It seems like everyone watched the release of Beyoncé’s Lemonade last weekend, but not everyone seems to have gotten the message. I’m not just talking about the myriad of clearly clueless people writing pieces that compare Lemonade to Hillary Clinton’s memoir, or lamenting about the “militant activism” in Bey’s work, or those people asking Beckys to show off their “good hair.” Rather, I’m referring to comments like those made by rapper Azelia Banks, who, in a series of recent tweets, boiled the hour-long visual album down to “crying over a man.”
Reading Banks’ tweets, I found myself wondering if we’d watched two totally different videos. For me, Lemonade was anything but a simple story of a woman upset over the loss of a man. Instead, it seemed like an acknowledgement of generation after generation of Black women who have not only survived all kinds of hardship–the loss of a romantic relationship being only one of them–but thrived in spite of it. Lemonade felt like Beyoncé’s attempt to explain the concept of Black Girl Magic in words, images and song, and judging by the response, she did a wonderful job of creating a piece that was both deeply personal and reflective of the wider experience of Black women in America.
For me, Lemonade hit extremely close to home. As I watched the visual album unfold I was reminded of my own family history: five generations of single Black mothers who raised their children to not only be stronger and more successful than them, but also impressed on us the importance of forgiveness and compassion. Growing up, I was taught that being strong and being vulnerable were equally important. The key to happiness, it seemed, was in figuring out how to balance the two.
Too often, Black women are expected, by the media and sometimes by each other, to assume the persona of the “strong Black woman.” It’s a role many of us have internalized and are very good at playing, but it often leaves little room to express other emotions. This results in many of us searching for a space where our feelings are deeply valued and respected, but not always finding it.
Lemonade was one of the first times I’ve seen this full range of emotion laid out so beautifully and so clearly, while being specifically for/about Black women. In the film, we not only experience the anger and retribution one would expect from a disrespected wife, but also forgiveness, hope, and a fierce sense of pride that extends to all of the women on the screen, not just Beyoncé.
At my grandmother’s 90th birthday party, an old family friend pulled me aside and told me that it was up to me to “break the family curse.” The curse, as he defined it, was the so-called burden of being a single Black woman, and I suppose, I was to end the cycle by going out and finding a man that would actually stick around. In Lemonade, the idea of a similar “curse” permeates the film–the curse of men who leave, and the curse wives, daughters and mothers left behind feel in their wake.
The thing is, Beyoncé manages to make it clear that her worth, and by extension the worth of all women, is not tied to the men in her life. The song “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is a clear testament to this, the lyrics place Bey in a position of power, rather than a position of heartbreak. In it, she sings, “I am not broken, I’m not crying,” and “I’ll have a bigger smile on my face being alone.” Though the loss of her husband, and the memory of her father’s abandonment, may hurt deeply, Beyoncé is very clear about her willingness to move on and thrive with or without a man.
In the end, when Beyoncé decides to stay with her husband, but she does so because she wants him, not because she feels she’d be cursed as a single woman or single mother. Indeed, the song “Sandcastles” is a clear demand for her husband to convince her of his love and commitment before she decides to stay. “Show me your scars and I won’t walk away” doesn’t read at all like a desperate woman who can’t live without her man, but rather a vulnerable woman learning how to forgive. This song reminds us that a woman can be both furious at a man’s transgressions, while still being open to reconciliation.
Certainly the story of a cheating husband is the backbone of Lemonade, but there is so much more to the critically acclaimed project as well. From the haunting images of Black women dressed in historical clothing, to the very first words Beyoncé speaks–written by Somali-British poet Warsan Shire–it’s clear that this isn’t just a story about her and Jay Z. “The past and the future merge to meet us here,” Bey says, and indeed the whole piece gives the viewer a strange sense of time slipping backwards and forwards. There’s a sense that Beyoncé is speaking for every woman who has ever lost a loved one–whether to violence and tragedy, or to their own internal struggles.
And what does Lemonade suggest as a remedy to this multi-generational experience of loss? The answer for me was in the imagery. Dozens of Black women standing in silent support of each other. Women whose old fashioned clothing suggests they are ghosts or incarnations of the ancestors, as well as women who seem to represent friends and family of all ages. This is the antidote to the supposed curse of men who leave. A solid sense of who you are, where you come from, and a support system of women who understand your struggle and stand with you through whatever may come.
“You passed these instructions down to your daughter,” Beyonce says, explaining the remedy, “who passed it down to her daughter.”
The overarching message of Lemonade wasn’t one of sadness, or that a woman is not complete without a man. Rather, Lemonade made me feel seen and supported in the knowledge that generations of Black women before me have dealt with whatever life has thrown their way with grace, dignity and hope. It left me feeling that my family, friends and the ancestors will have my back in times of trouble. In Lemonade, we see the way Black women have always figured out the way to thrive–together.
Lynn Brown is an Oakland-based freelance writer with a passion for culture, travel and history. She’s the co-curator of the Voices From the Margins reading series and is currently working on two major projects: A novel based on New Orleans culture and mythology, and an anthology of work by contemporary African American expatriate writers in Paris. Catch her tweeting @wonderlandnovel.