The witch is a symbol of womanhood. Despite villainous Halloween caricatures and pop-culture portrayals of an exiled, old woman, the witch spans across cultures as an emblem against patriarchy. Modern interpretations, as seen in the recently released historical horror flick The Witch or the reimagined fairytale of Snow White and The Huntsman, often see her used as a common horror plot device for when women are naive, lost or going crazy. The witch is a healer, a shaman, a representative of a larger god or goddess on Earth. Enter Beyonce. With her sixth album, Lemonade, she has modeled herself into a witch — of the healing variety — during a time when black women are in need of positive reinforcement, deep healing and transformation.
In fairytales, women often visit a witch during a time of intense grief following unexpected loss (see Disney staples Snow White, The Little Mermaid and Sleeping Beauty). The witch’s job becomes immediately alleviating that pain while warning there’s no easy fix. In Lemonade, Beyonce insists we mourn. Haunting images permeate the visual album. The funeral processions and second line parades, the dancing on the coffin, the burning houses, ghost women painted white. (Nigerian-bred, Brooklyn-based artist Laolu Senbanjo helmed the body art, which derive from a spiritual ritual in worship of orishas, the gods in Yoruba religion.) Beyonce resorts to these time-old symbols that black women have used to heal, stretching across West Africa, the Bayou and the Caribbean. She knows her sisters are rarely afforded stages of grief as the famous quotes from Malcolm X’s 1962 speech “Who Taught You To Hate Yourselves” in Lemonade support.
“The most disrespected person in America is the black woman,” says X’s voice. “The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” The camera pans across faces of black women with weary smiles, a spotlight on those who rarely shine.
The witch is also seen as malicious because of her close connection to youth. She consumes younger women to remain beautiful. Here, Beyonce’s coven is of the young and visionary. Her Parkwood signees Ingrid, Chloe & Halle, as well as actress Amandla Stenberg and singer Zendaya appear in the film. Even little girls are seen prancing around the plantation, where black women of all generations perch on tree branches and grow food. The young teach and breathe new life into Beyonce, creating a cocoon for her rebirth and theirs. Their house is the very safe space she is demanding. In surrounding herself with black women, Beyonce is not excluding others but rather casting a spell for the ones who have been given the most lemons, or hardships. The message: black women are human and deserve to live freely as themselves.
The witch can only heal by first bearing witness. The knowledge that people entrust to her (one woman offers, “So how we supposed to lead our children to the future? What do we do? How do we lead them? Love. L-O-V-E, love”) becomes the foundation for Bey’s power. Throughout the visual album, she works through the latest fashion looks (cornrows to flowing waves and twists as well as a black hoodie to a yellow Roberto Cavalli gown) as seamlessly as the dark themes she presents, an intentional nod to the many ways black women change appearance to survive and fit in. The images serve not as some cheeky marketing ploy, but offer wisdom through universal spirituality and united experience, strengthened by poetry from Somali-British writer Warsan Shire. She’s exploring black womanhood with all of us.
In the age of #BlackGirlMagic, the lemonade Beyonce is insisting we make is a witch’s brew, a potion, a chakra-balancing tea and a glass of water all at once. A concoction used in times of struggle that allows one to feel, exist and also keep what is theirs. Lemonade speaks to pleasure and pain as only a black woman can know them. The nods to popular culture are still focused on the black woman. Twerking is a genuine expression of attitude and joy as seen from tennis star Serena Williams in the unapologetic cut “Sorry.” Even somber moments like cameos from Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton, Mike Brown’s mother Lezley McSpadden and Eric Garner’s mom Gwen Carr are a testament to the real-life struggles and resilience of black mothers.
Blackness is nothing new to Beyonce’s work but Lemonade is a fresh perspective in how she sees and understands it as well as the precise manner in which she communicates it. Her alleged marital strife with Jay Z might be a headline-grabber but her power lies in connecting every woman’s past to their present for what will hopefully be a better future. Beyonce is becoming a wise witch — as we all should — and retreats further into her haunted house in the woods, knowing that young black girls will come looking for answers, prayer and magic.