The Truth About Lemons

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By Dr. Toby S. Jenkins


Lemons Ain’t So Bad
“Now we can be open for a while…”

I loved Beyoncé’s Visual Album, “Lemonade.” Let me say that first before members of the Beyhive get ready to swarm. As an educator, I mostly appreciated that Beyoncé artistically offered us something to critically wrestle with, think about, dissect, love, hate, or crave for more. Honestly, I rarely get all of that from her work, so this project was very exciting to watch. But what I want to focus on in this article is the artistic interpretation of the very popular saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” In the video, it is Sean Carter’s beautiful grandmother who makes mention of this life mantra as she reflects back on her life at the age of 90. You just can’t argue with her wise and resilient approach to life’s challenges. This type of inspirational thought process can most definitely move younger women to straighten their backs and take the same, positive approach when life is suffocating them. It clearly impacted her grandson’s wife (Beyoncé) as she sat watching this black woman warrior deliver her birthday speech. But the more I turned this visual album over in my head I couldn’t quite fully embrace the title. The content is an incredible collection of infectious beats and rhythms, critical thoughts, captivating visuals, and important life stories about love, emotion, loyalty, expectations, truth, pain, and release. Though the artistic exhibition takes us through a story that begins with whispers of distrust, moves through anger, and ends with restoration and hope, I found myself focusing less on the dreaminess of moving from anger to hope and focusing more on how vividly they captured the rawness of what each emotion truly feels like. I contend that Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” is more of a call to appreciate and value the bitterness of the raw lemon than to applaud the ability to dilute the pain of life by making lemonade. Ofcourse we know this saying is just a way to encourage folks to be resilient and to move through life’s challenges. But I think too often, we seek out what tastes good to us, rather than dealing with the truth of what is actually good for us. The power of the narrative in “Lemonade” is the head-on confrontation that it illustrates with truth, pain, and betrayal. Sometimes, it’s actually biting the bitter lemon that saves your life. Later in this article, I’m going to address the philosophical implications of lemonade on our relationships with social institutions like our political organizations, schools and colleges, but I want to start with what is personal as the personal relationship was the focus of the album. Because we can most clearly understand the pain of betrayal in the context of romantic relationships or friendships, starting here will help us to widen our imagination and understand how it can relate to all the relationships that we form in life.

Facing the Bitter Truth
“You can taste the dishonesty, it’s all over your breath”

Several years ago, I went to lunch at a local chain restaurant. I hate chain restaurants and would normally not have even stopped. But, I was in a small town and didn’t have any other options. At the time, I was dating a guy who loved to sit at the bar in restaurants. I never did this. I always ate in the dining room. But after hanging out with him for a few weeks, I went straight to the bar for a quick lunch. I share all of this because I firmly believe that the universe conspired to put me where I needed to be on that day. At the bar, sat an older gentleman. He began to talk to me as I settled into my seat after ordering. At first, I was a bit annoyed by the conversation because I had so much on my mind and really wanted some quiet time to think about my new relationship. Something was bugging me about the guy that I was dating. I had a feeling that I just couldn’t trust him. As this old man continued to talk, my mouth literally dropped open. He starts sharing these little nuggets of wisdom:

“Don’t ever let a man lie to you. When someone lies to you, they are basically saying that they think you are a chump. Gullible. It is an insult to your intelligence. Even if they are lying to supposedly spare your feelings because the truth will hurt, they don’t have that right to determine what is best for you. You aren’t a child. Always demand honesty—even if it hurts.”

“Don’t take no wooden nickels. Always push people to be truthful about who they really are. Don’t get so blinded by the idea of being in a relationship that you can’t see if the relationship is really good for you. Don’t be fooled by brass disguised as gold. Gold doesn’t tarnish, but brass will leave your life all marked up and worn out. When you have brass in your life, don’t lie to yourself. Don’t dress it up. Don’t pretend its gold. Be honest and walk away if you have to.”

As you can see, I am sitting at this bar getting schooled in a really important way. As I walked out, I wondered if he was an angel that was put right where I needed him to be and said the exact things that I needed to hear. I wondered if I walked back in, would he have disappeared. That’s how weird it was. But all jokes aside, his comments had so much to do with understanding the importance of facing hard and difficult experiences in life. Not dressing them up, not diluting them, not lying to ourselves—but facing them. You see, lying to yourself or even believing a lying partner could literally kill you in a world where STD’s are a global crisis. And beyond the physical risk, the emotional and mental toll that comes with living in an unhealthy relationship is devastating. That’s what the lemon represents to me. Demanding the truth, dealing with the pain, and cleaning out toxic systems. Bitter lemons save our lives.

