“Daddy Lessons” & Daddy Issues: Verse and Gendered Trauma in Beyoncé’s Lemonade by Ashanthi Francis
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“Daddy Lessons” & Daddy Issues: Verse and Gendered Trauma in Beyoncé’s Lemonade by Ashanthi Francis

“Daddy Lessons” & Daddy Issues: Verse and Gendered Trauma in Beyoncé’s Lemonade by Ashanthi Francis

The release of Beyoncé Knowles’s sixth studio album, Lemonade, signified a turning point in the conception of Black female identity within popular music. Described as a “shot heard around the world” by scholar Zeffie Gaines, the multimedia experience of Lemonade serves as an ode to Black femininity. Through a superimposition of lyrics, instrumentals, film, and poetry, Knowles demonstrates a desire to share aspects of her life previously incompatible with her cultural status as an uber-private celebrity: her anger, her grief, her husband’s infidelity, and more urgently, her Blackness. The most distinctive work on the album is “Daddy Lessons”, a five-minute flirtation with the country genre filled with luscious horns and ‘yee-haw’s, framing the piece as an obvious nod to Knowles’s Houston roots. At first glance, the song is a twangy beat alongside musings of the wisdom imparted to little girls by their fathers. However, following a close reading of the song’s lyrics, paired with accompanying visual elements, and framed by Somali-British writer Warsan Shire’s imagistic poetic epitaph “Accountability”, Lemonade’s sole country ballad transforms into something more complex: an exploration of Black girlhood as the product of one’s upbringing. Through an emphasis on the crucial male figures in young Black girls’ lives—fathers and husbands—Knowles uses experience as a point of exposition for discussions of intergenerational influences on expressions of Black femininity. Knowles’s use of verse, lyric, and visual imagery in “Daddy Lessons” to dramatize recurring themes in both her familial and romantic histories posits the significance of fatherhood in fortifying or disrupting cycles of gendered trauma for Black girls.  

Shire’s poem “Accountability” is a poetic epitaph to “Daddy Lessons” which strategically frames Knowles’s musical narrative by introducing themes of troubled family dynamics and intergenerational transmission. The opening lines of “Accountability,” written by Shire and spoken by Knowles, read: “You find the Black tube inside her beauty case / where she keeps your father’s old / prison letters” (Shire lines 1-3). In these initial lines, Shire’s speaker addresses a child, presumably a young girl, while alluding to her father’s incarceration, suggesting a potentially troubled father-daughter relationship. As a framing device, this verse centers the domestic space as the focal point of the “Daddy Lessons” narrative and subsequently introduces parenting as a key theme. Shire’s speaker almost immediately draws parallels between the child they are addressing and the child’s mother: “You look nothing like your mother. You look everything like your mother” (5-6). Although the child looks “nothing” like her mother, the speaker implies that she will nevertheless be impacted by the inferred troubled relationship of her parents and is therefore “everything” like her. In a similar manner, the speaker instructs the child to wear her mother’s lipstick “like she wears / disappointment on her face” (11-12). The speaker encourages the young girl to mimic her mother physically and emotionally by wearing the latter’s lipstick and internalizing her “disappointment.”  As well, it is important to consider the comparison the speaker draws between lipstick and disappointment in these lines.  In comparing lipstick, a commonly accepted symbol of womanhood and femininity, to disappointment, the speaker suggests disappointment is a staple in coming-of-age for young Black girls. These instructions and the speaker’s comparison are literal manifestations of the earlier musings on intergenerational trauma and frame the “Daddy Lessons” narrative as a piece of artwork exploring the influences of parenting and parental conflict on Black girlhood. 

However, the poem’s next lines specify the goal of “Daddy Lessons”, as they establish male influence as the root of cyclical trauma for Black girls. The speaker now addresses their mother, stating:  

Mother dearest, 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 head? (17-23) 

In these lines, the speaker seeks to avenge her mother for the harm she suffered by an unnamed “he”. Phrases like “a slave to the back of his head” and “get on your knees daily” depict a relationship fraught with physical and emotional abuse. The speaker’s use of repetitive questioning and emphasis on the word “he” places male influence at the center of the “Daddy Lessons” narrative. The speaker’s insistence on questioning their mother about an unnamed, abusive “he”, contrasted with earlier comments on inherited “disappointment” addressed to a child, suggests negative male influence to be a crucial factor in cycles of intergenerational trauma for Black girls.  

