Education

New Beyoncé Anthem Guaranteed to Resonate with Black Scholars, Again

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Beyoncé has a new song, Break My Soul. As usual, us loyal fans are wild about it. I promise to get to it, but let me first write about three prior experiences in which Beyoncé inspired other Black scholars and me.

The 2016 National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education (NCORE) occurred shortly after the release of Lemonade, a visual album by Beyoncé. I was the NCORE opening speaker that year. I framed my keynote entirely on songs and stunning images from Lemonade. Specifically, I used Beyoncé’s lyrics as metaphors for various racialized experiences that many people of color have in the academy. It felt like church with lots of spontaneous shouts, applause eruptions, and arms raised in hallelujah posture as expressions of spiritual resonance. It seemed that most people really loved it. The show I put on at NCORE would not have been possible had it not been for the brilliance of Lemonade’s creator.Dr. Shaun R. Harper

Ohio State University Professor Dr. Lori Patton Davis, my best friend, was the first Black woman elected president of the Association for the Study of Higher Education. In her 2018 ASHE Presidential Address, Lori situated Beyoncé as a producer of performative scholarship and as a possibility model for positioning Black women as knowledge holders and academic producers worthy of citation. She also brilliantly used a Beyoncé lyric to advocate for pay equity for Black women in the academy. President Patton Davis notably entered and exited the stage to Apeshit, a Beyoncé and Jay Z song. From start to finish, the entire experience she curated for us also felt like church. Black ASHE members were especially affirmed.

And then there is Homecoming, the unforgettable 2018 Beyoncé Coachella performance that was subsequently released as a Netflix documentary. As explained in my 2019 article, the performance was a powerful tribute to Historically Black Colleges and Universities. This resonated with me for two particular reasons. First, as a proud graduate of Albany State, a public HBCU in Georgia, I appreciated the cultural authenticity of Homecoming. Beyoncé, the musicians, and dancers transported me back to the years I spent on my college drum line. The performance also inspired me as a Black professor. I was mesmerized that Beyoncé went into a mostly white music festival and did what she wanted to do. It was deeply and deliciously Black. It is important to note that she was the first Black woman to headline Coachella. I have been the first Black academic in several spaces, including my decade on the higher education faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. In the most unapologetic way, like Beyoncé, I often show up in the Blackest way possible without care for the whiteness that has and continues to dominate spaces in which I do my work.

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Now, on to Break My Soul, the newest Beyoncé single that dropped Tuesday morning. Its clear themes of resistance, resilience, and self-determination are sure to resonate with Black academicians. Unlike Lemonade, which required metaphorical adaptations to the higher education workplace, I see many obvious connections in this newest song.

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“And I just quit my job; I’m gonna find new drive; Damn, they work me so damn hard,” are lyrics in the first verse. Many Black scholars leave predominantly white institutions (PWIs) because of the ‘Black Tax’ – the racialized workload disproportionality that requires us, for example, to advise and support high numbers of students of color, serve as token appointees on campus committees, engage in unpaid and unrewarded diversity labor, and write more external review letters for tenure cases than our white colleagues because there are so few tenured Black professors in one’s field to do so. While we care about diversity and students of color, we also care about the scholarly ideas that originally attracted us to academic careers. Thus, some of us leave one place for another with the hope of finding more harmony and balance between our personal and professional missions.

At several junctures throughout the song, Beyoncé chants, “You won’t break my soul, you won’t break my soul, you won’t break my soul, you won’t break my soul.” This declaration aligns powerfully with what I hear from Black faculty in my research on workplace racial climate. In interviews, they describe horrifying encounters with racial microaggressions, overt racism, disrespect, discrimination, disregard for their scholarship, tenure and promotion inequities, and racialized double standards. Other USC Race and Equity Center researchers and I hear much from Black women about how the intersectionality of racism and sexism – and for some, queerness, age, and/or body type – undermines their belonginess and success in academia. Given all this, “why do you stay” is a follow up question we pose in interviews with Black professionals. Consistently, they articulate an unwillingness to be broken by their white colleagues.

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Early in my faculty career, I remember witnessing one Black woman mentor of mine experience tremendous disrespect and workplace abuse. It was heartbreaking to watch. However, it was also weirdly inspiring to watch her refusal to be broken by the institution. “You won’t break my soul” was an apparent mantra of hers long before Beyoncé popularized the self-protective stance. This mentor’s career was at least 25 years longer than mine; she had been a professor at several PWIs. I thought of her as I heard these words in Break My Soul:

 

We go round in circles

Round in circles

Searching for love

We go up and down

Lost and found

Searching for love

I remember my mentor telling me, “As it pertains to being a Black professor at these white schools, don’t nothing change but the names.” I have since heard other Black women, men, and genderqueer scholars talk about the sameness of PWIs, and how they left one university for another hoping to find more love for them and their work – ultimately going round in circles.

I offer one additional noteworthy connection. Beyoncé twice sings these words:

Motivation

I’m looking for a new foundation, yeah

And I’m on that new vibration

I’m building my own foundation

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Black scholars are often left to motivate ourselves, sometimes as individuals and other times in collectives with other scholars of color. Because the overwhelming majority of us earned our doctorates at PWIs, we began faculty careers having been socialized to a set of academic norms and expectations that were fashioned by white people over the years. That socialization is reinforced in our pursuits of tenure and promotion as we are required to comply with values that are not necessarily ours. It is liberating for me to see Black scholars reach a point at which we unapologetically reclaim our mission and build new foundations for the forward movement of our careers. I love seeing friends and colleagues who are Black on a “new vibration,” as Beyoncé calls it. That new vibration often shows up as bold opposition to what otherwise could have resulted in soul-breaking psychological, physiological, and professional outcomes.

I urge Black scholars to read the Break My Soul lyrics for themselves and discover connections that inspire and resonate with them. I also want them to dance and experience the joy Beyonce gifts us in this liberating anthem. Last piece of advice for us: Don’t let the academy break our souls.

Dr. Shaun Harper is the Clifford and Betty Allen Professor in the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. He also is founder and executive director of the USC Race and Equity Center.

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