The Bitter, the Sweet, and the Book: Beyoncé’s Seminal Work Enters the Literary Canon With The Lemonade Reader

Illustration for article titled The Bitter, the Sweet, and the Book: Beyoncé’s Seminal Work Enters the Literary Canon With The Lemonade Reader
Image: Routledge Press

In the three years since Beyoncé seamlessly merged black feminism and pop culture with the release of Lemonade, much has been said—and written—about the impact of her semi-autobiographical visual album, which traced a direct lineage from ancient African religion and folklore to Gullah culture to New Orleans’ “bounce” and the black female backbones of movements like Black Lives Matter.


Countless think pieces were written (including several right here on The Root); online debates and college courses sprang up in equal measure; and thanks to writer and scholar Candice Benbow, The Lemonade Syllabus (pdf) provided correlative materials to those interested in taking a deeper dive into the world of black womanhood Beyoncé had literally opened the floodgates on.

Gif: Beyoncé, “Hold Up” (Giphy)

Professors Kinitra Brooks and Kameelah Martin were two of the many academics who integrated Beyoncé into their curricula. Martin plumbed the depths of Lemonade’s evocative imagery in Voodoo and Visual Culture, while Brooks’ Black Women, Beyoncé & Popular Culture went viral when she began teaching it in the fall of 2016.

“I have them reading hardcore literary theory and analyzing complex literature and folklore all under the guise of studying Beyoncé,” Brooks told VSB at the time. “Anything I can do to get my students excited about literature and cultural studies concerning black womanhood in all its many different aspects, I’m in. Lemonade is not perfect, nothing is, but it gave many of us scholars an opportunity, an entrance into the enthusiasm of our students.”

Now, the two scholars have cemented Lemonade’s place in academic discourse with The Lemonade Reader, an anthology of essays, ideas and “interludes” inspired by both Lemonade and Beyoncé, written by predominantly black female academics, pop cultural critics and activists, and published Tuesday by Routledge Press.


As one of several non-academics asked to contribute one of the aforementioned interludes for this project, I was particularly interested in why Brooks and Martin believe Beyoncé’s work belongs in serious black feminist discourse, and why Lemonade’s messages are timeless enough to merit an academic text. Interviewing them on behalf of The Glow Up, the two were gracious enough to school me on why the enduring impact of Lemonade is so much bigger than Beyoncé.

The Glow Up: Lemonade was released in 2016, and while it was a watershed moment for American culture—and for black women, in particular—three years later, many understandably might ask, why now for The Lemonade Reader?


Dr. Kinitra Brooks: Lemonade has been described as a cultural moment, but it is necessary to recognize that its impact has lasted beyond that moment. Lemonade shifted the landscape for us personally as we were casual fans before. Beyoncé also affected the cultural landscape because Lemonade was the manifestation of years of her building up industry power and money to create such a complex project. The Lemonade Reader opens a broader discussion. We don’t put Beyoncé on a pedestal, but we deeply ground her in conversations of black womanhood.

TGU: What compelled you to create an anthology, and how did you choose your contributors?


KB: The project came about after our work was rejected in another publication—we figuratively made lemonade out of life’s lemons.

We were awarded a grant to hold a three-day Lemonade Think Tank at the University of Michigan, where we had the opportunity to invite 10 scholars to present their analyses of Lemonade from their different disciplines. We specifically wanted to hear from as many diverse black women as possible. We had Dr. Tanisha C. Ford, a fashion historian; Dr. Birgitta Johnson, an ethnomusicologist; Rev. Dr. Melanie C. Jones, a divinity professor who is also a church reverend; and we had one black male professor, Dr. Nicholas Jones, a professor of Spanish literature who is also an obá oriaté (high priest) in Regla de Ocha/Santería. These scholars set the foundational group of the contributors.


But we also wanted to make the Reader accessible for everyone, from high schoolers to working professionals to members of the Beyhive. We invited popular bloggers to write “Interludes” that are shorter and in less academic language. We’ve included pop culture author Tami Winfrey Harris, music critic L. Michael Gipson, and body positive activist Ashleigh Shackleford.

Dr. Kameelah Martin: We also wanted to use Beyoncé as a tool to have multigenerational conversations. When pioneering black feminists, like bell hooks, read Beyoncé’s work in ways that maybe be considered sharp and unsupportive, the Reader attempts to foster a broader palette of black feminist theory which encompasses the entire multi-generational spectrum of debate, without a tone of critique which may come across as personal or punitive.


