White People Need to Talk About Beyoncé's Lemonade

SANTA CLARA, CA - FEBRUARY 07:  Beyonce performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl 50 Halftime Show at Levi's Stadium on February 7
SANTA CLARA, CA - FEBRUARY 07: Beyonce performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl 50 Halftime Show at Levi's Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

White people need to be talking about Beyoncé's newest masterpiece -- the short film and accompanying album, Lemonade. Not to center ourselves, not to claim the narrative as our own through any alleged universal appeal, and not to speak for or to the black women centered in the story. But we need to talk because we make up much of the problem.

I know, I know. The definition of being a good white ally in 2016 is commonly understood as standing back, not speaking. Listening. And that is an absolutely essential piece of the puzzle. But there also seems to be a wide-spread misconception that the only two choices are speaking for/to and shutting all the way up. But actually, remaining de facto silent is the easy way out in building any eventual coalition. It leaves the work white people need to be doing undone.

Though silence is essential in many instances, what about speaking with? What about respectfully connecting across differences? In fact, Audre Lorde constantly urged a wide audience to search for "patterns for relating across our human differences as equals;" patterns that seem to heretofore not exist. To celebrate and express difference without the hierarchy. And maybe it's not possible, but those patterns will never emerge out of silence. If they do materialize, they'll emerge out of conversations -- and the conversations will likely be uncomfortable for white people, which makes them all the more necessary.

Yes, Lemonade is a celebratory love letter to and for black women; it's an affirmation of survival despite insurmountable odds. But Lemonade is also an indictment of the system that created the pain Beyoncé is expressing throughout. I teach the course "Politicizing Beyoncé" at Rutgers University and always caution students against reading too much of the personal into Beyoncé's work. Yes, it may be there, but the impulse to only see autobiography in a black woman's work teases out racist and sexist impulses in our own consumption of art. White men's work -- whether authors, songwriters, filmmakers, etc. -- usually gets exalted outside the realm of autobiography and tied to larger overarching social commentary. Beyoncé is always working on multiple levels, like any good artist. So, the gossip and conjecture of Beyoncé and Jay-Z's relationship can actually stand in as metaphor or allegory for the relationship between black women generally and America itself.

In Lemonade, Beyoncé is explicitly asking: why doesn't America love black women? And though that question applies to many different groups, in large part it's directed at white America, since whiteness created America through institutionalizing violence against all others. White America has yet to deal with its legacy of slavery and brutality against black bodies. America hasn't healed. The Southern Gothic imagery throughout Lemonade recreates what Toni Morrison calls the "repellant landscape" of slavery that continues to haunt the present.

As white people, we need to be talking about the system we set up that caused and continues to inflict pain and brutality against black bodies. And Beyoncé's lemonade metaphor has a double meaning too: the ability of black women to create strength to carry on during the hardest times, turning sour into sweet; and also, the way lemonade, through its acidity, still has the power to sting especially in an open wound. Beyoncé's Lemonade is meant to sting white America -- to wake us up, to force us to pay attention, to insist we confront our history. The very history we pretend we've moved past.

In Lemonade, Beyoncé redefines the margins and the center a la bell hooks. She unapologetically de-centers whiteness and male identity, moving them to the margins in an attempt to show how much work needs to be done. Work that needs to be done by the very people that embody that historical violence in the present. And it will be uncomfortable for white people; it will sting just like lemonade on a wound. And we have to talk about it, acknowledge the past, look for ways to create a better world going forward. And Beyoncé's shaking white people up to get that conversation going.