The force of nature, singer, and social communicator known as Beyoncé released not only a full album this weekend, but an accompanying visual album with it. This extended video is an artful, insightful, personal expression of grief, anger, and hope.
Did Jay Z cheat on Beyoncé???
Immediately people started writing about it, spectating about it. And if you saw most of the mainstream coverage, you might get the idea that this album is a personal confession of loved loss and subsequent revenge.
If you assume Beyoncé’s Lemonade visual album is simply and only a musical rant about a troubled marriage, it’s time to pick up one of James Baldwin’s personal essays. As I have learned from my writer husband, Glen Retief, in a Baldwin essay, the personal reflects the public. Baldwin explores his personal life as he unearths and explains the racist world around him.
Letter from a Region in My Mind, which appeared in the New Yorker in 1963, provides a perfect model of how Baldwin did this. The self-reflection in this piece is stunning, brutally honest, as is his exposé of the white world around him. Writing to a predominantly white audience, Baldwin candidly shares about his early church experiences, including how he worked that system as a way to pursue a life he saw only in his dreams.
Baldwin Makes the personal public and political
His searing commentary about the world around him, police brutality, white supremacy, and the conditions that kept the oppressive systems from changing get reflected in his own personal experiences.
I did not intend to allow the white people of this country to tell me who I was, and limit me that way, and polish me off that way. And yet, of course, at the same time, I was being spat on and defined and described and limited, and could have been polished off with no effort whatever. Every Negro boy—in my situation during those years, at least—who reaches this point realizes, at once, profoundly, because he wants to live, that he stands in great peril and must find, with speed, a “thing,” a gimmick, to lift him out, to start him on his way. And it does not matter what the gimmick is. It was this last realization that terrified me and—since it revealed that the door opened on so many dangers—helped to hurl me into the church. And, by an unforeseeable paradox, it was my career in the church that turned out, precisely, to be my gimmick.
A Double Outsider: Black and Gay
Adding to Baldwin’s distress, a Black man in a white oppressive world, he was beginning to understand that he also was a man who was sexually attracted to other men, making him a a double outsider. I love how he describes those days when he was a teen preacher, revered by the church, finally able to have some privacy as he prepared sermons, only to find that in those quiet moments, he could not escape reality.
It was, for a long time, in spite of—or, not inconceivably because of—the shabbiness of my motives, my only sustenance, my meat and drink. I rushed home from school, to the church, to the altar, to be alone there, to commune with Jesus, my dearest Friend, who would never fail me, who knew all the secrets of my heart. Perhaps He did, but I didn’t, and the bargain we struck, actually, down there at the foot of the cross, was that He would never let me find out.
He failed his bargain. He was a much better Man than I took Him for.
The Weight of Freedom
In most Baldwin essays, the personal becomes the public and in turn is very political. He ruthlessly explores his own life with all of its inconsistencies, weaknesses, and deceptions, in order to expose the lies in the dominant culture around him. His personal vulnerability gives him moral authority to speak openly about many things that people in society fear to see let alone say.
This has everything to do, of course, with the nature of that dream and with the fact that we Americans, of whatever color, do not dare examine it and are far from having made it a reality. There are too many things we do not wish to know about ourselves. People are not, for example, terribly anxious to be equal (equal, after all, to what and to whom?) but they love the idea of being superior. And this human truth has an especially grinding force here, where identity is almost impossible to achieve and people are perpetually attempting to find their feet on the shifting sands of status. (Consider the history of labor in a country in which, spiritually speaking, there are no workers, only candidates for the hand of the boss’s daughter.) Furthermore, I have met only a very few people—and most of these were not Americans—who had any real desire to be free. Freedom is hard to bear. It can be objected that I am speaking of political freedom in spiritual terms, but the political institutions of any nation are always menaced and are ultimately controlled by the spiritual state of that nation. We are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know, and the American dream has therefore become something much more closely resembling a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels. Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them; domestically, we take no responsibility for (and no pride in) what goes on in our country; and, internationally, for many millions of people, we are an unmitigated disaster.
