Yesterday, I shared a little bit of background into the connections between Beyoncé’s Lemonade visual album and Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon. Today, I am going to explore those connections more deeply.
Song of Solomon is the centerpiece of a unit on Identity and Culture in our AP English Literature curriculum. We focus on essential questions such as
- What makes us who we are?
- How does culture influence us?
- Is defining identity based on difference a divisive or a constructive force in society?
I think the text could work well in a variety of units, however, and one of the reasons I teach it in AP Lit is that it is a good text for Question 3.
The first year I paired Lemonade with Song of Solomon (2018-2019), I did not teach the entire text of Lemonade. I pulled out specific songs from the visual album. However, the power of the paired texts prompted me to teach the entire visual album the following year. Cole Cuchna and Titi Shodiya argue that Lemonade is a Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art,” a concept borrowed from nineteenth-century German composer Richard Wagner, who “believed varying art forms, such as poetry, music, dance, theater, costume, and set design should be seamlessly synthesized to create an artistic expression that was much more than the sum of its parts” (“Beyoncé: Lemonade”).
Cienna Davis argues that the visual storytelling in Lemonade situates “Beyoncé within Afrodiasporic genealogies and alongside histories of Black trauma” (24). One might argue the same for Song of Solomon. Milkman undertakes a journey to discover himself and his family, but this journey also helps him uncover “the story of his ancestors and the trauma hidden in it that has affected his family generation after generation” (San José Rico 153). This knowledge helps Milkman feel connected to a larger community and begin the process of stopping the cycle of trauma passed down through his family (San José Rico 153). Both Beyoncé and Toni Morrison employ African-American folklore to explore this history of trauma.
The first year I paired Lemonade with Song of Solomon, my class’s first encounter with Beyoncé’s album occurred after we had read up to chapter X in Song of Solomon. Hagar has just been unceremoniously dumped by Milkman after they have been lovers for twelve years. She has taken to stalking him in the evenings and threatening to kill him. Following a discussion of the chapter’s events, we viewed Beyoncé’s video for “Hold Up.”
In the video, Beyoncé evokes the Yoruban orisha Oshun, dressed in yellow and striding out into the streets with a rush of water (Roberts and Downs). Oshun is a goddess of water and sensuality, and folklore describes her legendary temper, especially when she has been wronged (Roberts and Downs). Beyoncé wields a bat and carves a swath of destruction throughout the video. I asked students if perhaps Hagar could be considered alongside Beyoncé. These lyrics for “Hold Up” became the basis for our discussion:
What’s worse, lookin’ jealous or crazy?
Jealous or crazy?
Or like being walked all over lately, walked all over lately
I’d rather be crazy (Knowles-Carter, Lemonade)
Had Hagar decided she’d rather be “crazy” than be “walked all over lately”? Suddenly Hagar’s anger and desire for destruction made more sense to my students and was grounded in both folklore and a modern story of infidelity. One student described the connection between the texts as a “eureka moment.” Seeing the way that Beyoncé wielded folklore led students to a deeper understanding of Morrison’s use of folklore.
Hagar internalizes Milkman’s rejection in a startlingly similar way to Beyoncé. Hagar is driven to murderous rage after seeing Milkman with “a girl whose silky copper-colored hair cascaded over the sleeve of his coat” (Morrison 127). At the end of her song “Sorry,” Beyoncé sings, “He only want me when I’m not there / He better call Becky with the good hair” (Knowles-Carter, Lemonade).
She repeats that last line. Students understood the woman with “silky copper-colored hair” means nothing to Milkman as she occupies only Hagar’s thoughts (the text never mentions Milkman’s thoughts about the woman, which led us to conclude he doesn’t have any). My students quickly nicknamed the mysterious woman with silky copper-colored hair “Becky,” drawing a straight line to Beyoncé’s lyrics.
Near the end of Song of Solomon, Hagar catches sight of herself in the mirror and says “No wonder… I look like a ground hog. Where’s the comb?” (Morrison 308-309). Hagar concludes that Milkman does not love her because of her appearance, so she decides to “fix [herself] up” by buying new clothes and makeup and having her hair done (Morrison 308). While waiting for the hairstylist to be ready for her, Hagar walks in the rain, and all of her plans are undone as her bags fall apart in the street (Morrison 313). Hagar herself falls apart, contracting a fever (Morrison 314). As she lies dying, she asks Pilate, “Mama… why don’t he like my hair?” (Morrison 315). Remembering the woman she saw with Milkman, Hagar assumes that Milkman loves “silky hair” and “lemon-colored skin” (Morrison 315-316). In the Lemonade film, Beyoncé incorporates the poetry of Warsan Shire, including “For Women Who Are ‘Difficult’ to Love.”
One student drew a parallel in his essay between Hagar’s dying words and Beyoncé’s rendering of Shire’s poem, citing the lines “I tried to change. Closed my mouth more. Tried to be softer, prettier, less awake” (Knowles-Carter, Lemonade). Both Beyoncé and Hagar express a belief that changing themselves will make them more deserving of love.
Tomorrow I will share some connections between the song “Daddy Lessons” and the lessons Milkman learns from his father.
Cuchna, Cole and Titi Shodiya. “Beyoncé: Lemonade.” Dissect. 23 Apr. 2020, open.spotify.com/episode/40hut8DPmX25CTG6s46bMS?sid=LocUPWnQTVKprV9zul4mwA, Accessed 27 Jun 2020.
Davis, Cienna. “From Colorism to Conjurings: Tracing the Dust in Beyoncé’s Lemonade.” Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education, vol. 16, no. 2, 2017, pp. 7-28.
Knowles-Carter, Beyoncé, director and performer. Lemonade, HBO, 2016.
Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon, Vintage, 2004.
Roberts, Kamaria and Kenya Downs. “What Beyoncé Teaches us About the African Diaspora in Lemonade.” PBS News Hour, 29 Apr. 2016, www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/what-beyonce-teaches-us-about-the-african-diaspora-in-lemonade, Accessed 6 Jul. 2019.
San José Rico, Patricia. Creating Memory and Cultural Identity in African American Trauma Fiction, Brill, 2019.