Over the Christmas holidays, I made the decision to forgo perming my hair and go natural. For me, it felt like if I was ever going to come to terms with my black womanhood, then I had to confront my fears. When the hairdresser swivelled the chair so I could see myself in the mirror, I did not see a pretty, intelligent black girl. I saw an ugly girl. As I walked out of the salon, all I wanted to do was hide. I entered a small corner shop nearby to buy a drink and as I left, the man at the counter remarked, “Auntie, you were beautiful before. Why did you cut your hair?” I was shaking, and I wanted to disappear. This is a big mistake, I thought. I am going to seriously regret this. I took a deep breath before I retorted, “If I had hair like a white woman’s, you wouldn’t think I was ugly, would you? I am beautiful and I don’t need you to validate that.”
I did not believe the words I told the man at the counter. I still don’t believe them, if I’m honest. But I said them anyway because there is something incredibly powerful about a woman – a black woman – validating herself, and not looking for the world to do that for her.
Over the weekend, Beyoncé released her visual album, Lemonade, following the release of her single Formation in February. In what can be described as a love letter to black women, Beyoncé finally satisfied our thirst. “If you try this shit again, you gon' lose your wife,” she sang. We saw her walking through the streets in a yellow fringe dress paired with polka-dot heels, swinging a bat and looking ridiculously sexy as she got ready to smash the windows of an unfaithful partner (Jay Z?). Beyoncé wasn’t here for no games, and neither was tennis star, Serena Williams, whose twerking behind Beyoncé in a black leotard was the biggest “fuck you” to all the people who have tried to deny her femininity. There’s much on love, death, grief, nature, and the state of being reborn – all things that Beyoncé has explored before but not with this level of maturity. Beyoncé who is normally private decides to expose some of the most painful moments of her life. She may be Beyoncé but throughout Lemonade she fully embodies her identity as a black woman, expressing her vulnerability and inviting us to do the same. Lemonade swings constantly from profound to painful while giving us the best carefree black girl vibes.
There’s much on love, death, grief, nature, and the state of being reborn – all things that Beyoncé has explored before but not with this level of maturity
In Lemonade, Beyoncé puts black women where we rightfully belong: front, centre and seen. Here, there is no pandering to the white gaze; Beyoncé will not apologise for creating art for black people. It is especially pertinent for me, a teenage black girl who is still trying to find her feet to see another woman embrace her blackness in its totality. The term “empowering” is one that we arguably throw around too much, but what Beyoncé has done is empowering for black women, and perhaps even goes beyond that: it is soul-affirming and life-enriching.
Lemonade is very personal but it is also political and unafraid to acknowledge the silence, suffering and neglect that black women in America and around the world face. Beyoncé samples the 1962 speech given by Malcolm X after the shooting of Ronald Stokes in which he declares that black women are the most “disrespected”, “under-protected” and “neglected” persons. It’s upsetting to confront that triangle of oppression black women often face, but I was comforted when I remembered that we have been turning lemons into lemonade for centuries. Black women will survive. Beyoncé pays tributes to her ancestors and foremothers, demonstrating how as women we are united in our pain, but also in our survival and our sisterhood. When nobody is there for black women, when we are “neglected”, “disrespected” and “under-protected”, we can always rely on other black women to be there for us.
One of the earliest things I learnt as a young black girl was that you will never be enough and simultaneously, you will be too much. By incorporating poet Warsan Shire’s For Women Who Are Difficult To Love, Beyoncé is signalling to women that we are always worthy.
I cried only once as I watched Lemonade, and that was when, in Forward, we see the mothers of the Black Lives Matter movement seated in different rooms of an old country house, holding up pictures of their slain sons. We see Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner; Lesley McSpadden, the mother of Michael Brown; and Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin. Showing these mourning mothers, and the all-encompassing pain that black women – black mothers, specifically – are forced to endure at the hands of the state is heartbreaking. (I only wish that Beyoncé had included the faces of some of the black women who suffer at the hands of police brutality, women like Tanisha Anderson, Rekia Boyd and Sandra Bland, because too often, they are forgotten.)
She may be Beyoncé but throughout Lemonade she fully embodies her identity as a black woman, expressing her vulnerability and inviting us to do the same
When this scene passed, I found that I wasn’t just crying but I was angry too. In Hold Up, we see Beyoncé shamelessly display her anger, smashing a New Orleans Police Department camera and car windows. And although our situations are very different, it was hard for me to accept that it is OK to be black and female and angry. When black women are angry, even for good reasons, we are just labelled and dismissed as “angry black women”. That Beyoncé was angry and unafraid to smash things up to me was incredible. That black women should be allowed to express their anger is both a revolutionary and necessary demand and right.
From start to finish, Beyoncé’s Lemonade is fiercely womanist, focusing on the contributions of black women, displaying the joys of what it is like to be Southern, and black, and American, and female. She shows us glimpses of non-famous and famous black women from past to present. She recognises that we are all potent simply by managing to navigate – and survive – this world that is inherently against us in black and female bodies. Black womanhood is displayed in its fullness: it is painful, but there is pleasure too. What I most enjoyed about Lemonade was #blackgirlmagic in its entirety. It was heart-warming to see Quevenzhané Wallis, Chloe x Halle, Amandla Stenberg, Zendaya, Blue Ivy Carter – the next generation of fearless black girls who will grow up to be fearless women and pillars of strength for others.
For some, it may seem like this is a new Beyoncé, or perhaps her “political awakening”. But it is not. Beyoncé has always been black. She’s black black blackity black. She will have faced most of the same prejudices and oppressions that other black women have faced, like being told that black is not beautiful, told that we don’t have “good hair”, made to feel unworthy simply because we are both black and women. What has changed now is that she has established herself and is comfortable enough to really create art that is revolutionary, both politically and personally, and she doesn’t give two fucks about how those who are not part of the global Black Girl Magic squad feel.
Beyoncé’s Lemonade is refreshing in the best way. I feel reinvigorated, more alive, and ready to fight for my space as a black woman in the world. Now, I ain’t sorry to be unapologetically myself: black, female, 17 years old, with a disability – all of the identities that I am sometimes too scared to acknowledge, identities that are meant to oppress me. Beyoncé reminds black girls everywhere that even though the feelings of being unworthy and unloveable may be heightened due to the identities we inhabit, we must remember that we are brilliant, not in spite of our blackness or our womanhood, but because of it.