Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The squad-deep, front-porch perching exhibited in Beyonce’s Lemonade video is the kind of thing that can get you evicted in certain corners of New Orleans.
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?
I can’t shake this scene from my head.
Vulture calls it Lemonade’s “signature shot.” The multi-colored apparel worn by Beyonce’s porch-mates channel Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who’ve considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and even the 1980s TV series The Women of Brewster Place and 227. The porch-front portrait is the moment in Lemonade where Beyonce finds her chill after storming through much of the video bashing car windows in proper Pipilotti Rist-cum-Jazmine Sullivan form, giving middle fingers to her tormentors, and belting out freedom hymns before the mothers of black boys slain by police.
Despite its cathartic function, 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. For confirmation, one need only look at the case of the Sistahs on the Reading Edge, a group of black women in a book club who were evicted from a train last year simply for enjoying themselves too much. That same kind of frolicking could also get black women evicted from their homes in some parts of New Orleans, the locus for much of Beyonce’s visual material lately.
The mixed-income apartments and townhouses that replaced public housing projects opened after Katrina with rules about who could occupy the new units and what activities they could and couldn’t conduct. Much to the chagrin of many returning residents, some of their long-cherished activities were no longer allowed. In some of the new housing developments, there are restrictions on the number of people who can gather on the front porches and lawns
When former Times-Picayune reporter Katy Reckdahl wrote about one of the new housing developments in 2011, she talked to Gloria Williams and Bobbie Jennings, twin sisters who once lived close to each other in the C. J. Peete housing projects before Katrina. The sisters moved into the Harmony Oaks mixed-income development that replaced C. J. Peete after the storm, but they were placed in units far apart from each other. As Reckdahl reported (emphasis mine):
[T]he sisters are torn: They like the sleek clubhouse, but they dislike the ways that their lives have changed.
For instance, they said, at Harmony Oaks, residents can't use outside water to fill a kiddie pool or let their grandchildren run through the sprinkler. Nor can they dig up their backyards to plant gardens, a source of frustration for the sisters, who grew up helping their mother pick crates of strawberries and hampers of beans.
But, on Saturday, just as Jennings worked up a head of steam about other nettlesome rules, including one that limits how many people can sit on a porch and when they can do it, a granddaughter toddled up to her, removed a pink pacifier and puckered her lips for a smooch.
Jennings laughed and kissed the little girl. At moments like these, she said, this place starts to feel like home.
I spoke with those sisters a year later for a housing report and they registered the same complaint about not being allowed to have company on their front porch. When CityLab contacted them this week, a spokesperson for McCormack Baron Salazar, the Harmony Oaks developer, said such porch restrictions were never policy. However, the developer did propose them in the early building stages, suggesting that tenants should instead sit on their back porches. But that policy was quickly rejected by the tenants.
“If I’m paying rent, whether I’m getting a subsidy from the government or paying market rent, you’re not going to tell me I can’t sit on my porch,” the residents’ council leader Jocquelyn Marshall told Reckdahl for a Shelterforce report on Harmony Oaks.
That policy may have been rejected at that location, but the same can’t be said for other new housing developments in New Orleans. A property manager for Abundance Square apartments, which replaced the Desire public housing projects, tells Citylab that she doesn’t allow more than three people at a time “hanging out” on a front porch. More than that would be considered loitering, said the property manager, who would only identify her name as “Ms. Davis.” She says she has personally broken up groups on front porches, and that violating the policy would lead to the tenant earning an “infraction” on their file. More than two infractions would be cause for eviction, says the property manager.
“When you see a whole bunch of teens on the porch, you worry about if they’re trying to break into the house,” says Davis. “Those are complaints coming from our tenants—they see it, and they have a problem with it.”
Limiting the number of people who can dwell on the front porch, or relegating visitors to the back porch seems counterintuitive, though, if the idea is crime control. It seems you would want more people on their front porches, putting the proverbial “eyes on the streets” Jane Jacobs spoke of. But these kinds of porch restrictions are less about controlling crime than they are about controlling the movement, the activities, and the visibility of black bodies.