The final line of Shire’s poem is arguably the most significant to “Daddy Lessons,” as it acts as a thesis for the rest of Knowles’s musical and visual elements. The speaker asks directly: “Am I talking about your husband or your father?” (24). The generic “he” in earlier lines is tethered to the domestic space. By drawing parallels between fathers and husbands, the speaker establishes that the abuse is intergenerational.  This comparison also suggests the early stages at which these patterns can begin. For example, many Black girls in troubled family dynamics become exposed to intergenerational trauma in their early years, as the abuse they witness their mothers face at the hands of their fathers begins to be turned upon them (Johnson 890). In her essay “Black Girlhood Interrupted,” Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom suggests this transfer of abuse to be far from coincidental, as “if one is ‘ready’ for what a man wants from her, then by merely existing she has consented to his treatment of her. Puberty becomes permission” (Cottom 129). Cottom’s claims complement Shire’s blurred distinction between father and husband, as her argument reinforces the notion that Black girls have little agency in their participation of cycles of trauma. To flawed male figures, a girl or woman’s existence is “permission” to abuse them. Ultimately, Shire’s poem lays a foundation for Knowles’s “Daddy Lessons” narrative by suggesting paternal influence to be a deciding factor in the persistence of Black girls’ cyclical trauma.  

The musical aspect of “Daddy Lessons” supports Shire’s thesis and expands on it, using lyrical dramatizations to convey fathers as imperative to both shaping Black girls’ ideas of femininity and reinforcing cyclical trauma. Knowles’s speaker begins by introducing her “Daddy” figure through strategic details, such as juxtaposing her status as “daddy’s little girl” with the subtle suggestion of substance abuse in the line, “Daddy liked his whisky with his tea” (Knowles lines 1, 4). By emphasizing her closeness to her father and her father’s plausibly unhealthy relationship with alcohol, the speaker sets up a potentially flawed paternal dynamic— one with the capacity to illustrate the impacts of fatherhood on gendered expressions and trauma for Black girls.   

Knowles’s speaker discusses her Daddy’s “lessons,” which identify the skewed expressions of Black femininity resulting from a flawed paternal dynamic, especially in relation to strength and emotional suppression. According to the speaker, Daddy “made a soldier out of her” because a “tough girl” is what she “had to be” (lines 2, 7). Through an emphasis on the strength which she “had” to take on at a young age, the speaker draws connections between her Daddy’s expectations and her current identity as a “soldier”: someone who must remain stoic in the face of unbearable hardship. These ideas are not unique to Knowles’s lyrics. In fact, research by Maria S. Johnson concludes that “discourses of strength and respectability dominate the socialization process of Black women and girls.” Johnson’s research on Black girlhood posits that regardless of the quality of fatherhood, ideologies of strength dominate the socialization of Black girls in two ways: “one that positions fathers as supporting daughters’ strength-based efforts and another that positions fathers as negatively propelling those efforts” (Johnson 889). Johnson’s findings provide cultural context to Knowles’s speaker’s claims about “Daddy,” suggesting the expectations and ideals enforced on Black girls by their fathers to significantly influence their understanding of socialization, and thus the ways in which their femininity manifests. 