Dirty Laundry? A personal & political exposé
I see something similar in Beyoncé’s newest work in Lemonade and Formation. If someone watches or hears Beyoncé right now and assumes she is yet another celebrity airing her dirty laundry through art, they miss the point.
As Michael Arcaneaux writes in his Rolling Stones piece, Beyoncé Brings Fury, Forgiveness on Bracing ‘Lemonade,’
Lemonade turns out to be about much more than relationships, though. The album focuses on love, pain and womanhood – specifically black womanhood. On “Freedom,” the line, “I break chains all by myself,” reflects a tale that’s all too familiar for many black women, yet the album’s title refers to a crucial transformative act: being handed less-than-ideal circumstances and finding joy and contentedness all the same.
Lilly Worknell, senior editor for Huffington Post Black voices explores this further,
Nowhere is Beyoncé’s message more profound than in her song “Freedom,” which fittingly features a verse from pro-black artist Kendrick Lamar.
The song, which talks about blackness in America, includes many amazing visuals of various fierce black women who proudly rock picked-out fros and other dynamic hairstyles in scenes that reflect and reaffirm their collective beauty.
“Freedom” is also filled with stirring, soulful lyrics and powerful images of black women who have lost black men in their lives, including Gwen Carr, Sybrina Fulton and Lezley McSpadden, the mothers of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, respectively.
“Freedom, freedom, where are you? ‘Cause I need freedom, too,” Bey sings. “I’ma keep running ‘cause a winner don’t quit on themselves.”
She is making political commentary in very much the same way that Baldwin used his art and self-revelation to condemn and explain the world in which he lived.
Then there is the poetry of Warsaw Shire, the Somali-British poet whose work Beyoncé includes in her visual album. She quotes directly from several poems including The Weight of Staying, a poem that can be read in both very personal and political ways.
Who is Beyoncé gonna hit with that baseball bat?
What some white commentators have objected to in Beyoncé’s latest work starting with Formation is that she is not playing the “nice girl” sticking to “safe” topics. Instead she reveals her indignation. A song about guns, audio of Malcolm X, and Super Bowl dancers dressed as Black Panthers sends a chill down white America’s spine. I can imagine some of my fellow whites silently or not so silently asking“Why is she not smiling anymore? And when she does, what does that smile mean?” To which I remind them and myself: It’s not always and forever about us.
But tracking this reactions can be useful. It is essential for white America to explore these fears along with the shame and sadness and confusion we experience with the same sort of fearless, honest, self-reflection and social commentary that James Baldwin perfected.
Lovers and Lemonade
In his essay, Baldwin writes about a dinner he had with Elijah Muhammed, the head of the Nation of Islam–a meal filled with tension and revelation. Again he uses his power of self-reflection and analysis to dig deeper into the issues. He then concludes his essay with both the hope of redemption and the threat of violence. Like in Lemonade, Baldwin speaks of lovers and also brings in some wrathful fire.
Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!
I encourage you to take some time and read Baldwin’s essay. It is long and well worth the read. It is sobering, enlightening, and liberating to the brain. It is a fusion of art and activism with a beautiful punch.
In researching for this blog piece I learned from Damon Young’s in his piece, Dear White People Who Write Things: Here’s How to Write about Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Over at The Root, Damon Young also has an excellent piece entitled, Why Black Women Should Have the First Glass of Beyoncé’s Lemonade Explained. He wrote the piece in response to some of the criticism by Piers Morgan. Maiysha Kai talks about the personal aspects of Lemonade, the infidelity of a spouse, and how it speaks to her directly: Beyoncé’s Lemonade the Pain of Infidelity and the Power of Forgiveness. And check out Formation (below) by Beyoncé to see her artful blending of the personal and the public with an eye towards exposing injustice. It is loaded with so many historical reference.