We can have a healthy discussion without necessarily being aggressive and exclusionary. We reached out to established scholars who have consistently nurtured rising generations of black feminists and asked them to write our Preface and section introductions. We wanted to be clear in demonstrating cross-generational care and respect in our joint work on black women and popular culture.

TGU: Lemonade Syllabus creator Candice Benbow is also a contributor to The Lemonade Reader. How does your work dovetail with hers?


KB: Candice is simply amazing: we admire her work so much as she did so much to get Lemonade taken seriously as an academic text for those of us who study black women. We wanted to begin the text with her because she initiated this work through her unique ability to move between popular culture, academia, and social media. Her areas of excellence simply keep expanding and we can’t wait to see what she does next.

KM: Again, this project was about acknowledging and establishing intellectual lineages, and there was no way to do that without Candice’s input, front and center.


TGU: Considering the seemingly endless amount of think pieces that Lemonade spawned, what does The Lemonade Reader contribute to the conversation that’s new?

KB: Think pieces can only go so far. They are quite useful but often the true establishment of knowledge on a subject takes time to think, write, and revise. The pieces in The Lemonade Reader are from folks at the top of their game in their fields, doing deep dives into the text.


KM: All the contributors made a commitment to provide critical analysis while doing so with compassion and care. The work emerged as a product of mindful intentionality without anyone being harmful in their assessments. We specifically wanted a culture of community for this reader. And we are continuing to learn about the multidimensionality of Lemonade. The visual album is so rich that it just has not been fully exhausted in terms of critical analysis.

What you get in The Lemonade Reader is very focused conversations about the production of the project, about Beyoncé’s role as impresario; you get an in-depth reading of how Regla de Ocha and other forms of African-centered spirit work is at play in the imagery. Many people are now aware of the orisha Oshún because of the yellow dress and water imagery but have no clue about the other references to Afro-Cuban and Yoruba religious culture. The Lemonade Reader gives us fully developed, critical insights that just aren’t available in other places.


TGU: Beyond pop culture, why is this work, in particular, worthy of continued intellectual discourse and academic study?

KB: We are educators. Lemonade becomes a framework to discuss other works by so many other black women. [Beyoncé] did her research; she was quite deliberate in every single aspect of this piece. She entered a conversation that black, particularly African American, and especially Southern women have been having for hundreds of years, both in the public and the private sphere. Our students’ enthusiasm for Lemonade allows us to explore the works of Ida B. Wells, Zora Neale Hurston, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks.


But also, it should be studied because it is damn good work! Folks discuss pop culture for intellectual study. For example, at one point in our history, Beowulf and the writings by Mark Twain were not considered worthy of study. Today, they are discussed widely in the realm of pop culture. Langston Hughes and jazz are considered popular culture. And as a literature professor, I always bring out the British Romantics—William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Coleridge—who were the rock star bad boys of their time.

KM: And let us not forget the work of Jane Austen—how many popular films have been adapted from her work? This is the essence of popular culture. Intellectuals are nothing if they cannot address the contemporary moment in their intellectual discourse. We must simply admit that certain pieces of popular culture stand the test of time because they define an era—Lemonade does that.


TGU: You’ve published this as an academic level text and addendum to your own syllabi, but who is The Lemonade Reader for?

KB: Everyone—certified Beyhive members, fair-weather fans, Beyoncé scholars and even the most avid Beyoncé haters—there is something for everyone. But we had in mind, particularly, folks who understood that Beyoncé was doing something complex in Lemonade but did not have the language to articulate exactly what. We’ve created a resource for those who wanted more explanation. The Lemonade Reader also aims to convince folks who simply didn’t get what the big deal was about Lemonade. We encourage all the naysayers to read this anthology as we provide excellent receipts and clapbacks for folks who underestimate Beyoncé’s cultural prowess.


KM: We don’t profess to have all the answers or to provide a comprehensive analysis of every single scene, costume, or lyric—but we come damn near close. The Lemonade Reader is our love letter to Beyoncé—showing her how much the contributors and co-editors appreciate what she did to call attention to black women’s lives and experiences.

The Glow Up tip: The Lemonade Reader is available now in all formats on Amazon.

Maiysha Kai is managing editor of The Glow Up, host of The Root Presents: It's Lit! podcast and Big Beauty Tuesdays, and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. May I borrow some sugar?



I look at it even if it’s just to see how y’all rationalize that “yellow bone it” lyric.