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Multimodal Rhetoric in Beyoncé’s "Homecoming"
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Kimberly Fain, Ph.D., J.D. teaches literature and writing as a Visiting Professor at Texas Southern University. She has authored over 50 publications including essays, articles, reviews, chapters and three books: Colson Whitehead: The Postracial Voice of Contemporary Literature, Black Hollywood: From Butlers to Superheroes, the Changing Role of African American Men in the Movies, and African American Literature Anthology: Slavery, Liberation and Resistance.
Digital multimodal texts—such as films, podcasts, and websites—offer varying textual features that appeal to an audience’s senses. When interpreting a multimodal text, features such as images, sound, and hyperlinks assist students with their critical thinking skills. Those various textual features engage students intellectually; therefore, they are powerful teaching tools. After 20 years of teaching—as I dive deeper into my research and writing in the field of technical communication and rhetoric—I emphasize more the persuasive elements of multimodal texts. Multimodal rhetoric has the power to persuade audiences to think or behave in a certain manner. Moreover, digital media offers educators the opportunity to teach multimodal rhetoric, while maintaining our students interests in pop culture subject matter. In this post, I’ll explore Beyoncé’s Homecoming (2019) as a multimodal text, explain how she uses storytelling as a method of truth telling, and offer student review questions for my supplementary article on this film.
Beyoncé’s Homecoming is a 2 hour and 17-minute documentary featured on Netflix. This documentary is an exemplary digital text that utilizes multimodal rhetoric. Textual features such as the colorful concert footage, black and white behind-the-scenes commentary, and auditory quotes from intellectual icons—such as Audre Lord and Maya Angelou—teach diverse audiences about the power of Black womanhood, Black culture, and Black knowledge. As a cultural phenom, Beyoncé uses her pop culture platform and iconic influence to teach her audiences beyond the lyrics that she features in her videos. Beyoncé is a performer that makes her Black feminist rhetorical intentions known to her audience: “As a Black woman, I used to feel like the world wanted me to stay in my little box. And Black women often feel . . . underestimated” (Homecoming 1:07:35 -1:07:43). When Beyoncé’ speaks these words of invisibility, she is speaking to any marginalized individual that can relate to her feelings of self-doubt.
Since Beyoncé draws her audience into her personal life with images of her children and rap mogul husband, Jay-Z, I also stress how storytelling is a form of truth telling. In an online Peitho journal article entitled “Black Feminist Rhetoric in Beyoncé’s Homecoming,” I express how storytelling is a persuasive tool when teaching student audiences.
Gwendolyn Pough’s Check It While I Wreck It and “Personal Narratives and Rhetorics of Black Womanhood in Hip-Hop” inform my discussion of the use of storytelling or truth telling to evoke change in personal and social circumstances. By applying Pough’s theories of storytelling and truth telling in Beyoncé’s Homecoming performance, this explains how Beyoncé impacts her audience even though her storytelling and truth telling is rooted in the Black woman’s experience. (Fain)
Regardless of students’ race, culture, or gender, many can relate to how storytelling is a valid form of truth telling. Storytelling as a method of truth telling persuades students to bring their own personal experiences into their analysis of the text. Unless a student can relate to the text, they have difficulty assessing its value. Since Homecoming was “No. 1 in over 40 countries, including the U.S., Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Nigeria, Spain, and Turkey” (@Bey_Legion), scholars could argue that Beyoncé’s music has universal appeal regardless of her identity. Nevertheless, I chose Beyoncé because she is well-known and shares common identity traits with my students. For instance, Beyoncé is a Southern Black woman performer. I’ve found that students will engage with multiple intersection points of a performer’s identity. Students from the South can relate to Beyoncé’s Southern identity regardless of race. Students who are African American often relate to Beyoncé’s Black experiences. Meanwhile, non-black female students can relate to Beyoncé’s expressions of motherhood, sisterhood, and/or womanhood. Therefore, if you’re interested in informing your students, while they joyfully engage with pop culture that is relatable, musical documentaries like Homecoming function in that manner.
When teaching this Homecoming unit, I prepare students by showing them the YouTube trailer. This fast-paced trailer creates excitement and anticipation amongst most of my students. Depending on the length of the class (45 minutes/115 minutes), I might spend one or two class sessions watching the documentary with my students. However, I provide at least 10 minutes at the end of class to discuss significant events in the documentary. If every student has access to Netflix, I will ask them to watch the remaining minutes for homework. After watching the Homecoming documentary, they read my article entitled “Black Feminist Rhetoric in Beyoncé’s Homecoming.” For classes that prefer to verbally communicate, students will take turns reading in-class. However, if they prefer to read quietly, I provide that option instead. By the next class period, students are expected to have finished reading my article. Prior to assigning the questions, I’ll ask them if they have any questions. After this verbal warm-up, students are ready to answer my assigned written questions. If they prefer to answer the questions individually, I offer that option. However, I receive more intuitive answers when students work with a partner. By working with peers to answer these multi-pronged review questions, students gain a sense of community, while they brainstorm their interpretations with each other.
If I was working with a remote class, I would provide digital ways for students to engage with each other. For instance, I would ask a multi-pronged warm-up question in the Discussion Board and require students to respond to one or two of their classmates. Digital teaching platforms—such as Blackboard Collaborate Ultra—provide small group options that allow students to engage more privately. To familiarize my remote students, I would provide a recorded lecture accompanied by lecture notes. This will provide more context for watching the documentary and completing the review questions at a distance. If you choose to have students work in digital groups, they can complete this task in Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, Zoom, Skype, FaceTime and more.
To combat disinformation and promote the importance of textual evidence, I emphasize how determining the ethos of an author is necessary for an individual’s interpretation of a text. Please see below where I present the first four review questions. Even when my students verbally discuss their written answers in class, I provide private feedback in Blackboard. As a result of professor-student and peer communication, my students report to me that that they have a deeper understanding of various themes—such as Black womanhood, Black culture, and Black knowledge—after completing the assignment.
- How does the author’s bio establish her ethos (e.g., credibility, expertise) to speak about African Americans, Black feminism, and communication? Why is it important for an author to have expertise when speaking, teaching, and/or writing on any subject? Explain in 4-5 sentences.
- Based on the Abstract, what are 5 arguments presented in this article? Please use bullet points to list your answers.
- Please see the hyperlinked key words below the Abstract. What is the purpose of these keywords? Click on 3 different keywords. List the key words you chose and why. Then, explain in 3-4 sentences what you learned.
- After reading the first paragraph of the article, describe the Homecoming documentary in your own words using text evidence from the reading. Explain in 4-5 sentences.
@Bey_Legion. “Beyoncé’s #Homecoming—The Live Album is #1 in 40 countries.” Twitter, 17 April 19, 10:36 a.m., https://twitter.com/Bey_Legion/status/1118538707747913729.
Fain, Kimberly. “Black Feminist Rhetoric in Beyoncé’s Homecoming.” On Race, Feminism, and Rhetoric, special issue of Peitho: Journal of the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric in Composition, vol. 23, issue 4, Summer 2021. https://cfshrc.org/article/black-feminist-rhetoric-in-beyonces-homecoming/#pou3.
Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé. Directed by Beyoncé and Ed Burke, performance by Beyoncé, 2019. Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/title/81013626. Accessed 28 December 2020.
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