When Beyoncé Knowles-Carter dropped her surprise Lemonade record on HBO last Sunday night, the Internet, well, it lost its mind. Perhaps moreso than any other artist recording today, Mrs. Knowles-Carter commands the power to reduce adult human beings into automata programmed for the typing of assorted punctuation.
As the online world exulted in the opening baseball bat pyrotechnics of Beyoncé’s seeming record of recovery from her husband’s infidelity, however, Brentin Mock at The Atlantic‘s CityLab was captured by a moment of quiet and stillness:
About 53 minutes into the visual album, Lemonade, Beyonce sits barefoot and barefaced on a wooden porch surrounded by a squad of women of various skin complexions and hair textures. Nobody’s smiling. The facial expressions range from stone-serious to Can we help you?
As Mock explains, “the front porch scene signals defiance, if for no other reason than the fact that this kind of black woman assembly is seen as threatening, even today.” When the projects of New Orleans were replaced by mixed-income developments in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, the new housing could come with restrictions on who could gather on porches, and when. One developer suggested “that tenants should instead sit on their back porches. But that policy was quickly rejected by the tenants,” because “congregating on the front porch or stoop of folks’ homes is an inveterate cultural element of black communities across America, especially in the South.”
The significance and symbolism of the porch should not be allowed to pass without sufficient attention, for as Patrick Deneen unpacked in his essay “A Republic of Front Porches,” “the transition from porch to patio was one of the clearest and significant manifestations [of] the physical change from a society concerned with the relationship of private and public things – in the Latin, res publica – to one of increasing privacy.” The porch is the battleground of the ‘space between’.
Deneen is channeling the wisdom of an obscure essay by Richard Thomas, “From Porch to Patio,” which explains that before suburbanization prioritized the back yard, the front porch was a place where a family member could invite passerbys up to talk. “The person on the porch was very much in control of this interaction” as it was an extension of their home, but because the front porch was public-facing it was in dialogue with the resolutely public space of the street. The porch was particularly a space for easy association among women, who could congregate without hosting, discuss without scheduling.
One of the most discussed features of Beyoncé’s new album is the seeming peek it provides into the inner sanctum of her marriage to legendary rapper Jay-Z, a union that makes for one of the most powerful power couples in entertainment history. Unlike some other celebrity couples who parade their entire relationship on magazine covers and self-branded reality shows, Beyoncé has demanded privacy, and has taken unprecedented steps to control her image. The New York Times reported last year that “at some imperceptible point around 2013 to 2014, she appears to have stopped giving face-to-face interviews.”
In a rare interview given to Essence in late 2008, Beyoncé explains this reticence in terms of maintaining the mystery necessary to superstardom, for “not being accessible is really important.” The inaccessible superstar of the age of instant access, the aura around the pop star grew into a mythos approaching the monarchical, granting her the sobriquet “Queen Bey.” She told GQ in 2013 that “I’m more powerful than my mind can even digest and understand.” Her personal life, however, was kept as resolutely private as was possible in this celebrity age.
In one of Lemonade’s earliest tracks, Beyoncé’s rage literally spills into the public place from a classical courthouse, as she marches down a traditional New Orleans main street seeking justice with baseball bat in hand, taking aim at the automobile, the surveillance state, and the storefront alike. Her husband’s violation of their marital vows seemingly tears the very fabric of society for Mrs. Knowles-Carter, and the album progresses through her processing of that violation.
By the time Beyoncé “finds her chill,” as Mock characterizes the front-porch scene, the album is explicitly drawing on the positive traditions of black women, binding attention across the generations. Women in common endeavor are shown harvesting gardens in the shots leading up to the porch. Beyoncé’s family’s marriages and pregnancies and relationships are shown through home videos. Religious language suffuses the entirety of the album, but it becomes particularly acute late, when an older woman’s voiceover explains the necessity of falling back on Jesus. The title of the album derives from the simple wisdom of ‘I was served lemons, but I made lemonade,’ in the words of Beyoncé’s husband’s grandmother on the occasion of her 90th birthday.
The untouchable “Sasha Fierce,” the ineffable queen of the stadium showcase and monarchical pageantry, has established herself in the associational territory of the porch community, where access is guarded but available, and self-governance is the activity of the everyday. And yet, as Mock details throughout his essay, that front porch community, that essence of civil society, is not always a safe space, especially among the poor and the black. Whether commercial developers or public housing directors, regulators seek to push people back to the patio, or to confine their society within their living room. Middle-class atomization is enforced downward with bureaucratic cudgel.
Poor communities, and especially black communities, have long been subject to regulations that seek to force them away, or to push them out of sight. Charlie Gardner excerpts one description of how Cleveland-area suburbs would raise the regulatory barriers to self-built homes in order to make it too expensive for black communities to develop in their midst. The tragic story of 20th-century urban renewal is replete with stories of tightly knit working-class neighborhoods being demolished to make room for highways, while their residents were relocated to anonymous, deracinated tower blocks.
Those disruptions and dislocations often came at the high cost of strong social structures. Nolan Gray’s recent essay on “Reclaiming Redneck Urbanism” notes that “compared to many low-income neighborhoods,” trailer parks communities “are often fairly clean and relatively safe” due to their strong emergent traditions of private governance. He concludes his essay with the advice that “where policymakers deem top-down regulation necessary, it should be designed to support rather than replace emergent orders that low-income communities have developed over time.”
The black community in particular has a long tradition of black nationalism and self-sufficiency that grew out of resistance to bureaucratic erasure, a tradition extending from Booker T. Washington to the iconography of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, both of whom Beyoncé explicitly draws on in her new album. Before and beyond those national figures, however, there have always been the local sources of leadership in the churches and in the neighborhood.
A friend in New Orleans, coincidentally the locus and identifying core of much of Lemonade, once told me the story of a local neighborhood he had been introduced to, where crime and hooliganism had nearly destroyed the social fabric. Until, that is, the grandmothers and the mothers, the matriarchs of the community, decided to seize back their front porches. They emerged from their homes to sit on their front porches, and congregate, and associate. They monitored their streets and the younger members of their neighborhood. When young men stepped out of line, they would be called out; if they didn’t step back into line, the police would be called to restore the community’s order. The crime rate fell, and the porches once again ruled the street.
Deneen closed his essay with the following challenge:
For those who would stand and defend the future of the Republic, a good place to start would be to revive our tradition of building and owning homes with front porches, and to be upon them where we can both see our neighbors and be seen by them, speak and listen to one another, and, above all, be in a place between, but firmly in place.
Now that Queen Bey has descended from her stage, perhaps we can follow her lead into the rediscovery of our own traditions of community reliance and self-governance.
Jonathan Coppage is senior staff editor of The American Conservative. “New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.