Beyoncé’s new visual album teaches us how to use life’s lemons to make lemonade, but not without sitting through a thrilling and fearless lesson in black womanhood along the way.
Earlier this year, Beyoncé’s single “Formation” rocked the internet when it dropped the day before she took the stage at the Super Bowl halftime show. I wrote on “Formation” as a symbol of the next religious Great Awakening. With the April 23 release of LEMONADE, Beyoncé’s full-length visual album, I am convinced more than ever that “Formation” served as voice crying out on the internet, paving the way for even more conversations about the mistreatment, invisibility, and spiritual essence of black women.
LEMONADE does not disappoint. It immediately draws us in with high concept visual images set to the backdrop of Beyoncé’s pensive vocals and recitation of haunting poetry by Somali-British poet Warsan Shire. The film then weaves a compelling narrative of a woman betrayed by a lover. This story of marital infidelity is inseparably tied to the generalized experiences of black women, forming an allegorical tale of the emotional strains of black women in life, love, and femininity in at least four compelling ways:
1. Lifting the Curtains on the Black Family
We all know the phrase about avoiding the airing of dirty laundry. In black families, this axiom is often a way of life. While black family units have suffered ever since they were first broken by slavery, black families have always put great effort into keeping these experiences “in the family” — whether the literal family unit or the cultural family of black folks. Black women have felt that their families must withstand pressures and criticism from the outside world, causing them to shroud their problems in secrecy. As a result, they often pay the price of bearing those burdens alone. In comes Beyoncé to lift the curtains and let the sun shine in on the reality of family struggles.
For me, it does not matter how much of LEMONADE was inspired by real-life events. To turn it into a piece of celebrity gossip diminishes the work — Beyoncé carefully constructed this piece as a source of empathy and liberation for other women.
2. Highlighting Black Female Invisibility
Beyoncé is one of the most rich and famous women in the world, but her status does not erase her experience as a black woman. With a quote from Malcolm X accompanied by images of everyday black women, Beyoncé takes herself off the pedestal of celebrity and places herself amongst the anonymous masses of black women.
Even in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement, the particularity of black female abuses are often lost and forgotten, so much so that the Say Her Name movement emerged as a result to combat this problem of invisibility. While we know names like Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, we are less likely to know names like Aiyana Jones or Rekia Boyd.
In a world where black female voices have been consistently limited, LEMONADE shows us the struggles specific to black women and Beyoncé takes the stage to begin to remedy that wrong.
3. Sending A Love Letter to Black Women
LEMONADE is a love letter to black women. As a black woman, I felt it was one of the best love letters I have ever received.
The video is loaded with black womanhood from start to finish: Black women and girls of all ages, hair types, skin tones, and body types are depicted. These women are often shown dressed in all white, standing shoulder to shoulder, claimed by the sorority of black womanhood without qualification.
LEMONADE also includes cameos by several beloved black female figures: from the powerful and sensual freedom dance performed by tennis legend Serena Williams to the elegant ballet dancing of ballerina Michaela DePrince, we got to experience a giant dose of “Black Girl Magic.” The outspoken young, intersectional feminist Amandla Stenberg makes an appearance, as does child actress Quvenzhané Wallis who starred in the film revival of Annie. We see actress and activist Zendaya, Jay-Z’s elderly grandmother Hattie, and, perhaps most importantly, the mothers of young men killed by the police: Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Mike Brown’s mother Lesley McSpadden, and Eric Garner’s mother Gwen Carr.
4. Exploring Womanist Theology
As I am a religious scholar and this is a Christian publication, I would be remiss to neglect to highlight the theological implications of LEMONADE.
Beyoncé’s image-filled video contains a strange but necessary moment, in which a black screen with white letters quickly flashes the words, “God is God, and I am not.”
Why would the singer place this message into this video? Many young theological voices, myself included, clamored to comment on LEMONADE’s provocative subject matter and message of social justice for “the least” as a perfect example of Jesus’s ministry playing out in modern life. But a familiar refrain from those viewing Beyoncé as a heretical iconoclast also emerged, cautioning listeners to avoid idolatry toward Beyoncé and her questionable religious messages.
It is fascinating to me that the secular artist’s influential liberationist expression causes such pushback from Christians. Religious imagery occupies Beyoncé’s work, no doubt, and is at times envelope-pushing: We see her dive from a building, arms outstretched in a Christ-like form. In the next scene she recites poetry that invokes asceticism, spiritual warfare, and plugging her menses with pages from the Holy Book. With edgy content like this, and themes like resurrection and redemption, there is much to spark reactions from Christians.
But Beyoncé brings a new, subversive, womanist theology to the conversation. While there are some amazing academic contributors to womanist theology, the exclusion of black women from doctrine-creating spaces in the church and in the academy has often compelled me to look for other sources of womanist theology. The former slave and activist Sojourner Truth makes significant contributions to womanist theology, even though she was illiterate and could not read the Bible, let alone join the classically trained male theologians that occupy seminary classrooms to this day. The church has left an indelible mark on black women even though they have not historically held access to the pulpit or the academy.
Beyoncé, both lay woman and pop star, who comes from the complex, creolized heritage of black America, brings us fresh perspectives and deep ideas to consider in the church, in the classroom, and in front of the computer screen. While some will say her work is just a shallow publicity stunt and others will say her work is offensive and sacrilegious, I give LEMONADE a standing ovation. As a 21st-century black woman who occupies Christianity, the academy, and millennial pop culture, LEMONADE is a contribution that won’t soon be forgotten.
Correction: An earlier version of this essay listed ballerina Michaela DePrince as Afro-Dutch. Though born in West Africa, DePrince is an American citizen. She is currently a member of the Dutch National Ballet.