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dear bell hooks

Sunshine's picture

her shroud is loneliness, her god was listening. her heaven will be a love without betrayal (beyoncé). [throughout this piece i quote extensively from beyoncé’s visual album lemonade. the italicized text are direct quotes from lemonade.]


dear bell hooks,


i want to be transparent. i did not connect to your critique of beyoncé’s lemonade. i do not think it is helpful to say it is a generational difference, as to who gets sucked into the glorification of beyoncé as a pioneer for feminism and social justice and who doesn’t. rather i think it is a cultural difference, in the sociological sense. i see us as having different horizons of expectations, or “previous literary, cultural, and social experience” which affects how we interpret and understand cultural objects (griswold 89). and what i have gathered from reading your essay is this: your expectations lead you to see lemonade as a perpetuation of domination and power. however, my expectations, as a young, black, queer woman who was really depressed and had no hope, lemonade added something to my tool-kit, something that i wasn’t getting elsewhere. ann swidler, a sociologist, views culture as providing individuals “strategies of action,” or a “tool-kit,” for how to navigate their social worlds (swindler 273). as culture is different so are our tool kits, so your tool kit will be different from mine. it is that understanding of lemonade and the positive influence it has on my life that makes me so desperate to help you understand why i don’t understand your critique, and why i am now asking you to refuse judgement of beyoncé and displace it to the systems that she’s working in. the systems that i know you know so well.


i want to be clear. i have no intentions of judging you for judging bey. instead i want to curate your expectations. beloved. a book i know you read. toni morrison rewrote the story of a “slave mother, who killed her child rather than see it taken back to slavery,” which is how the abolitionist levi coffin describes the event (gordon 139). avery gordon, who writes an essay on the presence of ghosts in beloved, explains the importance of this framing of the story, as well as uses it throughout her essay every time she brings up the event. she says the “rather than” creates a bridging of an inconceivable event with the impossible circumstances that led to it (gordon 141). morrison shows this through the ways the characters in beloved react to sethe’s “rough choice,” and through the way sethe is able to défend it (morrison 212). paul d is horrified, and calls sethe an animal, telling her, “you got two feet, sethe, not four,” for choosing “safety with a handsaw” for her children (morrison 193-4). but that is what the schoolteacher did, compare sethe to an animal (morrison 228). stamp paid regrets “the high tone he took” while speaking of sethe’s choice, and “his refusal to see the effect of marrow weariness in a woman he believed to be a mountain” (morrison 213). sethe understands her choice as something that could never be explained to somebody who didn’t understand (morrison 192). she tells him “it ain’t my job to know what’s worse. it’s my job to know what is and to keep them away from what i know is terrible” (morrison 194) and baby suggs, the grandmother of these children, “begs the pardon” of the lord, but does not “approve or condemn sethe’s rough choice” (morrison 180, 212).


morrison presents us with an inconceivable event with impossible circumstances. and it is not our place to judge, as paul d and stamp paid have done, but to defer judgement to the lord, as baby suggs has.


i want you to know, i do not believe in the lord, but i also do not believe we know all the answers. should beyoncé have forgiven jay z and produced this album? you bring up valid critiques of this choice. beyoncé is working within a capitalist framework to commodify the black woman audience in order to make money. and she uses violence and a non-critical definition of feminism to do it. and she never actually tells us how to heal our wounds, or end existing power structures, or call for men to do their own healing.


and still, i cannot bring myself to condemn her for this choice. i cannot, for all the reasons that you name. for i see beyoncé’s choice as a “rather than.” rather than stay silent on the issue of toxic black male masculinity. rather than stay silent on the pain that she as a black woman, no matter how privileged, faces from current traumatic events, such as police brutality, and generational trauma from the mistreatment her mother and grandmothers faced from their own husbands and the state. she presents us with this context and forgives jay z. and she heals her pain through making art, which is commodified, instead of solving the structures.


sethe does not abolish slavery. she did what she could in the moment and we cannot condemn her for that.


i want to show you what i mean. my horizon of expectations included this facebook post: “working title to the paper/article I need someone to write about Beyonce's most recent video album -- Tea and Lemonade: The deconstruction of toxic masculinity + antiblack racism in an hour of multi-genre feminist artistry and multi-generational storytelling” (richardson). this made me see lemonade as more than just about the fall and rise of bey and j’s relationship. i saw in that moment of deep depression a way out. it added a tool to my kit, because while the black woman is not always the victim, she sometimes is. and i was able to see because of beyoncé a way to connect the trauma we face to larger issues, how to deal with it by going through an arc of emotions, and to be reminded of the joy we can still find in life.


