By Melanie C. Jones,
All Hail Queen Bey, Motha, Muva, Kali, Oshun, Black Madonna…GODDESS! While icon and songstress Beyoncé garners popular attention and painstaking criticism for her sexy, sassy artistry, her latest pièce de résistance and sixth studio album Lemonade (2016) “based on every woman’s journey of self-knowledge and healing” mines the motherlode i of Black sacred wisdom to fashion a love story illuminating a triune saga of redemption, resurrection and formation. In her 2017 Grammy performance, Beyoncé’s pregnant body, adorned in the golden splendor of a thousand ages, conjures the radical radiance and oceanic depth of the Black Divine Feminine across African Diasporic religions. As I reflect on the significance of this forum, one question of the moment remains “What does a theological vision of millennial womanism look like?” My millennial womanist theorizing of Beyoncé’s artistry, in a world that denies Black presence as substantive, takes up adorning the body as virtuous for constructing an aesthetic of perpetual resistance that counters the scripting of the Black female body as unworthy of human dignity and opens space to re/claim imago dei in Black feminine divine glory.
“The most disrespected woman in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman,” says activist Malcolm X in a 1962 speech “Who Taught You to Hate Yourself”ii and sampled in song “Don’t Hurt Yourself” on Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2016) visual album.iii
To be Black and female in America is to exist in the conundrum of social-political struggle and personal-sexual entrapment. In line with womanist approaches in religious studies, my research argues Black women are among the “oppressed of the oppressed” bearing the weight of thick discursive inscriptions on their bodies and multi-dimensional oppressions that are intersecting and interlocking. Beyoncé’s Lemonade is an ode to Black women who have endured the pain and betrayal of an unfaithful lover and commit to a quest toward self-love, healing, and freedom. Such a pilgrimage requires one to travel through generations of torment breaking the fine rain of deathiv and recovering the creative, spiritual forces that empower Black women to survive and thrive. Beyoncé rightly captures the liberating virtue of Black women’s moral wisdom to spin gold and create miracles out of misery. Spoken poignantly by Jay Z’s grandmother Hattie Whitev in the album’s single “Freedom,” “I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself up. I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.”vi
In her essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” folklorist Zora Neale Hurston identifies the sanctity of Black expressivity by two notable particularities in language: drama and the will to adorn. Hurston argues Black employment of ornamentality does not seek “to meet conventional standards, but it satisfies the soul of its creator.”vii In contradistinction to the historical memory of enslaved Black bodies stripped of their clothing and oiled down by white slaveholders on the auction block in antebellum America, a Black radical tradition cultivates an aesthetic of resistance through a deep investment in looks by dressing the body in ways that appeal to political counterstrategies and over-embellishing styles and accessories to accentuate Black body types, features, and physiological makeups. These efforts to “clothe the body” in glory aim to empower Black people to reclaim somebodiness and shift the pale gaze of scorn toward recognition of Black human dignity as made in the image of God/dess.
Though Beyoncé has sought to convey representations of royalty in past works, Beyoncé’s 2017 Grammy performance creatively employs her pregnant body through dramatic stylization as a countermove to re-inscribe Black female bodily presence into America’s focus as capable of embodying divinity, beauty, and glory. The struggles of a broken relationship that Beyoncé sings of in “Love Drought” and “Sandcastles” do not drown her into despair, but rather emerge as living waters birthing a glimpse of a beatific vision on Earth. Lemonade and the 2017 Grammy performance draw on the lyrical genius of Somali-British poet Warsan Shire “Do you remember being born? Are you thankful for the hips that cracked? Baptize me … now that reconciliation is possible. 1,000 girls raise their arms. If we’re gonna heal, let it be glorious.”viii Donned in a golden headdress and crystal encrusted bikini and gown, Beyoncé’s 2017 Grammy performance crafts a glorious vision of a Black Mothering Goddess channeling the syncretic and composite energies of Black feminine divine figures across African Diasporic religious traditions.ix
In the words of Audre Lorde, “The woman’s place of power within each of us is neither white nor surface; it is dark, it is ancient, and it is deep.”x As a lyrical, musical and visual album, Lemonade emphasizes a retrieval of “the profundity of Black Southern culture” xi that spans across the Atlantic and deep within the ancestral ravines of African Diasporic religiosity. In the 2017 Grammy performance, the sacredness of Beyoncé’s revival of the mothering paradigm is the crowning of her Black pregnant body as an icon of the past, present and future weaving the cosmic forces of redemption, resurrection and formation (creation).
