Beyoncé’s new visual album, Black Is King, centers on the Lion King–esque journey of a young Black boy finding his way back home—and through that, back to himself. The film, which premiered Friday on Disney+, describes itself as “a story for the ages that informs and rebuilds the present” through “a reunion of cultures and shared generational beliefs.” In doing so, the film reimagines a decades-old family favorite through a celebratory and specific lens of Blackness.
Black Is King is gorgeously shot; as the leading creative on the film, Beyoncé has implemented lush colors and costumes in addition to phenomenal choreography as part of her vision. The film’s narrative itself, though, feels scattered at times. Black Is King opens with Beyoncé setting a woven basket, with a baby inside, into a river. It’s unclear if that baby’s story intersects with the more streamlined trajectory of Simba and the various characters of the Lion King. There are also several music video asides, like “Mood 4 Eva,” featuring Bey and Jay-Z living an incredibly privileged life. On first watch, it’s hard to follow along with the characters and keep track of who’s who, and whose journey we’re ultimately tracing.
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But the film’s consistent and unmistakable through-line is one of ancestral guidance. “Our ancestors hold us from within our own bodies, guiding us through our reflections,” Bey says 21 minutes into the film, speaking through the pen of poet Warsan Shire. This line, a thematic moment of foreshadowing for Beyoncé’s macro focus of the visual album, immediately struck me, as I’ve never been one to seek a relationship with my ancestors. I was never taught to reach out to them, to pray to them, or build altars preserving their memories. But over the last few years, I’ve felt an intense tug toward understanding my lineage, most vividly through dreams involving family members, both living and deceased, familiar and unfamiliar. The overarching imagery for Black Is King is similarly ethereal, sumptuous, and dreamlike, beyond what could ever be possible in reality.
As I wrote for NPR in 2018, Bey has been leaning into her Blackness more and more over the years. Like her younger sister Solange did with her 2016 album A Seat at the Table, Beyoncé is using Black Is King to access a deeper sense of home. Where Solange went to New Iberia, Louisiana—the hometown of her maternal grandparents—as a means of establishing her roots, Beyoncé is working bigger and more broadly, by speaking to the greater continent of Africa. It’s ambitious, to say the least.
While watching Black Is King, I thought about how Bey and I are both novices in seeking a connection to the ancestors whose lives directly contributed to our own. The only difference is that I’m writing in my journals and she’s speaking to the world through an expensive production. Despite the difference in medium, we both imagine fantastical tales about what our family histories could have been.
As someone who lives with bipolar disorder, type one, I’ve been hospitalized numerous times for manic episodes. So has my grandmother, Bettie. During my second hospitalization, in October 2017, I called her to ask prying questions about our family. In the margins of a notebook I was given by hospital staff, I wrote the name of my great-great-grandmother: Johnnie Mae McKnight. I never knew her, or even saw a picture of her. But at the height of my mania, I felt a strong desire to form a bond with my predecessors.
While writing this piece, I attempted to look up information about my great-great-grandmother through various family history websites. On one site, I found her. But in two instances, her name was misspelled; once as Johny, and again, as Johnie. The preservation of my family’s lives is haphazard at best.
The simple fact is that as Black people, we often don’t know our history as well as we could for reasons outside of our control. According to the Washington Post, a “brick wall” exists, preventing Black people from tracing their ancestral roots before 1870, when the federal census began recording African descendants. “Despite incredible strides, genealogical research falls short in connecting American descendants of slavery with the African communities from which their ancestors were taken,” writes Nicole Ellis.
One year ago this month, the New York Times and Nikole Hannah-Jones released The 1619 Project. The drop date marked the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. The ongoing initiative centers Black people in this country’s history by acknowledging their contributions, in spite of and because of the consequences of slavery. As Clint Smith, a contributor to the series, wrote in a poem, “I slide my ring finger from Senegal to South Carolina & feel the ocean separate a million families.” I’ve come to accept that even with an ancestry test, I wouldn’t be able to retrieve the detailed experiences of my family—a family that fought through generations of terror and built a network of Black love. But through dreams, I have been finding ways to feel close with my ancestors.
My mother, Teena, became an ancestor in 2009, after she passed away from a heart attack at age 47; I was 19. She often meets me in my dreams immediately before a life-changing event. I dreamt about her before I had my first bipolar manic episode, and I dreamt about her again before my most recent episode, which triggered a move back home to Texas from New York City. In both instances, she looked solemn but determined to help her daughter transition into her next life phase in any way she could.
These dreams have also involved a concerted effort to reconnect with more far-removed and unknown ancestors. In June—right when the pandemic and global uprisings crossed paths, and the effects of rampant inequality became even more visible—I dreamt that an older Black gentleman approached me. “Do you see what’s happening here?” he asked. I nodded. I had a notepad with me, and wrote three words. Then I retraced them, and retraced them, making the letters bolder, more stark. When I woke up, the words were there in my memory, imprinted on my brain: “Poverty is violent.”
It felt like a direct message from family members of the distant past, who were—and likely still are—sick and tired of the same cycles being repeated in our bloodline. Sick and tired of a growing disconnect between themselves and their descendants, those of the present and those to come. This recalls a line spoken by an unidentified man in Black Is King: “People don’t remember who they were, what they were, what they were taken from … why people tried so hard to make us forget.”
And then last week, I had a dream that my brother was burning things ceremonially, out in the deep Texas country. He was reprimanded by the land owners, who claimed it was wicked and unholy desecration; my brother argued that it was a sacred moment of consecration. Before waking up, I wrote a complete sentence on the ground: “My family has always practiced prayer and incantation.”
This dream gave me pause. For several weeks, I’ve been racing against the clock and the calendar, trying to get things done in a timely fashion, even amid a pandemic and civil unrest. I’ve been deliberately avoiding prayer and time spent alone with myself and my thoughts. This dream feels like a nudge back toward my more mindful self, as well as a step forward in establishing an intentional relationship with my familial past. This idea manifests itself in one scene of the film, where a young Simba is prepared for his entry into kinghood through a traditional ritual. “History is your future,” Beyoncé states. “One day, you will meet yourself back where you started, but stronger.”
As the film transitions into the lavish visual interpretation of Beyoncé, Blue Ivy, SAINt JHN, and Wizkid’s “Brown Skin Girl,” a young Black girl is shown playing a classic childhood clapping game with an elder. It felt like a long-held tradition being passed from hand to hand. When I saw this, and the following images of Black women loving up on themselves and their sisters, I began to cry, in gratitude. It made me wish we had similar representation when I was younger. Beyond that, it made me wish I had been able to meet and build lasting relationships with the men and women in my lineage who survived and thrived as long as they could, so that I could be here, writing this.