Beyoncé's Emancipation and the Secret Language of Black Girls

Beyoncé’s relatability, as far as Beyoncé-the-person is concerned—as opposed to the artist—for most of us, has long been superficial. This is not an indictment of her music or public persona or character; rather, it is a confession many of her fans are seldom willing to confront. And I am a fan, and have been a fan since Destiny’s Child’s self-titled debut album in 1998. That was 18 years ago, so I have followed her music for over two-thirds of my life. Now, as more than just a fan, but as a person privileged to sometimes examine the artist’s contribution to culture, I can experience Beyoncé more honestly.

Most of us who love Beyoncé for her music or her public persona or her perceived character have little to nothing in common with her, as far as our life experiences are concerned. She has spent much of her life in the public eye. Undoubtedly, she has sacrificed more than many of us are willing to, for the price of making music and earning fame. Arguably, she even sacrificed her childhood. Yet she played such a definite role in our own upbringings, at least in how we imagine the past.

The Writing’s on the Wall is firmly placed in the hearts of all '90s and '80s kids, with songs that serve as nostalgic anthems of our childhoods. Alternatively, have you ever witnessed the exaggeratedly blissful reaction of a group of 20-something or 30-something women (or men) when Say My Name comes on? The dancing—hand over heart, overemphasized gestures and excited yelling—is a spiritual encounter that brings back the enthusiasm of more youthful days.

For little black girls especially, Destiny’s Child was more than just a group whose music we adored. They represented much more than we could put into words. They were girls who looked like us; they were women we could become. And we did become them in front of the mirror when no one was looking, or on the stage in a talent show for an entire audience to see.

But in truth, Beyoncé, as the solo artist, just as she was when she sang in Destiny’s Child, was always out of reach. Certainly, her music made us sing and dance, or chant, or stop and think, or stop to feel for a moment. But we still know her so incompletely. This, I think, is to protect her space, but it is also part of her charm. It is her enigma. She gives fully to the music she creates; yet she leaves us to wonder about her.

So I won’t pretend to know Beyoncé, the person, with certainty. All conclusions are borne of intuition and cautious deductions. One can only read between the lines of her music to have any chance of discovering who she is. And in so doing, you are forced to confront that this artist whose music you love, whose music you have listened to for almost two decades, has been lacking in a particular way. And this way, this lacking, is a plight that all women know and the best women struggle against: the gaze of men.

Beyoncé, for all her exclamation of self-reliance and ownership of womanhood in song, from Destiny’s Child’s Independent Woman to Me, Myself, and I to Single Ladies and Partition, has long centered her music in how she is perceived by men. The longing for a man’s attention, the desire for escape from a man or men, her disappointment in men, her need for their opinions, etc. Even in the most obvious feminist anthem, Run the World (Girls), throughout the song, the longing for men’s agreement to her proclaimed autonomy and rule, is demonstrated.

On the one hand, it might just be the plight of any single woman’s womanhood ever to be concerned with how men see her. Even the most self-aware woman, educated in all the ways the patriarchy is present, may find escape impossible. In this way, perhaps, her music has been substantively always relatable. But a woman who is empowering, especially one who creates cultural artifacts that speak to women’s lives, must interrogate this male gaze in any journey of liberation. I contend that after 18 years of following Beyoncé’s music, Lemonade is that interrogation, and the artist’s finest work.

Lemonade was released to a swarm of eager crowds ready to consume and swift to interpret—perhaps too swift. Few artists have the power to create cultural moments—societal pauses—when they release new work. Beyoncé is one of those artists. In Lemonade we not only have a revelation of a woman willing to confront personal demons and lived experiences of black women and the social realities these experiences accompany, the work is a resolution of the person, and a revolution of the artist.

The visual album is an experience that the person—Beyoncé—has undergone. Whether as the center of a story or a witness of a particular journey, in Lemonade, Beyoncé confesses an evolution from tragedy. The tragedy encounters sadness, denial, anger, apathy, emptiness, accountability, reformation, forgiveness, resurrection, hope, and finally, redemption. It is very much the tragedy of a love that has been betrayed as we see in Pray You Catch Me, but ultimately chooses healing as manifested in All Night. And the healing is not out of fear or simply the need to be loved in return, it is from a choice to confront the truths of tragedy, experience its pain and still choose that love anyway. This choice is hers as she demonstrates in Sandcastles, not someone else’s, and not to please any man.

But it would be too simplistic only to conceive of Lemonade as a ballad of Beyoncé’s singular life and experiences. Lemonade, from its voiceover of the poetry of the incredible Warsan Shire, to the influence of the sounds and rhythms of the black diaspora, to its inclusion of the many black women who contribute to contemporary culture in their talent, to its demonstration of sisterly keeping of the mothers who we know because of the loss of their children to an unjust system, to the representations of African fashion, body art, jewelry, and traditional religion, from Hold Up to Freedom, the work is a claim that upholds the black diaspora’s connection, and a testament to black women’s solidarity, and the secret language black women speak.

The secret language of black girls, unfortunately, is that which includes a specific kind of tragedy. Some might say it is a tired tale; the suffering test that never goes away. But it is the tale that is the impetus of the ways in which black girls relate to each other. It is why even though our language is borne of sadness in the trials that blackness and woman-ness affords us, we know too, how to be each other’s redemption. The case of black women is one in which whiteness not only terrorizes, but the male gaze also torments, and our humanity is threatened not only by those who do not look like us, but by the men who do—even those men whose blood we know by tradition, as this work reminds us.

In Lemonade, Beyoncé still shows her awareness of men looking at her, thinking about her and forming opinions of her. But rather than fall prey to men who have been her guard or her lover or her friend, instead she frees herself from them, and her freedom allows her to confront truth differently. Her freedom is what allows her to forgive them by choice rather than expectation. This freedom is how and why the person and the artist are on a journey of emancipation from this male gaze. She is rebirthed anew. But Lemonade also reveals an emancipation of another kind in how the film so consciously and consistently expresses blackness. It is an emancipation of the artist’s own blackness. Beyoncé has always occupied a comfortable space of blackness for all people, I think, including many black people. While she has never distanced herself from blackness, she has seldom, up until recently, put it at the center of her work.

In this cultural moment, when injustice makes itself known so instantly, Beyoncé demonstrates an awareness of black life and black struggles in contemporary America. One can argue that it is simply a result of the cultural scrutiny of police brutality and blackness, and that she is responding to a duty to reflect this black consciousness in her music. But I wager that while this might be true, her seemingly newfound centering of blackness is also the consequence of life experience, which has included the commitments of motherhood and marriage and the ordinary contemplations of growing into black womanhood.

Lemonade is indeed an ode to black women’s survival in this world—women who have made lemonade from the bitterest of lemons. It is a demonstration of the secret language between black girls. Everybody may hear the language—sweet and sorrowful, rough and brave, vulnerable and overwhelming. But it is not a language that can be taught; rather, it is one learned by skin and sex. It is a language of survival. And though survival often connotes that one can endure pain, survival is also the precondition for emancipation, and emancipation is the prerequisite for joy.

We have known that black women can endure, and we have known that black women can be free. But in Lemonade, through representing the tragedy of a love she knows, and of black women’s circumstances and conversations, Beyoncé presents that black women’s joy, as much as our anger and despair and lack of feeling, and our feeling of everything entirely, can be on display as unapologetic and normal.

This freedom to be black and complicated and to speak a black girl’s complicated language so freely, is Lemonade’s revolutionary act.

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