Dear Rutgers University: How Could You Cancel The “Politicizing Beyonce” Course?!
Dear Rutgers University,
Recent reports have revealed that you cancelled the very popular “Politicizing Beyonce” course — which delves into “current class, racial, gender and sexual politics through the music and career of Beyonce” — this semester. Rumor has it the class may resurface next year, but only after being moved from the Women’s and Gender Studies department to American Studies. Hearing about this cancellation is rather upsetting. As a Black woman and college graduate, I want to stress the importance of having classes that connect women of color to their struggle, allowing them to form critical opinions of the societal structure pervasively recreated by media and culture. I can only hope that the class will be made available to students in the future, as many hope. As a writer, I would also like to highlight the importance of allowing professors the freedom to name such courses in a manner that will not only appeal to young students, but also make such necessary classes viable.
As a woman of color, I spent the vast majority of my existence in American classrooms. From elementary school, middle school, high school to college, years and countless hours of my life were dedicated to studying people who very rarely looked like me. I was introduced to “classic literature” by White female teachers who always stressed the importance of contextualizing the language of Shakespeare or analyzing the societal impact of Dante’s Inferno and sexism in books like The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible. I was taught the history of the Pilgrims and could recite the precise year in which Columbus “sailed the ocean blue.” Whenever anyone resembled me in a history book, the subject matter mostly revolved around slavery or inequality. It was not until my junior year of high school that I was introduced to the fantastic, broad works of Black writers, when I learned Why The Caged Bird Sings. It was not until my junior year in college that I attended a class that critically analyzed not only the origins of, but the cyclical recreation of America’s racially stratified society and economy.
That class empowered me, through critical analysis and understanding, to now challenge the very same structures that made access to a more diverse education far out of reach for myself and my peers. Through varying lectures and access to a wide-range of studies, I became acquainted with terms like “intergenerational poverty,” “the wealth gap,” “employment discrimination” and “tracking.” In that class, the various experiences that had shaped my life because I was Black were finally connected to a broader understanding of society and the ways race functions in it, from a macro-level point of view. And all of a sudden, I was no longer just an individual, but a Black person fighting amongst many for a proper place in society!
Needless to say, that college experience was life-altering. Only a year later, I began publishing my experiences with America’s racism and the many ways that it needs to be addressed. When I ran into the professor who taught the class that literally brought so much perspective and understanding into my academic world, he explained to me that he may no longer be teaching the course I learned so much from. He said that it did not fare well in terms of student turn out, so it might have be cancelled. I immediately understood why. Titled with academic words like “racial,” “stratification” and “economy,” the class remained unpopular at the university, despite the huge impact it had on the students who were lucky enough to enroll. As I have learned through publishing various pieces that deal not only with racism, but also sexism and feminism, titles can mean the difference between success and failure.
Despite the fact that the public, and young people, very much yearn for knowledge, oftentimes we need an entry point to difficult conversations that resonate with us. For this reason precisely, before publishing a piece that critically delves into any societal issue, writers often wait for timely ledes that will connect readers to the bigger idea. I can point to various examples in my own work, from this discussion about father’s sexualizing their daughters, introduced by Donald Trump’s derogatory statements about his own daughter, to a piece about the race-based wage gap, using Patricia Arquette’s misguided Oscar acceptance speech, and even another article I wrote about Black female hypersexualization after the release of Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” video. We know and understand that the best way for a piece to get the public’s attention is to connect it with a timely conversation or familiar face. So, in this way, your professor Kevin Allred was brilliant in his course-naming approach: He used one of the biggest Black pop stars in the world to prime important conversations about feminism that may had been overlook had he named it otherwise. He employed a marketing technique that worked.
After all, which other classes in the Women’s Studies Department have received both national and international media coverage?
Yet, for this success, your professor was penalized. Though you did not give a formal reason for why the class was cancelled this semester, Allred told the Guardian, “Behind the scenes, they told me that because so many people wanted to take it, it was detracting from other courses.” That penalty impacted not only your professor, but also the young women of color who would have greatly benefited from a class that spoke to their own personhood in a way that was uniquely appealing.
To return to my college experiences, the one thing that I was not afforded in those four years was a class that specifically spoke to my Black womanhood. Perhaps it existed at the very liberal New York university which I attended. Maybe I mistakenly overlooked it because the name had not caught my attention. Or maybe it plainly did not exist. Whatever the reason for why I was not afforded that learning, I very much needed it. While I left college with a better understanding of how race functioned in society, it would be years later that I would begin to reconcile or understand the impacts of patriarchy and misogyny on Black women. Had I been exposed to the work of Black feminists like Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, bell hooks and Chimamanda Ngozi (many of the theorists who are prominently featured in the “Politicizing Beyonce” class), I would have had an easier time navigating such inequality in “the real world.” Instead, I felt mostly alone and isolated trying to come to grips with it on my own.
It is primarily for this reason that I felt compelled to address the cancellation of your “Politicizing Beyonce” course. If the mission of your University is truly to create “innovative learning opportunities, programs, and services that prepare students to lead, serve, and become engaged members of a global society,” then affording Black women the opportunity to understand and come to terms with their fight against inequality is part of your duty to them as educators. For only through that understanding will they truly be prepared for what they must face in this global society, built on racial and gender inequality.
A class that does just that should be celebrated, not cancelled. Please see to it that the necessary steps are taken to ensure the course’s availability to your future students.