Becky with the Silky Copper-Colored Hair: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon Meets Beyoncé’s Lemonade Part 3

This post is the third in a series about teaching Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade album in conjunction with Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon. You might want to read the first post and second post first.

Guitar advises Milkman, “Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down” (Morrison 179). Before Milkman will be able to fly, he will have to give up everything that prevents him from becoming free (Foster 135). Over the course of his journey, he loses all of his possessions: his car, his shoes, and finally, his watch (Foster 165). Part of what weighs Milkman down is his father. Milkman has learned unhealthy lessons from his father, who taught him to value money and possessions as a marker of his worth. His father insists the only way to freedom is to “own things” (Morrison 55). Macon Dead, Jr. believes that Pilate has nothing useful to teach Milkman, which turns out to be false (Morrison 55).

Like Milkman, Beyoncé has learned some unhealthy lessons from her father in “Daddy Lessons.” In order to understand the “generational curse” of “the historical impact of slavery on Black love,” Beyoncé must “[reckon] with her partner’s betrayal” to understand “how familial, historical, and societal forces have shaped his behavior and [take] action to heal these wounds” (Cuchna and Shodiya, “‘Daddy Lessons’ by Beyoncé”). Cuchna and Shodiya argue that the thesis of Beyoncé’s film is “the past and future merge to meet us here” (“‘Daddy Lessons’ by Beyoncé”).

In order to become free, both Beyoncé and Milkman will need to confront this past and shed the “Daddy Lessons” passed down from their fathers. In Beyoncé’s case, these lessons include suppression of emotion as a sign of strength (Cuchna and Shodiya, “‘Daddy Lessons’ by Beyoncé”). In the middle of this song, Beyoncé includes a home video of herself and her father cut with a clip of her daughter, Blue Ivy, jumping on the bed. As Cuchna and Shodiya argue, Blue Ivy’s appearance underscores the importance of Beyoncé breaking the curse—her daughter’s future happiness is at stake (“‘Daddy Lessons’ by Beyoncé”). A funeral takes place, symbolizing the metaphorical death of this curse with the fictionalized death of Beyoncé’s father (Cuchna and Shodiya, “‘Daddy Lessons’ by Beyoncé”). Milkman has to contend with the fact that his father’s treatment of his mother impacted his own relationships with women. He wonders, late in his journey, about his mother: “What might she have been like had her husband loved her?” (Morrison 300). Milkman begins to realize that Macon, Jr. loved “property… to excess because he loved his father to excess” (Morrison 300). Macon, Jr. saw his own father killed in a property dispute in which his father was clearly in the right, and it has affected his entire outlook on life. Like Beyoncé, Milkman must contend with a generational curse before he can become free. This freedom is represented in the novel by flight.

Milkman discovers that his great-grandfather, Solomon, was “one of those flying African children” (Morrison 321). In this clip, Toni Morrison talks about using this myth in the novel:

This myth likely arose from the story of the Igbo Landing which was the site of a mass suicide of Igbo people who were taken from what is now Nigeria to Georgia’s St. Simon’s Island (Momodu; Powell). Beyoncé also alludes to the Igbo Landing in her song “Love Drought,” which features Beyoncé leading a group of eight African-American women to wade into the water. The group, however, does not drown themselves, but rather engages in a form of baptism to “be born again into a life of healing from the pain of racial injustice that was outlined” earlier in Lemonade (Cuchna and Shodiya, “‘Love Drought’ by Beyoncé”).

This song appears in Lemonade’s chapter “Reformation,” as Beyoncé “band[s] together” with the group of women “to create new lives for themselves,” an act accomplished through joining and raising their hands “in unity, suggesting the communal power of Black women” to effect miraculous changes (Cuchna and Shodiya, ‘Love Drought’ by Beyoncé”).

This baptism sets the stage for the next chapter in Lemonade, “Forgiveness.” Like Milkman, now that Beyoncé has come to terms with the truth and understands how history has impacted her, she can become free. While Beyoncé accomplishes this freedom through creating community with Black women, past and present, Milkman accomplishes freedom with the healing assistance of a woman. As Pilate presciently declares early in the text, “it’ll be a woman save his life” (Morrison 140).