beyoncé starts lemonade with the intuition that jay z is cheating. you remind me of my father, a magician. able to exist at two places at once. in the tradition of men in my blood, you come home at 3 am, and lie to me. the intuition comes from the betrayal she already knows.


i tried to change. have we not all been there? trying to fix another person’s problem with your own actions? the guilt we feel as black women, depressed women, to take care of everyone else but yourself. the denial of your own innocence. fasted for 60 days. wore white. abstained from mirrors. abstained from sex. slowly did not speak another word. purity as a form of healing does not work for all, does not work for beyoncé, did not work for me. i could not heal myself from being better. beyoncé should not have to be better to deserve better. do we not see her drowning?


the outward expression of rage is what saves beyoncé from drowning. and as is framed by the facebook post i read, i never saw beyoncé as celebrating violence as you argue in your essay, but beating down toxic masculinity, as is represented by the cars she smashes. and again by the cars she runs over with her monster truck.


angry, is what i would be as well. i don’t know when love became elusive. what i know is no one i know has it. my father’s arms around my mother’s neck. fruit too ripe to eat. she reminds him who she is and what she deserves. the most disrespected person in america is the black woman. she knows this is not an isolated incident. and she asserts that he has no power over her because she can leave. this is your final warning. you know i give you life. if you try this shit again, you gon’ lose your wife. she takes her liberation, but does not leave.


what happens when beyoncé becomes apathetic? i see a celebration of black femininity. i see two women who chose to not be sorry. i see the woman who is one of the greatest athletes in the world, who is often denied femininity, take ownership of it alongside beyoncé with no care in the world what the haters think. as i see myself in serena, i see myself placed in this journey alongside beyoncé, as we try not to be sorry.


it is only in this emptiness she can burn down her house. every fear. any nightmare anyone has ever had. i saw beyoncé burn down a house. burn it down, to rebuild from the ashes.


i constantly call for accountability. when are we asking ourselves how our actions affect other people? the way daughters look at mothers. the way the president affects young black men. 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 hand? am i talking about your husband, or your father? the way fathers teach their daughters and their sons. and as much as i want to say we cannot always blame others for our problems, others have to be held accountable for what they have done to us.


why do you deny yourself heaven? why do you consider yourself undeserving? why are are you afraid of love? beyoncé, using the insecurities of jay z, can now start to reform their relationship, reform masculinity, as an abundance of possibilities.


when giving forgiveness to jay z, it is not done lightly. do you remember being born? are you thankful for the hips that cracked? the deep velvet of your mother, and her mother, and her mother. there is a curse that will be broken. forgiveness to womanhood is what she asks for. not only for her, but for all the women who came before her.


so how are we supposed to lead our children to the future? what do we do? how do we lead them? love. l-o-v-e, love. hmm hmm hm, hallelujah, thank you jesus. i just love the lord. i’m sorry brother. that’s all i got. when your back up against the wall and your wall against your back, who you call? hey! who you call? who you call? you gotta call him. you gotta call jesus. you gotta call him. ‘cause you ain’t got no other hope.


i see black men resurrected through the women who love them and the babies we have despite their genocide. there is so much pain.


beyoncé gives us, black women, the mothers of murdered children hope. may we, all the black women and girls beyoncé invites to her garden, be able to deal with our losses with the same strength and grace as ballerina michaela deprince.


how do we redeem ourselves? grandmother. the alchemist. you spun gold out of this hard life. conjured beauty from things left behind. found healing where it did not live. discovered the antidote in your own kitchen. broke the curse with your own two hands. you passed these instructions down to your daughter, who then passed it down to her daughter. at this point i realize it is not only beyoncé who has given me tools. but there have been truths and stories passed down to me from the women before me that do the same thing. bring the same healing. i just need to realize what they are. and as we see blue ivy at her great grandmother, hattie white’s 90th birthday party, i realize i must also be passing things on to the young women in my family as well. i too have tools to share. my grandma said nothing real can be threatened.


pull me back together again the way you cut me in half. we all must find salvation somewhere, and lord knows i’ve tried to find it and have failed every time. i know that pain, and i will not ask beyoncé to give it back just because it came from someone she had to forgive. we all need to be forgiven.


works cited

beyoncé. "lemonade." beyoncé. tidal, 23 apr. 2016. web. 08 oct. 2016.

gordon, avery. "not only the footprints but the water too and what is down there." ghostly matters: haunting and the sociological imagination. minneapolis: u of minnesota, 1997. 137-90. print.

griswold, wendy. cultures and societies in a changing world. thousand oaks: pine forge, 1994. print.

hooks, bell. "moving beyond pain." rss. the bell hooks institute, 09 may 2016. web. 08 oct. 2016.

morrison, toni. beloved. new york: vintage, 2004. print.

swidler, ann. "culture in action: symbols and strategies." american sociological review 51.2 (1986): 273. web.

richardson, rhett. (2016, april 23) facebook. 08 oct. 2016.



