Aaron M. Moe

Assistant Professor of English at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame

Beyoncé’s Trickster Intelligence: A Look at “Formation (Dirty)”

In this final image from “Formation (Dirty),” Beyoncé, corseted, sits near a caged bird. This image appears early on, as well, and it is images like this that make me wish I was teaching African American literature right now.

Some may not give Beyoncé enough credit—and those not well-read in African American literature may think what I am going to say next to be a stretch—but this juxtaposition is one of the many ways “Formation (Dirty)” plays with the historical past in order to engage questions of today.

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906) wrote the lines “I know why the caged bird sings” in his poem “Sympathy,” and Maya Angelo, of course, used those lines for the title of her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

To see Beyoncé, corseted, next to a caged bird, at the end of a video that is very much “uncaged,” points to the resolve to keep resisting through the vernacular tradition, through singing.

It takes time for my Euro-American students to begin to “get” the vernacular. “You mean, I can write an essay on hip hop or rap in a literature course?” Yes. You can.

“You mean, ‘Formation (Dirty)’ is literary?” Yes. It is. It is literary because it plays with tropes, and because it is visibly aware of the vernacular tradition in which it participates.

Regardless if one *agrees* with Beyoncé or not, every Belle who earns a liberal arts education ought to be able to recognize and trace the ways in which her tropes develop throughout her video. The fact that so many responses to her video fail to engage with the tropes, really, is job security for English professors.

From the spirituals and folktales onward to the blues, jazz, gospel, hip hop, sermons, and rap, the vernacular hinges upon the body and the body’s performance. As the black body was a site of violence, especially for women, during slavery, the body becomes the site for the deeply embodied spirituals. The black body is still a site for violence, and it is one reason why Beyoncé’s video foregrounds the body throughout, claiming the body in all of its power.

If I were discussing this video with students, we would begin by talking about dirt.

In Trickster Makes This World, Lewis Hyde explores many facets of a trickster’s intelligence, including “dirt-work” (173-99). Any order establishes itself up and against what becomes “dirt.” When we argue about “dirt,” then, we are really engaging in a discussion about social categories, and the boundaries of those categories, and their construction, and who has the power to say “what counts” as being “not-dirt” (198). Hyde also discusses how tricksters are “joint workers” and “joint disturbers” in that they loosen or disrupt or break the seemingly unmovable joints of social constructs in order to form new joints (256). Calling “dirt” into question is one way to disrupt a joint.

Tricksters disrupt boundaries and make us visit (and revisit) how this world has been made. It gives us an opportunity to reconstruct the joints in (it is hoped) better ways.

And so, yes, I see Beyoncé exhibiting a trickster intelligence right from the beginning, for she makes the “dirty” and the “clean” versions of the video.

But is the video *dirty*? Is the black woman’s body *dirty*? Is Beyoncé simply playing into the music/video industry, using shock, being overly confrontational with two middle fingers, all to sell albums?—or is something else going on?

The fact that Beyoncé creates the two versions, clean and dirty, suggests that something else is most definitely going on. (Of course, the “clean” version simply pixilates the middle fingers, which is funny. I imagine Beyoncé saying, in a feigned surprise, “oh, you mean you were offended by something else than my middle fingers?) By foregrounding the categories clean/dirty, she raises questions about power and who gets to decide what is clean and what is dirty. Moreover, it shows how she is *aware* that dirt is at stake, and the categories in our society about who counts as dirt are at stake, and she invites us to talk about *dirt* during the Superbowl! This is why many people in the stable centers of society don’t particularly *like* tricksters.

