We welcome a guest post today from LaKisha Michelle Simmons, author of Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans. What was it like to grow up black and female in the segregated South? In Crescent City Girls, Simmons blends social history and cultural studies, recreating children’s streets and neighborhoods within Jim Crow New Orleans and offering a rare look into black girls’ personal lives. Simmons argues that these children faced the difficult task of adhering to middle-class expectations of purity and respectability even as they encountered the daily realities of Jim Crow violence, which included interracial sexual aggression, street harassment, and presumptions of black girls’ impurity.
In today’s post, Simmons responds to Beyoncé’s recently released visual album Lemonade, exploring the historical significance of some of the settings and themes. Following the article is a bibliography and list of suggested further reading.
Landscapes, Memories, and History in Beyoncé’s Lemonade
The past and present merge to meet us here. What luck. What a fucking curse.
In Lemonade, Beyoncé recites these words against the backdrop of oak trees draped in moss. Black women sit in and among the trees. They gather on the porch of the cabins where enslaved people lived, worked, and loved. This is the scenery of the sugar plantations that snake along the Mississippi River, just outside of New Orleans.
Some writers have noted the presence of the “southern gothic” or the “southern porch” in Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s visceral visual album Lemonade. But the landscapes are unambiguously part of the geography of Louisiana; the visual album is haunting because of its specificity to place. Barely visible, in the discussion thus far, is the history of slavery—and its remnants—all over the landscape of the album.
Beyoncé’s representation of madness, jealousy, anger, and hurt are intertwined with the madness and pain inherited from our antebellum past. What luck. What a fucking curse. The trees, with their moss, are surely crying for us.
Dismembered and displaced bodies are haunting the landscape of Lemonade‘s past and present. In 1811, a slave revolt in plantations along the Mississippi River began with the murder of plantation owner Manuel Andry’s son. Charles Deslondes, a Haitian-born enslaved slave-driver (he was responsible for punishing the other enslaved workers) led an army of enslaved men and women fighting for their freedom. The army marched to plantations downriver, trying to make their way to New Orleans, killing whites and freeing enslaved blacks along the way.
Lemonade was filmed at one of those plantations: Destrehan Plantation. At Destrehan, an army of plantation owners and white elites confronted the black rebel army. The plantation elites won the battle and captured the men responsible for the uprising. As punishment, and as a reminder to the enslaved to fear white power, they executed those responsible and cut off their heads. The plantation owners placed the severed heads of the revolutionaries on poles and lined them up for 40 miles along the river to New Orleans.
The planters recorded:
“[The Tribunal] decrees that the heads of the executed shall be cut off and placed atop a pole on the spot where all can see the punishment meted out for such crimes, also as a terrible example to all who would disturb the public tranquility in the future.
Done at the County of the Germans, St. Charles Parish, Mr. Destrehan’s plantation, January 15 1811, at 10 o’clock in the morning.”
On the Madewood Plantation, the stage for interior scenes of Lemonade, lived Lionel Tapo Sr.’s mother-in-law. She told him of her time as an enslaved girl. She remembered beatings and a master so mean that he was close to the devil. Tapo remembered a story, that his mother-in-law “used to carry the whips [used] to whip the unruly slaves.” And so, Serena Williams twerks in the very same place where an enslaved girl’s job was to carry the whip of torture. For Beyoncé’s Lemonade, the dance in this space is an act of defiance, of claiming self and freedom. Beyoncé’s throne is an “impossible black place.” Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s and Serena Williams’s bodily freedom does not belong here, yet they have claimed it for themselves.