Beyoncé's badass Coachella performance honored HBCUs in a really dope way.

Do you want a college experience filled with dope music, black culture, and Beyoncé as the dean of all that is black excellence?

You should sign up for Beyoncé University.  

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella.


We got to take a class during this year's Coachella festival. The incredible singer and performer, also known as "Queen Bey," became the first black woman to headline a Coachella music festival. Naturally, her life performance oozed with pure, unparalleled black excellence. And the internet audience? Well, they were pretty damn floored.  

Between the incredible vocals, remarkable costumes, and dance moves that would've made the King of Pop jealous, her performance illustrates the epitome of hard work and perfection that she is. But even beyond the theatrics, the entire root of Beyoncé’s performance was based in a powerful central part of black culture.      

Beyoncé used her concert performance to pay homage to historically black colleges and universities, a staple of black culture and education.

Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Coachella.

We knew Beyoncé wasn’t playing around when she kicked off her performance with "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the black national anthem written by James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson. But audiences were in awe at an entire set and musical foundation dedicated to the music and culture of HBCUs.

In theory, HBCUs were really one of the first "safe spaces" for black people to be educated. Established after the Civil War, HBCUs began popping up largely in the South when predominantly white institutions impeded black students from enrolling in their institutions. Black academics and scholars like Booker T. Washington and Mary McLeod Bethune helped establish these institutions so black students could safely pursue higher education and obtain the resulting possible opportunities.    

In these HBCUs, black culture continued to develop and flourish. Sororities and fraternities like Delta Sigma Theta and Alpha Phi Alpha were developed to support black women and men, and marching bands, dancing crews, and Greek life step shows became a core cultural staple at football games, dances, and other recreational events.    

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella.

With budget cuts and systematic racism, HBCUs have struggled with funding, enrollment, and other challenges to keep the institution and culture alive. But, HBCUs still matter. As black students look toward educational communities that are both safe and empowering, the HBCU structure is more culturally relevant than ever. Beyoncé's visible used of black women dancers, HBCU marching bands, and an adorable play of (safe) Greek hazing was heartwarming and empowering for black communities around the country.

My parents were educated at an HBCU, and marching bands were as much a part of my life as American football. But, it was always in the confines of predominantly black spaces. Beyoncé’s performance — in front of a largely white crowd — was about as rich and authentic as it gets. The fact that it was broadcast for the world to see was awesome, and a great example of how important cultural pride can be.

If Bey University is anything like Beyoncé's show, where do we sign up?

True

When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Photo by Tod Perry

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