“The Lemonade Reader” Adds Beyoncé to the Black Feminist Canon

Black Feminist in Public is a new series of conversations between creative black women and Janell Hobson, a Ms. scholar whose work focuses on the intersections of history, popular culture and representations of women of African descent.


The Lemonade Reader, edited by Kinitra D. Brooks and Kameelah L. Martin, adds to a growing list of works that comprise “Beyoncé Studies.”

Bringing together different essays, blog posts and in-depth analyses of the pop star’s celebrated and critically acclaimed audio-visual project Lemonade, Brooks and Martin have extended an important discourse for black feminist studies—bringing into print conversations already begun by Candice Benbow’s #LemonadeSyllabus and the Lemonade Resource online list compiled by Jessica Marie Johnson and myself.

As a fellow contributor to this collection, and a participant in the Lemonade Seminar that brought this project into fruition, I had the opportunity to sit with the editors during a book preview launch on Harvard’s campus. Brooks, a Hutchins fellow at Harvard and author of Searching for Sycorax: Black Women’s Hauntings of Contemporary Horror, and Martin, author of Envisioning Black Feminist Voodoo Aesthetics, ensured a rich dialogue from multidisciplinary scholars and writers that encompassed black feminist theories, Afro-Diasporic spiritualities and ethnomusicology. 

Could you discuss how the two of you came to work on this project?

Martin: It actually started from a very vigorous Facebook discussion. I think you were a part of that discussion too, Janell. I know Kinitra and I just kind of went into some stuff then decided to have more conversations. Then it turned into a Skype conversation in our scarves and pajamas! The pajama Skype discussion turned into: “Okay, we need to write something.”

We wrote this article for a special issue on Beyoncé. We got rejected and then decided to apply for a grant for the University of Michigan feminist research seminar. In a week, we churned out this proposal, and we actually got the grant! So out of that we brought some folks together to kind of hammer out what this reader would look like, and that laid the groundwork. So now here we are, ready to launch the book.

Brooks: We really tapped into our own networks to determine who to invite to participate in this seminar. It was a really nice weekend, and that sort of said, “Okay, we started with a rejection, but we managed to turn it into something else.”

It turned into a really wonderful experience.

Martin: It really was, it was powerful.

So what are you hoping will be the impact of the Reader?

Brooks: I would hope that people, even if they don’t care for Beyoncé, that they at least begin to respect the complexity of what she’s doing. And that’s it. At least respect what she does and the creative force that she is, even if you may not care for her or her politics or what she does.

What do you say to scholars who think the current wave of black feminist scholars is putting too much emphasis on Beyoncé and that we are overlooking other artists and scholars who are doing black feminist work?

Martin: What other black female artist has the platform that she has? She is reaching millions, and she decided to put black women front and center. To me, whether you agree with the politics or not, that’s a moment to kind of stop and reflect on—and the fact that she’s doing it unapologetically, that she’s incorporating all of these Africanisms into this visual album, it’s unprecedented. When she performed as Oshun at the 2017 Grammy’s, it was like: drop the mic! We have not seen anything like that in pop culture, and she is a force that can bring more awareness to our culture, to the black female experience. I’m not saying that we need to praise Beyoncé above others or exclusively, but we have to stop and recognize what she has done, which is huge!

Brooks: She is also willing to take risks to do this. She’s making some unpopular decisions, and there are people who actively dislike her or who would prefer that she “stay in her lane.” Beyoncé’s never going to be poor, but she did endanger some of her paper in order to do this because of the blowback she continuously gets—not just from black folks, but also from white folks. I think we have to recognize that along with the power of her platform; we have to also discuss who is doing it at this level, and who gets our students so excited. There are other people who are doing it, but other people don’t have students screaming, streaming, knowing the material better than we do.

I taught my class on Beyoncé’s Lemonade because my students came to me and said, “Look Dr. Brooks, you know about this stuff with orishas and everything. You should teach this class.” That was not my idea. They wanted to know more, and I always tell folks, “Are we educators, or are we not?” We have something that our students are excited about, why would we not take advantage of that opportunity? 

Do you think of Beyoncé as a kind of gateway, or is she her own entity?

Brooks: I think both. I basically taught a very rigorous black feminist theory course, and I just sprinkled Beyoncé on it. I got those students to do incredible work, especially with the creativity I got them to bring to their projects. I also exposed them to different artists.

