Beyoncé, Creoles, and Modern Blackness

By Tyina Steptoe, author of Houston Bound

Beyoncé is a black woman. This isn’t exactly earth-shattering news; after all, the 34-year-old, Houston-born entertainer has one of the most recognizable faces in the world. Yet, since the release of the video for her song “Formation” on February 6, an avalanche of tweets and think pieces have heralded the arrival of an unapologetically black Beyoncé.

Set in New Orleans, the “Formation” video features a platinum braid wearing, hot sauce-loving black woman who adores afros and her “Negro nose.” Helmed by award-winning director Melina Masoukas, the clip also prominently features images associated with the Black Live Matter movement. In one scene, a group of militarized police officers stand in front of a dancing, unarmed black boy. Another shot shows a wall tagged with the words “Stop shooting us.” These are not words or images typically associated with Queen Bey.

One day later, Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime performance featured a bevy of black female back-up dancers dressed like Black Panthers in berets and afros. Some of the women later posed with a sign that read “Justice 4 Mario Woods.” Woods was a young African American man slain by police officers in San Francisco on December 2, so the display indelibly links Beyoncé to recent protests against police killings. Some white fans reacted angrily. By Monday morning, the hashtag #BoycottBeyonce circulated on social media, and one group of detractors planned a boycott (though that didn’t quite pan out in the way they’d hoped.) “Saturday Night Live” spoofed negative white reaction with a video called “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black.” To her fans and critics, it was clear that Beyoncé has made her racial identity and modern racial politics central to her public image in 2016.

While watching clips of the video and TV performance, I was struck by one particular aspect of the new song – Beyoncé’s rejection of a monolithic blackness. In the lyrics to “Formation,” Beyoncé does more than proclaim black pride during a particularly tense period of race relations. She also highlights the diversity that has historically existed among African Americans.

My daddy Alabama
Mama Louisiana
You mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas bama.

As sociologist Zandria Robinson writes, “Beyoncé rides a southern genealogy that traverses the Deep South from Alabama to Louisiana to Texas, back and through, with stops in between.” As she takes us on that journey, Beyoncé reminds us the gumbo blend of cultures that form modern blackness. By asserting that “Texas bama” is a mixture of Negro and Creole, she also makes those two distinct categories. Indeed, Beyoncé is descended from Gulf South societies where those labels have referred to different groups at different times.

The notion that Creoles represent a different racial group from “Negro” has been shaped by the history of southern Louisiana. Most people who identify as Creoles of color are descendants of gens de couleur libre (free people of color), a group with roots in French Louisiana. Gens de couleur libre often had white fathers and enslaved African mothers. Emancipated by their fathers, this mixed-race population formed a separate group in colonial Louisiana. They married one another and formed communities throughout the southern parishes. Some owned land; the wealthier ones even owned slaves. Gens de couleur libre considered themselves to be neither white nor black, but a combination of both races. Their descendants, who referred to themselves as Creoles of color after the Civil War, continued to stress their racial and cultural hybridity.

Beyoncé’s family has roots in that society. The name Beyoncé is derived from her maternal family name, Beyincé. The Beyincé family traces its roots to French Canada, where an ancestor named Jean-Baptiste Marchesseau was born in Quebec in 1782. Before the Civil War, Louisiana-born members of the Beyincé clan lived in Saint James, Iberia, and Vermilion parishes. In a 2015 interview, Beyoncé’s mother, Tina Knowles Lawson (née Beyincé) counted an “enslaved African maternal great-grandmother and paternal grandfather from Bordeaux, France” as part of the family tree.

Like thousands of Creoles of color, members of the Beyincé family migrated to Texas in the twentieth century. Tina Beyincé was born in Galveston after her parents located there sometime after 1940. They joined an exodus of Creoles of color who relocated to the Lone Star State in the aftermath of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Most moved to Houston, where they built a community called Frenchtown in the northern section of the city’s Fifth Ward. The Beyincé family settled in nearby Galveston. For many of the Creoles of color who moved to Texas in the twentieth century, “Creole” and “black” referred to two different groups.

Relations between Texans and Louisianans could be tense. Knowles Lawson told Ebony magazine that black nuns at her Catholic school in Galveston treated her poorly as a girl. Meanwhile, some black Texans claimed that Creoles acted superior. Indeed, as New Orleans native Yaba Blay reminds us, “people who are light skinned, with non-kinky hair and the ability to claim a Creole heritage have had access to educational, occupational, social and political opportunities that darker skinned, kinkier-haired, non-Creole folks have been denied.”

By the late twentieth century, however, “Creole” was less of a racial marker than an ethnic one. Catholicism, French surnames, Creole/Cajun cuisine, and zydeco music defined Creoles, regardless of whether their ancestors were free in 1860. Furthermore, generations of Creoles of color lived in or near black communities. In Houston and Galveston, the groups frequently shared neighborhoods and institutions. They also intermarried, as when Tina Beyincé married Alabama-born Matthew Knowles. The “Texas bama” roots mentioned in “Formation” refer to the merging of two cultures, one from the Anglophone southeast, and another from French Louisiana.

“Formation” isn’t the first time Beyoncé has referred to her Creole roots. Her 2008 song, “Creole,” also asserts this identity:

So all my red bones get on the floor
And all my yellow bones get on the floor
And all my brown bones get on the floor
Then you mix it up and you call it Creole

In both “Creole” and “Formation,” Beyoncé positions herself as a mixture of different places and colors. That heritage, however, does not negate the fact that she is a black woman. Blackness is a broad enough spectrum to encompass a Creole ethnic identity.

But even as modern Creoles proudly assert their identity, they have been largely ignored outside of the Gulf Coast. Americans rarely consider ethnicities within the category of black. When we discuss racial blackness, we tend to portray African Americans as a monolithic group. Beyoncé’s repeated references to her Creole heritage illuminate debates over skin color and privilege, but also the complexities of African American identity. Premiering during Black History Month 2016, “Formation” reminds us of the wide array of cultures, cuisines, colors, and controversies that exist within modern black America.

Tyina L. Steptoe is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Arizona.

Houston Bound