When Men Come, Set Yourself On Fire | Gradient
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A Lesson From ‘Lemonade’: When Men Come, Set Yourself on Fire

Beyoncé’s visual masterpiece, Lemonade, is an ode to the black woman—to her power and presence, her grace and beauty, her diversity and worth.

The album propels us into the world of the black woman’s narrative that reaches to our past, confronts our present and hopefully will change our future. Although absolutely celebratory, the earth moving album is also a laser pointer that pokes and prods into the darkest depths of the black struggle; namely, it speaks for and to the generational oppression that has continually pumped through the veins of the black woman.

Beyoncé effectively shows the oppression of our past which has been perpetuated by white men as our slave owners and rapists, and by white women when we raised their children as the Help. And then the ever-present oppression from our very own sisters as we punish each other for having a dark complexion or that good, white-people hair as if we had a choice in the matter.

Most significantly, Beyoncé exposes one oppressive force more culturally subtle than all the others—one that comes from within and crushes our families, our psyches, our hearts, and despite all of the seemingly irrevocable damage, one we rarely name oppressor.

This oppressor is personal; it is not constructed by society and forced upon us. It is a part of us. We carry it to term in our wombs; it feeds from us and takes our form, our very blood, cells, and skin. It comes from us and then turns its back on us. I am talking about black men.

It was June 16, 2009. Two days prior, I had turned 18-years-old I was sitting in the TV room with my mother as we were going over some logistics for my transition to college. I wanted to focus on what she was saying as I was overwhelmed, but I was trying to find a way to tell her that I got a mysterious Facebook message from a distant relative, someone who referred to herself as “family,” and for the first time, someone who shared my last name.  Finally, I blurted out, “JULIA WOODSON MESSAGED ME ON FACEBOOK SHE WANTS ME TO CALL MY DAD.”

I could see my mother’s face melt a little. I knew why. She did not want me to experience the same struggle from the same man. For 18 years, my dad was non-existent. That was OK because I had my mother, my grandmother, my aunt, my brother, my coaches, and countless soccer dads filling that spot. I never felt loss. I never felt like “half of me is missing” like I was a plot point from every Lifetime original movie. But, this woman, speaking on behalf of him, made me curious.

What could he possibly have to say after all these years? I had witnessed first-hand the shattered expectations and turmoil brought by my brother’s father. If my mother was the sun, consistent and warm, then my brother’s father was a monstrous cloud who rolled in to make promises and sell false dreams.

I didn’t want that; I knew it was oppressive before I knew the meaning of the word. I was fine with the absence. There was no pain in it.

And still, I was curious, so I called him.

He was indeed, a monstrous, black cloud coming in to cover my sun. I stumbled over the initial contact and called him by name, then “dad,” then by name again.

I’ll never forget the way he talked to me, as if we were old friends. He promised to watch a game or two of mine at Wake Forest, and right before I hung up said he would send me a check for my birthday. Most of the promises never came true. But I did get a check, my $200 inheritance. I used the money to buy groceries. For my sun.

Beyoncé’s expression of the oppressive black man is important. It is an undertone that can easily be missed, as the Queen drives her stiletto heel straight into his iniquities. However, as a paradox, through her sheer honesty and storytelling, and Warsan Shire’s curing poetic artistry, Beyoncé depicts a deep-rooted pain that connects all black women. No black women, none of us, not even our Queen Bey, can escape this oppression. It is rooted in us. For some of us, it was absent fathers. For others, it was a lover-turned-baby daddy. And then for others, like Beyoncé, it was a betrayal, a broken promise. The narratives take their own shape, but they are collectively shared. It is the one oppression we have not been able to stand up to, or overcome.

It is the monstrous, dark cloud that covers our sun.

This album endeavors to do just that: to overcome the oppression, to heal the wounds, and to show off the scars as emblems of survival. So how do we do it? How do we end this civil war? How do we move forward together?

Follow the Beyoncé model.

First, we recognize the problem and embrace our pain. In her opening monologue, Beyoncé states “I tried to make a home out of you, but doors lead to trap doors”. She captures a broken vow; the resulting loss of trust, feeling tricked by “the magician” (a name given to her father). She continues by asking “where do you go when you go quiet” recognizing the brokenness and disconnection from infidelity.

Additionally, Beyoncé describes the  “tradition of men in my blood that come home at three A.M.” a legacy that generations of black women have allowed for too long. We let brokenness define us as a tradition and as a part of our culture normativity that is no longer who or what we are.

Second, we regain confidence and self-respect. In the song “Hold Up”, Beyoncé is birthed from water, baptized and reborn as her confident self. Her sexuality arrives breasts first, literally. She seamlessly plays up the “crazy” woman with her bat (“hot sauce”) as her newest squad member while reminding the man that she is and will always be the “baddest woman in the game”. Finally, and most heroically, she points her finger at the culprit, her oppressor, the black man as she calls out for his “wicked ways”.

Third, we use our voices to push back. In the song “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, Beyoncé states “you ain’t trying hard enough, you ain’t loving hard enough, you don’t love me deep enough…I’m just too much for you.” Black women love hard, we love irrationally, we love endlessly, and our lacerations run deep.The healing takes so long.  The song ends with an explicit warning: “you try this shit again, you gon’ lose your wife”. This lyric is crucial. It breaks the narrative that we are first betrayed then left to fend for ourselves. It shows that black women can stand up and go and by doing so, we can choose to love ourselves first.

Finally, we forgive, and we reconcile. In my opinion, the most beautiful depiction of forgiveness in the visual is during “All Night Long”, with the picture of Jay Z engulfed in Beyoncé’s extremities.  This is an example of presence; a present black man who, despite his flaws, his persona, the outer appearance portrayed to the world, is truly sorry and truly grateful for the black woman who has stood by his side, held him down, had his baby.

A black man who is unashamed and unafraid of looking weak if that means showing tenderness and love to his black woman.

In her monologue before the song, Beyoncé tells us her “torturer became [her] remedy” and asks him to “make the woman in doubt disappear”. This narrative of the black man as a “good” man, a good father, a good husband despite his flaws is a rarity. It’s unconventional, and it’s the future. It models the direction that black women and men must travel together. It is interconnectedness, and it is the black woman’s hope. It was the hope of my mother. It’s my hope. And it will be the hope of the black women yet to come.

Or, as Warsan Shire wrote in Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (and Beyoncé quoted in Lemonade): “To my daughter I will say, when men come, set yourself on fire.”

And rise from the ashes.

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