sing a black girl’s song
bring her out to know herself
to know you
but sing her rhythms
carin/ struggle/ hard times
sing her song of life
In her 1975 choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, writer Ntozake Shange’s Lady in Brown urges and almost begs someone to tell the truth of the black woman’s experience. This experience, while not monolithic or singular by any means, has been invalidated, quieted, and ignored for far too long, on and off of the page.
Think suffrage and feminist movements that excluded black women. Think Ava DuVernay’s award snubs for Selma. Think Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift’s social media tiff over lack of recognition for black entertainers.
In 2016, mega music icon Beyoncé has released her hour long visual album LEMONADE. This mystical collection of soul, rock, R&B, and #blackgirlmagic speaks to the loves and losses that encompass black womanhood. The film’s setting is ancestral with scenes on a Louisiana plantation—it is spiritual, it is sexual, and most importantly, it is honest.
Spotlighting the next generation of brilliant, beautiful, and bold black women, the visual features appearances by Zendaya, Amandla Stenberg, Michaela DePrince, Chloe and Halle, Winnie Harlow, and Quvenzhané Wallace among other familiar faces. Film is not a new platform for Beyoncé, who did visuals for every song on her last album, BEYONCÉ. What is different with this project is the centrality of black women and the deeply rooted heritage and mysticism of southern landscape. She is presenting an array of women; light-skinned, dark-skinned, voluminous natural hair, braided, old, young, and everything in between on a historical and cultural backdrop.
For an hour, she creates a world around us that celebrates the black woman’s existence and survival.
With a strong army and lyrical war cry in her arsenal, Beyoncé most literally sings us a black girl’s song.
To dissect LEMONADE track by track is to limit the work’s scope. I cannot relay in mere words the power of images of dancing, falling, drowning, fire, earth, sisterhood, motherhood, romance, joy, sorrow, anger, and indifference. But I can say that these representations call to the wounded, resilient, and ever-evolving black woman in me.
I am certain I have tried to be “softer, prettier, [and] less awake” just as Beyoncé describes in “DENIAL” while submerged in a room of water after jumping from a building at the end of “PRAY YOU CATCH ME.” I know exactly what I am not when Serena Williams descends a grand staircase, posts up beside Bey, who is sitting on a throne in the same fashion that the tennis champion slayed us in months ago on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and proceeds to drop it low and twerk in “SORRY.”
I weep at images of Sabrina Fulton and Leslie McSpadden holding photos of their slain sons Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Beyoncé constructs episodic vignettes of grief and happiness that underscore the imperfect, emotional, and demanding vicissitudes of womanhood.
She doesn't sing or illustrate with regard for a white gaze, though I'm confident in her recognition that such a gaze is present and viewing LEMONADE. She does, however, prioritize black life and America’s consumption of it with #BlackLivesMatter rhetoric, just as she does in the “FORMATION” visual.
Weaving Warsan Shire’s beautiful and soul-gripping poetry between songs, Beyoncé authors a narrative that speaks to the blood coursing through us, the knives splitting us open, and the sutures holding us upright. She evokes Toni Morrison/Alice Walker/Zora Neale Hurston storytelling and illustrations while asserting a black feminist philosophy about hers and many women’s existences.
“The most disrespected, unprotected, [and] neglected person in America is the black woman,” rings through in Malcolm X’s resonant voice on “DON’T HURT YOURSELF.” And with this offering of LEMONADE made from the lemons black women are “served,” as her grandmother describes them in a birthday celebration speech, Beyoncé molds a safe space out of the harshness that life often confronts us with. She empties her disappointments, disillusionments, and redemptive songs into the chasm and thereby invites us to do the same.
This idea of communal healing is the epitome of the project. Her narration notes that her grandmother taught her mother who taught her how to literally and figuratively make LEMONADE. In sharing her own confrontations and introspections, Beyoncé underscores the importance of community to healing.
Beyoncé I am not, but a black girl whose heart and soul have been singing since birth and struggling to amplify that song I am. LEMONADE sings this black girl’s song.
This black girl whose parents she has never seen in the same room together.
This black girl whose father is 17 years into a 35 year prison sentence.
This black girl who was assaulted in childhood by an older girl.
This black girl who pours her pain into poems.
This black girl who started seeing eviction notices and apartment lockouts at 13.
This black girl who works two jobs, couch surfs, sleeps on kitchen floors, and prays more than pays her way through college.
This black girl who is “gonna heal” and “start again” every time lemons try to sour the sweetness of her existence.
In fact, after viewing LEMONADE countless times since its HBO premiere, the Lady in Brown and I sincerely believe alongside Beyoncé that there is hope for black women as a whole to heal. Beyoncé says with clips from family home videos and numerous formations of women that healing will start and end with black women. It will look like the next generation knowing the truths of their pasts. It will require “FORGIVENESS.” She asserts that black womanhood is complicated and at times unpredictable, but that wholeness and success are possible.
LEMONADE is, if you'll allow me, a refreshing reminder that resisting victimhood only happens by living fiercely and intentionally engaging with the sources of our pain.