Lemonade continues Beyoncé Knowles‘ longstanding engagement with black Southern regionalism. The video album writes black women back into national, regional and diasporic histories by making them the progenitors and rightful inheritors of the Southern gothic tradition. Beyond “strong” and “magic,” Lemonade asserts that black women are alchemists and metaphysicians who are at once of the past, present and future, changing and healing the physical, chemical and spiritual world around them. Rihanna uses her “glitter to make [your shit] gold,” Erykah Badu compels men to “change jobs and change gods” and Janelle Monáe’s Cindi Mayweather is secretly leading the Android Revolution. But Beyoncé accounts for the method behind black women’s alchemy. Traversing genre and space, she fundamentally transforms the Southern platitude about what one should do when life hands her lemons.
Part of black women’s magic, born of necessity, has been the ability to dissemble: to perform an outward forthrightness while protecting our inner, private lives and obscuring our full selves. We have drawn on this culture of dissemblance, as Northwestern University historian Darlene Clark Hine has called it, to deflect physical and discursive violence, cultivating rich inner lives that play out behind the enduring walls of Jim Crow. Beyoncé rejects any magic predicated on constraint with Lemonade, a meditation on the process of becoming a black woman in a society in which black women matter the least, are “the mule of the world” and are the most disrespected, neglected, and unprotected. Through the metaphor of lemonade — the South’s other cold drink, sweet tea’s antithesis and sometimes nemesis, but perhaps its best collaborator — Beyoncé insists on alternative forms of inner magic that demand emotional disclosure for healing, wholeness and a freer kind of freedom.
Lemonade is an extended introduction to “Formation,” the song, visual and live performance that transformed our collective 2016 Super Bowl weekends. As the culmination of a different kind of Great Migration story, “Formation” foreshadowed the movements between space (rural and urban) and time that Lemonade takes up. But “Formation” tells us little of the physical, emotional and social labor — the trans-formation, as it were — it took to get in-formation. We learn from Lemonade that “Formation,” the last track on the audio album, is the result of a dissembling and silenced black womanhood, broken, baptized, forged in fire and resurrected through the strength of intergenerational mother wit to sing and signify resilience and resistance.
Black women’s expression of emotion can be discursively and physically dangerous for us, and sometimes telling our truth leads to violence or death. But on screen and in our minds, Lemonade provides a risk-free emotional space that sonically and visually highlights what we all miss when we dismiss and neglect black women’s emotional lives. In a musical landscape replete with black men’s emoting — Kanye West’s misogynist breakup screed, Drake’s perpetual hurt from the good girls who get dressed and go out too much, Kendrick Lamar’s struggles against a depression-inducing capitalism — Lemonade takes up a bittersweet space to explore how it feels, and how it has felt for so long, for black women to be so black and blue.
Lemonade is a womanist sonic meditation that spans from the spiritual to the trap, with stops at country soul and rock & roll in between. Its visual landscape is packed tightly with a consistent iconography of black Southern women’s history and movement through the rural and urban Souths of the past and present. The film signifies on Eve’s Bayou and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, centers sacred Nigerian body art practices, draws on the words of Warsan Shire and grandmothers’ reflections and returns again and again to Louisiana plantation spaces where black women become both the hoodoo man and the conjure woman, setting things ablaze from their very depths and surviving and healing. This rich, multilayered backdrop is not the canvas for the revelation of trite tabloid tidbits.
Although there are some underlying tensions between verisimilitude and reality in Lemonade, Beyoncé invites us to the work as a memoir, a meditation and a celebration. Like much work that has emerged in the age of Black Lives Matter, we are to read the literal relationship turmoil as a metaphor for black women’s relationship to modern systems of oppression. By offering up a prayer first, Lemonade spurns from the outset the unrelenting hate-consumption of black women’s hurt and anger that other media, notably reality television, encourage. Instead, with Beyoncé’s account of her black girl alchemist journey as only a starting point, Lemonade concerns itself with legitimating and creating space for a range of black women’s emotions, pushing back against the generational curse of hurt patriarchs and unrelenting state actors who refuse to stop hurting the women and girls who sacrifice the most and love them best.
In still and quiet formation, black women, donning white, watch us from plantation porches, returning the gaze to remind us that they are people who are feeling. Serena looks at us. Leah Chase’s eyes smile at us. Quvenzhané watches us. Beyoncé meets and holds our eyes. Lesley McSpadden, Sybrina Fulton and Gwen Carr, mothers of the slain Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, look at us, asking us to look at them and the pictures they hold of their murdered sons. Southern black women, their hair freshly Marcel-curled, look and smile. We are to be seen, they say, not just watched and consumed.
The film’s thesis is made evident in the transition from “Pray You Catch Me” to “Hold Up.” Diving from atop a building into herself, the transition finds Beyoncé’s true self under water, slumbering, while she outwardly tries to dissemble, to bracket the hurt and anxiety of a potentially cheating partner. What follows is an emergence from baptismal waters. Donning the saffron garb associated with Yoruba Orisha Oshun, whose presence endures in black Southern religious practice, Beyoncé emerges from the water un-dissembled. As such, she is both joy and rage, bringing forth more water in which the street’s children can play, busting out windows with her bat Hot Sauce, and relishing a theretofore unrealized freedom to be emotionally human.
Lemonade’s multiple chapters — intuition, denial, anger, apathy, emptiness, accountability, reformation, forgiveness, resurrection, hope, redemption — are at once about one couple; many couples; the sometimes complicated relationships between black women, men, fathers and daughters; and black women’s relationship to an unequal America. In their number, the chapters deliberately obscure alternative organizations of the work, like those deployed by Erykah Badu’s “Denial,” “Acceptance” and “Relapse” on “Green Eyes” or Coltrane’s “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm” on A Love Supreme. This refusal to group emotions into larger categories compels us to experience a broader spectrum of black women’s emotional lives.
Lemonade is Beyoncé’s intimate look into the multigenerational making and magic of black womanhood. In its moves through genre, space, place and time, it offers new tools to see black women, to listen to us, and to say our names. To black women, it offers up a saffron-tinged blueprint for love and salvation through love — of ourselves, of our significant others, of our children, of our spiritual lives — when we are so often treated as fundamentally unloveable. And though it is for certain a work of black girl alchemy, it contains infinite lessons for our fraught political moment, teaching us to register a range of emotion so we might begin our own collective journeys of transformation.