First published in Guerrilla Feminism.
When I first watched Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, I felt like I could breathe again, after the almost daily deluges of police brutality. In one fell swoop, Beyoncé had turned the narrative to a place of power, as she reminded America that a slow and steady slay leads to a voice that cannot be silenced.
My euphoria lasted only about a day.
Soon after the video went live, women began to bicker about Beyoncé’s rights to personal agency. Some argued that a light-skinned woman with a self-proclaimed admixture of “Negro and creole” couldn’t accurately speak for black women. Others felt her lyrics flaunted a mixed race identity while denigrating blackness. I expected the backlash she received from some of the white community, which largely focused on her “militant” leanings, but I didn’t expect backlash from inside our own ranks.
As I watched Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, which dropped just two days ago, I felt myself questioning everything. I replayed comments in my head about whether Beyoncé was trying to appropriate whiteness with her blonde extensions. I feared black viewers would see her Victorian dress as proof of the same. When I noticed her similarities to Sarah Jessica Parker à la Carrie Bradshaw, I felt ashamed by my white frame of reference. I worried her use of black men in the visual album would lead people to believe that she considered the men’s blackness to be the problem.
At the 42-minute mark, actress Amandla Stenberg’s face filled the screen, and my internal dialogue stopped. In 2014, I met Amandla at the Mixed Remixed Festival in Los Angeles. Born of a white father and black mother, Amandla speaks unapologetically about black issues without stifling her mixed race identity. Beyoncé chose other black women for cameo roles who have also been criticized for their identity, including America’s Next Top Model actress Winnie Harlow, who has vitiligo, and tennis pro Serena Williams whose body was considered by many as too muscular to be beautiful. Through those she chose for the cameo appearances, Beyoncé clearly doesn’t care how others think she should identify. Instead, she celebrates a connection between black women that goes beyond skin tone.
Of course, Lemonade isn’t just about race or about black girl magic. It’s also a tragic and heart wrenching love story between Beyoncé and long time husband Jay Z. Beyoncé sings of comparisons between Jay Z’s infidelity and her father’s, trying to reconcile her conflicting emotions for both male figures. That black women have experienced high rates of abuse from partners of any race is fairly common knowledge, due to the history of slavery and the beliefs about the black female body. For this reason, intertwined within Beyoncé’s love story is an ode to black women that transcends heartbreak, or perhaps is made stronger because of it.
During the album’s climax, appropriately named “Freedom,” Beyoncé and her cameo clan form the epitome of girl power. Beyoncé sings, “I break chains all by myself /
Won’t let my freedom rot in hell / Hey! I’ma keep running / Cause a winner don’t quit on themselves.” The climax mirrors the rising conflict at the beginning of the album, with mesmerizing stills of the young women as they inhabit what appears to be an old plantation. Back to the climax, the women again play homage to the South, this time through conversation, communion, song and dance, and a sense of resolution. It’s no coincidence that the women around the table are of varying hues. Beyoncé knows who she is, and she appears to understand the petty divisiveness that can infiltrate black power when we fail to look at the bigger picture of generational oppression.
Black women experience different levels of discrimination, largely based on skin color and physical features. But when we limit our discussions to how a dark-skinned or light-skinned person should identify, we’re missing the monumental connections that should bring us together, as well as failing to acknowledge the discrimination that all black women face. Beyoncé’s album is at once a lamentation and an ode to female solidarity. “Formation” is largely about solidarity against police brutality, while Lemonade as a whole explores gender conflicts and limitations unique to women, including the real women who have lost their sons at the hands of the police. In both cases, we are made strongest when we lean on one another, and Beyoncé’s hour-long visual masterpiece brings us that much closer to social and political empowerment.