Review of The Lemonade Reader: Beyoncé, Black Feminism and Spirituality

Alexis Noel Brooks

The Lemonade Reader: Beyoncé, Black Feminism and Spirituality. Edited by Kinitra D. Brooks and Kameelah L. Martin. Routledge, 2019. 260 pp. ISBN: 978-1138596788.

 

Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is a cultural phenomenon. Those who fail to use her lyrics, videos, and performances as texts miss an opportunity to take the pulse of American society. Since Beyoncé released her visual album, Lemonade (2016), many have found solace, inspiration, intellectual fodder, new language, healing, and a greater appreciation for the artist in her work. Outspokenly interdisciplinary and “proudly intergenerational,” The Lemonade Reader features contributions from professors, columnists, artists, cultural critics, independent writers, and many other essential voices (2) This wide range of perspectives provides a spectrum of indispensable approaches to Lemonade. Its three sections—“Some shit is just for us,” “Of her spiritual strivings,” and “The lady sings her legacy”—each contain approximately six essays dedicated to the themes of Black womanhood(s), spirituality, and performing artistry, respectively. “Interludes” are also dispersed throughout, which, although shorter than most of the essays, provide important context and insight for better understanding Lemonade. The authors intend for the Reader to be accessible “across disciplinary boundaries,” noting that readers “that prefer a lighter treatment are encouraged to read the Interludes [….] as they are shorter and lack academic jargon” (3). Thus, educators will find that this collection is accessible for students and academics alike, as well as for anyone with an interest in Black feminism, popular culture, visual and performing artistry, Black Studies, or, of course, Queen Bey.

Together, these essays provide an accessible and expansive, though by no means exhaustive, resource for studying Beyoncé’s culturally impactful Lemonade. Its commentary is a push and pull between admiring Bey’s powerful images, lyrics, poetics, and aesthetics, and, at times, asking her to expand her politics’ limitations, “refusing to shy away from the sharp edges and less-than-savory elements” of Lemonade (251). The contributors situate Beyoncé’s work within historical, Afrodiasporic, and feminist conversations. Important themes include spirituality, folklore, Black southern life, grief and loss, the Black feminine divine, love, diaspora, beauty politics, folklore, community, musical legacies, histories of oppression, and the unique positionality of the artist herself.

In an “Interlude” before the first section, “Some shit is just for us,” Maiysha Kai asks the important question: “What do we want from Beyoncé?” The editors’ effort to frame the collection with this question in mind points to The Lemonade Reader’s self-conscious undertaking. What do we want from Beyoncé? What do the contributors want from her? While this manifests in varying forms, all of the Reader’s contributors situate their want “through a lens of love” (xxii). Indeed, Candice Benbow points out in the foreword that “not only does Bey read, but she was also raised on the same Black feminist sheroes that we were. It was not a fluke that, when watching Lemonade, we could see Zora, Maya, Toni, and June. The imprint of Black women creators and thinkers is as much on her as it is on us. They loved us all that much. It’s that love that brings us to this Lemonade Reader” (xxi). Together, they read love in (present in) and onto (as a framework) Beyoncé’s Lemonade, orienting their criticism within a womanist tradition of feeling “love for other women (‘loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually’), for humanity (‘committed to survival and wholeness of entire people’), for the spiritual world (‘Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit’), for celebration (‘loves music. Loves dance…. Loves love and food and roundness’), and, most important, for her self.”[1] In this way, the collection itself is an important act of love politics through a reorienting of conversations about Bey toward the “lens of love” she draws upon in her own art.

As an integral component of womanism, the personal and the self are continuously tied to love, and many of the writers articulate a sense of the personal while writing about Lemonade. For example, Ashleigh Shackelford shares her disappointment upon realizing that Bey’s failure to represent Black fat girls means it “ain’t made for” women like her: “The space I hold for [Beyoncé] is not conditional, but rather intentional. I love Bey. I love her cultural power and political growth. I also hope to see Black fat femmes like me in her work centered on Black femme rage and Black girl magic” (14). LaKisha M. Simmons provides a close reading of images pertaining to motherhood, loss, and reproduction in Lemonade, alongside a narrative of her own: “To tell my own story of blood and loss I have to start with the first miscarriage. It was an ordinary miscarriage, as miscarriages go. […] It turns out that my uterus was shaped like a heart, and that can make getting (or staying) pregnant difficult” (51). After sharing her story, Simmons comes full circle: “The[se] facts say little about my inner world at the time. I cannot tell the story without dissembling. […] What I can say is, ‘But girl, I’m alright.’ […] I can only write about the statistics: black women living in my zip code at the time were more likely to have a baby premature and underweight than not” (52). Here, she weaves her own experiences with those of countless other Black women who are subject to increased reproductive risks because of systemic harm and “attempt to account for [that] grief and pain in autobiographical acts,” placing Beyoncé’s representation of these themes within this larger context (52).

One of the most exciting elements explored in this collection is Beyoncé’s articulation of spirituality in Lemonade. Nicholas R. Jones traces the “majesty and grace of primordial female water orishas,” arguing that “the presence of odú helps us to theorize a new way of interpreting how Lemonade articulates Beyoncé’s African diasporic aesthetics and black feminist framework” (88-89). In a similar vein, Melanie C. Jones “locates Beyoncé’s Lemonade as a sacred multilayered source for Black women and girls discovering and reclaiming the Black Feminine Divine in themselves, their mothers, daughters, and sisters” (98). She goes on to explore the ways that Beyoncé’s “Goddess representation pays homage to multiple female deities of African religious traditions,” and argues that the singer’s “slay” rhetoric nods back to those female deities, “spin[ning] the expressions of anger, fury, and rage as powerful weaponry to self-protect and eradicate all manners of oppression” (100, 107). These examples barely scratch the surface of the scholarly work included in The Lemonade Reader. Anyone who ever doubted the critical consciousness at play in Queen Bey’s artistry, who finds her “an odd topic of study,” who absorbed bell hooks’ negative review of Lemonade without another thought, will think twice after picking up The Lemonade Reader.

 

 

[1] Jennifer Nash, quoting Alice Walker in “Practicing Love: Black Feminism, Love-Politics, and Post Intersectionality,” 9.

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