Becky with the Silky Copper-Colored Hair: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon Meets Beyoncé’s Lemonade Part 1

As I mentioned yesterday, my manuscript for English Journal was not accepted, but I also don’t have time right now to revise it, so you get to read it in its rougher unpublishable state. In this series of posts, I will be discussing what happened when I decided to teach Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade with Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and also offer some scholarly background into why the two texts work so well together. The short version? It was magic.

Publishing it this way might enable me to make the story more of a multimedia experience, so I’m calling it a win. Credit to my former student Geethika for the title of this series. A note on citations: I transitioned from using MLA to APA on this blog because I found I liked APA better and it’s also more commonly used in education, but I used MLA in this article because it is English Journal’s citation style, and I didn’t want to revise all the citations.

Image credit Kristopher Harris, used under Creative Commons License

Pop culture phenomenon and megawatt music star Beyoncé opened her film Homecoming, a recording of her 2018 Coachella concert, with words borrowed from Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon: “If you surrender to the air, you can ride it” (qtd. in Knowles-Carter, Homecoming). Song of Solomon differs from Morrison’s other novels in that its protagonist, Macon Dead III, known as “Milkman,” is a man. In the foreword to the 2004 edition of her novel, Morrison explains that she began writing Song of Solomon after the death of her father (xii). She asked her father, by way of hoping for inspiration, “What are the men you have known really like?” (xii). Morrison describes that “radical shift in imagination from a female locus to a male one” as a “challenge” (xii). However, as my students and I discovered when we paired our reading of Song of Solomon with a study of Beyoncé’s visual concept album Lemonade, Milkman’s relationships with women in the novel drove his development as a character, ultimately teaching him that “if you surrendered to the air, you could ride it” (337).

As Beyoncé explains in an interview with Vogue, “I come from a lineage of broken male-female relationships, abuse of power, and mistrust. Only when I saw that clearly was I able to resolve those conflicts in my own relationship. Connecting to the past and knowing our history makes us both bruised and beautiful” (Knowles-Carter, “Beyoncé in Her Own Words”). Lemonade has been described as a journey (Edgar and Toone 12). Indeed, Tidal, the music and podcast streaming service owned by Beyoncé’s husband Jay-Z, described Lemonade as “every woman’s journey of self-knowledge and healing” in its announcement of Lemonade‘s release (Pinkard). Morrison contrasts the “stereotypically male narrative” with its “accomplishment of flight, the triumphant end of a trip through earth, to its surface, on into water, and finally into air” with this feminine journey (Morrison xii). However, Beyoncé incorporates many of these motifs, including a trip through earth and into water, in Lemonade. University of Pennsylvania professor Jeanine Staples argues that Lemonade’s cultural references create a “tapestry of journey method through iterations of consciousness and experiences that are tied to a feminine and Black feminist tradition/s” (29). Cole Cuchna and Titi Shodiya describe Lemonade as a “deeply personal exploration of identity, history, and spirituality, a visionary expression of a woman’s journey from betrayal to redemption, from tragedy to triumph, from subjugation to freedom”(“Beyoncé: Lemonade”).

Like Beyoncé, Milkman must make his own journey to reckon with his family’s history, including a similar lineage of romantic and familial relationships, and it is only once he learns this history that he is able to fly.

Beyoncé’s Lemonade album and accompanying film explore the threat of infidelity in a relationship between a Black woman and a Black man, but Cuchna and Shodiya explain that more deeply, the visual album is “a gateway into an education on how America’s history of slavery and systemic injustice affect the structures of the Black family” (“Beyoncé: Lemonade”). Reviewing the film for Humanity & Society, Corey Miles argues that the film’s chapter titles, beginning with “Intuition,” “Denial,” and “Anger,” then advancing to “Forgiveness,” “Resurrection,” and “Redemption,” develop the “emotional progression for how black women negotiate their relationship with black men, specifically their husbands and fathers” (136). Miles contends that the first half of the album wrestles with Beyoncé’s anger about the infidelity of both her father, Mathew Knowles, and her husband, Jay-Z (136). The middle of the album underscores feelings of apathy that gradually give way to redemption, forgiveness, and empowerment. After the Lemonade album was released, writer Candice Benbow collaborated with African-American women to produce the Lemonade Syllabus, a compilation of recommended reading celebrating Black womanhood. While several novels by Toni Morrison make Benbow’s list of recommended fiction, Song of Solomon is not among them, likely due to its male protagonist; however, my AP English Literature and Composition students found many connections between Song of Solomon and Lemonade.

Tomorrow, I will delve more deeply these connections.

Works Cited

Benbow, Candice. Lemonade Syllabus. Issuu, 2016, issuu.com/candicebenbow/docs/lemonade_syllabus_2016, Accessed 6 Jul 2019.

Cuchna, Cole and Titi Shodiya. “Beyoncé: Lemonade.” Dissect. 23 Apr. 2020, open.spotify.com/episode/40hut8DPmX25CTG6s46bMS?sid=LocUPWnQTVKprV9zul4mwA, Accessed 27 Jun 2020.

Edgar, Amanda Nell and Ashton Toone. “‘She Invited Other People to that Space’: Audience Habitus, Place, and Social Justice in Beyoncé’s Lemonade.” Feminist Media Studies, 2017, pp. 1-15.

Knowles-Carter, Beyoncé. “Beyoncé in Her Own Words: Her Life, Her Body, Her Heritage.” Vogue, 6 Aug. 2018, www.vogue.com/article/beyonce-september-issue-2018, Accessed 15 Jun. 2020.

Knowles-Carter, Beyoncé, director and performer. Homecoming, Netflix, 2019.

Miles, Corey. “Beyoncé’s Lemonade: When Life Gave Us Lemons, We Saved the World.” Humanity & Society, vol. 41, no. 1, 2016, pp. 136-38.

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon, Vintage, 2004.

Pinkard, Ryan. “The Formation to Lemonade.” Tidal Magazine, 29 Apr. 2016, www.tidal.com/magazine/article/the-formation-to-lemonade/1-25900, Accessed 27 Jun. 2020.

Staples, Jeanine M. “How #BlackGirlMagic Cultivates Supreme Love to Heal and Save Souls that Can Heal and Save the World: An Introduction to Endarkened Feminist Epistemological and Ontological Evolutions of Self Through a Critique of Beyoncé’s Lemonade.” Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education, vol. 16, no. 2, 2017, pp. 29-49.

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