20 years after publishing her essay, ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe’, Hortense Spillers participates in a roundtable discussion with Farrah Jasmine Griffith wherein Spillers offers a critique of the privileged discursive spaces whose creation and sustenance relies on the physical, intellectual, and affective exploitation of the Black feminine. Spillers states that the Black feminine “[falls] between everyone who has a name, a category, a sponsor, an agenda, spokespersons, people looking out for them- but [we] don’t have anybody.” The Black feminine is denied entry and access to worlds and modes of being that cease to exist without her; Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ indicates that the conditions that situate the Black feminine in this interstitial space inaugurate a Black feminist futurity that exceeds a traditional symbolic order. I’m interested in exploring the ways in which the flesh of the Black feminine, as constituted by Hortense Spillers in ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe’ is registered and transfigured into a mode of Black feminist orality/aurality that conjures disruption, love, wisdom, futurity in Lemonade.
The subterranean movement of the black feminine is apprehended by a sonic force wherein the scene, which is completely black for less than two seconds, is occupied and overtaken by the sound of a body of water that presumably drowns the viewer. If this sensation of drowning stands as a figure for the anti-black antagonisms that are critiqued in the digital album, the presence of water and its transmutation into a sonic force cautions its viewer to transgress the terrain produced by the scene. That the scene is completely black gives the viewer the sense that they are submerging into a Mariana Trench-an interstitial elsewhere that obfuscates everyone besides the Black feminine. The permutations of the black screen, entwined with the sonic transmutation of water, produce a media of transport that enables the Black feminine to, as Spillers might suggest, ‘arrive’. At the end of the roundtable discussion, Spillers apprehends the question that underlies the digital album; she pronounces, “I am here now, ‘Watcha gonna do?’” The viewer is confronted by this question in the following scene when Beyonce appears and begins to lift her head above her arms that rest atop a black SUV shielding her eyes from the viewer. Beyoncé centers and is centered by the Black feminine’s refusal to return the collective gaze that is deployed by the viewer as well as the anti-black antagonisms she critiques throughout the film. It is important to note that the only part of her flesh that Beyoncé reveals in this scene is her left ear, which indicates that her optic gaze is transmuted into a kind of orality/aurality.
In the following scene, the camera situates the viewer on or near the ground and angles towards the sky; however, the view of the sky is obstructed by a wooden object or building that complicates the subject position of the viewer inasmuch as it holsters metal entrails that escape the scene in the bottom right-hand corner troubling the border of the scene. The landscapes of the scenes that follow urge the viewer to think the relation between architecture, objecthood, absence, and subjectivity as the objects deliberately situate themselves alongside the bottom of each frame-the border closest to the viewer. This illusory gesture constructs a sense of proximity and intimacy between the viewer and the objects in the scene. For instance, the camera brushes by a field of grass in one of the opening scenes; the camera’s movement and interaction with the landscape affirms the presence of the black feminine in the scene. If the camera is a transmutation of the optic gaze of the black feminine in this scene, this, along with the viewer’s inability to see the body in this scene, may lead the viewer to misrecognize this moment as an invitation to transgress the interiority of the black feminine. The optic gaze of the camera in this scene is, in fact, a transmutation of black feminine’s gaze; after the camera collapses landing at an 180 degree angle, the camera situates a vacant building in the purview of the black feminine. The door of no return is registered in this scene which is not peculiar because the building, though barren, functions as a mode of transport that enables the black feminine to inhabit the stage in the following scene.