As well, later in the lyrics, the speaker’s reverence towards her father, despite her doubts, is emphasized through illustrations of Daddy’s advice regarding fighting. This relationship between Daddy’s crushing expectations and the speaker’s “adultification” is demonstrated in lines such as: “Daddy made me fight / It wasn’t always right” and “With his gun, with his head held high / He told me not to cry / Oh, my daddy said shoot” (Knowles lines 11-12, 21-23). Although the speaker recognizes her father’s behaviour “wasn’t always right,” her ideas of what Black femininity looks like are significantly impacted by her Daddy’s commands. For example, Daddy telling the speaker “not to cry” encourages a view of Black femininity defined by suffering in silence, regardless of the consequences. Additionally, Daddy’s agency in these sentences, seen through “his gun,” “his head,” him telling the speaker “not to cry,” and him making her “fight,” further solidify the notion that it is primarily the active role of fathering in the lives of Black girls which contributes to the development of expressions of Black femininity such as the speaker’s suppression of emotions under the guise of ‘strength’. According to a Georgetown Law study titled Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood, these flawed expectations reinforce “dominant discourses that frame Black girls as less feminine than all other girls” and ultimately result in “disproportionate exclusionary and disciplinary outcomes” later in life (6). This knowledge complicates Knowles’s speaker’s seemingly amiable discussions of her father’s transmission of ideals. Instead of harmless advice, the speaker’s discussions of her father’s expectations suggest the urgent and long-term consequences of paternal-led socialization on the well-being of Black girls later in life. 

The situational irony present in the advice which Daddy gives the speaker regarding other men suggests a crucial link between ‘fatherly’ expectations and cyclical trauma for Black girls. The speaker recalls her Daddy saying, “When trouble comes to town / And men like me come around. . .shoot” (Knowles lines 19-20).  In these lines, Daddy acknowledges his negative domestic qualities and warns his daughter, the speaker, to stay away from men like him. However, only moments after this chorus repeats for the second time, the speaker states: “My daddy warned me about men like you / He said baby girl he’s playing you / He’s playing you” (39-40). Despite her Daddy’s self-aware warning to avoid men like him, and her recognition that her father “wasn’t always right”, the speaker now addresses a new man who likely shares many of the same unhealthy qualities as her father. These lines parallel Shire’s speaker’s earlier remark blurring the lines between father and husband, as the text reveals a traumatic pattern in the speaker’s male relationships.  

By describing herself to be in a harmful relationship that mimics the one she had with her father and is likely similar to the one her mother had with her father, the speaker establishes a connection between her father’s teachings of stoicism and her repetition of the traumatic relationship experiences her parents hoped she would avoid. bell hooks comments generally on the influence of parental relationships on young Black girls in “Justice: Childhood Love Lessons,” stating, “Whether our homes are happy or troubled, our families functional or dysfunctional, it’s the original school of love” (bell hooks 17). While bell hooks’s claim ties to the broader themes of Knowles’s work, I argue that “Daddy Lessons” presents a vision of fatherly influence beyond love lessons. Instead, it is the very ways Black girls are taught by their fathers to express their femininity that subconsciously influence their relationship trajectories. This notion is exemplified in Johnson’s study: “some fathers’ presence provides continuous opportunities to reinforce damaging messages that subvert daughters’ sense of self” resulting in low standards for dating or seeking a “substitute father figure” (900). These statistics ground Knowles’s speaker’s insistence that despite her father’s warnings, his influential presence in her formative years has led her to pursue similarly troubled men. Knowles’s lyrics reinforce the claim that, regardless of ‘lessons,’ harmful expressions of Black femininity developed through fatherly influence inevitably perpetuate cycles of gendered trauma for Black girls.  

The visual aspects of “Daddy Lessons” complement both Shire’s and Knowles’s lyrics by juxtaposing footage to portray fatherhood as a determining factor in reinforcing or ending cycles of intergenerational trauma for Black girls. There are two visions of fatherhood portrayed within the short film: present and absent. Although these categories are the oversimplified extremes of a complex domestic dynamic, the contrast between these positive and negative dramatizations suggests the crucial nature of positive fathering to fostering healthy expressions of femininity in young Black girls. The most personal use of juxtaposition within the “Daddy Lessons” film is seen through footage from Knowles’s home videos that contrast generations to suggest the persistence of generational male influence on Black girls and women. First, a young Knowles, likely seven or eight years old, is shown on screen with her father. The two are seated on a couch and engaging in conversation about Knowles’s grandparents. This shot is contrasted immediately thereafter with footage of Knowles’s father with her daughter, his granddaughter. This vision of Knowles’s daughter forming a relationship with her grandfather, paired with Knowles’s speaker’s and Shire’s discussions of intergenerational trauma, suggests that all Black girls, Knowles and her daughter included, are vulnerable to the influence of male figures in their formative years. Conversely, Knowles’s juxtaposition suggests that Black girls can develop skewed ideas of feminine expression through these male figures and therefore can be subject to cycles of gendered trauma. In a personal essay for Vogue Magazine, Knowles commented on this use of imagery stating, “I come from a lineage of broken male-female relationships, abuse of power, and mistrust. Only when I saw that clearly was I able to resolve those conflicts in my own relationship” (“Ancestry”). These words paired with images of Knowles’s father and daughter identify the optimistic consequence of the work’s thesis. While Shire’s poetry and Knowles’s lyrics and visual imagery suggest the potential of fatherhood in perpetuating cycles of trauma for Black girls, Knowles’s daughter symbolizes an alternate hopeful outcome: a vision of Black girlhood with positive male intervention. 

