In her book, Between Sundays: Black Women and Everyday Struggles of Faith, Marla Frederick chronicles Black women’s participation in the church and development of spirituality despite the church’s persistent patriarchy and heteronormative violence. Frederick writes that Black women in the church “participate because their faith is real—complicated but real.” Many young Black Christian women grew up watching their mothers live out their complicated faith in these spaces. They watched them praying, crying, and shouting, pleading with God for better days. They knew why their mothers were making such appeals. Their cries and whispers at home did not go unnoticed. Whether it was their father or the man their mother loved, whether it was her relentless supervisor or conniving coworker, whether it was the stress of family life or the pressure of being a Black woman in America, someone had hurt their mother, and she was coming to church to work through the pain. Black daughters watched their mothers turn to God to end the gendered violence they were experiencing in intimate, professional, and societal relationships. They needed God to make a way, though it seemed those cries fell on deaf ears. Unfortunately, sometimes these daughters grew into Black Christian women who came to the altar to petition God for the very same thing.
It is in this moment we meet Beyoncé in her latest artistic rendering, “Lemonade.” The visual album centers on the experiences of Black women in America and journeys through the destruction of betrayal towards salvation and redemption. Some writers have noted the religious undertones of “Lemonade” and this facet should not be ignored. Despite international superstardom, many people forget that Beyoncé is a Southern church girl steeped in the Black church aesthetic and traditions. While her music and iconic status boast an unapologetic sexuality, in her personal life she seems not to detour far from the instructions church girls have been given. For instance, she married Jay-Z before birthing Blue Ivy, and thus followed the trajectory that the church ensured would result in uninterrupted bliss and stability. Yet, at the beginning of “Lemonade,” we find that the pain of betrayal has infiltrated her home, or at least metaphorically that is the story she is telling. Consequently, Beyoncé turns to what she knows best: God and the church. She is now at the altar pleading for God to make a way—a place she has seen her own mother before. Beyoncé follows the instructions she’s been given to endure these tough times as a dutiful Christian woman. In “Lemonade,” Beyoncé follows the rules, saying:
Fasted for 60 days … confessed my sins and was baptized in a river. Got on my knees and said “Amen” and said “I mean” … I drank the blood and drank the wine. I sat alone and begged and bent at the waist for God … 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?
Beyoncé is doing everything she has been taught to do but something remains insufficient. The praying and the fasting are unable to keep her husband faithful. The pleas for divine intervention are unable to keep her from spiraling. Her next movements can be read as destructive, not only to the people around her but also to herself. She has invested so much of herself into a love that has harmed her. She reacts out of her own humanity. It is in this moment we begin to see how Beyoncé’s generation of Black churched women will make their own lemonade out of lemons in ways that will contradict Black Church teachings.
At the heart of the divide between younger Black Christian women and the church continues to be a sexual politic that renders Black women incapable of making healthy decisions about relationships. These teachings are theologically insulated from critique and reform. In Between Sundays, Frederick writes:
Women hold to ideas about intimacy in order to guard their own sacred space. This space for them is not limited to their physical body, but also includes their spirit. They are concerned not just about the physical consequences of sexual engagement, but about what their sexual engagement says about their commitment to God and their willingness to submit to God’s desires.
Many Black Christian women continue to see restricting sexual activity as an important litmus test to determine their devotion to God. If one is able to contain herself sexually, she will be rewarded with “the desires of her heart.” As sexual repression remains conflated with Christian integrity, Black churched women are unable to seek and create spaces in relationships that are mutually beneficial. In this regard, Black Christian women are always subject to their partner’s direction and superiority. In this worldview, their inferiority is sanctioned by God, and anything that seeks to reject this is sinful.
While Beyoncé may have embodied this position at the beginning of “Lemonade,” she walks completely away from it when she learns to love herself. As she journeys toward wholeness, she puts herself first—something many churched women are taught not to do. Black Christian women are to be selfless in ways that can make them susceptible to further violence. Church leaders constantly force upon Black women messages of forgiveness that work to hold them accountable for the pain they’ve endured by suggesting that if they do not immediately forgive, they are responsible for the pain’s consequences. Rarely, if ever, do Black churches speak directly to the gendered violence Black women experience in every context of their lives. In her book, Plenty Good Rood: Women Versus Male Power in the Black Church, Marcia Y. Riggs writes that “the paradoxical coexistence of a women’s tradition of resistance and male gatekeepers stands at the heart of the complexity and duplicity of sexual-gender relations in the African American church and tends to lead the leadership and membership to dismiss or excuse the ways that sexual-gender oppression occurs in the church.” Because the church too often has instituted itself as a place where (cisgender, heterosexual) Black male flourishing will take place, at times it intentionally turns a blind eye to Black women’s suffering, and thus it reinforces that suffering.
