The Recipe

A Reflection on Black Womanhood

This week Beyonce dropped her newest visual album called Lemonade. It is beautiful, artistic, narrative, poetic... I could go on an on with descriptors. But the reason I have fallen in love is that Beyonce gave witness to our inner life. In the legacy of Zora and Toni, Beyonce gave us an opportunity to see ourselves in this modern moment just as we do in the works on our shelves. 

In her collection of poetry, Directed By Desire, June Jordan ends her poem *Poem About My Rights with these words:

"I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name
My name is my own my own my own
and I can’t tell you who the hell set things up like this
but I can tell you that from now on my resistance
my simple and daily and nightly self-determination
may very well cost you your life”  

And this all I can think about as the scenes from Lemonade unfold. Wrong is not Beyonce's first, last or middle name. Her name is her own. And so is mine. Bey has entered a new phase of womanhood, and I. Am. Here. For. It. She takes the lemons of her life and transforms them, allowing us to pause so we can sip slowly, deeply from the cup of artistry that is this album. She is free. (And if you are asking, free from what? You havent spent enough time with black women.) Thankfully, she doesnt leave us to our own devises for figuring out how to make our own lemonade. She gives us the recipe.  

 

1 PINT OF WATER

 

Bey opens so transparently. "I tried to make a home out of you," she confesses. This is a dangerous practice. A practice that is taught to us with every breath we take. Its an expectation thats in the air. We are told to step into the one we love, set up designer furniture, give our all, and love till the distinction between you is erased. We are not told to make a home with someone but in someone, taking us to the edge of losing but also finding ourselves.

Turns out even Bey is not immune from the expectations that the world places on black women. She lays it out so clearly, "I tried to change. Closed my mouth more. Tried to be soft. Prettier. Less awake." If thats not a black woman's story I dont know what is. We are always told we are too loud. Too disrespectful. Too hard. We learn quickly that we are expected to bend to the will of others... with gratitude and a smile. We wish we could go back to sleep, to close our eyes, to go back to naïveté. But thats not how it works. And so Bey pushes forward cause she'd rather be crazy than walked all over.

When those are the only two options, Imma go ahead and be crazy- wild, risky, bold too. After living in denial for far too long, I can no longer make my home inside someone else, something else. Because the truth is, we are expected to create homes out of our workplaces, our churches, our seminaries and universities, our children and spouses. We are expected to conform, to submit, to remain asleep to oppression, to pretend that we aren't being used, taken for granted. 

As Bey explores the pain and anger of this reality, she gives us a whole heap of sugar to add to our souls. 

 

1/2 LB OF SUGAR

"Love God herself" is a line I missed the first time I watched this visual album. But this is the theological pin on which her narrative arc rests for me. Black women have to work hard to resist the white male God shoved down our throats.

In our churches we are told in the same breath that God is genderless but its inappropriate to refer to God as anything but He. We are told God is raceless (or race-full) and in the same breath told God is not black. What is a black girl to do when told her identity has nothing to do with God? Destroy that ish. Beyonce gives us the perfect illustration of owning completely that we are fully made in the image God. Black Femaleness Is An Image Of God. We are purposeful creations. To not love us is to not love God. To not love myself, to deny myself is to do violence to the God whose image I bear.

Even in this, Beyonce doesnt give us an angelic woman who transcends the cares of this world. Instead Beyonce dives deep into what it means to be human. She gives us a woman fully experiencing the breadth of an emotional life, fully experiencing the very emotions that God displays over and over again in the Scriptures. She shows us everything from anger and emptiness to hope and redemption. God doesnt expect me to be God. "God is God and I am not" she literally spells out for us.

We are human. And we get to be FULLY human, with all of our emotions. As black women our emotions are policed on a regular basis. "Perhaps if you said it this way..." "Well, maybe your tone made it hard to hear..." "Well perhaps you misunderstood..." "Oh, but you shouldn't feel that way..." "I think you might have an anger issue..." "There is nothing to be angry about..." "But aren't you glad to be working, writing, studying, giving, singing, preaching, teaching, performing all this emotional labor here?"  

We do not have to accept the policing of our thoughts or feelings according to someone else's limited standards of who we are. Im fully human, and I aint sorry.   