Knowles’s strategic selections of lyrics and film in the “Daddy Lessons” narrative seek to identify a pattern within the lives of Black girls: one of intergenerational trauma with fatherhood as its imperative factor. Musical lyrics, poetic verse, and home video footage work together to slowly develop this message, culminating in what is aptly described by Zeffie Gaines as “singing a Black girl’s song” (99). Warsan Shire’s epitaph “Accountability” primes Knowles’s work as her speaker uses shifts in perspective and emphasizes generational parallels, laying the foundation for discussions of trauma as both maternally inherited and paternally inflicted. Drawing on these themes, Knowles’s lyrics are the work’s thesis. Her speaker draws on memory, using the framework of ‘lessons’ and situational irony to suggest her Daddy’s influence to be the causal link in both her troubled demonstrations of Black femininity and the subsequent poor quality of men she associates herself with in the future. These revelations solidify fatherhood as a key authority in shaping Black girls’ expectations for themselves and subsequently enabling or preventing them from participating in cycles of intergenerational domestic trauma. Lastly, the visual film of “Daddy Lessons” reinforces Knowles’s thesis of fatherly influence through establishing visual parallels which echo the work’s narrative elements. The film explores polarizing differences in paternal dynamics: absent versus active and past versus present, using these contrasts to mimic Knowles’s and Shire’s speakers’ discussions of the drastic consequences of negative paternal influence. Raw footage of her childhood interactions with her father juxtaposed with footage of her daughter interacting with him conclude the narrative by emphasizing the persistence of paternally inflicted intergenerational trauma. These scenes suggest even Knowles’s family, despite their status, is vulnerable to these domestic cycles of trauma. While this conclusion seems less than optimistic, “Daddy Lessons” signifies a call to action in Lemonade, or more specifically a desire to ensure that Black girls are met with the positive paternal interventions necessary to break these cycles of trauma. Knowles’s artistic creation does not glorify this trauma or portray the situation for Black girls as hopeless. Instead, “Daddy Lessons” challenges a shift in the dominant narrative: one which moves away from criticizing Black girls and instead places the onus on fathers and their responsibility to challenge harmful expectations of Black femininity in their daughters’ formative years. 

 

 

Works Cited 

bell hooks. “Justice: Childhood Love Lessons.” all about love: new visions, HarperCollins, 2000. 

Cottom, Tressie McMillan. “Black Girlhood, Interrupted.” Thick and Other Essays, New Press, 2019.  

Epstein, Rebecca, et al. “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood.” Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, 2017. 

Gaines, Zeffie. “A Black Girl’s Song: Misogynoir, Love, and Beyoncé’s Lemonade.” Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education, vol. 16, no. 2, 2017. 

Johnson, Maria S. “Strength and Respectability: Black Women’s Negotiation of Racialized Gender Ideals and the Role of Daughter–Father Relationships.” Gender & Society, vol. 27, no. 6, Dec. 2013, pp. 889–912, doi:10.1177/0891243213494263. 

Knowles, Beyoncé. “Ancestry.” Vogue Magazine, 2018. 

Shire, Warsan. “Accountability.” Lemonade, 2016.