vamp with Grace Jones with my Aunt Errolyn and my cousin, Lee. Remember that movie? (Panama Note: I do not. Not even a little bit.) And it scared the crap out of me. But even then, I noticed that Katrina NEVER spoke! The entire film she’s a central character and she never says a mumbling word! Where dey do dat at? And then, when she went into full monster mode–they basically exaggerated all of her African features (nose, mouth, etc.,). Even as a little girl I was like…something is off.
I watched Night of the Living Dead with my Dad early on. And then I got into Stephen King in 6th grade. It scarred me for life. I still sleep with the light on when my husband is out of town. And then me and my Dad were really into Buffy and Angel (we are now obsessed with Supernatural) and I was HIGHLY pissed when they killed the black slayer, Kendra. (I’m STILL pissed)
But our ideas of fear and what scares us is heavily influenced by culture and society. The majority of horror traffics in some form of Negrophobia or Gynophobia. And since I studied black women, I’ve always been fascinated by what happens if you fit both of those qualities? Both black AND woman? And I’ve been down that rabbit hole ever since.
Plus black women have BEEN writing horror and trafficking in supernatural themes, it was simply called something else. Folklore (Zora Neale Hurston) or magical realism (Toni Morrison). But so much of the scholarship has focused on the horrors of enslavement but not actual horror itself. And granted, sometimes there are valid intersections of those areas, but other times, not so much.
P: I have now spoken more about horror anything in these few questions than I have in the entire 37 years of my existence. You have changed my life. Thank you. So now that I know a bit about you, let’s talk about this class and how you ended up getting this approved. For starters, are you a huge Beyoncé fan? I am. I’m guessing you’d need to be in order to teach an entire class about her. I ain’t saying you have to be part of the Beyhive, but I guess it might help. But what spurred this idea and turned it into an actual class? And why?
KB: How did I get it approved? I’ve taught kooky classes before. I’m the weird one in the department. So, I’ve taught Horror Text & Theory, Black Women in Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror, Speculative Black Women, Bad Black Mothers–so a class about Beyoncé was almost normal at this point. My department is pretty supportive about my course choices.
I have become a Beyoncé fan with her last two projects. Before then, I was pretty fairweather in my fandom. I enjoyed and appreciated her music and definitely her Black woman Southerness but I wouldn’t have called myself a true fan.
It was really in defending Beyoncé’s choices to other folks that I literally had an “Omigosh. I’m in the Beyhive!” moment. She got such flack for her last album (self-titled Beyoncé) and daring to be sexual with her husband. I was just like, look the woman has followed all of the rules that society makes for black women–she’s conventionally attractive with enough curves to be appealing, she comes from a two-parent home, she got married to a successful Black man who was just street enough, and then she had her child–and now she can’t sing about banging her husband? Whatever.
I tell my students and my friends, black women are going to be denigrated no matter what you choose. You might as well be yourself and be happy.
But the Lemonade project was completely different. It was that moment where she recites the “Anger” section. Where she discusses literally wearing the other woman’s skin and using her spine as a bedazzled cane…I literally jumped off my seat. That’s the Boo Hag! That’s the Soucouyant! These are folkloric characters who are know for shedding own skin (soucouyant) or wearing the skin of another (Boo Hag). That fell right into my research! And they say black women don’t do horror?
I was also co-teaching a Black Lives Matter class when “Formation” dropped. Me and other black feminist scholars were literally analyzing the video in the comment sections and DMs of Facebook. The next class, I began to show my students our work so they could see theoretical frameworks being constructed by academics as it happened and they were SO into it!
A few weeks later, Candice Benbow released the Lemonade Syllabus with lots of material with which I was quite familiar. At that point, I knew I could make this into a class.
P: I think it’s awesome that your school is supportive of your course choices. I’ve often wondered if Black professors were stymied in taking chances or if many just weren’t actually taking chances. Granted, I’m about 13 years out of any type of educational institution so it’s entirely possible that there are courses on all fashion of the Black experience, but we always seem to hear about them for a reason. So the Beyoncé fan in me is excited that any classes of the sort exist. And I do think she took her artistry into a whole different stratosphere with the release of Lemonade.
Seems like the visuals alone are ripe for the picking for all matters of the experience of Black women, in particular. It’s for reasons like that I wish that I could audit a class just to see what Beyoncé in an academic setting looks like. So, what DOES Beyoncé in an academic setting look like? What’s the approach? Projects? Tell me about the class!
