Revelist has been so moved by Beyoncé's "Lemonade" that we've commissioned a series of essays from Black women about the impact the visual album has had on them. Click here to read more.
I felt a sense of déjà vu as I watched Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” on April 23 and heard the songs interspersed with warsan shire’s words. I had been here before. I realized that the imagery, words, and music Beyoncé gave took me back to how I felt at the age of 15, when I first saw a production of "for colored girls."
Like "for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf," "Lemonade" is for Black girls. It is indeed black girl time, and my eyes and ears are open.
"for colored girls..." is a choreopoem — a poem featuring dance and musical elements — written by poet and playwright Ntozake Shange. It opens with the line, "dark phrases of womanhood/of never having been a girl" and studies "the mythology of women." Shange wrote "for colored girls" in 1975 to expose us to
"a young black girl’s growing up, her triumphs and errors, our struggle to become all that is forbidden by our environment, all that is forfeited by our gender, all that we have forgotten."
Shange confirmed as much to me when I met her at the age of 17.
I was an aspiring poet who had her work memorized. When we met, I took in her genius, read her my poetry, and asked her all about how she came to write such a deeply personal celebration of Black womanhood.
She told me that she met two Black girls in California, and hearing them talk to her and to each other about their pains and joys made her want to explore the collective memory of Black women.
We Black women are not a monolith, but in that moment I came to know that my story, Shange’s story, and the stories of all our mothers, grandmothers, aunts and daughters are connected. Those themes are still so relevant to Black women’s lives — even 30 years later.
In "Lemonade," Beyoncé seems to engage in a call and response with Shange — a fitting device so ingrained in Black diasporic culture.
The collective experience of Black womanhood contains multitudes, and every generation of Black women have a shared narrative.
And that is what Beyoncé set out to do — tell the story of a collective Black womanhood, through song, poetry, and even spirituality, as the imagery of Orisha traditions cannot be denied. And in many ways, "Lemonade" attempts to show us images of what Shange's "dark phrases" are and what they mean.
warsan shire’s poetry and Beyoncé’s "Don't Hurt Yourself" seem to be talking back to Shange’s "no assistance" and "somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff." In "no assistance," Shange’s Lady In Red writes a letter to a former lover:
without any assistance or guidance from you
i have loved you assiduously for 8 months 2 wks & a day
i have been stood up four times
i’ve left 7 packages on yr doorstep
this was an experiment
to see how selfish i cd be
if i waz capabale of debasing my self for the love of another
if i cd stand not being wanted
when i wanted to be wanted
& i cannot
The Lady in Red was in a relationship where her love was not reciprocated, and she’s had enough. She’s done everything she can to salvage her relationship, but it is a two-way street and she has been left to do all the emotional labor, like many Black women.
Sound familiar? Like Shange, Beyoncé and warsan shire clap back in "Don't Hurt Yourself" with the warning shot: “When you play me/you play yourself/don’t play yourself/when you hurt me/you hurt yourself/don't hurt yourself."
Then, warsan writes:
"Did he bend your reflection? Did he make you forget your own name? Did he convince you he was a god? Did you get on your knees daily? Do his eyes close like doors? Are you a slave to the back of his head?"
In some ways, "Lemonade" is a story about a woman whose man has pushed her too far, and taken too much from her to a point where she doesn’t recognize herself anymore. The story has a happy ending though: With the help of her sisters, this same woman gets her “stuff” back, returns back to herself and emerges even stronger than before.
Beyoncé's "Sorry" and Shange's "sorry" are perhaps the most similar call-and-responses in "Lemonade." In Shange’s “sorry,” the Lady in Blue laments the uselessness of a man’s apology:
one thing i don’t need
is anymore apologies
i got sorry greetin me at my front door
you can keep yours
they don’t open doors
or bring the sun back
they don’t make me happy
you were always inconsistent
doin somethin and then bein sorry
beatin my heart to death
talkin about you sorry
Similarly, in "Sorry” Beyoncé sings, "Now you wanna say you're sorry/Now you wanna call me cryin'/Now you you gotta see me wildin'/Now I’m the one that’s lyin," which is eerily similar.
The message is clear: Shange and Beyoncé believes that the people, the men, who have hurt them can take their sorry and shove it. It raises an interesting question about apologies: if you have wronged someone, hurt them so bad, trampled on their heart within an inch of its life... is apologizing enough to make it right? And if not, where do you go from there?
It doesn't end there: "for colored girls…" and "Lemonade" reject the notion of a male, patriarchal God. They opt to see the divine within their own womanhood and femininity. The Lady in Red says at the conclusion of "for colored girls…"
i found god in myself
& i loved her/i loved her fiercely
Beyoncé and Jack White echo these sentiments in "Don't Hurt Yourself:"
"When you love me
You love yourself
Love God herself"
In her novel "Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo," Shange reminds us that "where there is a woman, there is magic. If there is a moon falling from her mouth, she is a woman who knows her magic." In "Lemonade," Beyoncé tells a story of a woman who knows her magic. Just like "for colored girls…" she has created art that invokes the power of the feminine.