Black assemblies have been considered threatening to authorities and landowners since the days of slavery, when a congregation of slaves stoked fears of revolts or escapes. Hence, the enslaved black laborers were forbidden from gathering in groups except for religious purposes—and even in those circumstances, they were closely supervised. Somehow these assembly bans made it into modern-day housing policy, despite constitutional rights around freedom of assembly.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld similar restrictions in the 2004 Virginia v. Hicks case, which prohibited certain people from entering public housing properties in Richmond, Virginia, even when visiting family and loved ones. The plaintiff in the case, Kevin Hicks, was delivering diapers to his child’s mother when he was arrested for violating this policy. Here’s what the National Housing Law Project wrote of the decision:
The chilling effect that such policies have on visitors, family members and guests may be significant, not to mention the adverse effect such policies have on residents’ right to invite guests and loved ones into their homes. Many may be deterred from visiting friends in public housing based on anticipated harassment—especially individuals who are undocumented, under sixteen years of age or do not have adequate identification.
Again, the Richmond public housing policy was set as a supposed crime deterrent. However, to paraphrase Cee-Lo, you can’t help but wonder if such rules were created to keep crime out, or to keep black people trapped in place.
Congregating on the front porch or stoop of folks’ homes is an inveterate cultural element of black communities across America, especially in the South. For New Orleans, one need look no further than the early music videos of No Limit and Cash Money Records artists to see how much of a cultural staple front porch convening is—or was—to the urban fabric.
The front porch has also served as common ground for black women in New Orleans who’ve used it as a safe space for talking, dancing, doing hair, and otherwise being themselves. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research noted in a report last year how black women were uniquely displaced, uprooted, dislodged, and mistreated by both Katrina and the policies that came after the storm. One of the primary findings in the report was that black women found the new post-Katrina housing landscape too insecure for their families. Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of otherwise benign activities that can get women evicted from public housing—even reporting domestic abuse or sexual assault.
So, to see a group of black women on a porch, at ease and in their own element—like Beyonce’s squad in Lemonade—you sense a signal of solidarity. That these women have each other’s backs. There’s an implicit acknowledgement in these gatherings that once they leave the porch, they risk becoming subjected to the gross gawking and hawking from men that’s typical in many urban spaces. A lot of that harassment too often comes from the people who are supposed to serve and protect: police. These authorities have been complicit in stopping, frisking, beating, evicting, raping, and even killing women under the most questionable circumstances and getting away with it.
Which is why while having eyes on the streets to deter crime sounds good in theory, it has to be acknowledged that all eyes aren’t alike. People can be looking at the same thing, yet see something completely different. One person sees a brass band on a corner providing an uplifting soundtrack, while another only sees noise and disturbance; one person sees a train filled with laughing black women and views it as festive, while another may see it as a lack of behavior control; one sees a porch filled with black women and views it as freedom, while another may only see menace. Zendaya’s cornrows, or Beyonce’s camouflage military pants in the Lemonade porch scene might signal thug activity for some. The gaze matters.
That’s what makes Beyonce’s porch-front portrait scene so riveting, despite its lack of animation. Beyonce’s girls seem to be projecting their own empowered gaze back at the audience. They sit still, collected, adjusted, exhibiting nothing in their body language that might seem threatening to prying eyes. It’s only when you focus on their faces, as the camera zooms towards them, that you get the message that they’re actually not sitting here for anyone’s entertainment.
This is their safe space, on the front porch of a former plantation, deep in the bayous of Louisiana. The non-urban setting begs the question of whether the city is equipped to allow black women this kind of safety and freedom.
It’s also one of the least catty, least natty scenes, fashion-wise, in Lemonade, and that’s probably by design. This is Beyonce’s pose when the male gaze, the white gaze, and the pop gaze don’t matter. Which is why this, the calmest of Lemonade’s scenes, is also one of its most brazen and defiant. It’s a radical gesture that says this porch is for Beyonce and her girls and nobody is going to evict them from it.