Becky with the Silky Copper-Colored Hair: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon Meets Beyoncé’s Lemonade Part 4

If you missed the first three posts in this series, click the link(s) to access Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. This post is the final post in this series. It seems an appropriate time to share given the current administration’s attempts to prevent educators from teaching Critical Race Theory.

During the course of our study of Song of Solomon, students also read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay for Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.”

Using this essay along with Song of Solomon and Lemonade, students created questions for discussion. One class generated the following questions: “Why are the struggles of the Black community so consistently talked about and struggled with? Why hasn’t there been a solution? Why is this problem still persisting no matter how much we talk about it?” In preparing for discussion, one of my students connected Beyoncé’s reference to “Becky, with the good hair” to Milkman’s distant relatives, the Byrds, who “pass” for White in addition to Hagar’s belief that Milkman is more attracted to women with lighter skin. She felt that colorism was a pervasive issue, as demonstrated in these examples. Another student mentioned the doll tests used to demonstrate Black children’s internalized feelings of inferiority in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS. Supreme Court case. Our class watched a film by Kiri Davis that replicated the doll test in the 2000s with similar results.

One student reflected that all of these texts together helped him understand the implications of the novel’s themes with greater clarity, and he set himself the goal of looking for these connections for future seminars.

Students also generated essay topics and brought their ideas to writing workshop for feedback before beginning their essays. Many students connected Lemonade to the novel or even centered Lemonade as the primary text for discussion in their writing. One student applied a feminist lens and explained how both texts explore the oppression of women. The next year, I emphasized Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theoretical framework of intersectionality and Alice Walker’s concept of “womanism,” and students quickly identified how intersectionality and womanism worked in both texts. This topic came up in our Socratic seminars as one student brought in both ideas, prompting another student to reflect,

Originally, when I prepared for the seminar I thought of Guitar and Milkman’s lives and how systematic oppression has stripped them of hope and opportunity, but I had not thought about how the same systematic oppression affects the women in the novel such as First Corinthians and Hagar. This idea pertains to the idea of “womanism” and how the women in the novel, such as First Corinthians and Hagar, not only have to deal with the implications of being African-American, but also the implications of being a woman.

Another student reflected that “it made me realize that these life controlling actions still occur today; not only do White people work to assert their dominance over minorities, but this could also occur between genders. This idea further supports the Womanism movement because Black women have a greater likelihood of facing more inequalities and oppression.” One student remarked that studying Lemonade with Song of Solomon made the latter text more “relevant” because she could see how “themes presented in the novel are present and have evolved in today’s society.” Another student added simply that she “could [better] understand Solomon with the explanations within Beyoncé’s videos.” One student concluded, “I will remember this unit well because it made me reflect on the society I live in today… Not only did watching Lemonade help me understand Song of Solomon, but the novel also helped me identify symbolism and themes in Lemonade that I missed initially.”

The pairing of Song of Solomon and Lemonade presents many opportunities to integrate music into the ELA curriculum. In the second year pairing these texts, I noticed that students integrated music in their projects more often. For an independent novel selection, I asked students to create a project that demonstrated what they took away from their chosen book. One student wrote a classical composition based on the themes in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, while another composed a three-song cycle based on characters in Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. While it’s possible that students may have been inspired to create music based on literature without studying Lemonade in conjunction with Song of Solomon, it is clear that Beyoncé’s film helped them see music as a viable medium for understanding literature and culture as well as a literary vehicle of its own.

References

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, vol. 43, no. 6, 1991, pp. 1241-1299.

Davis, Kiri. “A Girl Like Me.” YouTube, 4 May 2007, www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWyI77Yh1Gg, Accessed 29 Jun 2020.

Knowles-Carter, Beyoncé, director and performer. Lemonade, HBO, 2016.

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

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Mariner, 2003.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.