Beyoncé’ recovers the warrior power of Hindu goddess Kali, whose name means “she who is black” in Sanskrit, slaying her white opponents and seeking liberation for her children at whatever cost. Beyoncé’s use of the lyric “I Slay/ WE Gon’ Slay” demonstrates a significant linkage to the Kali Goddess of War and liberation. Much like poet Lucille Clifton who retrieves Kali in her artistry, Beyoncé spins the expressions of anger, fury and rage as powerful weaponry to Self-protect and eradicate all manners of oppression.
Beyoncé enlivens the Yoruba orisha Oshun, the mother of orisha twins Ibeji, who heals with her sweet waters and honey, governs money affairs, represents fidelity and youth, and receives honor through the colors of yellow and gold. Oshun’s story is replete with experiences of suffering; likewise, she celebrates sensuality and pleasure as virtues that make life worth living. Even in a crooked world that mischaracterizes Black women’s bodies, Beyoncé’s Grammy performance seeks to tilt the world right side up as she walks on water and flaunts her star power.
Seemingly, Beyoncé’s Lemonade is a source for a millennial womanist ethical analysis to unearth the virtue of sharing tools of liberation across intergenerational bonds between women and girls. The journey toward self-love requires one to excavate the hidden figures of our mother’s gardens
Beyoncé restores the righteousness of the Black Madonna to fully embody a female-headed family pattern that values the matriarchal and maternal lineage as divine. The dynamic image of her mother Tina Knowles Lawson on the left, pregnant Beyoncé in the middle and Blue Ivy Knowles-Carter on the right with all three clad in the regal line of Nefertiti showcased during the 2017 Grammy performance offers a model of healing and liberation that is transgenerational. Seemingly, Beyoncé’s Lemonade is a source for a millennial womanist ethical analysis to unearth the virtue of sharing tools of liberation across intergenerational bonds between women and girls. The journey toward self-love requires one to excavate the hidden figures of our mother’s gardens. Here, Beyoncé re-defines her maternal inspiration and mother wit as the center of her universe. “You look nothing like your mother. You look everything like your mother!”xii
At the center of a millennial womanist framework, Black millennial women take seriously Black wonder women including Beyoncé and other movement making artists as more than glorified trendsetters, but primary sources for theological and religious engagement. Millennial womanism allows for millennial women to see the divine in our mothers, our sisters, and ourselves. A millennial womanist embraces Ntozake Shange’s theological anthropology “I found God in myself & I loved her/ I loved her fiercely!”xiii as a rallying call for self-determination. Through Beyoncé’s Lemonade and ornate garb in her 2017 Grammy performance, devotees and viewers are awakened to the Black Feminine Divine as “terrifying and strange and beautiful…magic”xiv and most significantly a force to be reckoned with!
i See Stacey Floyd Thomas, Mining the Motherlode: Methods in Womanist Ethics (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2006).
ii Malcolm X delivered this speech on May 5, 1962 at the funeral of Ronald Stokes who was killed by the Los Angeles Police Department. Beyoncé samples these lines of the speech in song “Don’t Hurt Yourself” in Lemonade 2016 visual album.
iii Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Lemonade, Beyoncé, released April 23, 2016, Parkwood Entertainment and Columbia Records, 2016. Lemonade is Beyoncé’s sixth studio album featuring 12 songs and a 60-minute film with eleven chapters featuring music, poetry, and sampled speeches.
