“Lemonade” and the Eco Negro
At first viewing, I couldn’t help but see myself in Beyonce’s Lemonade — I’m a black woman with Southern roots who’s loved and lost and thrived and failed and found a way back. I saw myself in the words and the visuals, in the settings, both real and imagined. But what I didn’t expect to see was the proliferation of nature and botanical imagery, especially the vigorous depiction of black people, especially black women, living with, gaining power from, and healing in the outdoors.
Black people have historically had complex and widely varied relationships with the land, but our artistic reorientation toward and reconnection with nature is a movement I refer to as the Eco Negro. After watching Lemonade, I quickly realized the film is built on this aesthetic.
The film’s first few frames show weeds and reeds rustling in the wind, growing out of literal ruins. The framing device — a giant, mature live oak tree, dripping with Spanish moss — is the constant, the ever-present watcher and protector, growing still despite its painful Southern history. A cluster of powerful, creative, assertive black women adorn its branches, gazing firmly into the camera. Later, those same women will till the earth, harvest its riches, and share the bounty with their mothers, daughters, and sisters.
In many of the film’s scenes, the interior, especially of the home, is depicted as the location of pain, or at the very least, the location of acknowledgment of past pain. The antidote? Nature. An ecological balm for the wounds of black womanhood. A long brick-lined tunnel is a dark and mysterious place, but the grassy and sunlit prairie beckons at its end, full of the promise of relief. Stiffly dressed black women of the past stand in the tunnel, hands clasped, heads turned toward the sun, yearning for an escape but still learning the tactics necessary for rebirth. Women stand and sit on wooden porches, gazing unapologetically at the viewer, questioning, demanding. Some of their faces are obscured by plantlife, the wild unknown that simultaneously obscures and unveils.
Lemonade is a swirl of elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Beyonce and the viewer feel strong and supported wherever there’s green, when colors are fully saturated and the Southern sun flares in the film’s lens. But the journey isn’t easy as we’re pulled between cold desaturation in Anger, grayscale in Apathy, and blinding red in Emptiness and Loss (all chapters whose main action takes place indoors). However, Reformation, Hope, and Redemption bring us back into nature where Beyonce is able to connect with her sisters and forgive the demons of her past.
In Lemonade, Beyonce transcends space and time, pulling her own experiences of love and fury and loss into conversation with the lives of our ancestors, women from the past who have wondered our same thoughts and cried our same tears. Women who worked the earth, learned its secrets, and passed them down to their daughters.
It’s no accident that so many of the film’s scenes take place in nature. In Beyonce’s world(s), the outdoors is the place where we can be ourselves without the burden of the male gaze, released from the trauma of deception and historical oppression. As illustrated in Resurrection—when an army of multi-generational black women gather at an outdoor stage, putting their talents on display for no one but themselves—this is the place where we’re free. Beyonce even plainly stated her personal connection to the outdoors in her recent Elle cover story. Discussing why she gave her new clothing brand the name Ivy Park, she explains:
A park is our commonality. We can all go there; we’re all welcomed. It’s anywhere we create for ourselves. For me, it’s the place that my drive comes from. I think we all have that place we go to when we need to fight through something, set our goals and accomplish them.
The Eco Negro has deep roots throughout African American art and literature. You can find evidence in historic slave narratives detailing adoration for the natural land, in the proud stewardship of Yosemite’s Buffalo Soldiers, in the folk art of Clementine Hunter and the forested silhouettes of Aaron Douglas, in Alice Walker’s mother’s garden, and in the urban greening efforts of Ron Finley and Michelle Obama.
Caring for and connecting to the earth can look and sound and feel about a billion different ways, and as a black woman who has struggled in my own search for self-realization, surrounding myself with nature has given me a way to find my artistic voice, deepen my relationship with my family, and carve out for myself a sense of calm in a relentless world. It was nothing short of thrilling to see Beyonce join the movement, establishing a visual vocabulary that promotes the natural environment as a cure for what ails us, both as individuals and as a community.
Having been disconnected from our homeland during slavery, disconnected from the fertile South during the Great Migration, and disconnected from whatever open space was left during the urban public housing boom, reconnecting to the earth as a modern day black person is a form of re-education and protest. Reconnecting to the earth, in whatever way we can, is the most intimate form of repatriation that we can achieve. And Lemonade shows Beyonce, one of the most prominent black people in the world, making her own way back home, reconnecting to the land and finding her way from struggle and loss toward abundance and growth.
In Redemption, the film’s final chapter, Beyonce spells out the recipe for lemonade, the recipe for taking the burdens handed down to us from history and turning them into magic. We see her in a power pose, hovering above the bayou, propped up by the trunks of trees long dead but still present. In the ending scenes, she’s back at the ruins from chapter 1, walking among the reeds, confident in her declaration of triumph and surrounded by plants that are also surviving, no matter what.
Throughout Lemonade, Beyonce and her squad of beautiful black women position themselves squarely in nature, fully accepting the power it bestows upon them, accessing its strength, and using it to beat back the ghosts of the past and the grief of the present. The exquisite poetry of Warsan Shire ties each chapter together, swirling with references to nature and the body. Situating the deeply corporeal text of Shire’s poetry in the soil, the trees, the weeds of the South, identifies Lemonade as a work exploring the relationship between sense of self and sense of place.
Along with Beyonce’s substantial embrace of feminism and social justice, she uses Lemonade to go further, delving into eco-critical and eco-feminist ideology. A prime example comes in her/Shire’s description of women’s oppression delivered at the hands of men. A closer reading could be interpreted as suffering experienced by the earth itself, delivered at the hand of man.
Mother dearest, let me inherit the earth. Teach me how to make him beg. Let me make up for the years he made you wait. Did he bend your reflection? Did he make you forget your own name? Did he convince you he was a god? Did you get on your knees daily? Do his eyes close like doors? Are you a slave to the back of his head?
The poetry of black women finding themselves not in the home, but on the earth is something beautiful, bold, and rarely so fluently depicted. Our relationship with the outdoors extends far beyond the environment we live in today. It’s something deep, ancestral, and it’s one of the many origins of our pride and achievement. We’re reminded that we can’t make lemonade without lemons. And that lemons, like us, are of the earth.