The truth is, the subject of loyalty and honesty is relevant within all of the relationships we develop in life—not just romantic ones. When we talk about someone “going postal” at work, we are talking about employees who overwork themselves for employers who don’t offer them mutual love and respect. Many folks have had jobs where they have felt betrayed and done wrong by their employer. [“What a wicked way to treat the girl that loves you”] Much of what we are seeing unfold in the political landscape of the United States, has a lot to do with people being fed up with lying politicians and a dishonest system that seems to betray the average citizen at every turn. No more blind loyalty to political parties. No more 4th of July celebrations among populations of people who really aren’t socially free. [“I don’t know when love became elusive, I just know that no one I know has it”]. Even our youth know what it feels to have institutions betray them. Ask the hundreds of school children whose school committed to developing and educating them, only to abandon and betray them with zero tolerance school policies. And even those students who are allowed to stay in school are sometimes left feeling unloved and lied to with a curriculum that doesn’t include them and teachers who refuse to acknowledge and discuss the racial incidents happening in the world around them. Our youth are screaming for love. So are our college students. I have worked in higher education for over 16 years and have witnessed several sickening instances where executive administrators sat with student leaders in fake meetings and orchestrated town halls that were only meant to please students by allowing them to speak, but were not meant to truly create substantive change on campus. We sit, we smile and we lie to the same students that are required to be intellectual giants in order to be admitted to our institutions. This is patronizing to students and a waste of their time. And many college students have had enough. [“Who the __ do you think I is?”] Across the country, undergrads and graduate students have been sitting in and walking out of classes and campuses that aren’t keeping their promise and being true to the relationship. From “die-ins” at student unions to address racially motivated police violence; mattress movements in order to make visible campus sexual violence, or student athletes refusing to play to address campus racial problems, students are essentially screaming for honesty, loyalty, truth and love. Ultimately this is an issue about the people we serve believing in us. Citizens want to believe in their country. Employees want to believe in their employers. Students want to believe in their schools. Spouses want to believe in their partners. And if they should not trust us—they simply want to know. [“But still inside me coiled deep was the need to know…are you cheating on me?”]

The Truth About Lemons
“Her heaven will be a love without betrayal”

I first came to appreciate lemons as a breast cancer patient. Cancer taught me a lot about facing the truth. Diabetes patients who live in denial and refuse to change their lifestyle always baffle me. I don’t get it, but I understand it. Growing up in a working-class family, I know what its like to deny your circumstance and pretend that you are okay. Even when shouting out their poverty might help to change their circumstance, we often find that folks living in poverty are silent for fear of shame. Pretending is a form of coping. Cancer is a bit more urgent. You can play around if you want and pretend you are healthy, but you just might be dead the next year. I am surviving cancer on a daily basis, not because I took the lemons and made lemonade. But rather, I bit into the bitter lemon. I faced the fact that I had cancer. I did the hard and difficult work to address it—surgery, chemo, radiation, diet, and exercise. Ain’t nothing sweet about this experience. Its real, its hard, and its work. But because I faced the truth, I am alive. And as a cancer patient, I actually have to choose what is raw, real, and unsweetened every day.

Here is what I know about the real, raw, bitter lemon:

  • Lemons contain nutrients that help fight infections.
  • Lemons have an important role in cleaning the body from toxins.
  • Lemon juice in water helps produces important digestive juices.
  • Lemon water helps stabilize pH levels in your body.
  • Lemon water helps to prevent wrinkles and sustains healthy skin.
  • Pure lemons can clean your entire house.

And here is what I know about sugar:

  • It is highly addictive.
  • It is bad for your teeth.
  • It is high in fructose, which can over work your liver.
  • It can cause insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes.
  • It is the food that cancer feeds on … it puts you at higher risk to develop cancer.
  • It can lead to obesity.

What makes lemonade sweet is sugar. So, we can see that a glass of lemonade isn’t really all that healthy for us. We don’t need to smile through our anger, laugh through the pain, or hold in our tears. I hate when folks tell a grieving widow that she was “strong” because she didn’t break down crying at a funeral. That’s not strength. Strength is fully and honestly expressing your emotions—even if that makes others uncomfortable. It is okay to cry. Sometimes you just have to scream. Better to let it out than to go crazy. What I love about the video is that we see some of that in songs like, “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and “Sorry.” As bitter as these songs might be, they are vivid forms of creative truth telling. What is interesting is that I would argue, in her earlier, half naked, oiled up days, Beyoncé was the lemonade. As an artist, she was the visual sweet drink for so many people—easy to digest, even easier on the eyes, and exciting to the imagination of a lot of men. Now, in this project, she uses her music as a space for truth telling and many of these men are critics. But that’s what happens when you take risks and do something different. Which brings me to the next thing I love about this visual album.