Near the end of Song of Solomon, Milkman enters into his first reciprocal relationship with a woman, a prostitute named Sweet. Sweet bathes Milkman both literally and spiritually, after which, he bathes Sweet (Foster 166). The two then engage in domestic tasks of the sort that Milkman has never done, according to his sister Magdalena called Lena, who charges Milkman with “never pick[ing] up anything heavier than [his] own feet” (Morrison 215). One of the tasks Milkman does is to scrub Sweet’s bathtub; earlier, Lena accused Milkman of never “wip[ing] the ring from [his] tub” (Morrison 215). Clearly Milkman has become a new person. In “Freedom,” Beyoncé sings “I’ma rain, I’ma rain on this bitter love / Tell the sweet I’m new” (Knowles-Carter, Lemonade).

In this song, Beyoncé declares freedom from the “chains” of the “curses [she has] inherited” (Cuchna and Shodiya, “‘Freedom’ by Beyoncé”). Similarly, Milkman’s flight represents his attainment of freedom (Foster 136). However, Milkman does not fly until after he realizes that “without ever leaving the ground, [his aunt Pilate] could fly” (Morrison 336). In order to attain his own freedom, Milkman must “surrender to the air” (Morrison 337).

When Beyoncé reconciles with her partner in “All Night,” our class discussed how the healing accomplished through intimacy compared to Milkman’s relationship with Sweet. I suggested that some critics argue that the album should have ended with this song rather than “Formation” because it signaled reconciliation. Before I had finished the thought, one of my students interjected, “No.” I asked her to elaborate. She said that “Formation” is necessary because it declares Beyoncé’s intention to join with other women to stop racial injustice and gender inequity. This intention is not only displayed in the chorus of the song when Beyoncé sings, “Okay, okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation” but also in the lyric, “I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros” (Knowles-Carter, Lemonade).

 

These lyrics announce Beyoncé’s intention to “affirm her daughter, just as she is” (Cuchna and Shodiya, “‘Formation’ by Beyoncé”). Near the end of Song of Solomon, Milkman holds Pilate in his arms as she dies and says, “There must be another one like you… There’s got to be at least one more woman like you” (Morrison 336). At this moment, Milkman’s “symbolic acceptance of an alternative African-American beauty ideal,” represented by Pilate’s rejection of White beauty standards pursued by her granddaughter Hagar, finally gives Milkman the freedom to fly (Ashe 589).

Morrison says in her foreword, the flights of the men in Milkman’s family “are viewed differently by the women left behind” as evidenced by the “Sugarman” / “Solomon” song passed down to Pilate (xiv). As Morrison says, “to praise a woman whose attention was focused solely on family and domestic responsibilities, Milkman summons a conundrum: that without ever leaving the ground she could fly” (xiv). Because she accepted herself, as she was, she has always been free. The cryptic final sentence of Morrison’s foreword reads, “My father laughed” (xiv). I asked my students why they thought Morrison’s father laughed, reminding them she wrote the novel to explore what the men he has known “are really like” (xii). One of my students said, “I think it’s because even though she was writing about men, she still managed to make this book about women.” We laughed, too.

In my next and final post in this series, I’ll move from analysis of the texts’ connection to what activities and assessments we did in the classroom.

Works Cited

Ashe, Bertram D. “‘Why Don’t He Like My Hair?’: Constructing African-American Standards of Beauty in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. African American Review, vol. 29, no. 4, 1995, pp. 589-592.

Cuchna, Cole and Titi Shodiya. “‘Daddy Lessons’ by Beyoncé.” Dissect. 19 May 2020, open.spotify.com/episode/4o4BiQlgkVPAC7ORLK115t?si=CpbfA7d0TmCyrqYblnf5ng, Accessed 29 Jun. 2020.

Cuchna, Cole and Titi Shodiya. “‘Freedom’ by Beyoncé.” Dissect. 16 Jun. 2020, open.spotify.com/episode/73TaovV5bMxDMICYqnvlTe?si=jLafOY69Rp2u4iIH7JcWdQ, Accessed 29 Jun. 2020.

Cuchna, Cole and Titi Shodiya. “‘Love Drought’ by Beyoncé.” Dissect. 26 May 2020, open.spotify.com/episode/1DGACEEJICFbSYCF3RVJZX?si=gpBgSsdjQp2rd6dNWdFeMw, Accessed 27 Jun 2020

Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Revised ed., Harper Perennial, 2014.

Momodu, Samuel. “Igbo Landing Mass Suicide.” BlackPast, 25 Oct. 2016. www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/events-african-american-history/igbo-landing-mass-suicide-1803/, Accessed 27 Jun 2020.

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

Powell, Timothy B. “Ebo’s Landing.” New Georgia Encyclopedia, 28 Feb. 2004, www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/ebos-landing, Accessed 27 Jun. 2020.

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