Beyoncè's Lemonade as Homage to The Misunderstood and Misrepresented Black Women

The fight for intersectionality continues to rage despite all the progress movements pertaining to black rights have made. From a social standard, black people, black women specifically are often dehumanized, ignored, and disrespected, even amongst the black community. Heterosexual black men are usually at the forefront of discussions about black rights, more specifically to do with pressing issues such as police brutality and discrimination, however even within the black community itself, black women are held to an entirely different standard, and usually left out of the discussion. Historically, black female writers such as bell hooks have discussed the ways in which black women were conveniently left out of the rhetoric of popular feminist studies, and this can also be seen in popular media with most of the attention of feminist studies on white women of power. Key figures studied in school such as Mary Wollstonecraft, who, although made comparison to the plight of women to that of enslaved black people – was still a white woman, and therefore carried higher hierarchal power than to that of a black woman. The topic of black women’s struggles is one not often studied or heard about in the popular discourse, as all black issues are usually homogenized under the same umbrella of oppression. However, it is clear due to social and historical examples, that black women are subjected to a second tier of oppression from being both African American, and also being what has been considered as the “lesser sex”.

            On April 23, 2016, Beyoncé released a visual album titled Lemonade. Lemonade was specifically written for, and about the plight of black women in relation to their male counterparts, and also in relation to society as a whole. For a celebrity of her stance, influence and caliber to make such an unapologetic homage to black women and their struggles specifically, has been unprecedented in popular media, and had finally given popular, undeniable attention to the black woman, her body, and the relationship with the men in her life. 

            Lemonade is split into eleven parts, each titled by a different emotional climate Beyoncé finds herself in as a result of her husband’s infidelity and her own identity as a mistreated black woman. Throughout each chapter, she reconnects her issues to that of the black community, more specifically the community of black women who are continuously mistreated, not just by society, but also by the men in their lives. The first two chapters “Intuition” and “Denial” focus on the singer's suspicions and initial shock at realizing her husband is having an affair. During the transition between these two chapters, Beyoncé recites lines from British poet Warsan Shire’s For Women Who Are Difficult to Love, who writes about her experiences as a black woman, being “too much” for her partners. The poet speaks about how she tried to change for her man. Be less intense, less aware, less her.  This notion of black women specifically being “too”, anything, is one heard numerous amounts of times from the black community, usually by black men providing reasons as to why they do not align themselves socially or romantically with black women. “Too loud”, “too angry”, “too crazy” is called to mind, which all feed into the stereotyping of the angry, loud, “crazy” black woman. What is interesting is how these stereotypes have been repeated and absorbed by mainstream culture to the point where it is considered common knowledge, and even searched for to explain emotional outbursts or moments that characterize black women into this hysterical 'other'. However, what is not nearly as explored or explained is what drives black women to this point. Where are the origins of this behavior, and what historically has caused black women to behave this way, and in turn get labeled according to their reactions? Beyoncé explores these topics further, and offers answers to that question in the constant disrespect and lack of acknowledgement of exactly what it means to be a black woman.

     In “Denial”, Beyoncé struts down the street with a baseball bat in hand, calmly smashing car windows, as she asks with a detached smile: “What’s worse, being jealous or crazy?” This ties back once more to stereotypes, as she already predicts the outcome of bringing her suspicions to her man, which would label her as one or the other. She juxtaposes the all-familiar “crazy black girl” trope to one less explosive than is usually seen. While she still was lashing out by destroying things with her bat, she held an air of rigid politeness (Image 1). Only in a few  scenes did she break composure and show the depth of her emotion as she smashed the windshield of a car, but apart from that she took great efforts to smooth her facial expression into that of a calm, rational woman - even laughing at times. Could this be because of the history of black women being dismissed as “crazy” due to their loud expressions of hurt and betrayal? Could this be a nod to every black woman called “ghetto” for smashing the windows of her cheating husband’s car? For whatever reason Beyoncé’s composure indicates that of a woman who has been disrespected far beyond making a scene and screaming. A woman who is tired.

