Beyoncé can’t make being a black woman popular. Despite being arguably the world’s biggest musician, she can only hope that people look beyond her race rather than celebrate her blackness and other black women like her. This was made apparent when her video for “Formation” dropped: here was this empowering, unabashedly Southern song with a video that celebrated and reveled in being Black, being a woman and being “country” and it was met with critiques of not being inclusive enough or daring to throw a political statement of pride in one’s race in people’s faces. Beyoncé had committed the sin of reminding anyone who hadn’t been paying attention that she was indeed a Black woman from Texas.
About fifteen minutes into “Lemonade”, Beyoncé’s HBO-helmed visual album, there’s an excerpt from Malcolm X in which he states that, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman”. The excerpt comes in as a reminder of the Black woman’s burden of having to live in a world that would rather do without them. They are the neglected wives, the unwanted children and the mothers that have been taken for granted by lovers, brothers, fathers, children, employers and elected officials and Beyonce has used this moment to give their pain voice.
On its surface, “Lemonade” feels like the deeply personal story of betrayal, heartbreak and anger that has replaced a once-loving relationship. Throughout, you feel like you’re invading her privacy by being an audience member to this show; going from bug-eyed wonder about the juicy details of the tawdry affair Beyoncé keeps teasing about in each song to genuine concern for Jay Z’s safety as you watch his wife gleefully stroll along the sidewalk, twirling a baseball bat or walk slowly while a room is engulfed in flames behind her.
Step back for a second and you begin to realize that this is not just about Beyoncé but it’s about every Black woman. It’s about those mothers, sisters, daughters, grandmothers and aunties; these are all their personal stories that they share amongst themselves out of earshot of the men who’ve either caused the pain or shown no inclination of caring about it. Her lyrics interspersed between the poetry of Warsan Shire with the stark, lingering images of black women in the Louisiana bayou–at once stoic, at other times fiery–make for a haunting, unshakeable Southern Gothic tale of the Black woman’s burden in not just America but the world.
Since the out-of-nowhere release of her 2013 self-titled album, Beyoncé has been re-energized –not just in methods of creating an event out of the growing irrelevance of album releases, but in subject matter. Where self-titled was an incredibly sexual and liberating expression of love, “Lemonade” is on the opposite spectrum: a claustrophobic, relentless testimony of a woman scorned. However you might have thought this event was going to go, you probably anticipated something more vapid; more congratulatory of the celebrity of Bey. Instead you got a deeply Southern, specifically black, Toni Morrison story with some great songs attached. Maybe it was the sequence in which Beyoncé was drowning underwater or the images of Louisianians interspersed throughout or the moving sequence of mothers of slain children (including the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown), but at some point this movie hit you in a way you weren’t prepared for. At some point you had to reckon with the things we’ve done to Black woman and the ways we’ve made their lives harder.