“She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see” - Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
My grandmother often tells the story of her mother’s frequent returns home to Mississippi after getting married at 13. She would have her first three children in tow as she repeatedly left her marriage home in Alabama—the place she ran off to marry the 19 year old with the sweet voice. The most infamous story is how my great-grandmother stuffed her clothes in the suitcase of her sister who was visiting. When her sister returned home she was shocked to find my great-grandmother’s clothes and even more shocked when she appeared on her door-step a short while later. But however long my great-grandmother stayed away, eventually her husband would always come for her and she’d leave with him. I never met my great-grandmother, so I can’t ask her what kind of pain drove her frequent attempts to run away, neither can I ask her about the kind of resolution that drove her to return.
What I am more curious of is the type of refuge she received at her mother’s home—that mother who had a husband in St. Louis who never returned—what kind of strength and salvation was conjured between two generations of hurt women in that space? What did my great-great grandmother teach her daughter about love and forgiveness and making lemonade from the lemons life had given her?
Returning home is a theme explored everywhere from the Bible to 21st century art. It is a tradition with particular significance in the cannon of black female art and literature. Coming home isn’t a destination, it's a pilgrimage back to the place that either defined or broke you or both. Returning to that place is not only where black women have come to rest, but to confront the things they were unable to out in the world. The thing that they are often confronting is themselves. Home is never a place to quit, but to restore and figure out how to go on from their current state. Most recently, Annalise Keating showed us the kind of refuge home serves a black woman when the world is threatening to break our bodies and our spirits.
How to Get Away with Murder, S02E15
Annalise is not able to simply rest, she must confront the pain of her father leaving and the confusion of how her mother forgave him. There is a lesson she is meant to learn no matter how reluctant she is. The sweet is never without the bitter.
Zora Neale Hurston's 'Their Eyes Were Watching God'
Zora Neale Hurston blessed the cannon with her pioneering pilgrimage tale, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Beyoncé offered her own tale of returning home in Lemonade. As I watched the Queen Bey deliver her most vulnerable work to date I was struck by the similarities I found between the woman she portrays and Janie Crawford in Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Zora Neale Hurston's 'Their Eyes Were Watching God' film adaptation
Janie Crawford, the former first lady of Eatonville, Florida, makes her trek back home: her muddy over-alls, beaten bare feet, and free hair swing as she passes by the porches of the town’s inhabitants who quietly revel in the idea that she’s been kicked off her high-horse and bled dry by a man who never really loved her. Janie is unbothered by the stares or gossip. She walks like a woman full of self. A self she has fought and taken the life of a lover for. There is a swagger to the way her firm buttocks sways as if her pockets held two grape fruits. It’s a swagger that fits better than any silk dress or high pumps.
This is the swagger I saw in Beyoncé as she looked into the camera and snarled, “who da fuck do you think I ih?”
It rained as iridescent as the yellow gown she donned while taking a Louisville slugger to every car in her path.
It blazed as she and her posse stood outside of a burning home and it slayed as she stuck her middle fingers in the air while saying, “I ain’t sorry.” This is not the artificial confidence of a stage persona. This is the confidence of a woman who has loved and loss and learned to loved again. Her blonde tresses have been traded for braids and her bare feet fling free of her usual six-inch heels. Beyonce has come home: to Texas, to Louisiana, to the place where her ancestors live(d). She’s returned, like my great-grandmother, and Annalise, and Janie, to heal and reflect on the horizon of their lives. And we, black women, gathered at her back porch like Pheoby Watson, Janie’s best friend, while she soaked her traveling feet and unburdened herself.
Like Janie, Beyoncé has come back from burying the dead. It’s a figurative death of a love that’s gone sour. Beyoncé is dressed in a black gown as she stands on the edge of a roof top praying for her lover to catch her. When she jumps, instead of falling into her lover’s arms, she plunges head first into the depths of herself. What she finds beneath the surface is a corpse-like version of herself who appears to almost be peacefully drowning in her attempts to remain sedated: “ I tried to change, closed my mouth more. Tried to be softer, prettier, less awake,” Beyoncé’s voice rings as she floats with eyes shut.