     After the “Denial” chapter comes “Anger”. In the transition between the two chapters, Beyoncé alludes to the fact that her husband has had an affair with a white woman. She asks, “If it’s what you truly want, I can wear her skin over mine”. This sentiment, though it might initially be looked at as mere violence, is tinged with sadness and racial connotations. The assumption that the other woman’s skin tone is what drew her husband to her, points a hand at self-hatred, which black women are apt to lean towards, leading to harmful procedures such as skin bleaching or permanent hair straightening. Black women, especially those who have darker skin tones, are constantly dehumanized and mistreated for it, and the fact that the beauty standard almost never favors women with dark skin tones certainly does not help. Some black men are also known to contribute to this, by indicating their racial dating preference to be women with lighter skin, and even using language to dehumanize darker skinned women, reinforcing the untrue notion that they are ugly, or simply not good enough. In the middle of Beyoncé's music piece for the “Anger” chapter, she interrupts herself with a clip of everyday dark-skinned monoracial black women, with a sound clip of Malcolm X’s proclaimed speech “Who Taught You to Hate Yourself” where he exclaims: “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman”.

     Beyoncé blends history, such as the Malcolm X speech, as well as current events in relation to black studies by including several nods to the Black Lives Matter movement. In addition to the Malcolm X speech, she also has traditional African imagery such as Nigerian body art, and features almost exclusively black female dancers wearing their natural hair (braids, twists, afros) which are usually looked down upon, and have historically been prohibited in professional settings such as work or school (Image 2). In light of current events with racial discrimination in police brutality, Beyoncé also features the mothers of unarmed black men who were murdered by police, most of whom escaped criminal charges (Image 3). These included the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Mike Brown. By paying homage to these fallen men and their mothers, Beyoncé creates unity, and brings the ideals of support full circle. If black people are going to overcome and strive, then respect and attention needs to be given to black women as well.  

     From a personal perspective, Lemonade resonated heavily with me, due to the central themes that are unfortunately apart of almost every black woman’s life. Growing up as a dark-skinned woman, I was faced with a lot of minor injustices, which I just chalked up to be a natural part of being black. This would include experiences specific only to dark-skinned women such as being told to stay out of the sun, putting chemical straighteners in my hair, and feeling less than the standard of beauty, as I deviated dramatically from the light skin and flowing hair that seemed to be looking back at me in disgust from their magazines, TV shows, commercials and catalogues.

     When I watched Lemonade for the first time, I sat cross-legged in a dark room with purple braids in my hair that had elicited more than a few disapproving stares on the subway. As the visuals of plants and black women lit up my computer screen I saw so much more than pretty imagery. My tongue grew thick, and tasted of the back of my throat as unexpected tears began to pool. This had never happened before on such a large scale. Those were my braids, my dark skin, my thick lips, my smoothed down baby hairs. I was being finally being represented as a black woman, in a way that had not been done before.

     “You tried to change, didn’t you?” She asked, paraphrasing Warsan Shire’s earlier noted poem. “Yes!” I whispered back, in disbelief that I was not the only one who felt this way. As she shared more of her chapters including “Apathy”, a jaunty “fuck you” tune to unfaithful men, and celebration of carefree black girls, I sang what I had already been able to pick up from the chorus and shook along to the beat. In “Accountability”, I dug my nails into the soft of my neck to keep from crying once more as she sang about her estranged father’s warning that her husband was just like him, and that men like him needed to be shot.

     Lemonade, provided so much more than just a catchy album. It provided black girls with support and validated through both imagery and lyrics that our struggles are not in vain.Our struggles are real and can be found even the places that should protect us the most, such as the judicial system or our own community of men that we nurture, give birth to and care for. By blending the huge media platform that Beyoncé as an artist had with her visual album release, as well as recounting crucial historic moments in black history with the current struggles in today’s news, Beyoncé was able to account for black women in a way that no other female music artist has thought, or cared to. Ending with the clichéd, but necessary analogy of taking lemons to make lemonade, Beyoncé encapsulated the struggles, triumph and storms of every black woman today. 

 

 

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