Reading The Bluest Eye last year, for the third or fourth time, I saw the world through Pecola and her family again. And I felt their ugliness. I stopped on a passage and it froze me like it always does: “It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question,” Toni Morrison writes. “The master had said, ‘You are ugly people.’ They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. ‘Yes,’ they had said. ‘You are right.’ And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.”
Months later, I’m listening to another author, Beyoncé, confront this same idea—of perceived American beauty, and internalizing—by correcting it in her own way. Not literary, but terrifically visual just the same. She speaks to me, too. Except she soaks in a wooden tub and walks in the middle of green fields. She busts car windows with a bat and wears Yoruba paint and cornrows. Speaks through the words of Somali-British poet Warsan Shire. Swears a whole lot. Fuck. Shit. Bitch. She sits on the steps of a Southern home—a throne—surrounded by young black women she’s influenced: Amandla Stenberg, Zendaya, Ibeyi. Like some kind of majestic mother.
There’s an invisible cape of protection around her. Though we know the caretaker, black and powerful, herself needs protecting. This is the reality and fantasy of Lemonade: a beautiful blur of truth and fiction, sacred and profane, strength and weakness, shrewdness and art. Inherited burdens and, finally, salvation. It’s the story of, and for, the tossed-aside black women whose fury makes us strike and for those who bottle it up.
Beyoncé, using the visual album that’s come to be her preferred and best medium, ties the personal with the communal with the national, showing the sacrifice of self we do for others, including our country. Beyoncé is familiar with moving in hidden spaces. She does this to us. Leaves us scrambling for explanation, forced to accept her music as gospel. During the On the Run tour of 2014, when divorce rumors plagued her and Jay Z, she milked them for effect on stage, letting the public run away with its theories. By airing Lemonade on HBO, she made it a televised family affair. Like Michael used to do. The depth of the message brings her that much closer to his reach, validates the wild fan worship (to a point) and levels past critiques of Beyoncé lacking true art in her portfolio.
Topically, whether this is about Jay Z or Mathew Knowles (whose unfaithfulness to Beyoncé’s mother Tina produced a baby) or curated fiction, using cheating as a narrative thread for an album about black female solidarity is daring and damn near perfect. Lies are what links us anyway. The absence of trust. Who are we to believe in if it can’t be our fathers, partners or the country that claims we’re free? The answer is our sisters.
In the beginning, Beyoncé sings, in a soft tone of confusion, about praying to catch her man slipping, and maybe you flashback to your father, whispering on the phone in the kitchen. The other woman calls and you pick up and she hangs up and years after, you wonder how your mother did it, until you realize she didn’t. She hung on like they all did. The questions are the same as Pecola’s: What does he want? ’Cause it isn’t you.
Until now, we didn’t know we wanted, needed Beyoncé to do spoken word, yet here we are. “You remind me of my father, a magician, able to exist in two places at once,” she recites. “In the tradition of men in my blood you come home at 3 a.m. and lie to me. What are you hiding? The past and the future merge to meet us here.” Beyoncé is flipping someone off (she’d have us think it’s Jay Z or Mathew or both) and smiling in a world that makes her feel crazy. “Sorry” makes the man feel irrelevant, like he made her seem, while her character, who’s not without sin, in turn digs a deeper hole. Looking through his things for answers and dwelling instead of leaving. These are the ways you’re your mother’s child. The many ways that you fall for your father.
Being the vision and vessel for these grand ideas (an hour-long visual album takes a village) is a heavy weight, but Beyoncé had to do it. This is her gorgeous controlled force to make up for her chosen silence, for her exercising the Oprah clause in interviews and eventually forsaking public speaking altogether. She knows silence is as much a tactic as a necessity. And when it breaks, it’s something magical. Why not talk to us in a safe space then, of her own creation. The space is vast and others can hear us and sing along. But the language is specific. “Blindly in love, I fucks with you” and all that. And the spirituality is thoroughly black. An expert could, and should, go in deep on the Oshun and Orisha parallels and rituals.
The first and second and third time I watched this album—watched an album—sitting on a couch with other writers, and live blogging, I marveled at Serena Williams twerking next to her non-blood sister. The music on its own is the most powerful of Beyoncé’s career, the type that makes you walk through the streets demolishing tall structures in your head. The vengeful God has a slight edge over the merciful one, because Beyoncé is best when scorned (“If it’s what you truly want I can wear her skin over mine, her hair over mine, her hands as gloves, her teeth as confetti,” she warns).
For “Hold Up,” she dresses in vibrant yellow Roberto Cavalli, an antithesis to the stoic Beyoncé from the elevator that day, still perfect but exuberant with a rage that’s hard to imagine being totally fabricated. I’m stuck on her facial expressions (the absolute apathy on the bus ride in “Sorry”) and the dirty gothic feel of “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” which when combined with the murderous Beyoncé glare and slow motion approach toward the camera around the 12:52 mark, and with the politics, makes for a chilling scene: “Bad motherfucker, God complex/Motivate yo ass, call me Malcolm X.” And then Malcolm speaks through her: “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman.”
Great art emerges at points of conflict and Beyoncé has realized this at a central time in her career. She cares, it seems, little about being accused of alienating white fans (she knows some of them will follow her either way, because the music is good), rather on facilitating a cleanse and black kinship, as executed through herself and the artists, writers, directors (Melina Matsoukas, Jonas Akerlund, Kahlil Joseph, Mark Romanek, Todd Tourso and Dikayl Rimmasch), cinematographers, etc., who visualize and transport her vision through slow push-ins, clever concealments, picturesque shots, panoramas, and water and tree imagery others have referenced as Terrence Malick-inspired.
This is an ethereal, haunting confessional, sonically scornful and then later vulnerable. Beyoncé, the artist, is allowing herself misery, before finding reprieve. By the end, she and her man are moving mountains, kissing up, rubbing and feeling, making up for now, an act of forgiveness as relatable to scorned women as it is the resilient mothers of dead young black boys, as shown in the faces of Sybrina Fulton, Lesley McSpadden and Gwen Carr in “Freedom,” Beyoncé’s potent liberation song with Kendrick Lamar. It’s a particularly tense visual, after hearing Texas Beyoncé sing the equivalent of whistling a second line-assisted threat while parroting a father’s words: “When trouble comes to town/And men like me come around, oh my daddy said shoot.”
Then there’s Jay Z, big homie, coddling her feet as he should, giving the impression of repentance. Is it an illusion? Crafted and perfectly imperfect? It doesn’t matter. This is the body and blood of Beyoncé and we’ll keep coming back.
Images via screenshot/Parkwood Entertainment/HBO