KB: Some do and get stymied. Some don’t and won’t take that chance. I believe my freedom in course choices to be not necessarily unique but also not necessarily common. Some folks get handed a syllabus when they arrive with the understanding that this is the way the department has taught African American literature for the last 15 years and expects to teach it for the next 15 years. I also earn/balance out my course freedom by teaching core or service course like the Intro courses that are the workhorses of the department. So, I’m also teaching Introduction to Graduate Studies along with the Beyoncé course.
Hmm. Beyoncé in an academic setting. I’ve included the syllabus (Beyonce Syllabus) so you can see what’s going on but it’s about using Lemonade as a framework with which to enter a conversation that’s been going on about black womanhood amongst black women for over a century. Janell Hobson has spoken about Beyoncé as a Conjure Woman and so I have the students read her blog post and then use that idea to introduce the folkloric figure of The Conjure Woman–who first appeared in African American literature in the late 19th-Century in a collection of stories by Charles Chesnutt. So we read about the oral folklore concerning the Conjure Woman in the work of Kameelah Martin and then look at the contemporary literary manifestation of the Conjure Woman by reading Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day. So the students start with Beyoncé and expand further into classic African American literature and folklore.
Though today, I finally admitted to the students what they all knew. They had been bamboozled! Led astray (Their words!) because I have them reading hardcore literary theory and analyzing complex literature and folklore all under the guise of studying Beyoncé.
But the class wouldn’t be so successful if I didn’t have such a strong group of students. They are working their butts off and thinking about blackness and womanhood in popular culture and literature they never thought they could accomplish. And I am so proud of them. They continue to amaze me because they are so passionate and yet complex in their assessments of the readings.
And today I assigned them to make their own Lemonade Short films they write, film, edit, and analyze themselves.
P: I imagine that the possibility of taking a class about Beyoncé, and specifically Lemonade would be very well received by students, even if they do feel bamboozled. What kind of students sign up for the class? Do you think they’ll come out with a greater appreciation for Beyoncé and look at Lemonade differently? Has teaching this class made you look at Beyoncé differently?
KB: Teaching this class has definitely made me see her differently. I think I respect her more because of how deeply so many of the students admire her. And how hard they are willing to work to understand more of what she is doing.
We have all kinds of students. Half of the class is Black women. The other half is a healthy mix of Latina and white students, male and female, and across the sexuality spectrum. I am surprised by the number of straight male students of color (Black and Latino) that are in the class who are doing the work.
I also want to be clear. None of the students are drinking Beyoncé Kool-Aid. They have some hard questions for her and the work and make me think harder about the work. They push back in terms of who isn’t included in Lemonade that often go hard for Beyoncé–fat women and men who identify as queer (particularly those of color).
I can’t wait until we read the pieces that push back at Lemonade and they take their analysis even deeper. We are going to read Ashleigh Shackleford’s piece on Lemonade and feeling excluded and I think it is strong and going to really push the students to interrogate Beyoncé and the text for weaknesses and examine her imperfections, which is necessary as critics of Beyoncé and popular culture as a whole. But I continue to reiterate, similar to their support of Lemonade–their critiques of Lemonade must be as supported and documented by the evidence.
P: Well I think this is all awesome and I really appreciate you taking the time to share and discuss the class with me. As a student of pop culture, I’m always intrigued when academics find ways to intermingle the two worlds. Has the class and response from students met your own expectations? And are there any other types of classes you hope to bring to the masses that are in similar veins? I understand if you can’t let that cat out of the bag, but I had to ask. And lastly, is there anything additional that you’d like to share about the class, life, or anything? The floor is yours!
KB: Wow, the entire floor? That makes me nervous.
My students have exceeded my expectations. The response for the class has been out of control. I simply wanted to work out my thoughts on Lemonade with my students as I am co-writing an article with Dr. Kameelah Martin! A great trick we academics use is to center your class readings/teachings on your current research so you are FORCED to do the reading and writing–because you have to teach it.
I’m currently working on a course on Afrofuturism and planning a visit from Black Kirby next semester to talk about Blackness, comic books, and cool science fiction stuff.
Anything I can do to get my students excited about literature and cultural studies concerning black womanhood in all its many different aspects, I’m in. Lemonade is not perfect, nothing is, but it gave many of us scholars an opportunity, an entrance into the enthusiasm of our students. Many of my colleagues had students emailing us and asking all kinds of interesting questions and courses like this are our opportunity to weave together what our students see every day and the socio-cultural structures that gird them. We also get a chance to share what we do and remove some of the mystery that surrounds academia for folks.
Thank you for this opportunity. I really enjoyed our conversation and thanks for showing some love to academia. I really enjoy your website and have been following y’all for years. (And sometimes fighting in the comment sections–under my secret agent alias, of course!)
Have a wonderful day!
P: Thank you!