On April 7th, Netflix tweeted out a single cryptic image. In a matter of hours, there were thousands of retweets, with people guessing, correctly, that Netflix was going to drop a Beyonce special.
The actual project dropped on April 17th, and the day after it premiered, I sat down to watch the 2 hour special that went behind the scenes of Beyonce’s 2018 headlining Coachella performance.
Throughout the performance, I got goosebumps. It wasn’t just the set list that gave me a serious case of nostalgia or the (SPOILER ALERT) Destiny’s Child reunion. “Homecoming” was more than just a concert performance. It was an homage to the HBCU (Historically Black College/University) experience. If you’ve never attended an HBCU, you may have watched the special, but you may have missed the signals.
The show started with an a cappella version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. The song is the official Negro National Anthem, and was written James Weldon Johnson who, at the time, was a staff member at Florida Memorial University, the HBCU that I attended.
Another nod to the HBCU experience was the inclusion of a marching band, which is integral to any black college experience. (See Drumline or Marching Orders, the Netflix Documentary about the Bethune Cookman Marching Band). I’ve had the pleasure of watching the Grambling State Marching band at the Battle of the Bands at the New Orleans Superdome, and let me tell you, watching a marching band is an experience. The musicians, the dancers, the formations, the baton twirlers all working together – it’s an absolute art form.
Another cornerstone of black colleges are step shows. In black fraternities and sororities, stepping is almost sacred. It’s a rite of passage once you’ve crossed the line and received your Greek letters. At parties, stepping is a show of solidarity, a way of saying this is my tribe and this is our space. Stepping is also very technical and precise. If one person is “out of line”, it shows. Stepping is a show of both strength and humility.
I know this because I’m terrible at it.
During my years at FMU, I pledged a community service sorority on campus. We were not part of the Divine Nine, the nine original black sororities and fraternities on campus, but we were our own little ragtag group of girls who wanted to make a difference through serving the community.
As part of our pledging process, our big sisters planned our “Come Out Show” where we would announce to the world that were now officially members of the sorority. For weeks, we practiced in parking lots, dorms rooms, and classrooms that we found unlocked. We practiced in sweat soaked clothing, our big sisters barking at us to start over each time we made a mistake.
For weeks, I struggled to master the movements. It was like doing math in my head. I would memorize a combination, but just when I got my brain wrapped around one part, we had to learn another combination.
I was hopeless.
As I watched the performance last night, I was brought back to those weeks of rehearsal. Just like the steppers during the performance, we wore combat boots (spray painted maroon) and gray jumpsuits with our line names on the back. (Mine was Snow White). I was terrible up until the night of our Come Out Show, and I don’t remember much of our performance, just that I was happy to be done.
Although the concept of an HBCU may seem outdated, those years at FMU, for me, were some of the hardest, and most character building years of life. I learned more about black history than I had ever known. More than I would have if I had not attended an HBCU. Going to an HBCU means membership to a special club. Those of us who went to FMU can laugh at some of its shortfalls, but for so many of us, it gave us a home, a safe place to affirm our black identities.
I would never take back the experience of attending an HBCU, and Beyonce’s performance reminded me of their place in black culture. For a long time, HBCUs were the only place that black Americans could receive a college education.
The Homecoming special is so important because it presents such a unique part of black culture with no explanation. There’s no urgency to clue the Coachella audience in on the rituals and songs that are a hundred years old. There’s no code switching, no attempt to make you comfortable with the text. Beyonce simply presents it. The performance was for everyone, but if you understood the detail, the intention behind each song choice, each color, each costume, and each movement, the performance was for you.
As the credits rolled, Beyonce gave us an updated version of “Before I Let Go” by Frankie Beverly and Maze. Listen, if I had not attended an HBCU, I would not be able to tell you who Frankie Beverly was for a million dollars. But any black American who has attended an HBCU can tell you, that song is part of the soundtrack to every school Homecoming, every cookout, every tailgate. It’s part of black history, and thanks to my HBCU, it’s now part of my history.