 

JUICE OF 8 LEMONS

Not apologizing for who you are and who you are becoming doesnt mean avoiding the pain and confusion of betrayal.  The bitter taste of America, of life is unavoidable for a black girl. Beyonce turns the lemons over and over and over. She creates the space for us to express the bitter taste of disrespect and dehumanization: Sometimes a trash article, open viciousness, mockery, trolls for days, hand written death threats. Sometimes a gun shot, a choke hold, a hashtag, a life gone. Bey doesnt shy away from exploring both ends of the sour spectrum black women often occupy- Hyper-visibility and Invisibility. The sheer exhaustion of both is hard to express, and yet we know it so well. Bey even gives us a glimpse of society's obsession with Becky. Becky's obsession with a feminism that serves only herself.

And if we weren't all in our feelings by this point, Beyonce chooses to take us to her beginning, the beginning of the hurt, the questions about love and being loved and giving love. When Beyonce can no longer stay in apathy and emptiness she goes back. Cutting open the lemons, Beyonce exposes the pulp, the seeds of her heartbreak. She goes back. Back to daughter staring at her mother. Back to daddies who place their arms around mothers neck while seeking his daughters kisses. Back to disappointment but also delightful laughter. Back to seeing ourselves and deciding who we will be. Back to Daddy's lessons and generational curses. Back to grandmother's alchemy. Back home. Back to the drought of love, and its abundance, its enoughness. Back to where we need just a little more to push forward. 

 

ZEST OF HALF LEMON 

Sisterhood and Freedom. Im not sure I yet have the words to fully describe how much the images of these black women together, barefoot in the woods, digging in gardens, creating in the kitchen, playing in one another's hair, climbing trees and dipped in water meant to me. All I can say is somehow all of those images reflect the way my soul loves my sisters. Around them all the elements that had been raging- gushing water, consuming fire are suddenly controlled. The raging waters in Hold Up have become stilled. The burning flames of 6 Inch are now tamed. Both are present- fire and water. Passion and peace now resist becoming rage or emptiness. Surrounded by sisters. Cutting, Shaping. Demanding.

Demanding freedom. For ourselves. For one another. For our people. No more surrendering myself to others, "Im painting white flags blue." I could talk about every line of Freedom, but I will just keep singing it to myself for now. 

 

POUR WATER FROM ONE JUG INTO THE OTHER SEVERAL TIMES

As Beyonce begins to close this narrative, she gives us an almost love song. She acknowledges her care, the sweetness and power of their love. But she is also giving herself time to rebuild trust. Part of that is exchanging someone else's broken wings for hers. Here's the thing. More than once I've believed that someone else's wings could carry me. I believed they were strong enough and healthy enough and perfect enough to carry all that I am. But their wings are always broken unable to take me where only my wings will fly. I must practice believing in my own strength to love, to work, to create, to achieve, to rest. 

 

STRAIN THROUGH A CLEAN NAPKIN

One of the things I love most about the arc of this album, is that Beyonce's final song isnt All Night; its Formation. Listen. She emerges transformed, evolved, more of her self. She strained out the denial and emptiness. After being unsettled, she is left with the good, the sweetness of knowing who she is. I am pretty sure Beyonce has found her home within herself- and all that being herself encompasses. In Formation she brings it all together- past, present and future, sexiness and love, confidence and playfulness, reality of the ongoing need for #blacklivesmatter and resistance to the status quo. 

Since Beyonce released Formation, white, mainstream outlets have been referring to her evolution as "Militant" but Bey is an entertainer and artist. She is not in anyone's home who decides to turn off the tv or internet. She is not militant. She is DEFIANT. But America is so used to demanding the compliance of black women, defiance is often confused for being militant. White people, nobody is out to get you. All we have ever wanted is freedom.

But when others dont understand who we are or how we are shaping the world, Beyonce has already told us how to respond, "I aint sorry. I aint sorry. I aint sorry. I aint thinkin bout you."

Im not either, Bey. Now, where is Serena so I can twerk with her and drink this chilled lemonade? 

 

 

*Poem About My Rights may be triggering for those who have experienced trauma. 

If you like this post, you may also like: Our Formation

Making Lemonade

I learned about being a black woman from my mother. The secrets of black womanhood were written into the shape of her brown eyes, buried in the kink and softness of her curls, coursed through the playfulness of her hips and the strength of her stride. My mother purposefully shared with me the joys of being a black girl- dancing to Stevie singing about sunshine on vinyl, braided hair that could survive the summer, books that reflected my face back to me. She taught me to love the laughing sound. Music. Poems. History. Literature. She wanted me to know it all; she wanted me to know myself. 