The awakened Beyoncé attempts to rescue her sleeping self. In an exorcist-style struggle the two halves fuse into an Oshun-like force destroying everything obstructing its path—including a betraying lover.
Janie, too, has been living a life where she’s split herselves in two. After so many years she has found herself in a lackluster marriage with a man whose own insecurities have forced her to dim her light, tie up her hair, and hide herself until she becomes a mere shadow carrying out her day-to-day life while the other part of her looks on, “making summertime out of lonesomeness.” She questions the value of her life were she to part from her husband and finds that there is none, so Janie resigns to lie to herself and make her husband mean something to her or else she’d have nothing to live for.
“She didn’t read books so she didn’t know that she was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop.” - Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Not only did Janie not read books, but she was told by her grandmother that she couldn’t stand alone: “Neither can you stand alone by yo’self. De thought uh you bein’ kicked around from pillar tuh post is uh hurtin’ thing.”
Zora Neale Hurston's 'Their Eyes Were Watching God' film adaptation
Janie’s Nanny has a first-hand knowledge of how this world can beat a black woman down and she has toiled and sacrificed flesh and dreams to protect her granddaughter from such a whipping. Generations of pain lead Janie’s Nanny to caution her with blocks of protection, even if they are the suffocating arms of a man. I thought of Janie’s Nanny and Janie’s mother as the camera in Lemonade slowly zoomed into the faces of various women on their porches, standing next trees, faces hidden behind leaves, while Beyonce contemplates: “ Unknown women wander the hallways at night. Where do you go when you go quiet? ”
It’s Beyonce wondering, like Alice Walker once did, where our mother’s gardens are. Where was the space for these women—whose bodies, whose spirits, whose hearts were chained by white supremacy and pummeled by the hands of the men they loved—to dream, to create, to live, to heal?
“Ah been waitin’ a long time, Janie, but nothin’ Ah been through ain’t too much if you just take a stand on high ground lak Ah dreamed” - Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
There is no talk of love and satisfaction and sex and joy in Nanny’s idea of marriage, but these are they very things Janie yearns for. These are the very things Beyoncé yearns for, which is why it stings like salt to an open wound when the men they’ve fallen in love with turn out to be incapable of meeting those needs.
“I realized, I’m just too much for you” - Beyoncé
That’s exactly what Janie was for Joe Starks who, in order to handle her, forces her to make herself smaller. For almost twenty years Janie acquiesces to the fragility of her husband’s masculinity, all the while having pieces of herself fall off their shelves. In response to her husband’s oppression, Janie reserves a private space inside herself to explore her feelings and thoughts. In Lemonade, Beyonce turns that quiet pain into a loud and explosive display of rage.
The fire that enflames the home Beyoncé and her posse of women stand outside of is not just Beyoncé exorcising her demons, she is destroying the idea of keeping one’s suffering behind closed doors. She is opening up a space of catharsis for black women, telling us to no longer compartmentalize ourselves and our emotions.
“What’s worst, looking jealous or crazy? Or like being walked all over lately, I’d rather be crazy” - Beyoncé
From that point on Beyoncé takes us into the mania of being betrayed, hurt, lied to. Through the array of emotions Beyoncé opens the sealed treasures inside of black women who have had to exercise fierce self-control in a world so threatened by us. Lemonade is our safe space where we can scream and shout our anger, frustration, and hurt. We can smash and break and burn and drown things. Lemonade is that safe space for women like Janie who have had to iron and starch their faces. For women like Serena Williams who bodies have worked against them under the white gaze.
For women like Sybrina Fulton, and Lesley McSpadden, and Gwen Carr, and Valerie Bell who have had to keep tight rains on their grief.
