It is a Sunday morning. I am in my family home in Lagos, Nigeria, the place where I spent the first 10 years of my life. I am a shy 9-year-old girl with hair packed into small bunches and glasses too big for my face. I am wearing my favorite dress, the white one with patterns of green, yellow, and pink flowers. This Sunday morning isn’t much different to any other. Our routine is the same: church, lunch, naps, homework, TV, preparing for school, bed. I walk into my parents’ bedroom, twirl around in my dress, my mother nods her approval, my father tells me I am beautiful. As I leave the room, my father says gently, “Don’t let boys be the ones to tell you that you are beautiful. Remind yourself that you are a smart, lovely, beautiful girl.” The memory is clear to me only because I remember writing it down in one of my many diaries. I sometimes flip through these diaries using my father’s words to affirm myself I am beautiful, I am worthy, I am smart, I am kind, I will be brilliant.
While watching Beyoncé’s most recent visual album, Lemonade, it was the scenes and songs about relationships with fathers that made me think. On this album there are fathers who are good to their daughters but not to their wives; fathers who tell their daughters to avoid men with certain characteristics, and then embody every single one of the characteristics they advised their daughters against. These fathers break their daughters’ hearts. I was lucky that for most of my childhood I had a father who was my best friend. He was loving. He did not make me feel inadequate. He was everything I needed. Believing he understood me, I trusted him for a long time. I held onto the words that he’d said to me that day. His words were solid and affirming enough to help me become a warrior.
The stereotype of the “strong black woman,” one whose back is made of steel and can survive any trauma or pain is dangerous because it robs black women of the ability to grieve, to mourn, to display any “weakness.” Lemonade’s depiction of black womanhood defies that limiting trope by confronting publicly the pain of betrayal, abandonment, infidelity, and the joy of redemption. In the section titled “Intuition,” Beyoncé speaks of a “tradition of men” in her blood who have hurt and disappointed the women in their lives. There is no holding back here. And, as a black girl dealing with the pain of a father who did not have my back when I needed him most, to hear these words spoken aloud is affirming. I feel less alone.
I was 12 when my father first disappointed me. There were things going on at home, which he knew and accepted were wrong. My father promised to stand up for me, but when the time came he didn’t. I felt abandoned. I forgave him anyway; he said next time wouldn’t be the same. When he let me down again, I was hesitant but I forgave him. And again. Each time, he would promise to change—he was really sorry, he would act differently. Nothing has changed. And even though I can understand why my father struggles to help me, I still expected more from him. This doesn’t mean that my father is “bad,” or that he hasn’t given me good things, only that sometimes the people you love can also break your heart. It has been hard to come to terms with the fact that my father, the one person I felt I could trust forever, has lost that trust and is breaking my heart. Listening to “Daddy Lessons” I finally accepted what I’d felt for a long time, that sometimes, the men in our lives do not deserve second chances—romantic or otherwise. Sometimes, they owe us an apology, and must fix the problems they have created without our help.
My experiences with men and boys are few. I have not been in any “real” relationships. I have not kissed any boys. For years, I’ve had a friendship that has, at times, felt too intimate. I have had good times and problems with my father. But that’s all. I remind myself that I do not need a boyfriend. I am fine on my own, able to be independent, secure, assured, self-confident. I am enough. These are the things my father told me and the things I know to be true. But my confidence slips; I am all the time battling something within me that says I’m just not good enough. I contend with the ways that racism and sexism deny black women love. We are ignored, “othered,” and our achievements undermined. In the midst of this pain, what Lemonade demonstrates is that you can love yourself as a black girl and face the struggle it is to inhabit that identity. Black love is navigating these hurts and truths, and embracing the many layers of black girlhood.
Historically, black women have been urged to silence that pain and to protect black men, who are already targeted because of their race. The idea that black women should have “race solidarity” and avoid discussing abuse, neglect, trauma, or pain persists. A recent example is the response to a Spelman College student who set up a Twitter account documenting her experience of being raped at Morehouse, Spelman’s “brother” school. She writes that she was told by the Dean to remain silent to protect the relationship between the two historically black colleges. By foregrounding black women’s grief, anger, pain, love, and joy, Lemonade makes visible the emotional labor of black mothers, daughters, sisters, and queer people.
By the end of the visual album, there stands a woman who is capable of surviving on her own, but who chooses to return to her love after he has wronged her. Before she returns, however, she sings, “Show me your scars / And I won’t walk away,” insisting on radical vulnerability, or nothing at all. Watching women with skin like mine and hair like mine, who have shared similar pains as I have on screen made me realize that we do not see enough black women who have been wronged by the people they love rage, raise their middle fingers, walk away, and demand more. That kind of love seems potent and terrifying.
When I do have a relationship, I want to be brave enough to make decisions that fulfill my own terms—especially when it comes to men. I want only to stay with those who will treat me with respect, who will love me enough. And if that love isn’t enough, I want to leave. Watching Lemonade has made me want to wait for the right person. There is no rush. I can work on loving myself better in the meantime. One day, I suspect I will forgive my father, but that will be a decision for me, not him. ♦
June Eric Udorie is a student, blogger, and feminist campaigner. You can follow her on Twitter.