After discussing dirt, the class and I would engage the many allusions Beyoncé integrates, each of which has a disruptive force. Some images allude to the present, others to the distant past:

  • The caged bird, discussed above, locates the video in the long history of responding to oppression and violence through the vernacular, through singing.
  • The scene of black women wearing the clothes of slave-owner’s wives, fanning themselves, near candles, claims an inversion of power (i.e. wait, why are black women wearing the “clean white clothes”), and it juxtaposes yesterday (19th century) with today; clothing becomes a trope, and Beyoncé enters into and rewrites the narrative of who has power by entering into 19th century clothing.
  • The “formation” is, at times a circle, or a line, but it is also an X. We cannot not think of Malcolm X who addressed the strange ways white society accuses black people for being “racist in reverse” in his speech on February 14, 1965, which is exactly how white media responded to the Super Bowl performance. Many people dismiss Malcolm X without reading his work. I am often surprised by how many Belles end up appreciating Malcolm X and arguing for his ideas when they actually read what he wrote.
  • The image of Dr. King, with the lines “More than a Dreamer,” ought to remind us of nonviolent direct action. When we think about it, we realize that “Formation (Dirty)” and the Super Bowl performance are intentionally a protest in the spirit of nonviolent direct action. Everyone loves Dr. King (now), but not Beyoncé. Why? One response is that nonviolent direct action is not passive, but rather, in the words of MLK, “seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” Crisis is difficult! Many people resist it, and would rather watch the Super Bowl than have to talk about race. Everyone loves Dr. King, but many would rather love his iconic status rather than his way of confronting a community with an issue. The argument “can’t you (MLK) wait to protest until after election” resonates with the argument “couldn’t you (Beyoncé) wait until after the Super Bowl.” And the answer for King and Beyoncé is simply, “Nope. We have waited long enough.” In Greek rhetoric, this ability to orchestrate timing is known as Kairos, the now-or-never moment to act. And yes, Beyoncé, like Dr. King, made many of her decisions based on timing, though most people would never place kairos and Beyoncé in the same sentence.  
  • Katrina looms large, of course.
  • Poverty looms large.
  • Hands Up Don’t Shoot looms large at the end.

And the ending is particularly compelling. A series of narratives overlay each other. We see the young, black child dancing toward a line (formation) of riot police; we see the waters rising over Beyoncé and the cop car; we end on the corseted image and the caged bird, and more.

The black child dancing, though, recalls the past. Throughout the African American literary tradition, innocence emerges as a crucial theme. Frederick Douglass’s and Harriet Jacobs’ slave narratives both begin with the moment they lost their innocence regarding race. Before this moment, they were human; after, they were black, and a slave. Countee Cullen’s famous “Incident” written in the Harlem Renaissance  also foregrounds a loss of innocence regarding race. The motif of innocence reminds us all that race is a social construct, a category that is not set-in-stone. These categories can be re-written.

The black child, with his hood up, dancing toward the riot police becomes more powerful than if he were holding a gun. He is innocent. He does not know he should not have his hood up. He does not know he should stop dancing. The riot police become so threatened by the dance, by this innocence, that they throw their arms up in surrender. (We now see how many people responded with a similar alarm, a response lampooned well by SNL.)

I cannot not think of my daughter, who attends a school that celebrates how more than 40 languages are spoken by its students, who is innocent regarding power and race, and the many kids of her generation who would not see an issue with dancing toward a line of riot police. The social categories are created and recreated each day, and “Formation (Dirty)” suggests, near the end, that the categories and assumptions can change. We can construct new joints in society.

The vernacular has a long history of being dismissed, or received with alarm and rejected due to its “in-your-face” confrontational tone. No doubt that some will never listen long enough to move past the middle fingers, the dancing, and seeing a black woman on top of a cop car. But if we listen/watch closely, we see that Beyoncé foregrounds the fact that black people will continue to resist and respond through the vernacular, and that the vernacular possess power, so much so it disrupts a line of riot police and the juggernaut of the Super Bowl.

If we listen/watch, we also see that along with expressing the rage surrounding police culture, near the end, she shows herself, and the cop car, drowning. Rather than ending on a us/them tension, she ends on a both you and I are drowning in this, together. That is, how are you and I going to find a way to construct better joints, to redefine *dirt*, and to make this world better?

Rather than seeing the performance as *merely* confrontational, I see it exploring and searching for ways that we can heal and not drown, and we can only get there if we are willing to talk about cages, dirt, bodies, and the historical forces buoying up today, but forces that a trickster intelligence can subvert, one image at a time.