Black Women and the Sacred: With "Lemonade," Beyoncé Takes Us to Church

I walked away after seeing Beyoncé’s hour-long visual album, “Lemonade,” with the profound sense that I had “been to church.” And this is no small claim for someone who has devoted her life and work to the academic study of the Black Church tradition.

Like others, I was arrested by the stunning visuals of Beyoncé’s work and the lyrical genius of her songs, but there is a deeply spiritual component to this work that leaves me both uplifted and convicted. Within “Lemonade” are echoes of the womanist theology I both write and teach; a theology that concerns itself with how black women know and understand the sacred and participate in God-talk.

With its unapologetic focus on black women “Lemonade” is equal parts “testimony service” and Sunday morning worship. It celebrates beauty and resiliency, as any good, uplifting worship service in the African-American Christian tradition should do. But the visual album doesn’t shy away from the trials and pains experienced by those women who may not get a chance to speak or to lead on Sunday morning, but who testify about their lives on a Wednesday or Friday night.

To understand “Lemonade” is to understand the contrasting realities under which black Christian women live their religious lives: representing the majority of membership in their respective denominations, but often silenced and marginalized when it comes to leadership roles in those same churches. Among the many things that it does, “Lemonade” gives us a space to highlight the tensions of being a black Christian woman in America.

The water imagery in “Lemonade” is about barely keeping one’s head above water after betrayal, heartbreak and pain. But it’s also about rebirth, renewal, restoration and baptism. There is stunning footage of a group of women in white dresses “wading in the water,” echoing the Christian tradition of baptism but also echoing the African-American ritual of escape from slavery by way of the water. Black women, like Harriet Tubman, were often critical in leading people to freedom from bondage. Enslaved African Americans who became Christians were baptized by traditional doctrinal formulas. But, having endured the horror of the Middle Passage, black people had already been baptized by water and fire during their involuntary migration across the Atlantic Ocean.

And this water imagery is not limited to the Christian imagination. “Lemonade” evokes other gods and other faiths, particularly the traditional religions of the Yoruba in Africa and the Caribbean—just one of the many expressions of faith that people of African descent brought with them during the perilous Maafa journey. It’s a powerful reminder that every faith is syncretic; every religion is a blending of traditions and rituals from multiple sources. Christianity as it exists and is practiced in America today owes much of its theology, ritual, and doctrine to the experiences and beliefs of enslaved Africans.

Within most of these traditional African-born religious practices, women served as powerful healers, conjurers and priests. To evoke these traditions in “Lemonade” contrasts with the skewed demographics of contemporary Christianity, where black women represent more than 80 percent of the membership of their churches, but less than 10 percent of the leadership.

Why do we fear the powerful conjuring woman, particularly within Christianity? Why do we fear the spaces where black women are powerfully engaged in divine and sacred work? And why is Christianity, with its own sacred text full of magic and mystery and conjure, so reluctant to engage in a sustained conversation, beyond mere critique, of folk traditions—particularly black religious folk traditions?

To make lemonade out of lemons is code for powerful spiritual practice in the hands of women. Since the beginning of chattel slavery in this country, black women have been magically making something from nothing, conjuring up lives for themselves and their families with nothing but crumbs, dust and ashes.

There is a scene in “Lemonade” that highlights Sybrina Fulton, Gwenn Carr and Lesley McSpadden holding portraits of their sons, respectively: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown. And these three women also appear in other segments of the visual album. As I watched, I was struck by the physical beauty of all three women, but I was also left to ponder: how do they wake up each morning, wipe their grieving eyes, and still continue to do good in the world?

Beyoncé’s work forces us to see these women not only as grieving mothers, but so much more—they are tied to the legacy of black women on plantations who nurtured children they knew would be sold at auction. They are connected to black women who preached in the clearing, knowing they would never be welcome in someone’s pulpit. They are connected to black women who practiced the healing arts, when the doors of the hospital were closed to colored people. All the black women in “Lemonade” are connected to a long line of women who conjured a life when the forces of racism and sexism insisted that they weren’t worthy of living.

Art is always a resource for spiritual reflection, and “Lemonade” is an aural and visual feast for black women who cannot find reflections of themselves in the liturgy, sacred texts, icons, and stained glass of their own traditions. It is a work that is particular and specific: it is a love letter and an ode to black women, deeply rooted in African-American history.

“Lemonade” is a reminder of the revolutionary power of self-love, because we cannot obey the command to “love one’s neighbor as oneself” if we do not first joyfully love ourselves. By giving us an ensemble cast of black women and girls, with songs of joy and pain, beauty and sorrow, “Lemonade” reminds black women that even if their own religious traditions fail to “see” them, they are still reflected in the divine.