Illustration by Adam Mignanelli
There are some words that belong to black art criticism: visceral, raw, unapologetic, pride, defeat, struggle, overcome, profound. Not unuseful, but have carried the weight of creation too elusive to name. Insert a word flexible enough to contain multitudes of interpretation, a word lacking decisiveness, a word steady enough to garner a nod of approval but light enough to not add to the load. The compartmentalization of black art, of black word, of black body.
“Blindly in love, I fucks witchu, until I realize I’m just too much for you.”
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In Lemonade, Beyoncé opens her first chapter, titled Intuition, with a still of Lisa-Kaindé, one half of Ibeyi. She stares blankly, the tones of her face inverted, all grey and desolate. The camera pans to a different set of black girls and women of different ages, heights, tones, professions, fame, only connected in their stance, cloaked in various cuts of ivory. “I tried to make a home out of you, but doors lead to trap doors. A stairway leads to nothing.” The slow pan confuses the eyes, forcing them to blur as they adjust to the colors of the wood panel, of the sun soaked shrubs. “What luck. What a fucking curse,” says Beyoncé, dripping Warsan Shire’s words in exhaustion before drawing the attention back to her in an empty wooden tub. Her eyes brimming with tears, scarf wrapped around the perimeter of her hairline.
The communal scene is revisited towards the end of the film, but under different circumstances. The shots, then, are filled with movement and freshly picked fruits and vegetables, in baskets, soaking in sinks, bursting out of their skins on cutting boards, massaged gently and prepared. Then, Beyoncé shares a recipe for lemonade. Then, smiles are exchanged; Quvenzhané Wallis can barely conceal a laugh, ducking under a fortified stem, running out of frame. Lisa-Kaindé is joined by her sister Naomi, Amandla Stenberg and Zendaya Coleman, Beyoncé, of course, and Chloe x Halle on the porch steps, frozen in time, the dye of their fabrics an almost abnormal saturation. Silence. Calm. Composure.
Lemonade almost seems like Beyoncé’s manifesto. Sure, it’s about love and the brittleness of its reality, its missteps in real-time. It is about togetherness as much as it is about solitude. About Texas and New Orleans and marching bands with accompanying dancers in pale brown pantyhose. It’s about young talent and older, guiding lights. Miss Tina’s palpable joy, Grandma Hattie’s words of wisdom. Lemonade is a lesson in skill and talent. In persistence. In boundaries and the complicated ways we try to hold onto love even when it isn’t there, when it lies dormant without stimulation. The baggage that becomes sustenance, the dirty rituals that keep us sane, the inheritance of the earth’s soil and its inhabitants who reject our every breath, our most human needs and desires. “Don’t hurt yourself”, she warns. Lemonade isn’t for the weak or the thoughtless. Pour the lemonade from pitcher to pitcher, softly intertwining its components, Beyoncé’s soft voiceover instructs. Give it time. Handle with care. Sip slow.
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“So what are you gonna say at my funeral now that you’ve killed me? ‘Here lies the body of the love of my life whose heart I broke without a gun to my head. Here lies the mother of my children, both living and dead. Rest in peace, my true love, who I took for granted—most bomb pussy—who because of me, sleep evaded. Her shroud is loneliness, her God was listening. Her heaven will be a love without betrayal. Ashes to ashes, dust to side chicks.”
It goes without saying that culture is not a thing confined by definition, time or geography. It runs through our veins, through the waters that connect us from home to home. Some find refuge. Some slip out of their bodies, leaving nothing behind but a name. Culture, then, is nothing more than memory. An attempted grip at an undefined thing. We sing to remember, we draw and break and reconfigure, we dance, we adorn the vessel that we are guaranteed to possess when all else disappears as though it never was ours to begin with. Comma, comma, comma, comma. We wear six-inch stilettos, we lay in the nude, we paint our protruding bones and the tops of our cheeks, we wear ornate dresses, patterned with the stitching of our grandmothers and their grandmothers. We crave everything; we crave nothing. We sit alone, with our sisters, with our mothers, with our daughters. We make ultimatums, scream words that remind us of who we are, all that we’re capable of, what we deserve. Comma, comma, comma. Come back, come back, come back. Like clockwork.
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Accountability. “You find the black tube inside her beauty case, where she keeps your father’s old prison letters. You desperately want to look like her. You look nothing like your mother. You look everything like your mother. Film star beauty. How to wear your mother’s lipstick: you go to the bathroom to apply the lipstick, somewhere no one can find you. You must wear it like she wears disappointment on her face. Your mother is a woman and women like her cannot be contained.”
I’m not sure if I can imagine a world for myself devoid of men. Fathers to brothers, cousins to uncles, friends to beaus, eventual sons. Even in their absence, they remain on my mind, in my thoughts and my most private prayers. There is no one black woman’s experience like there is no one black man’s experience, but somehow, we so often end up at the same crossing: how do we love the ones who hurt us? How do we teach each other to love us how we want to be loved, all soft commands and shared perception? We do, after all, share the same blood. The same skin. The same words and inflections and laughs. They say that black women are nurturers, but they don’t say that black daughters are too. Learning from birth to sit straight, clean the tables, come to the defense of our hotheaded brothers and stubborn fathers, our neglectful lovers. Black daughters who rush to act as their mother’s crutch, the one to make her facial muscles tense and reveal all of her teeth, her deep belly laugh a satisfaction in its own right. We run to the bathroom with our mother’s lipstick. We watch as she ties her satin scarf, or her hijab, or fingers the last ends of a braid. How do we grow and become new women, ridden of our inhibitions, of the voice in our heads that refuse to let us free? We fast, we abstain, we pray. We return to our bodies, anew.
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“Baptize me now that reconciliation is possible. If we are going to heal, let it be glorious.”
Anyone familiar with Warsan’s poetry can almost instantly spot the mark of her pen. She writes sensually, honestly, with full intention and control of every letter. Lemonade shines with her influence, yet, somehow, when read aloud by Beyoncé takes on a new meaning, a new feeling. It, to me, is what collaborative dreams are made of. If lost in the film, it becomes almost impossible to discern where poetry ends and “Sandcastles” begins, its soft notes growing with every step she takes closer and closer to confrontation. “Bitch, I snatched out the frame. Bitch, I scratched out your name and your face. What is it about you I can’t erase, baby?” she forces out through a throat stuck with tears. It is the calm after the storm, the acceptance not of infidelity or stark mistakes, but of moving on. What choice is there in love and life? To decide that some things are worth salvaging can be its own closure. A baptism. A clean slate. “Pull me back together again the way you’ve cut me in half. Make the woman in doubt disappear. Pull the sorrow from between my legs like silk. Knot after knot after knot. The audience applauds, but we can’t hear them.” This, too, can be a rebirth.
Lemonade is an ode to the movement of mountains, to the crack of hips. The birth of a black woman. In all her top tier, five-star, backseat lovin’ goodness. In her hair grown out to her feet, hands fused in prayer. During her menses and during the height of her orgasm. Your perfect girl. Your eeriest of dreams, draped in fur and bathed in blue-tinted garage lighting.
I say amen and say either ameen, the Arabic equivalent, or ‘I mean’, a statement of resolve and assertion. Either way, remember: God is God, she is not.