Can You Dig It with Beyoncé?
Black History Month highlights the importance of recognizing the essential work Black artists do to define — and redefine — culture. In her award-winning book Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound, Daphne Brooks unpacks the iconography of Beyoncé’s legendary visual album Lemonade in relation to the history of slavery in America and its afterlives.
Blink and you’ll miss it, but the transition — from wide-open, out-on-the-range horse-riding and Afrocowboy socials to the stark, cold enclosures of a cement fortress parking structure — is one of the most pivotal moments in Yoncé Knowles’s 2016 Black feminist magnum opus, Lemonade, her New Orleans reclamation manifesto, a work that, as the vast majority of pop fans good and well now know, has been tilled many times over with passion and mostly with great care by everyone from that obsessive fan “hive” to critics and scholars across the globe. (I would place my money on a hunch that it is arguably now the most “reviewed” album of all time if we count the hundreds of blog posts and think pieces that flourished on social media alongside formal press outlet analyses in the weeks and months following Lemonade’s premiere on HBO on April 23, 2016 — and I most certainly would do just that.)
The majority of pundits have zeroed in on how much place matters in this epic work and the extent to which the Crescent City emerges as a key character — from the quotidian grandeur of marching bands strutting down the streets of the Algiers neighborhood to the shots of Lake Pontchartrain’s lush splendor, the sun-kissed sands of Fontainebleau State Park, and the ludic energy of Bourbon Street.
But the heart of Lemonade’s cartography, as a number of critics make clear in readings of Beyoncé’s second visual album (her sixth solo effort in a career now spanning two decades), resides at the scene of the plantation — Destrehan, Madewood, and Fort Macomb — sites that remind us of that most famous of Hartman mantras that haunts and shapes our thinking, our feeling, and our scholarship about “the conditions of the present”: “If slavery persists as an issue in the political life of black America, it is not because of an antiquarian obsession with bygone days or the burden of a too-long memory, but because black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery — skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment.” These critics remind us of the ways Knowles tarries, as historian LaKisha Simmons puts it, at the site of “monumental history” in this project and how she and her Black radical study ensemble of creatives on Lemonade — among them, Black feminist director Melina Matsoukas and experimental video filmmaker Kahlil Joseph — draw inspiration from the ways that visual artist Carrie Mae Weems “places her body on the ruins” of Louisiana sugar plantations “to become a witness to this past” in her work. Yoncé too, Simmons argues, “merge[s] past landscapes with the present to centre black women within narratives of the U.S. nation.” Beyoncé’s sweeping and alluring pop masterpiece, which is dense with historical and cultural citations molded into being by the artist and her team of collaborators, encourages us “to see the monument of the sugar plantation anew.”
This insistence on reckoning with the location, location, location that matters in Lemonade is for sure built out of the grist of woman-of-color critical thought and study emerging over the past decade and a half — most notably in the work of scholars like Katherine McKittrick and Mary Pat Brady, both of whom illuminate the ways that aesthetics are the tools by which the historically marginalized might reoccupy, redesign, and reframe sites of wounding and catastrophe, gross neglect, and forgotten and undervalued loopholes of retreat. McKittrick has, for instance, influentially shown us how Edouard Glissant’s “poetics of landscape allow black women to critique the boundaries of transatlantic slavery, rewrite national narratives, respatialize feminism, and develop new pathways across traditional geographic arrangements; they also offer,” she adds, “several reconceptualizations of space and place, positioning black women as geographic subjects who provide spatial clues as to how more humanly workable geographies might be imagined.” And before her it was Chicana feminist scholar Mary Pat Brady, who made the contention that we should take seriously how “the imbrication of the temporal within the spatial . . . illustrates” that, in spite of the long colonial-neoliberal project’s “seemingly successful abstraction of space,” in spite of a long systemic game to convert people’s land into “geometric homogeneities” and a “quantitative” set of ideas from that of vibrant human dwelling, in spite of the tenacity of capitalist expansion and state surveillance, there are nonetheless “alternative conceptions” of the spatial that challenge “oppressive” alignments of power and instead privilege revolutionary socialities.
This is the undergirding philosophy of Lemonade, that Black women activists — Mothers of the Movement and culture workers, musicians and dancers, athletes and actors, legendary chefs and Mardi Gras masqueraders — might reinhabit the ruins of our spurned history, might reclaim the earth and overrun the wilderness with our wildly sensual and sumptuous, celebratory selves and ultimately birth a new time and restorative, new collectivities. The journey to get to there, though, requires roaming fields, bursting through floods, levitating on slick, firewall roads, walking through flames, and plunging to new depths, to the bottom of oceans of despair, beneath shipwrecks that left bodies in the wake.