What do Beyoncé and Audre Lorde have in common?

Sarita Cannon standing next to concrete columns

Three questions for Associate Professor of English Sarita Nyasha Cannon

This story originally appeared on the University’s Bold Thinkers blog, which ran from May 2018 to Nov. 2019.

Associate Professor of English Sarita Nyasha Cannon’s expertise goes beyond her focus on 20th-century American literature. She is also an opera singer who performs with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and in productions throughout the Bay Area and beyond. Here, she discusses her research drawing parallels between two very different figures, and explains how she links her love of performance to the classroom.

What was your inspiration for writing a conference paper comparing Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” album and the late black lesbian author and activist Audre Lorde’s “Zami”?

This paper was inspired by my English 614 course, Women in Literature. Students had just handed in a paper on Lorde’s 1982 biomythography “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name,” and I decided that we would watch and discuss parts of Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album “Lemonade” in class. I drew connections between Beyoncé’s work as a feminist artist and the writings of black women we had studied in the course so far. I saw a link between Beyoncé’s self-fashioning in this album and Lorde’s self-creation in “Zami,” and after the semester ended, I explored it further.

How is “Lemonade,” the visual album and EP by Beyoncé, a genre of autobiography called biomythography?

“Lemonade” exemplifies the genre that Lorde invented in “Zami.” A combination of “biography and history and myth” (in Lorde’s own words), this new genre allowed Lorde to reimagine herself using a variety of sources but always within the context of a larger black female community. ...

Although Lorde and Beyoncé might seem like unlikely bedfellows, even a preliminary examination of their masterpieces demonstrates their similar interests in telling stories that evoke the richness of the African diaspora and provide space for a multiplicity of voices to be heard. Especially for African-descended people, the individual’s story is always created, consumed and understood within the larger context of the group. This can be onerous when one feels burdened to represent the group in the best light possible by only sharing the most unimpeachable version of one’s self. But from another perspective, the interconnection between the self and the group may serve as a source of strength, a way to assert shared values and visions, even while honoring different individual experiences.

The woman-centered communities of care, connection and empowerment that both women represent and cultivate in their respective works provide a bulwark against the oppressive forces of racism, sexism and homophobia.

How are you able to combine your love for performing with pedagogy?

I often bring music, art and dance into the literature classroom, encouraging students to see the connections among different art forms, and my own investment in the arts animates my teaching.

And as professors, we are “onstage,” always considering our audience and thinking about how effectively to tell a story and how to engage students. So those two passions complement each other nicely.


Read the full interview here.