I, like everyone, can’t stop talking abut Beyoncé this year. I wrote about her “Formation” video and Super Bowl Halftime performance here and here. I’d like to add to the excellent conversations that are happening everywhere online right now about her new project, Lemonade. Please read the following links first, as the Black women writers and scholars are doing the most critical work right now.
- Janet Mock unpacks the resonances between Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Lemonade.
- Melissa Harris-Perry enacts a call and response with a cadre of her colleagues to respond to the album.
- Nichole Perkins rounds up some reading material for a deeper understanding.
My interest is not to “decode” or identify with “Lemonade,” but to offer a literary and performative analysis that will add to the conversation, not derail or overtake it. I don’t think it’s misplaced for a white female scholar such as myself to want to talk about Lemonade (heck, MHP talks to Dave Zirin who, while awesome, is still a White Guy), particularly when it aligns with so many of my scholarly interests. The problems tend to arise when white folks feel entitled to have the loudest voice about what is a very intimate, very specifically Black, very specifically Black and female, artistic statement.
Because there is so much to discuss here, the blog will run in two parts. This first post will analyze some literary relatives that have been less-discussed or not discussed at all in the initial analyses of Lemonade. Part Two will look at the enactments of performance in the visual album it’s self, which, not surprisingly, we saw in microcosm in the “Formation” video. So, let’s talk literature, shall we?
First, it seems that the touchstone text, beyond the poetry of Warsan Shire which scaffolds the visual album, is Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens.” In her discussion linked above, Janet Mock notes that the observation in Their Eyes Were Watching God about Black women being the “mule of the world”–knowledge both powerful and destructive–is part of Beyonce’s testimony here. Alice Walker, who recovered Hurston as a writer and helped cement her legacy as a Black feminist icon, builds on this idea, weaving her own mother’s story with stories by Jean Toomer (he’ll show up later in this post) and other writers. Walker writes of the Black Southern women, these “mules of the world,” as creative beings who were afforded neither the time nor the space to create with words or paint. “For these grandmothers and mothers of ours were not Saints, but Artists; driven to a numb and bleeding madness by the springs of creativity in them for which there was no release” (1182). She speaks of women who could never express themselves in verse or novel, as her enslaved ancestors were prevented by law from learning to read or write. She then reveals how, perhaps, the generations of Black women before her lived creatively, beyond singing and music: by using “the only materials she could afford, and in the only medium her position in society allowed her to use” (1186). Walker mentions the artistry of quilting, sewing, gardening, and storytelling all as examples of how her mother and grandmother and others like them “handed on the creative spark” (1186).
I think this is especially resonant in Lemonade as Beyoncé surrounds herself with creative Black women in the visual album, from Serena Williams to Zendaya. Toward the end of the album, she has gathered these women in a literal garden, as they tend and harvest their own vegetables and flowers. Referring back to the legacy of creative Black women, Walker says “[t]his ability to hold on, even in very simple ways, is work black women have done for a very long time” (1187). This ability is embodied in the visual album by Miss Hattie, Jay-Z’s grandmother, who speaks at her 90th birthday celebration of making lemonade out of the lemons life had given her. Beyoncé’s work here vividly illustrates the creative power in Black women, from sports to acting to gardening, in a powerful echo of Walker’s work.
Finally, I’d like to discuss Jean Toomer’s Cane. This 1923 book is a collection of stories, sketches, and poems which represents the height of Black modernism and is replete with images and characters of the Deep South that would not seem out of place in a Toni Morrison novel, or in Beyoncé’s visual album. I am particularly thinking of characters like Karintha, who was desired by all the men in her town as a young woman, who “carries beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down” (4). Karintha is a somewhat mysterious figure, but only to the men who want her and “want to bring her money.” She goes into the forest to give birth to a baby and returns home, the smoke from a sawmill fire curling around the treetops. “Men do not know that the soul of her was a growing thing ripened too soon. They will bring her their money; they will die not having found it out” (5). There is also Fern, a woman so desired by men that they were “everlastingly bringing her their bodies” (22). While Fern “did not deny them, they were denied,” and naturally, “men are apt to idolize or fear that which they cannot understand, especially if it be a woman” (22).
While Beyoncé is singing of betrayal by her lover, she is also establishing a narrative (with the help of Shire’s poetry) about the push-pull of Black female sexuality and love. Much like Karintha or Fern, the character Beyoncé portrays in the album grapples with the power of her independence and sexuality (see “Six Inch” and “Hold Up,” both lyrically and visually), and the inability of men to handle it (“Sorry”, “Love Drought”). The shaming and demonizing of Black female sexuality has been a common thread in American culture and history: first via enslavement, which forced Black women to reproduce, and later via respectability politics, which denied most expressions of sexuality and privileged middle class, domestic virtue.
Cane also has a rather amusing connection to Lemonade, in that it features a Becky! I’m not sure when the term “Becky” came to our lexicon, but in Toomer’s text, Becky is “the white woman who had two Negro sons” by an unknown father or fathers (11). She is cast out from the town, forced to live in the liminal “strip of land between the railroad and the road” (8). She and her sons are accepted by neither white nor Black folk, and she is presumed dead when her house collapses: “Ashes to ashes, dust to sidechicks.” (But Becky is a story of the difficult position of being on the outside of a community, whether due to bearing mixed-race children, or being a mixed-race child. In Toomer’s story, Becky is a pathetic figure, deserving of some sympathy.)
To conclude this post, I would encourage readers to follow up with the texts mentioned here and in the posts linked above. Lemonade is a bold, rich album, both sonically and lyrically, and the visual album itself is filled with images and sequences that I’m still thinking about. Next time, I’ll discuss those visuals in a bit more detail, with an eye to analyzing the presentation of communal performance and representations of the porch/stoop. Til next time, Beyhive!
Reading List and Citations
- Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.
- Toomer, Jean. Cane. 1923. New York: Liveright, 2011
- Walker, Alice, “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, Vol. 2. Eds. Gates and Smith. New York: W.W. Norton, 2014. 1180-88.