Lemonade: Beyoncé’s Black Feminist Declaration
It is important that the word ‘black’ is in this headline. A few outlets have omitted that word from the bolded titles of their respective Lemonade reviews. They’ve focused on the visual album’s Southern Gothic influences, the fashion, and Becky. Yes, all of those things are worthy of note but above all else, Lemonade is a love letter to black women. Visually, it’s a painting depicting a singular experience. Lyrically, it’s an unparalleled ode to black female complexity, pain and empowerment. I really don’t think my brain can come up with words to articulate how affected I am by Lemonade or how incredible I think it is but I am going to try.
At the crux of Lemonade is Beyoncé’s thesis statement: if you’re black and also a woman, life will hand you lemons: a harsh proclamation that reveals an even harsher reality. This statement is cemented by the harrowingly still-relevant sample of a Malcolm X speech from 1962 called Who Taught You to Hate Yourselves that leads into Don’t Hurt Yourself: “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.”
Beyoncé assembled some of America’s finest black women as if to say: we will no longer be disrespected and ignored. Twitter spoiled the Serena Williams surprise for me but it was no less epic. Serena is the greatest living female athlete. She’s one of the greatest athletes of all time, period. Lainey has written multiple times about how Serena’s achievements have been tainted by racist critiques and her body has been shamed by even more racist commentary. Serena is a soldier for black girl body positivity and a beacon of black excellence. Serena had to be there. So did the faces of the current #BlackGirlMagic movement Amandla Stenberg, Zendaya, Quevzanhne Wallis and Winnie Harlow. With these cameos, it’s like Beyoncé is ushering in the new generation of feminists with wise warnings and a warm welcome. She’s declaring black is beautiful and black is worthy but make sure you know your worth. The scene during Freedom where all of the magical black girls are at a dinner party dressed in white cotton with a striking Southern backdrop was one of the many times Lemonade brought tears to my eyes. Think about how important it is for young girls to see this imagery and feel this message? What did we do to deserve Beyoncé?
Lemonade tackles black girl insecurities like battling with wanting to be “softer” and “prettier.” She shouts out a mythical “Becky with the good hair.” To me, this reference was symbolic and not a specific call to one Becky in particular but to all the basic Beckys with “good hair” who have made us feel inferior. The Rachel Roy sh-t is hilarious and sure, it’s good for gossip but I think we’re missing the point if “Becky” is where the focus lands.
Don’t get it twisted though, the gossip is still important. The cheating references are explicit. What isn’t clear is whether Bey is airing out Jay-Z’s penchant for side chicks or if songs like Hold Up and Sorry (boy, bye!) were written about Beyoncé’s parents. If she is channelling her mother, she’s making it very clear that Miss Tina ain’t someone to f-ck with. Aside from the scorned woman narrative, Beyoncé is undoubtedly working through her complicated relationship with her father Matthew. On Daddy Lessons, Beyoncé wrestles with who she is because of and in spite of her father’s influence. Here’s where I got emotional again. Lemonade was a worldwide event but it felt very personal. It felt personal not just because the album is Beyoncé's most emotionally revealing to date but the conversations surrounding black men and infidelity hit home for me.
Over the past two years I have watched my parents' marriage deteriorate. I've learned things about my father I wish I never knew and thought could never be true. In a roundtable about Lemonade for NYMag called “Beyoncé’s Lemonade and the Undeniable Power of a Black Woman’s Vulnerability,” editor Dee Lockett wrote something I still can’t shake: “[black] love is always political, it has no choice. When it fails, it’s a failure for all black lovers.”
The broken home is a black stereotype. It’s one I never thought my family would perpetuate. There’s a multitude of emotions that come with losing your solitary black male role model in a world where only black women are holding black men up to the highest standard. It’s dark sh-t. When Bey took us through the stages of these emotions, intuition, denial, anger, apathy, accountability, reformation and forgiveness, I felt like I was in therapy. But this is the beauty of Lemonade. Beyoncé is affirming that we aren’t alone. She is giving power to a sisterhood of women who have held up communities even when dealing with heartbreak and loss.
This brings me to Lemonade’s most breathtaking moment. During Forward, we’re met with the faces of the mothers of the late Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. These three women represent a movement which declared that Black Lives Matter while they tearfully hold up images of their dead black sons. The 24-hour news cycle may have forgotten their names but Beyoncé made us remember.
Beyoncé’s feminist and cultural significance is nothing new but she just exceeded her potential. She has always been our Queen Bey but after Formation and now Lemonade, her crown has been fitted, shined and placed permanently atop her flawed yet flawless head. The woman of few words shouted defiantly that she speaks for us and will speak up for us through her art. She’s Nina. She’s Toni. She’s Maya. Like Simone, Morrison and Angelou, Beyoncé has emerged as a warrior for black women. Proudly, I’ll get in Formation.