Quenching Public Thirst: Using your voice as a vessel
“Mother dearest, let me inherit the earth …”

My heart is always warmed when artists not only reach out and acknowledge one another’s talent, but when mega artists use themselves as a venue to expose the world to the work of other less known artists. The complex work of spoken word artist, Warsan Shire would normally have no space in the big dome concerts and club-banging world of artists like Beyoncé. I remember asking a group of college students why they didn’t buy more hip-hop music that actually addressed social issues. Their response was—you can’t dance to that stuff. So for an artist, who is known for getting all kinds of people to do all kinds of silly, fun, and sensual dances, to now intertwine unrhymed words, dialogue, poetry, and prose into a music experience is important. But what it is beautiful is the lack of need for those words to be hers. I find the intellectual richness of this album to be overwhelmingly thicker than lets say a previous attempt at feminist power like, “Run the World (Girls).” The latter song is very simplistic and is the standard anthem, jingle, mantra type song for which Beyoncé and her writing team are famous. “Lemonade” is a much more intellectually complex artistic collaboration. Though still very much in the center of the show, artistically, this project pushes Beyoncé into the role of art curator and artistic vessel. Through her, we hear the genius of others. In many ways, that’s what advocacy is really about. Using your power to speak truth and to make others aware—even if the words you recite, the song you sing, or the speech you give isn’t written about you. The point is–use your power.

Beyoncé’s power doesn’t lie in her ability to write several checks to various philanthropic organizations. That is generosity, not power. Her power lies in her ability to make you listen. Even if you aren’t a card-carrying member of the Beyhive, millions of people still pay attention to Beyoncé. She drops a visual album and we watch it. If we miss it, we search it out on the internet. She has folks from 14 to 40 watching and listening. This is the power of music and entertainment. There is probably no other institution in our society that has that type of multi-generational, multi-gendered, and multi-racial audience. I am a professor of education, I can say with certainty that our schools don’t have that type of reach. The power to make people pay attention is something quite special. To use that power to allow the poignant thoughts of others to be heard by the masses is honorable. This is actually what many social scientists like myself seek to do through our research—use our work as a vehicle to allow the experiences, stories, and voices of others to be heard. Of course, we all hope that some sort of change, transformation, or (in our wildest dreams) revolution will result from the public sharing of this knowledge. But even if drastic change isn’t instant, the conversations that follow are important. The additional writing and research that it sparks helps to further the cause. And I see this happening at some level with “Lemonade.” Hate on it if you will, but there have been a whole lot of “think pieces” written about this visual album. I already know, there is probably a large group of educators already mapping out lesson plans based on it (I know I am). One of the most important researchers that I know on issues of race, inclusion, and equity in education is giving a national keynote speech using “Lemonade’ as a conceptual framework. And another superstar professor whose work focuses on hip hop, recently shared on social media that a swarm of young girls came up to her after a speech she gave at a high school, and flooded her with questions. The girls didn’t ask anything about the content of her speech. They wanted to know her thoughts about “Lemonade.” This is what good public scholarship, art, and advocacy does—it gets us thinking, talking, and moving.

Educational Relevance
“Motivate you…call me Malcolm X”

Multiple disciplines can dig deep into the content of this visual album. Women Studies can wrestle with the experiences of black women and the black family. African American Studies can dissect the culturally rich visuals of the south, slavery, poverty, and community. American Studies and Sociology could examine the impact of the “American” experience on the lives of black women. And Media Studies can evaluate the cinematography standards of visual albums. She gave us something here. But, I teach graduate students in the field of Educational Leadership. What can graduate scholars in education learn from lemonade? A few critical lessons and important questions that I honestly think are important for any graduate student:

  1. Determine what kind of vessel you will be. How will you use your power, your voice, and your work to tell important truths?
  2. When people feel betrayed and lied to, they act out in anger. When students respond to institutional betrayal, how will you respond to them?
  3. Be transparent and honest as an educational administrator. Don’t disguise brass as gold through long written statements. Push your institution to bite the bitter lemon. Push your institution to live its written commitments. Proclamations of marriage are made in a one-hour wedding ceremony. But the ceremony isn’t the marriage. The hard work of living those commitments happens every day. Similarly, don’t center the work of institutional transformation in the ceremony of task forces, symposiums, and town halls. Do the real work of implementing plans and honoring the ideas that are shared through direct action.
  4. Don’t be boring. Make your work, research, programs, and even future policies that you create exciting and creative. We watch Beyoncé because her work is worth watching. Years ago it made us jump up trying to learn the single ladies dance and now it has us talking about black women, love, honesty, and infidelity. Capture the public’s attention by asking and answering truly innovative, important, and transformative questions. Write work that people want to read. Create programs in which students want to participate. Create policies that will truly make institutions different. Make your work so highly regarded and intellectually captivating that audiences seek it out because they know you will give them something special.
  5. Slay. “I dream it, I work hard, I grind ’til I own it.” If you’ve been working on a dissertation for the last five years, finish it. Whatever it is that you are working on-a research paper, a conference presentation, a dissertation proposal, or a defense–decide what you want, commit to it, work hard on it, go back and work even harder to perfect it, and then put it out in the world. Do not sit on your dreams and don’t let the magnitude of your dreams scare you. Enjoy the process of slaying your dreams. Then create new ones.

But most importantly, as educators, as citizens, as people, we can all learn this critical lesson: When life gives you lemons, don’t reach for the sugar. Bite the bitter lemon. Clean out your life, clean out your organizations, and bask in healthy, honest living at work, home, school and all the spaces that you occupy.