“We could therefore say that every mother contains her daughter in herself and every daughter her mother, and that every woman extends backwards into her mother and forward into her daughter . . . the lives of her ancestors pass down into the generations of the future.”
I remember my mother in her mourning room with her head wrapped in white, on her knees as she worked the psalms — for prosperity, for abundance, for forgiveness. My grandmother sang hymns to Bondye (almighty God) as she swept — starting from the very back of her house and working her way toward the front door, carefully banishing dust and ill-fortune. She attempted to sweep away the generational curse of abuse out of her home, once and for all.
This ritual of banishing and working the psalms was passed down from my grandmother’s mother to her, and from her to my mother. My great-grandmother was rumored to have worked in service of the lwa, or Haitian Vodou deities. She rejected the notion that her salvation would come from petition of an untouchable, male God.
I come from this lineage of women who conjured and worked roots to “loose” their torturers of the sin of infidelity, and to free themselves of the embarrassment and shame that comes from betrayal. It was through the conjure work of Vodou that Haiti was made free by way of the largest slave uprising in the Americas. These slaves were able to syncretize Vodou with Roman Catholicism, drawing parallels between the powers and attributes of African deities to those of Catholic saints, passing along messages through worship that allowed for an uprising to be planned and executed, unbeknownst to their slave masters.
In the song “Freedom” from her visual album Lemonade, Beyoncé’s message almost parallels the worship gatherings that allowed vodou to be practiced in plain sight. The uprising would send now-free Haitians scattered across the Atlantic, and many found their way to Louisiana to lay down their roots. Beyoncé’s matrilineal ancestry originates in Louisiana, the place where Cuban Lucumi, Haitian Vodou, Roman Catholicism, and Yoruba religion met to create American Voodoo. Lemonade begins at the root of the problem, at the origins of our history as black women in America: the plantation.
No single place quite contains the specters of our past as does the Southern Plantation, and one could argue that depictions of the plantation in Lemonade connect to ideas of the racial trauma stitched into the cellular memory of black women. Writer and priestess Luisah Teish references the inheritance of racial trauma and knowledge in her book Jambalaya, stating:
The women on Beyoncé’s visual album seem to serve as the ghosts of black women who suffered subjugation and endless violence from their white mistresses, and ongoing rape and sexual abuse from their white masters. These black women seem to be standing in watch over the losses of children torn from their wombs and sold off, of lovers forced to act as “bucks,” all propagating the next generation of women to be tortured, and men to be broken down and slaughtered.
Their suffering and pain are palpable. They gaze at us with challenging glares while sitting on the limbs of trees or keeping watch on the porch, their faces sometimes obscured from our direct view. They are avatars for the unexpressed rage that hangs heavy in the places where our ancestors were stripped of their divinity, and it is this suffering that makes conjure work. Conjure magic came out of a need to regain control of one’s personhood in the face of slavery and extreme inhumanity. Beyoncé invoking goddess imagery through the entirety of her visual masterpiece is not surprising to me, but that she centers that goddess imagery firmly in the tradition of African and black American indigenous religions — most specifically Vodou and root work — is what has thrilled me upon each subsequent viewing of her visual album.
I feel her speaking to me, showing me how to reclaim the power in our troubled history. Beyoncé then becomes an avatar as well, using her experienced pain to channel the unresolved pain of generations of black women to conjure a world in which black women are not only divine, but revealed as God herself.
We are introduced to the orishas of the Yoruba pantheon who served as divine personifications of Obatala, the supreme deity. Emerging from a door wrought in gold, Beyoncé comes to us as Oshun, adorned in gold with rivers at her command. Oshun is righteous rage personified. Among the orishas, she has endured the most abuse and neglect and thus harnesses her anger for her healing. When, in “Hold Up,” we see Beyoncé battering a series of car windows with her baseball bat, it is revealed to us that the hot sauce referenced in “Formation” is a tool, perhaps in reference to the root workers’ “hot foot powder,” a mixture of hot peppers, gun powder, and sulfur used to rid one of unwanted persons.
In Lemonade, Beyoncé reaches into a deep tradition of female badness, wildness, and anger, revealing it to be not only necessary, but transformative when acted upon. The transformation materializes from the science of voodoo, “a science of the oppressed, a repository inherited of womanknowledge” as described by Luisah Teish. Teish goes on to define Voodoo as “a matriarchy almost from its first days in Louisiana.”
Tapping into that ancestral womanknowledge in “6 Inch,” Beyoncé emerges awash in red in the backseat of a car, invoking the spirit of Erzulie-Freda, this time embodying a Haitian lwa. As Erzulie, goddess of desire and passion, Beyoncé harnesses her erotic power to free herself from destructive feelings of battered self worth.
“6 Inch” allows us to revisit the backseat scene of Beyoncé’s “Partition.” The backseat is a place where Beyoncé holds power over her lover, using her sexuality as a tool: Though on her knees, and at his feet, it is her lover who is most vulnerable in the exchange, as he accesses his pleasure by making himself susceptible to her erotic power. In “6 Inch,” Beyoncé is alone in the backseat, leering at men through the window; it is the only time we see men in Lemonade. She watches them, all faceless and unimportant, suggesting Erzulie’s power to avenge the wrongs wrought against her, and by extension all women, by preying on men.
Beyoncé further assumes the role of God, because revenge is God’s alone, as stated in Romans 12:19:
“Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.”
Notice that even in the Bible — a powerful tool in conjure work — we are urged to make space for wrath and promised vengeance, if only we would harness that anger.
It is not only unusual but uncanny to find such deep reverence and homage to African deities in popular culture, but unsurprising when I think of Beyoncé’s rich matrilineal heritage. Lemonade is evidence of the knowledge passed down from ancestor to ancestor, generation to generation. A knowledge rooted in the blood, in a shared history of loss and pain. Voodoo and conjure work was forged out of a need for community, a way to preserve and pass on the womanknowledge that slavery and colonization sought to dismantle.
What does it say, then, about our relation to divinity that the most unprotected, most reviled, most ridiculed and abused members of society are — and have been — black women? We carry the burden of remembering with us every day.
The tears that stream down the faces of Sybrina Fulton and Lesley McSpadden reminds us of this burden of memory, and through Lemonade, Beyoncé challenges us to reach back toward the past, to conjure a future where the God in us expands our capacity to forgive ourselves and thus, to love ourselves (and our wrongdoers) fully. Lemonade reminds us that as black women, we only need to look within to find immeasurable strength, because within us lies the source of the divine and the liberation that will break the curses that threaten to destroy us.
Lemonade is a powerfully visual journey, illustrating this act of forgiveness of self that allows the women in the video to escape the prison of specter, transformed by the conjuring of their rage and pain, to uncover the divinity within.
They lift their arms to the sky, their feet cleansed by the waters they’ve troubled.