When the first song begins Beyoncé appears prostrate on a stage with her hands clenched together before she returns to the field and examines the architecture. She closes her eyes and laments, “I’m praying you catch me”. Her use of direct address and refusal to open her eyes and return the gaze of the viewer implicates the viewer in the fall of the black feminine. The fall of the black feminine, which seems to have biblical allusions, is the condition of possibility for flight. Before Beyoncé falls off of the top of a building, the camera motions towards a corridor in the vacant building wherein two black girls in Victorian white gowns face the viewer. Their clenched fists resting overtop their gowns; they dismiss the viewer by withholding their gaze and looking out of the door of no return once the camera reveals their faces. In the next scene, Beyoncé begins to narrate from a temporal elsewhere as a group of black women and girls peer into the distance apprehending a futurity that only they are privy to: “I tried to make a home out of you but doors lead to trapped doors. Where do you go when you go quiet?” In ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe’, Spillers suggests that the masculine figure emerges from and is entwined with the flesh of the black feminine; though it may not be her lover, the black feminine does, in fact, make a home out of someone’s flesh and interiority- her own. The fall is the beginning and continuation of Beyoncé’s fidelity to the to flesh of the black feminine.
When she falls off of the top of a building, Beyoncé is submerged into a Victorian style bedroom filled with water. After watching her second self lay on the bed, she escapes from the scene and continues to narrate from a temporal elsewhere as her second self ascends from the bed, “Fasted for sixty days, wore white, abstained from mirrors, abstained from sex, slowly did not speak another word. In that time, my hair, I grew past my ankles. I slept on a mat on the floor. I swallowed a sword. I levitated. Went to the basement, confessed my sins, and was baptized in a river. I got on my knees and said ‘ameen’ and said ‘I mean.’ I whipped my own back and asked for dominion at your feet. I threw myself into a volcano. I drank the blood and drank the wine. I sat alone and begged and bent at the waist for God.” She is absent and absolutely present. Bubbles scurry out of her nose and air fills her lungs as she lists a series of contingencies that interpolate her according to more biblical allusions. And so it seems, the excess of the Black feminine the and impossibility of her capacity to cede to a traditional symbolic order fills her lungs with air and turn her flesh inside out.
Before the first song ends, Beyoncé offers a critique of state injunction, surveillance, and other structures that attempt to circumscribe the Black feminine into epistemological categories that jettison the ontology and personhood of the Black feminine. She does so by approaching a surveillance camera in the street, dislodging it with her baseball bat then approaching the viewers in the following scene and hitting the camera causing it to collapse and lose color. This scene suggests that while the violence of the gaze troubles the flesh of the Black feminine, it does not obscure her ability to resist.
In the scenes that follow, Beyoncé suggests that the flesh of the black feminine is shrouded in invisibility. She repeats the refrain, “Why can’t you see me? Everyone else can.” Indeed, it is the flesh of the black feminine from which black sociality and love is conjured, so why can’t we see her? The camera encroaches into a dimly lit dressing room wherein an unreliable light fixture exposes a series of ghostly figures that begin to dance after a scream in the distance initiates the movement and song in the scene. After returning to an underground parking lot, the camera situates the viewer on or near the ground truncating the viewer’s agency and ontological status. Beyoncé meets the viewer’s gaze and cautions them- “Don’t hurt yourself”- before inviting El Hajj Malik Shabazz to interdict. He states, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected woman in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” Like Spillers, Beyoncé is concerned with the ways in which anti-Blackness and heteropatriarchal structures and ideologies attempt to destroy the Black feminine. This scene provides a technology of reading that suggests that to hurt the Black feminine is to hurt oneself: “When you hurt me, you hurt yourself. Try not to hurt yourself. When you love me, you love yourself.”
The next song, “Sorry”, is a call for a collective black feminist refusal. As Serena Williams walks down a spiral staircase, she crafts her own sexuality and preemptively disavows the misogynoir that demands her to apologize for her fleshy excess. Beyoncé exclaims, “I ain’t sorry. I ain’t thinkin’ bout you.” She insists upon creating her own machinery for knowledge production with her inscription of vernacular and otherwise modes of communicating: “Middle fingers up, tell em’ boy bye. Call Becky with the good hair.” This scene is a radical refusal to lend legitimacy to a traditional symbolic order and what prevails is an internality that necessitates the love, movement, and magic conjured through the collective fleshiness of Black feminist aurality/orality.