Martin: I would agree she’s both/and. I taught a Vodou and Visual Culture class this past semester, and we did a unit on Louisiana Vodou and Bayou culture. I made them watch Lemonade from beginning to end, and students had an opportunity to study the tradition and then see what Beyoncé was doing with it. They were blown away! So now they’re seeing her as more than just this pop icon but as this black feminist. Some even call her “conjure woman.” I was like, “All right, go ahead now, go ahead!” They’re seeing her do the work and using her magic, if you will, to connect them to other traditions. 

One of the things I appreciate about Beyoncé is I think she really is one of the first black pop singers who openly embraced the feminist identity. I mean others kind of, indirectly. If they didn’t, we embraced it for them. But she actually uses the word and I think about what that means, and I’m looking at a poster right now of Tina Turner. People have called her a feminist, but I’m not sure she would use the word. We call Aretha Franklin a feminist, and I’m not sure she would have used the word. We know neither Queen Latifah nor Lauryn Hill would use the word, but Beyoncé did. I think that shifts in some ways how we talk about black feminism.

Brooks: I also think that there are some performers that we give more generosity to, Like Lauryn Hill—and Lauryn can be powerful, but Lauryn has done some sideways stuff. But we will read her generously. Whereas with Beyoncé, she’s not afforded that generosity, so what’s going on that we won’t give her the benefit of the doubt? 

I talk about that in my chapter. I liken Beyoncé to Maureen Peal in The Bluest Eye. She is that light-skinned pretty girl, and even Toni Morrison admitted, “Yeah I was not feeling that one character.” So I think there is some of that. She’s the preferred one with the fair skin and long hair and everything. I think we project a lot onto that. So you’re right, we will totally embrace Lauryn Hill because I think we identify with her more readily, even if her politics isn’t as radical as we say it is.

Martin: Whereas with the other one, it’s like, “She’s talking feminism, but..!

Brook: We really need to see Beyoncé’s growth. We met her when she was like 15 and country as hell. She still is wonderfully so, but she’s almost a 40-year-old woman now and a mother of three. We tend to lock people into certain images and prevent them from growing. 

There’s this progression from her self-titled album, where she samples Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and talks about feminism, and then with Lemonade, she lays out this grand vision about black womanhood, and now with Homecoming, she takes it to another level. I see a certain kind of intentionality, so I realize that on the one hand she’s deep and teaching us, but I believe we’re also teaching her. 

Martin: Oh yeah, definitely!

In Homecoming, she’s citing Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, so she’s definitely reading us, our black feminist works. 

Brooks: In putting this reader together, we talked about wanting this to be not only multidisciplinary, but multi-generational in terms of black feminist theory and how we have certain scholars introduced through the introduction sections. Those scholars that wouldn’t normally be associated with Beyoncé but who are included as a way of saying and acknowledging that we are standing on the shoulders of others. That there isn’t this sort of division. Some of bell hooks’s criticisms against Beyoncé expose tensions and discomfort between the generations of black feminism, and we wanted to look towards healing that and making it be teachable and a part of that conversation, but also teachable on multiple levels because we have both scholars and pop culture bloggers contributing.

Let’s talk about the Lemonade Reader as moving beyond Lemonade and even beyond Beyoncé. Can we talk more about that because she still is creating new stuff, we’re creating new stuff, so do you see this as a larger project?

Brooks: For me, I always see it as Beyoncé entering a conversation that’s been going on for centuries between black women—and so this allows us to contextualize not only what she’s saying, but what’s been said before her and what’s being said now and where things are going in the future. Everything doesn’t begin and end with Beyoncé, but she has a certain power to allow us to have certain conversations that we think are necessary. I look at that with Lakisha Simmons’s chapter on maternal mortality and infant mortality amongst black women. That isn’t something you would normally think of when you think of Beyoncé. I would also look at that with Lindsey Stewart’s chapter where she parallels bell hooks’s misreading of Beyoncé with Richard Wright’s misreading of Zora Neale Hurston. I thought that was a really interesting twist she did there, which has to do with this sort of willful ignorance of the spirit work that black women do. This really private yet powerful part of us that folks aren’t always privy to and don’t necessarily want to be privy to but fail to recognize how powerful it is in our lives. 

Martin: In my wildest imagination, I’d like to think the Lemonade Reader could be the next generational version of All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, but Some of Us are Brave and This Bridge Called My Back. I think that it can carry that type of impact. This is going to be something that perhaps black feminist thinkers are going to read. I hope that it does have that impact—not just because it’s about Beyoncé, but because it has all of this black feminist thinking around this one cultural moment. I am hoping it will carry enough weight into the future that it has that kind of lasting impact, that it becomes part of the black feminist canon.

We have already embraced Beyoncé in a way in terms of a black feminist canon. 

Martin: I think we would be remiss not to.

About

Janell Hobson is professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender.