LaKisha Michelle Simmons: Landscapes, Memories, and History in Beyoncé’s Lemonade

Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans, by LaKisha Michelle SimmonsWe 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.

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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.

model Winnie Harlow in still from Beyonce's visual album Lemonade
As black feminist Katherine McKittrick explains, “The various kinds of madness, the pathological geographies, the dismembered and displaced bodies, the impossible black places, the present-past time-space of cartographers, the topographies of ‘something lost, or barely visible, or seeing not there’—these material and metaphoric places begin to take us” inside of black women’s subjectivities.

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.”[1]

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.”[2] 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.

Beyonce and Serena Williams still from Lemonade

At Laura Plantation, also along the river, in 1830 Nanette Prud’homme Duparc, the matriarch of her family, improved the family business by going to the city and buying thirty teenaged girls. Ten years later she had her first “crop of children.” Her wealth and her business relied on breeding slaves, relied on black women’s reproductive power.

In “Forgiveness” Beyoncé recites: 1,000 girls raise their arms. Do you remember being born? Are you grateful? Are the hips that cracked the deep velvet of your mother, and her mother, and her mother? There is a curse that will be broken.

The black ancestors that are remembered in Lemonade are the “crop of children” and their mothers.

The past and present merge to meet us here. What luck. What a fucking curse.

In the second half of Lemonade, in sections titled “Resurrection,” “Hope,” and “Redemption,” we see most clearly this “present-past time-space” that calls upon enslaved ancestors, just as it points to the future through the figure of the mother. The plantation landscape (of Destrehan Plantation and its slave quarters) is filled with black women, mothers and girls, dressed in clothing reminiscent of a various pasts (the antebellum period, the Jim Crow past). Some of the clothing is grand; some of the clothing is the simple styling of antebellum enslaved workers.

How are we supposed to lead our children toward the future? What do we do? How do we lead them? Love.

At the Evergreen Plantation, also along the Mississippi River, twenty-two slave cabins hint at the geography and culture of slavery that is also represented in Lemonade. The 1860 census says that 103 enslaved people lived there, owned by Lezin Becnel. The double line of cabins facing each other are the same spaces mothers cared for the children, where small gardens may have grown, songs sung, and tears shed.

Evergreen Plantation Slave Cabin, Photo Credit Dan Leyten

Evergreen Plantation, Slave Cabin. (Photo: Dan Leyten)

 

In Lemonade young women reenact this enslaved community while also creating their own radical, futuristic community, by collecting vegetables together, cooking and caring for one another. And then Beyoncé begins singing of “freedom” and “breaking chains.”

The young women gathered on the front porch of Lemonade during “Redemption” are gathered at the site of slave cabins. They represent the people who lived and breathed, worked and loved along the Mississippi River. The poetry in the background speaks of being made whole again. Easily read as only about a lover being made whole again, the words have new significance when seeing the centrality of the community of women and the slave cabins in the landscape and imagery.

women and girls on porch, still from Beyonce's Lemonade

women in garden, still from Beyonce's Lemonade

We are going to heal; we are going to start again.

three women in front of slave cabin, still from Beyonce's Lemonade

Beyoncé is calling for black women to be made whole after centuries of loss. In particular, black women have lost their children past and present. In the past are the girls who gave birth to “crops of children” through the sexual violence of slavery; in the present we see a representation of various forms of loss: loss from miscarriage, and the mothers who have lost children to racial violence.

Pull the sorrow from between my legs like silk, knot after knot, after knot.

The juxtaposition of the enslaved past with black women’s current healing is an example of what Katherine McKittrick calls a black feminist “respatialization.” The geography of Lemonade—of past and present black motherhood—demonstrates “the ways in which black women think, write, and negotiate their surroundings” and perform in surroundings filled with racism and sexism. How can there be so much freedom in a place of so much pain? Beyoncé’s Lemonade is a performance piece that is a “place-based critique.” It works to make space for black women’s lives, love, pain, and madness in a landscape imbued with the enslaved past.

LaKisha Simmons is assistant professor of Global Gender Studies at University at Buffalo, SUNY. She is author of Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans.

Bibliography and Recommended Reading

Marisa Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (University of Minnesota Press, 2006).

Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth-Century (LSU Press, 1995).

Rashauna Johnson, Slavery’s Metropolis: Unfree Labor in New Orleans during the Age of Revolutions (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

Walter Johnson, Soul By Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Harvard University Press, 1999).

Daniel Rassmussen, American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt. (Harper Collins, 2011).

LaKisha Michelle Simmons, Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans (UNC Press, 2015).

Lynnell Thomas, Desire and Disaster in New Orleans: Tourism, Race and Historical Memory (Duke, 2014).

Natasha Trethewey, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (University of Georgia Press, 2012).

Notes

[1] Primary Source From: Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion, Vol 2: O-Z and Primary Documents, Ed. by Junius P Rodriguez, (Greenwood Press, 2007). p 616.

[2] See Coleman Warner, “The Heirs of Slavery: Two Families Remember Madewood Plantation.” The Times-Picayune, June 14, 1993.