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.
"What happens when you center on Black women?" Patricia Hill Collins, acclaimed sociologist and creator of the Black Feminist Thought theory, asked me after I told her about my desire to write about Black women as agents of social change.
Though I pondered several possibilities of a world for, about, and by Black women, I could never have conjured a vision as beautiful as "Lemonade." Beyoncé's answer to Collin's question is a 58-minute visual masterpiece that journeys through the singer's stages of ascension into a divine Black womanhood.
Womanism sees the bond between Black women as a
source of strength. Forming bonds with other Black women — and embracing the
culture, spirituality, emotional range, and strength associated with femininity
— creates safe spaces for Black women to be free.
Beyoncé makes clear in this 21st century opera that she envisions this healing through her relationships with Black women as a daughter, sister, mother, and friend. Our first glimpse of her sisters in the struggle is in "Pray You Catch Me," when an army of stone-faced Black women and girls stand around her.
Beyoncé surrounds herself with the feminine in "Lemonade," and invites her lover to do the same in the intimate and sorrowful "Sandcastles." In the arms of his wife, we see our favorite Brooklyn rapper (Jay-Z) exchange the swagger of the player for the humility of an altar boy worshiping in the cult of femininity.
with Beyoncé's subdued ruminations of a woman struggling to make sense of
herself in the face of infidelity.
She even recites the obituary of a woman whose been killed by a man who didn't recognize her worth. In doing so, she lays to rest the logic that submissive women inspire fidelity in men.
assuming "Lemonade" is the
story of a woman scorned misses the larger picture: Romantic relationships,
like patriarchy, often make women question their worth. Patriarchal society
frames submissiveness and modesty as the ideals trait a woman should possess to receive a man's respect.
When Beyoncé poses the question, "Are you cheating on me?" she’s really asking whether the emotional labor she placed into achieving this chaste feminine ideal is being justly compensated.
After all, she still spends her nights alone, leading her to conclude that the relationship between woman and man according to society’s ideals are a misfortune she must escape.
Timid, uncertain, and solemn, she takes a leap of faith — literally — and submerges herself in water to cleanse away her husband’s infidelity. It's almost like she's been baptized. These scenes mark a rejection of ideal womanhood.
Womanism rejects that. It sets Black women free.
A part of that freedom is creating a Black woman-centered spirituality, like Beyoncé does in "Lemonade." In Beyoncé's first warsan shire-written soliloquy, she appears as a Creole woman, the prized possession of colonial New Orleans, poised with her hair wrapped in a tignon.
The references to the spiritual and divine are intentional as she states, "There is a curse that will be broken" before the chords of "Sandcastles" begin.
Her first reaction to Jay-Z's supposed cheating is immersing herself in a sea of doubt. She tries to reinforce her worthiness by turning to images of femininity set forth by the church, like praying, fasting, crossing herself and even "plugging her menses with pages from the Holy Book."
By the end of the ballad, Beyoncé has primed us for a glorious resurrection, luring us forward with one of few male voices featured on "Lemonade." She arises from her baptism in a fiery mustard-colored gown reminiscent of the Yoruba goddess Oshun, known both for her kindness and temper.
The newly-sown seeds of Beyonce’s spiritual strength allow her to seriously question her husband's fidelity. She announces what Black women represent to us all: "When you love me, you love yourself, love God herself."
This shows what spirituality looks like when centered on Black women, another important part of womanism.
Beyonce’s new awareness of her Black female self gives her unyielding confidence, which is often how many Black women’s journey to womanism begins.
Channeling her Creole heritage as she takes us through a rural wasteland, Beyoncé embodies the complex politics of Black womanism, like rejecting the ideals placed on her. She does this most in "Don't Hurt Yourself.”
With accentuated curves and cornrowed hair, she saunters toward the camera in a confrontational stance, declaring “who the fuck do you think I am?” Once again she flags herself with a handful of big-haired Black women fashioning themselves as the hit squad to Beyoncé's boss bitch.
The beauty of this imagery is the rejection of tropes of Black women as one-dimensional – as just angry, or just hypersexual, or just aggressive. The Black women of “Lemonade” are both jealous and crazy, goddess and human, poison and antidote.
Beyoncé's complex displays of femininity challenge what Collins refers to as controlling images, which are the representations of a subordinate group created and reinforced by those in power. Controlling images, like the hypersexual jezebel and the irrational angry Black woman, have haunted Black women for generations.
Womanism, however, is about reclaiming space for Black women, which Beyoncé does by dismissively telling her husband to go call "Becky with the good hair." She rejects him as she declares her non-apologies for focusing on herself.
Throughout this narrative of transformation, she also negotiates sexism and the many angles that Black women must confront it.
Eventually, Bey comes out on the other side freer and radically transformed. That, above all else, is what makes "Lemonade" a womanist manifesto. The most significant aspect of womanism is the transformative power of Black women's love for themselves, their sisters, and all of humanity.
"Lemonade" is Beyonce's blueprint for the liberation of Black women and those in formation know how to build on it and define themselves for themselves.
UPDATED 5/2/2016, 10:50 a.m.: This post has been updated to include attribution to a previous writer who discussed womanism within "Lemonade."