iv See Emilie Townes, Breaking the Fine Rain of Death: African American Health Issues and a Womanist Ethic of Care (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1998)
vMogul Jay Z is the husband of Beyoncé. Hattie White is Jay Z’s grandmother. The album’s title is attributed to both Beyoncé’s grandmother Agnéz Deréon and Jay Z’s grandmother Hattie White.
vi This snippet in the song “Freedom” is from Hattie White’s speech at her 90th Birthday party.
vii Zora Neale Hurston, “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” in Sanctified Church: The Folklore Writings of Zora Neale Hurston (Berkeley: Turtle Island Foundation, 1981), 50.
viii 59th Annual Grammy’s Live Performance, by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, California, Los Angeles, February 12, 2017. These lines are sampled in the “Forgiveness” chapter of Lemonade on the visual album and during the 2017 Grammy performance.
ix The beauty of the Grammy performance is that Beyoncé does not represent just one divine figure, but multiple divine figures emphasizing the diversity of African Diasporic religious traditions. Many women across the African Diaspora may be able to see themselves in Beyoncé’s Goddess imagery in the 2017 Grammy Performance.
x Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (New York: Crossing Press, 1984), 37.
xi This is a phrase from Beyoncé’s 2017 Grammy Speech for Lemonade’s win as Best Urban Contemporary Album.
xii This is a phrase from Beyoncé’s 2017 Grammy performance as holograms and images of Beyoncé’s statuesque poses are displayed.
xiii Ntozake Shange, For colored girls who have considered suicide, when the rainbow is enuf: a choreopoem. (2010 ed. New York: Macmillan, 1977), 87.
xiv These are lyrics from Warsan Shire’s poem “For Women Who Are Difficult to Love” and sampled in the chapter “Resurrection.”
REV. MELANIE C. JONES is a womanist ethicist, millennial preacher, and intellectual activist. She earned a B.A. in Economics and Political Science from Howard and a Master of Divinity with a certificate in Black Church Studies from Vanderbilt University Divinity School. Currently, Melanie is a Doctor of Philosophy candidate at Chicago Theological Seminary studying ethics, theology and culture. Her doctoral dissertation entitled “Up Against a Crooked Gospel: Black Women’s Bodies and the Politics of Character in Religion and Society” interrogates Black women’s body politics and moral formation utilizing approaches in womanist theological ethics and Black aesthetics. For her distinguished research, Melanie was named a 2017-2018 Doctoral Dissertation Fellow by The Louisville Institute.
Rev. Melanie is a thinking woman of faith advocating for social transformation in the Church, classroom and global community. She lectures as an Adjunct Instructor at American Baptist College in Nashville, TN and The Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, IL teaching upper-level face-to-face and online courses in humanities, theology, ethics, gender/sexuality studies and writing. Melanie is the Co-Curator of the #MillennialWomanism editorial forum alongside Liz S. Alexander hosted on the recently launched Black Theology Project (btpbase.org) site developed by Jamye Wooten of Kinetics. Melanie’s writings and sermons are featured in popular digital and print publications including The Feminist Wire, Chicago Theological Seminary Challenge & Response Magazine, The Forum for Theological Exploration Blog, Alpha Kappa Alpha Ivy Leaf Magazine, Sunday School Publishing Board — National Baptist Convention, USA, Urban Ministries, Incorporated, Urban Faith App and ROHO.
Rev. Melanie, a third-generation Baptist preacher, is the youngest ordained clergywoman at South Suburban M. B. Church in Harvey, IL., where she serves as Associate Minister and leads the women’s ministry. Rev. Melanie is an emerging millennial voice with a global public platform teaching in lecture halls and preaching in pulpits across the globe, traveling to cities in North America, Australia, Bahamas, Bermuda, Ghana, New Zealand and United Arab Emirates.
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