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Intersection of Shire and Carter
Lemons to Lemonade
Beyonce’s surprise album Lemonade was released in late April of 2016, and has been widely interpreted as a response to an alleged affair between her husband and an unknown woman. As an addition to the music and lyrics that are expected with an album of this nature, there is a nearly full length film, a music video of sorts, directed and produced by Beyonce herself with imagery and home videos to add context to the story that her album is telling. Most intriguing to me is the incorporation of adapted poetry by Warsan Shire that is recited by Beyonce between songs, all of which speak to the specific nature of the experiences that she has had in reference to her husband and her father’s infidelity, perhaps in addition to the infidelity of other important men in her family and her life. The imagery and terminology of these adapted poems in relation to Beyonce’s personal life gives us a good base to analyze the ways in which women, especially Black women, have been objectified, made submissive, and oppressed for their femininity by men. I will use this paper to analyze the eleven short poems that make up a base for the Lemonade film and offer insight to the true intentions of Beyonce’s most personal artistic project yet.
Warsan Shire is a Kenyan born young woman whose poetry is adapted specifically for the Lemonade film. Between each song within the hour-long music video, Beyonce recites various poems written by Shire that specifically relate to the concepts that her own songs are trying to get across. The poetry incites viewers to question whether Beyonce is specifically referencing a lover or her father in matters of infidelity, though sometimes it is explicitly one or the other. Shire has been published multiple times, and has at least two of her own books of poetry, but as an African female, it is relevant and important that Beyonce chose to use her poetry to express herself in this film, as she portrays the struggle of black femininity. With allusion to inequality, oppressive religion, and betrayal by men, there is no confusing Beyonce’s message for anything other than promoting a black feminist agenda.
Formation Music Video
Beyonce is breaking the chains of belonging to the objective section of the binaries of white/black, masculine/feminine, an probably multiples other binaries, or at least attempting to. There are multiple parts of the poetry recited that speak to her desire to become more than the female to his male, such as “ask(ing) for dominion at (his) feet” or asking her mother to “teach (her) how to make him beg”. The pattern of poetry that Beyonce follows begins with the realization that there is something amiss in her marriage, and then how she tried to submit herself, and change herself for him, so that they could become right again, but she has to get to the point where she realizes that she is being oppressed, and her marriage is oppressing her in the state it is currently in, so things have to change, one way or another.
One of the many messages of Lemonade is obviously this: that Black men and women must fight together to oppose the oppression of racism, but Black women must fight the patriarchal system that Black men are a part of. Beyonce expresses nothing if not self-love in the face of adversity, and the desire for her sisters to come together in “formation” to make a stand for their equality. “If we are gonna heal, let it be glorious/ One thousand girls raise their arms” Beyonce recites as we are drawn towards the reformative portion of the film. These terms could be in reference to her marriage, or to the healing of a nation divided by racism, but either way, she knows that she must stand together with her sisters for change to be ignited. If anyone is up to the task, I would say that Beyonce makes it clear that she is.
The Action of Change
There are various portions of the poetry that speak to ascription to traditional gender roles, but they are somehow bypassed with the need for change. The speaker, in this case Beyonce, is a woman, and one who is clearly crying out from a state of oppression and mistreatment. She chooses to change herself, in an attempt to become better, or different, and is not the object, but the subject of the action.
“I tried to change, closed my mouth more/ Tried to be soft, prettier, less awake/ Fasted for sixty days, wore white, abstained from mirrors/ Abstained from sex, slowly did not speak another word/ In that time my hair grew past my ankles/ I slept on a mat on the floor/ I swallowed a sword/ I levitated into the basement/ Confessed my sins and was baptized in a river/ Got on my knees and said Amen/ and said Ameen/ I whipped my own back and asked for dominion at your feet/ I threw myself into a volcano/ I drank the blood and drank the wine/ I sat alone and begged and bent at the waist for God/ I crossed myself and thought I saw the devil/ I grew thickened skin on my feet/ I bathed in bleach and plugged my menses with pages from the Holy Book/ But still inside me coiled deep was the need to know/ Are you cheating on me?”
This poem, from close to the beginning of this filmographic journey, speaks of the woman’s personal, active choice to change, though she is the oppressor and the oppressed. She has “thickened skin on her feet” and “plugs her menses”, both of which seem more masculine, or at least less feminine than we may gather. This may be an attempt to give her a heightened sense of power, by becoming less of the “Other” and more of the subject.
Visual and Verbal Feminism
There are different visuals throughout the film that give power to females as a whole, as well as excerpts of dialogue with women, including Beyonce’s own grandmother, speaking of her own strength and how when given lemons, she made lemonade. This phrase uttered by a woman obviously dear to Beyonce speaks to the strength and endurance that women have, when it is commonly men who are perceived as stronger and more capable. This only strengthens the unspoken claim that Beyonce is making: women can act and behave in the same ways that put men on such a pedestal. So what’s stopping women from co-dominating the male-dominated and male-centered character that is the patriarchy?
If the Black man can be seen as a “slave-able” being, and nothing more than property to be owned, how much more is the Black woman at risk to be oppressed? She is not only perceived as inferior to white men and women, but also to her male counterpart, who objectifies and betrays her as much as, if not even more than, the white man and woman. “If this is what you truly want/ I can wear her skin over mine,” Beyonce says, in reference to some infidelity, perhaps by her father, perhaps by her husband, or perhaps even by men at large, but there is no doubt that this references the desire of men that Black women wear a different skin, become more white, act less like themselves, be more like what men want them to become. Organizations of POCs began as a response to the victimization of them in relation to white supremacy, but these organizations often find themselves settling for slightly more than what they have had in means of respect to begin with. Beyonce is refusing to settle, organizing her ladies in “formation”, and proving once and for all that blackness does not equal inferiority.
Healing from the Patriarchy
In reference to the patriarchy and how it is a pattern that can’t be broken, Beyonce speaks of how her husband is following the “tradition of men in (her) blood” by being unfaithful. Her father betrayed her mother, perhaps her grandfather before that, and “the past and the future merge to meet us here”. This larger institution of patriarchy allows for men to commit acts like infidelity and not be punished for them as they should, or at least to feel that it is more okay for them to do it than say, a woman, versus being tried on an individual level, where it is undeniably the single person at fault. Patriarchy is a set of ideas that make up a culture, and is thus inseparable from the culture that we all share. Patriarchal culture also helps us to define what is “considered good and desirable,” bringing us back to the speaker’s need to “bathe in bleach” to change her appearance to one that is more socially acceptable (read: white).
This idea that patriarchy is the unbeatable system in which we live, and that traditional gender roles must prevail is being broken down bit by bit through strong poetic wording, intense lyric, amazing imagery, and an extremely meaningful message: redemption. Through each section of the film, one word is displayed before the recitation of each poem, explaining the theme of those words. The final word shared with us is redemption, and we can see that there is hope. Through all of the time that women of color have been oppressed and betrayed, beaten and looked down upon, there is still a light at the end of this dark tunnel, where men and women of all races can walk together hand in hand to make our world as a whole a better place. This can be reflected in the simple act of reconciliation between Beyonce and her husband, or her mother and father, or perhaps just the general woman and man who have been torn from one another’s lives. “If we’re gonna heal, let it be glorious”.
Book of poems by Warsan Shire, though not the poetry used for Lemonade.