There's very little that I can add to the conversation about Beyoncé's latest visual masterpiece, Lemonade. The pros, cons, dos and don'ts have already been talked to death, and all the best things have been said. But truthfully I'm more interested in how Lemonade makes me feel. I want to interrogate the reactions I had to what I consider to be one of the most profound pieces of work ever created by a black woman, both artistically and economically.
I watched Lemonade, end to end, on my own. I turned my phone off, silenced my notifications, and paid attention to the journey that Beyoncé had decided to take me on. I watched in awe as black women congregated and communed with each other as Beyoncé lay bear her own feelings and tapped into universal truths about existing both black and female. I cried as a Mardi Gras Indian blessed a dinner table full of empty chairs; places set for people who could never join the offering.
Much has been made of Becky with the good hair; an attempt by white women to find something recognizable to latch onto in a sea of womanhood both public and commercial, that for the first time, deliberately excludes them. But Becky is beside the point. Because the point is that Beyoncé sees us. Beyoncé sees and acknowledges black women and our struggles, and she centered her art around affirming our hurt, our pain, our suspicion and our betrayal. Beyoncé made an (another) album about being a black woman, and the pain and joy that it can entail.
Guiding us through the stages of grief, Beyoncé weaves a story of pain, heartbreak and most of all anger, that is all too familiar to black women. Routinely, we are labelled as crazy or unpredictable without acknowledgement of the abuse that warranted that reaction. We are betrayed and told his infidelity is our sin to bear, we're mocked for our attempts to become the women the world holds in high esteem. Lemonade explores the blatant lies and half-truths that black women are forced to swallow and the pathology we are cursed to bear. But most importantly it justifies the delicious destruction born of righteous and justified anger. It allows our anger, ever stymied, always dismissed, to bubble over, froth and foment, and acknowledges it as a valid reaction to repeated abuse. As Ijeoma Oluo writes in the Guardian:
This expectation of black women to suffer in silence is passed from generation to generation. Beyoncé explores this inheritance unflinchingly: "You remind me of my father - a magician, able to exist in two places at once/In the tradition of men in my blood you come home at 3am and lie to me."
And it is this inheritance that Beyoncé rejects throughout Lemonade. She refuses to suffer in silence, and instead delves deep into the hurt and betrayal that has rended her life and her love apart, and encourages us all to do the same. She rips our generational burden to shreds and sets herself and us, on a path to redemption through shared communion. The hurt she explores here is real and familiar; an old prophecy passed from mother to daughter and back again, repeated ad infinitum until it fulfills itself. It is a battle we prepare for from the moment we are old enough to distinguish our blackness.
Dominique Matti's beautiful essay roots this out and :
But Lemonade says to Black women that Black women are enough. It says the world must take responsibility for the damage it does to us. It says we are not protecting anyone who harms us. It says we will not suffer in silence, we will not beg, we will not make up for flaws that aren't flaws at all. It says I see you, now see me. Look me in the eye, see yourself. It says that healing will not come if we are not allowed to vocalize our aching. It says we are owed healing by everyone who hurts us. It says you owe us for what you take from us. It gives back to us what you've taken.
[...] Lemonade is for Black women because the world treats Black women as thought they are difficult daughters, difficult mothers, difficult lovers, difficult friends, difficult workers, difficult strangers. They are treat us like we are difficult, because it makes us easy targets. They treat us like we are difficult so that no one in the world will defend us. But now we are defending ourselves. Lemonade was an act of self-defense.
The idea of Lemonade as a pre-emptive attack on a world that denies our humanity is seductive. So much of being a black women amounts to being less. To diminishing oneself to fit into neat boxes, to crafting oneself in Becky's image to forestall justifications of mistreatment, of ripping skin apart to get to the respectability underneath. Lemonade shows strength borne not of hardship exactly but rather of necessity. Here, black women are not inherently strong enough to bear the unimaginable. Rather we use our shared experiences to build each other up in the aggregate so that we might each individually endure.
The prevalence of water imagery is not a coincidence. In New Orleans, Beyoncé digs at her demons, anoints them and is born anew. She finds salvation in forgiveness, but only after sorting through the tragedy of her pain, and washing away the betrayal of lovers both old and new. The pain is necessary she tells us. It must be endured and felt and mourned and held in your hand and beheld before the healing can commence.
Warsan Shire's mournful poetry ties these pieces together through the film. Explicitly invoking the hurt and humiliation so many of suffer through, her words paint a tragic picture of all we endure, pointing to it, illuminating it; proving it to be real. For that too is a small revolution. If a thing does not have a name, does it exist? With Warsan's assistance, (this too a communion), Beyoncé has named this suffering, split it open, rifled around inside it, told us what makes it tick and how to fix it.
But the greatest achievement here might be that Lemonade exists at all. Here, arguably the most powerful black celebrity of our time used her considerable power to validate other black women. Very few are financially able to do the same without consequence, and fewer still care to. But Beyoncé has looked at her fans, her stans, her haters and her detractors, stared them in the face and dared them to blink.
Because Lemonade is blink and you'll miss it. But only if you were never looking in the first place.