While Beyoncé is not resistant to forgiveness, it will happen on her own terms. She will not reenter a relationship where her lover does not take actionable steps to become better. She will not remain in a relationship that diminishes her own power. Beyoncé emerges from her experience, commanding her level of love and respect be reciprocated. The church often dismisses these messages of self-actualization and Black male accountability as the result of women stepping outside their roles and speaking out of turn. But Beyoncé did this in “Lemonade” with a holy boldness that seemed to reflect the divinity within.
After watching “Lemonade,” I saw Black women thirsting for resources that would help them better understand the womanist and Black feminist messages in the film and album. It was out of this yearning that the Lemonade Syllabus was born. The syllabus is a downloadable resource that aims to unpack many of the themes within Beyoncé’s visual album. In hindsight, many Black women were desiring tools for freedom. Beyoncé unleashed a levy of emotions that many Black women had long suppressed or refused to acknowledge. Through “Lemonade,” Beyoncé showed the power of Black women’s vulnerability and many women wanted to tap into their own. With the contributions of more than 70 Black women, the Lemonade Syllabus became more than texts and visuals to accompany the visual album; it also became a collection of works that speak to Black womanhood in its historical and contemporary manifestations. The syllabus recommends works of fiction and autobiography, poetry and music, highlighting words from Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and many more. It became an opportunity for Black women to think a new way forward for themselves, procuring their healing and wholeness. Across the country, Black women are starting Lemonade Syllabus book clubs and hosting meetups to discuss “Lemonade” and how they can move forward and heal.
In many ways, these endeavors and Black women’s affection for “Lemonade” embody what seems to be our necessary response to what Beyoncé has given us. If we are to apply these lessons fully, it first requires a moving away from the spaces that have offered us lemons. This movement can be literal and figurative. As Black women we can move our bodies and our minds. Much has been said about Beyoncé’s perceived reconciliation with her husband as an encouragement to remain in bad relationships. It is quite the opposite. We are actually being encouraged to leave places that do not hold and love us. We are being encouraged to love ourselves first. It does not mean we no longer love the spaces we have left. It means we love ourselves well enough to trust that life outside damaging spaces is fruitful. This is not limited to Black women’s personal relationships. Black women are navigating professional and spiritual relationships that are death dealing and, if we need it, “Lemonade” is giving us permission to leave. Where does this leave the church—a place Black women love but which may not fully love them? What is to become of the space where Black Christian women go to deal with their lemons only to leave having received more? The Black church remains implicated in the gendered violence Black women experience and it must reckon with the sobering reality that Black women can be well elsewhere. Black Christian women must also be willing to admit the damage done by the church and demand better treatment.
Secondly, our response to “Lemonade” calls us to move towards the lemonade itself. It requires that Black women live into their flourishing. The American Black woman’s life is hard, but that is not the totality of the story. Black women have been able to thrive in the face of death and isolation. Moving towards lemonade calls us to focus on the thriving more than the circumstances that oppose it. When Black women live into the lemonade, they are choosing a joy that refuses to be diminished by the violence that will continue to persist against them. It is the joy of Grandma’s kitchen table where she will feed your malnourished body and wounded spirit. It is the joy of Black hair salons where Black women provide each other temporary refuge from the wages of Black life in America. It is even the joy of Beyoncé’s current “Formation World Tour,” where Black women describe their experience as spiritual—saying she took them to church. Black women have always found ways to live into the lemonade, and if Black women are to continue to flourish, this must become our permanent posture. Through “Lemonade,” Beyoncé calls young Black women to reimagine their relationships in intimate and social spaces through constructing a relationship with God that makes self-love primary. Their mothers brought them to the faith. Now it must become their own.
Candice Benbow is a lecturer in Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. She is also a doctoral student in the Department of Religion and Society at Princeton Theological Seminary and is the creator of the Lemonade Syllabus.