But it wasnt long before she had to tell me that most of the world could not see the beauty of blackness. Our beauty is a secret not shared with the world. She asked me to gently turn over my name. Austin. And I realized on the other side a long line of white men, some other bodies too, but mostly white men. She wanted to keep the secret of my identity safe. Wanted others to know my list of accomplishments, activities, anything I chose to write on a page, before the secret was revealed. Constantly walking the line between being honest with me and her urge to protect me, she tried to give me a fighting chance in a racist, sexist world. 

She knew about lemons. She tried to protect me from their sour taste for as long as she could. 

"When life gives you lemons, make lemonade" should be much too cliche for a woman like Beyonce. It has been said too often, too flippantly. But in the hands of Beyonce's artistry, it renews its depth. Beyonce doesnt shy away from life's sour taste as a black woman. She takes us on a journey. Intuition, denial and anger become apathy and emptiness. Accountability and reformation fill the space. Forgiveness breaks into resurrection, hope and redemption. We are left with a Beyonce we're just getting to know in Formation. We witness the journey on the edge of our seats most explicitly through her relationship with Jay. 

Much will be written about infidelity and who is she and what possessed Rachel Roy to even suggest she is the one with the good hair, and me thinks some of you owe Rachel Ray an apology. But truth be told, Im not all that interested in those details. I am far more captivated that Beyonce reflected back to me the emotional journey of a black woman being hurt by a black man. I know that pain. Heartbreak is all around us. Heartbreak exists beyond the boundaries of black relationships for sure. My point here isnt to make heartbreak exclusive, its to make exclusive the unique pain of trying to find and hold onto love in the midst of a society that doesnt love you. A society that doesnt see you. A society that worships Becky, that holds her with care, that believes in her innocence. that has convinced itself her appropriation of blackness is wholly creative and original. A society that thinks Becky is better than you. 

Its really hard to put back together a broken heart in a world that derives pleasure from black women being treated inhumanely. Though Beyonce gives us a window into what that means for her and Jay, she does not stop there. She gives us the faces of black women who have been publicly and viciously dehumanized. She visualizes their humanity. Twerking and still. Looking fierce and soft, playful and serious. Standing shoulder to shoulder. Playing in each others hair. Beyonce plays with subtly and boldness as she sometimes whispers and sometimes screams, "I see you. I am you." 

She makes it clear that she is not God. She literally, spells that out for us, as she places the depth of her humanity on display and dares us to attempt to turn away.

As she moves from her raw emotions into the search for accountability, I am struck by the ways she centers the black woman's relationship with her mother, her father, her grandparents and her home. She acknowledges the heartbreak and complication of seeing your mothers heartbreak, mistreatment, and pain. She explores the intricacy of recognizing how your father had "his arms around your mothers neck" while also desiring his daughters kisses. She returns to the woods, gardens, water. She returns to the words and wisdom of our grandmothers. "Life served me lemons. But I made lemonade." 

Beyonce brings home for us in that moment, that the lemons a black woman swallows are altogether different, and have always been. The bitter fruit. The strange fruit. We have had to bear. The "lemons" in the life of a 90 year old black woman are not just a couple bad days. I dont know her story, but the truth is I could probably guess. White supremacy is awfully predictable and consistent. Her sweet voice smiles and says she made lemonade; my eyes fill with tears. Is there anything sweeter than a black woman who has survived it all? 

My thoughts, my interpretation of Lemonade is ongoing. I have much to process as I drink in specific songs like Sorry and Freedom. I have only just begun to think about the Church and its relationship to blackness. I cannot get the mothers of the slain out of my head. Im still thinking about art and vulnerability. About middle fingers and honesty. About the power of anger and the meaning of forgiveness. I can still hear Malcolm's voice in my head. Im still thinking about the healing power of sisterhood. I think there will be more processing, more writing from me. But for now, I just want to say to my sisters, to my mothers, to my grandmothers- I love you. I love abiding with you.

And I love being a black woman who is served lemons but has been given an intergenerational recipe for making lemonade.   

 

If you liked this, you may also like: The Recipe