Beyoncé's Lemonade: Redeeming Antebellum Imagery with an Afrofuturist Postbellum Imaginary

Curator's Note

Since disrupting the audiovisual world stage, Beyoncé’s Lemonade has created a monumental stir in Cultural Studies, especially African American Studies and Southern Studies. Somewhat presciently, this critical stir reached a fever pitch over two months before the album dropped, when the pop star released her surprise single, "Formation." Eyebrows that raised at this surprise single—a southern gothic mishmash of postbellum southern symbols like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; the overgrown front porch of an old plantation mansion occupied imposingly by Bey’s squad; and the iconic image of "hot sauce in my bag"—foreshadowed the visceral popular response that followed the whole album’s surprise release. As most of us now know, this release broke the internet for its overt political commentary on black womanhood in the South, or what one popular critic described as Beyoncé’s delight "in her blackness, femininity, and Southern origin." 

What’s missing in the hype surrounding Lemonade is arguably the biggest reason its embrace of a black, southern, female identity is so successful to both cultural critics and popular audiences: it boldly resists the way antebellum imagery is historically portrayed in popular film and television (see: Gone With the Wind, Roots, Django Unchained). Lemonade achieves this resistance by placing symbols of the antebellum South (e.g., the plantation, the clothing, the natural landscape) firmly within the control of African Americans rather than white slaveowners. This radical revision reaches its fullest expression in the single "All Night." Framed as a song of "Redemption," "All Night" presents us with an afrofuturist revision of blackness in the US South. Its footage of Beyoncé, clad in a kaleidoscopically colorful antebellum dress and strolling triumphantly atop the overgrown ruins of antebellum Fort Macomb, envisions a utopian future, where African Americans are finally upheld as the people who built, maintained, and even stand atop the power structures of the ante- and postbellum United States.

With this vision, Lemonade presents us with an Afrofuturist Postbellum Imaginary, one that participates in the same vein of literary expression as Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. This redemptive imaginary attends to a painful past by portending a hopeful future; or to use the album’s metaphor, by taking lemons and making lemonade.

The writers of HBO’s Confederate would do well to have this album on repeat in the writers’ room.

 

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