I liken watching Beyoncé’s April 2016 visual album “Lemonade” to the first time I read Their Eyes Were Watching God or The Bluest Eye. There is that breathtaking moment when a text takes root inside a reader and becomes not a far-off interpretation of self to be filtered through societal constraints of race or gender, age or nationality, but simply a reflection, a perfect image of her, the audience member, found on the pages of a book, the lines of a poem or, in this case, the haunting images paired with powerful lyrics and music. “Lemonade” is the story of life, death and family—it is both simple and complex, relying on a rebirth and redemption narrative common in black art; yet it illustrates the unique experience of black feminism in the 21st century, inviting black women to unite and stand together in order to succeed—to take our lemons and to make lemonade.
With “Lemonade,” not only has Beyoncé entered into a conversation about womanhood, blackness and gender constructs, but also exposed the raw and personal details of her own experiences. The album is separated, both visually and musically, into stages akin to grief that tell a story of the artist’s own marital struggles with infidelity. Each stage is necessary in order to move on to the next:
But “Lemonade” is not about Jay-Z cheating; not really. The text discusses the concepts of anger and betrayal, commitment and loss, fear and loneliness, insecurities and fault, intertwined with racial issues specific to the black community. It tells a universal story presented by and for black women in America, ending with the call for ladies to “get in formation” in order to better our lives and the lives of our daughters. In other words, black women must unite to overcome consistent, historical oppression, not just in the larger society, but also within our own marriages, families, homes and communities.
With the black female experience in modern America comes a unique brand of feminism, which is revealed in the complexities of “Lemonade.” Beyonce’s musical manifesto harkens back to the complicated history of black women in the States and pushes through to the 21st century by using numerous styles of music and visual representations that exemplify the modern black experience. While the music is the same on both the audio and the visual album (both moving through the stages of a black woman’s grief in the same manner), the visual album is unique in that it includes the poetry of Somali-Brit poet, Warsan Shire. The poems distinctly address the female experience with references to menses, infidelity, daughterhood and forgiveness (amongst numerous other topics), all fitting seamlessly as interludes between the music and imagery of the visual album.
Baptize me … now that reconciliation is possible.
If we’re gonna heal, let it be glorious.
1,000 girls raise their arms.
Do you remember being born?
Are you thankful for the hips that cracked?
The deep velvet of your mother and her mother and her mother?
There is a curse that will be broken.
“Lemonade” is the story of a woman who is growing and changing before our eyes. Beyoncé is talented, beautiful, rich and successful, but by her own admission in the song “Hold Up”, she is not “too perfect to ever feel [this] worthless” and would rather be seen as “jealous and crazy” than to be “walked all over.” It is the story of someone who’s “daddy Alabama, mama Louisiana” and who “likes her baby hair with baby hair and afro”; someone who is coming into her womanhood as a mother and wife, but also as a matriarch of the black community and a role model to black women, young and old.
As a young person, I read books like Anne of Green Gables and The Awakening and connected on many levels to the female characters who were outsiders in their own world. I listened to David Bowie and Nine Inch Nails and related to the dissonance and the status of “other” reflected in the lyrics and music. Raised in a religious household by a single white mother (and her white, Southern parents, with whom we lived), my sister and I didn’t know too many people who had similar experiences. In fact, I only knew a single, mixed child until high school, but he was a boy and his parents were together, and the races were flipped—his dad was white and his mom black. I spent my formative years feeling like a square peg in a round hole—a chameleon comfortable in everyone else’s skin but my own, uneasy with my mixed identity and unsure of my place in both the black and white communities.
It wasn’t until graduate school that I began to fully understand the complications of my heritage. It wasn’t until I developed a relationship with my estranged black father and had a mixed daughter of my own that I realized the importance of celebrating and exploring that heritage in order to create a sense of community in my child. I discovered art, literature, music and film that spoke to me as a black woman. For the first time in my life, I began to identify with black culture, with other black women and with the black experience in America.
Inclusion feels amazing.
It is a universal need that we all search for—in relationships, art and the institutions that we strive to be a part of. For black women, inclusion both inside and out of our own communities can be difficult. The double stigma of race and gender are placed on us, and we are expected to bear it quietly and with grace in order to survive in a society that has historically put our needs dead last. In her visual album, Beyoncé includes a soundbite from a famous Malcolm X speech in which he states,
“The most disrespected person in America is the black woman.
The most unprotected person in America is the black woman.
The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”
The civil rights leader implores black men to take care of their wives, sisters and mothers, but in “Lemonade,” Beyoncé implores us to take care of each other and the artist isn’t afraid of leading the way in this regard. The visual album includes images of famous and unknown black women of all shades and shapes. There is a deep sense of community and love running through “Lemonade,” with the music, poetry, filmography and message woven together into a letter of encouragement to black women who struggle to remain upright in a world that seems to want to drag us down. It is feminism in its purest form—an awakening borne out of pain and a struggle to find one’s own identity while simultaneously working to help others deal with similar issues, all in order to strengthen the bond that black women share.
According to Variety, HBO has decided to submit “Lemonade” for Emmy consideration in the Variety Special Category and while it is an exciting step toward sharing this stunning piece of visual art with the world, I am more excited for the inclusion of something so deeply personal to not only Beyonce, but black women everywhere. In my heart, “Lemonade” is ours. It is our story. It is our community. It is our shared history and future. Acknowledgment, while important, is not necessary. We are already included. The Queen has reminded us that we are in formation and we will not give up, nor are we going anywhere.
Lemonade. Prod. Onye Anyanwu. Perf. Beyoncé. Pulse Films, 2016.
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