Anne Dalke's picture

As you already know, I take great delight in in sentences without caps (feels democratizing to me), and delight particularly here in your writing to a writer who refuses to capitalize her own pseudonym, she says, to “place focus on her work rather than her name, on her ideas rather than her personality.” That seems to fit quite finely with what you are doing here: refusing the pedestal of righteous indignation, asking bell to consider replacing it with a new “horizon of expectation,” one that can acknowledge, along with you, some of the breadth of what Bey accomplishes in Lemonade.

I see you drawing an analogy between Baby Suggs’ “refusal to condemn Sethe for her rough choice,” with your own  refusal to condemn Bey (and hey! bell, too!) for hers, inviting hooks to join you in that space of withholding judgement, just as Morrison invites her readers to join her. You give a powerful testimony to the ways in which that music video has added a range of “strategies of action” to your “tool-kit.”

It’s especially satisfying to me to see you replacing “generational difference” with “cultural difference,” “judgment” with “curation” (great juxtaposition of different disciplinary discourses, including your home one of sociology!). I’m also curious to know a little more about what ‘curation’ means to you, and how you see yourself putting it into practice here. Is it what Kris Graves gestured towards, when he said he wanted “to tell stories in an image, with no text,” what Teju Cole said about taking time to really look/take in photographs, trusting that in a careful description of a work of art, something begins to happen, that “very patient description can be the door...and once we know what we are looking at,interpretation can be a small grace note after that….”?

Do you see your project, in other words, as largely a task of “very patient description?” As a means of inviting bell to re-consider her stance?

One thing that puzzles me is the line from Lemonade about (I think? refusing the) denial of your own innocence. I’m now re-hearing this through Avery Gordon’s refusal of  "the American dream of innocence," and her counterclaim that we are all born within a social network that is "prepared in advance.” None of us exists outside such relations; each of us plays a role in each story we hear/know/learn. I do think that this is the core idea of "the sociological imagination," with each individual caught up in a structure; each both always subject and object: acted on by institutions, and able to resist/exceed that script. And so: none of us ever able to be innocent. As hsymonds says in her paper @ /oneworld/poetics-and-politics-race/literacy-beloved ,“the price of learning is the loss of innocence.”

Nice to see Rhett’s work showing up here!

Nice, too, to see Serena, who will show up again soon, as central in our reading of Rankine’s Citizen.

You do get just a little preachy, right @ the end. If you were “really” sending this to bell, you’d need to bring it back, try to speak directly there to her.

As you have spoken to me!


Sunshine's picture

i agree I got a bit preachy at the end. I will admit, i was tired, and I couldn't think of a different way to reword what I said. Not being judgmental is hard!!!! Something about our language makes it hard to be compassionat, i find. One must be so much more intentional in choosing words to evade overt judgment. So I will proclaim myself as an advocate for non judgement, not an expert. But also sometimes judgement is good. 

Something I thought about from the part of your comment about curating, is that I am passing judegement, and I couldn't write this without passing jugement. To curate is to judge what is worthwhile and necescary to be seen or heard or experienced. I made those judgements when I curated, or picked which quotes to include in my paper. I'm sure bell hooks could curate a different set of quotes and images that would support the viewpoints of her essay. Which she did. I just didn't find it to be compelling. 

so my "very patient description" is still a judgement, but not of Beyoncé. It's a hope that if what bell takes (or is given to, by me) from Lemonade is what I value, (it is important in sociology to say why we are valuing one thing over another. To state our biases. Which I hope I did effectively) and had the background that I did.... if I curated that well enough, she might have the same emotional response that I did. which is my interpretation of what a curator should do. 

innocence. I'll just leave that there for another conversation that I know we'll have. 


Thank you,


Anne Dalke's picture

Interesting thought, this, Sunshine, that “to curate is to judge.” So you and I value discrimination after all, the distinctions made, for example, by the discriminating curator, the discriminating art collector, the discriminating shopper, the discriminating cook, the discriminating diner, the discriminating admissions officer who selects a new class of BMC students…

and/but we also hate the f/act of discrimination, the weeding out of some things, of some of us, the hierarchies we create that distinguish that which passes, and those who pass, from that and those that/who do not.

And this seems, to me, connected to the lack of innocence. In making selections, as we must do, to live, we are not/cannot be innocent.


As you say, for another, further, conversation…

Thank you, for getting me thinking some more,