Beyoncé Didn’t Go To College, But Homecoming Is Her Graduation
A year after she delivered a Coachella performance so epic the whole 2018 festival was given the moniker “Beychella,” Netflix dropped Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé. For the past year, only bootlegs of the performance existed, but the Beyoncé-directed concert doc, which gloriously melds together both of her Coachella weekend sets, finally brings us all to the pyramid-shaped stage that was so iconic festival organizers displayed it again this year. (Yes, Beyoncé is such an icon that her stage, without her on it, is worth a visit.)
Beychella celebrated America’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and the annual homecoming that brings alumni back to them each fall, filling the streets with beautiful, smart, black people. It’s a week of football games, marching bands, and step-dancing routines so intricate that they rival any choreography on Broadway. Black sororities and fraternities proudly wear their colors and do dance routines that go back to the early 1900s. In the film, Beyoncé talks about growing up in the shadow of Prairie View A & M University in Texas (established in 1876, just 13 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, it is one of the nation’s oldest HBCUs) and about seeing Coachella as her own homecoming to the stage after the difficult birth of her twins. Howard’s homecoming website describes the event as “that intense excitement and happiness you get when you come home and reconnect. It’s Black love. It’s steeped in excellence, truth and service.” That description is as apt as any for what Beyoncé’s Coachella performance and Homecoming documentary are about as well. But for me, Homecoming was not just a tribute to the world of HBCUs and black love and excellence, it is a tribute to something I’ve come to consider and appreciate deeply: the education of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.
For the last month I’ve been on book tour for a collection of essays I edited: Queen Bey: A Celebration of the Power and Creativity of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. It’s been striking to me, when I’ve done radio interviews and talks, how many people question the singer’s intelligence. They call in to the station or they raise their hands at events and say, “She’s pretty, but…” “She can sing, but…” Lord knows, Beyoncé doesn’t need me to defend her (the Beyhive is fierce), but again and again, I would say, Come on now … If you listen to her music, if you follow her Instagram, if you watch the visuals that accompany the music, you know that she’s more than intelligent. And she’s self-educated. When she quotes poets like Warsan Shire or the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, you know that she’s not just saying the words. She’s read the books. And when she puts those quotes into her music, it’s like a speakeasy book club that makes you want to read these books too.
You don’t even get five minutes into Homecoming before Beyoncé quotes Toni Morrison, and then later on, Alice Walker and W. E. B. Du Bois, while also noting the schools they attended (Howard, Spelman, and Fisk, respectively). Throughout the Homecoming Bey celebrates the vaulted temples of education that produced some of the world’s greatest minds, while acknowledging that college is something that she missed out on. “I always dreamed of going to an HBCU,” she says. “My college was Destiny’s Child. My college was traveling around the world and life was my teacher.” But what I saw in the film, through the references she makes, through the way she studies her craft as well as the histories and people who shaped the culture, is how much she believes that you can live in a black world and never want for genius. When I was in college in the late ’80s and early ’90s, black work was still seen as outside the canon. But by the late ’90s/early 2000s, people like Toni Morrison were the American canon. People no longer believed that you only have to read white authors to be well-read. We have Morrison and Adichie and Zadie Smith and from them we get a Beyoncé: someone who was taught to be and is unapologetically black.
As I was putting together the Queen Bey book, while authors like Luvvie Ajayi, Brittney Cooper, and Michael Eric Dyson, said yes right away, there were writers who turned me down. One writer said, “What is there to say, in a book, about Beyoncé?” I remember so well, sitting in the quad at Stanford University, where I was teaching at the time, talking on the phone to an older author who declared that Beyoncé had failed black people by not going to college when for generations black people had exalted education as a means to uplift the race. “She had the means and the time,” this writer said.
I argued then as I continue to do now, that it was clear she had devised a helluva independent study of art, literature, and history and infused that into her work. In 2014, Beyoncé and Jay-Z took a private tour of the Louvre and posted a photo of themselves standing in front of the Mona Lisa. In 2018, the couple returned to the museum, to shoot the video for their song, “Apeshit”. Bey’s fans have come to love how she mixes high art with low art, the rarified with the political, and “Apeshit” was no different. Only Beyoncé could sing lyrics like this in one of the most revered art institutions in the world: “She a thot that you claim / Can’t be topping my reign / Sipping my favorite alcohol / Got me so lit, I need Tylenol / All of my people I free ‘em all.” The Louvre responded by creating a special Beyoncé and Jay-Z guided tour of the museum and fans from all over the world, showed up and showed out. Due largely to the Carters, the Louvre broke attendance records in 2018, 10.2 million people visited the museum that year, more than a 25 percent bump over the previous year, and more than half a million visitors more than the museum’s highest attendance records ever.
Beyoncé brought the Louvre to the world. Similarly, while Beyoncé didn’t go to college, she brought college to Coachella. And now because of Homecoming, the text of those colleges and universities, the on-campus experience of going to those schools will live forever. Somebody give this woman an honorary degree so we can start calling her doctor, the way we did with our beloved Dr. Maya Angelou. There’s a Wyclef Jean lyric where he says, “You’re looking at my watch, but my mind is the diamond.” I thought of that when I watched Homecoming. So many people stop at the beauty of her physicality. But trust, her mind is the diamond.
Veronica Chambers is the editor of Queen Bey: A Celebration of the Creativity and Power of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @vvchambers