(In celebration of #BeyDay 2019, we revisit this thoughtful analysis of one of Beyoncé’s most iconic cultural moments to date. —Ed.)
Beyoncé’s Lemonade is a black album. Before we can talk about the visuals, the poetry, the symbolism, or anything else, we have to start with the premise of blackness. While many of Beyoncé’s earlier feminist anthems walked right up to the line of a specifically black experience—“7/11,” “Feeling Myself,” “Flawless”—Lemonade wants you to know the line has been crossed and you’ve been offered a rare glimpse to the other side. From the words of Somali-British poet Warsan Shire to Serena Williams twerking, Lemonade is a collection of experiences and signifiers centered around black womanhood. Specifically, Lemonade looks at a version of black femininity that is rooted in Southern traditions and customs. As the videos unfolded, I remembered my own Texas family—my mother pressing my grandmother’s hair, my aunts and sisters joined together in prayer circles. I saw the rituals of black women laid bare; rituals that are so often dismissed in society.
Early on in the visual album, Beyoncé lets Malcolm X drive home this point:
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.
Lemonade’s devotion to femme blackness isn’t new to pop culture—black female artists have been sharing their experiences and stories since Sister Rosetta Tharpe invented rock ’n’ roll. The visual album and poetry draw from this same sphere, carrying the tradition of proudly black albums by greats like Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin. Where it differs is in how personal and raw it feels. This is Beyoncé at her most open and ugly. Her marriage, her family, her childhood—everything is put on display, and it actually feels real. “I’m not too perfect to ever feel this worthless,” says the artist whose image has been meme’d onto the face of God. “God is God and I am Not” flashes across the screen, and, in that moment, Queen Bey would like to decline the crown. This is an unveiling that’s been in the process since Beyoncé was dropped on us that fateful December day in 2013.
While previous pop albums that celebrated blackness focused on the positive—“we are young, gifted, and black”—Lemonade adds “and angry, ignored, and tired.” It presents the black woman as fully realized in doubt, joy, apathy, and desperation. It moves beyond the stereotypes that so routinely take up the space of actual black women in pop culture. It is the story of black daughters, black mothers, black grandmothers, and the many things they’ve lost and regained. The plantation used as a setting throughout Lemonade is the birthplace of black female pain, loss, and anger. The imagery throughout evokes a specifically black female experience, one that is often forced to exist behind a veil for fear of judgment. The black woman who demands accountability is referred to as upset, aggressive, or angry. The black woman who expresses joy is too loud or inappropriate. These stereotypes are reflected in the tropes of the Angry Black Woman or the Sassy Black Sidekick, stereotypes that threatened the dismissal of any black woman who dared to openly be herself.
There’s a separation that occurs when you exist in a society that demands you limit your expressions of blackness in order to be seen as acceptable. When the burden of womanhood is thrown on top of that, it’s hard to imagine many spaces where a black woman can live or express herself openly. As I started to write about Lemonade, my first concern was, “Exactly how black can I get before I make someone uncomfortable?” Retreating to that veil is instinctive, even for Beyoncé, who until now has never created a work that is so black. Lemonade is a space that allows and encourages black female expression. You think it’s unprofessional when Serena Williams dances on the tennis court? Well, watch her twerk. You think it looks bad when Zendaya wears dreadlocks on the red carpet? Here she can freely wear her hair in cornrows, without the LA Times giving Kylie Jenner credit for it.
In Lemonade, Beyoncé boldly reclaims her right to express her black self outwardly. These emotions are imperfect, at times full of self-hatred and doubt before quickly switching to proclamations of joy and gratitude. Beyoncé is not afraid of being labeled the Angry Black Woman as she smashes car windows and laments her lover’s betrayal. But this isn’t shallow or entertaining anger, it’s centered in a legacy of black female revenge. Her yellow ruffled dress and emergence from water during the wrathful song “Hold Up” clearly reference Oshun, a Yoruba water goddess who oversaw love and wrath. As fires rage behind her, I think of a scene from Waiting To Exhale—another rare instance of pop culture that seriously engages with the intricacies of black womanhood—where Angela Bassett walks away from her husband’s burning car, which she sets aflame after he leaves her for a white woman. And Becky isn’t just Beyoncé’s problem, Becky is a standard of white femininity and beauty black women have been held to for centuries that tells us, “you’re not good enough.”
I saw the story of my own Great Aunt Adell, who, legend has it, came home to discover her cheating husband and simply said, “Let me go get you some lemonade.” She then came back with a shotgun and told them to never step foot on her property again. As I watched Lemonade, I saw actual black women. I saw the legends and customs we so often keep hidden among ourselves. They were proudly on display, clearly acknowledged—the diversity of our hair, the various shades of our skin, generations of secrets. So why wasn’t anyone talking about it? Why were so many reviews focused on Beyoncé’s relationship drama when she offers so much more to examine? Why the immediate rush to discredit her emotional outpouring as a ploy to sell records instead of legitimate artistic expression?
The answer is obvious. It’s easier to discuss Jay Z’s adultery or the Beyhive’s attempts to find “Becky with the good hair” than it is to discuss the painful realities of the black female experience in America. As the mothers of Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner come across the screen during “Forward,” we are forced to consider the implications of a society built around white supremacy. We are forced to recognize privileges that are difficult to acknowledge. Lemonade asks that we finally see the specific pain these systems have caused for black women both privately and publicly.
It’s not a conversation a lot of people are ready to have. It goes beyond the difficulties of talking about race. It’s the rawness of the wound. The degradation and double standards that black women are subjected to are felt as acutely today as they were when my Great Aunt Adell came strolling coolly into her bedroom, shotgun cocked at her hip. She died this week at the age of 104. She experienced this country’s legacy at its most hateful, and in her final moments all she wanted to say was “I’m at peace”—a testament to the strength and power of black female forgiveness, one of the final themes of Lemonade. I am happy to imagine future generations engaging with the beautiful complexities of my aunt’s legacy. Beyoncé’s Lemonade opens that door by boldly coming forward to give spotlight to those most disrespected, unprotected, and neglected voices in America.