As Malcolm X expertly states: “the most disrespected woman in America is the black woman." Lemonade is the space of protection for our tears and screams that have been silenced. Lemonade is where black woman can bring their woes and extract glory from grief. It’s where we can break our chains and snatch back our freedom.
Janie’s and Beyoncé’s liberations come in the absence of their husbands. Janie’s husband has died while Beyoncé has, however temporarily, separated from her's. In that absence both women discover the jewels within themselves. This discovery is visceral and multi-layered. In this time with self, both women go into the dark, ugly corners of their world and throw open the shutters to air out the dirt.
Janie reflects on the misguidance of her Nanny and mother while Beyoncé reflects over the similarities between her father and lover. Lemonade and Their Eyes Were Watching God is not about the betrayals of men, but a woman’s road to redemption and self-actualization. That road leads them home. For Janie it is the house she once shared with her second husband. For Beyoncé it is the plantation. These women have reclaimed these places and turned them into a refuge reminiscent of the healing space women created in an abandoned convent in Toni Morrison’s Paradise.
In a place that once symbolized the breaking of their bodies and spirits Janie and Beyoncé return to rest, to reclaim, to recover. Home is where they’ve all come to heal. And they are not alone. Pheoby sits on the back porch with Janie offering comfort and a meal. Black female ancestors and modern-day women enjoy a feast at the table of Beyoncé’s home.
The tradition of cooking for and comforting each other has been instrumental in the healing of black women. When my great-grandmother sought understanding or care she turned to the women in her mother’s house. When I am in search of my own peace and care I often turn to the women I call both family and friends. We’ve seen this tradition of sisterhood reflected in The Color Purple, Paradise, The Salt Eaters, For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, and more.
“Southern black sisterhood helps black women understand how to navigate the horrors of the South and bring into perspective the trauma and joy that it holds.” - Camry Wilborn (via Elle.com)
At home surrounded by black women is essential to our self-discovery. It is reflection of the Ubuntu philosophy that states "I am because We are". Beyoncé understands that she is because of the women before her. This understanding is reflected in the slow zooming out of the camera showing various black women on the branches of the live oak and the women standing underneath it.
We see the literal seeds of our ancestors who sowed their love and their pain into us so that we could grow. We are an extension of their own dreams and search for satisfaction and freedom. This is why we see the black women who are dressed in antebellum garb watching over the Supderdome. Their existence cannot be buried. It is a southern gothic element that is another tradition in the black female literary cannon reminding us that the past and the present will always and forever merge to meet us here.
When Janie finishes her tale to Pheoby, she states: “Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin fuh theyselves,” she has actualized her Nanny’s dreams in a way that her Nanny could never imagine. She has been burned by the men meant to protect her and from her ashes she emerged stronger and more beautiful than before. Beyoncé has risen from the ashes of her own scorned heart. She has gone deep within herself to understand the restorative power of love and forgiveness.
"My torturer became my remedy" - Beyoncé
Zora Neale Hurston's 'Their Eyes Were Watching God' film adaptation
She is baptized in the same water she was once drowning in. Reconciling with her lover is a beautiful moment, but it is not the point of her story. Her lover is no longer the sum of her worth. Janie discovers this same truth after having to take the life of the man she loved deeply. Both women have been pushed to their breaking point and have pulled together a resilience whose code lies in their DNA. It is something like magic that I've been a witness to my entire life. When my grandfather was murdered at 22, my grandmother took her son, and the daughter growing inside of her, back home to her mother's house. At home is where she grieved an unbelievable loss. At home is where she discovered the strength to pull her pieces together and carve out a life for her children and herself. Home is where the strongest of women are allowed to break down. In
Lemonade we bore witness to the strongest woman in popular culture breaking down. But these women do not stay down. Home, as depicted in Lemonade and Their Eyes Were Watching God, is a reprieve, an exhalation, a balm to restore women as they examine the life caught in the meshes of their horizon. I wonder what my great-grandmother saw. Like Beyoncé, I marvel at how she spun gold out of this hard life.