Why Beyonce and her ‘Lemonade’ are Unbelievably Unreal

[Feature Image via Facebook.com/beyonce]

by Neerali Patel

“She isn’t real,” one of my friends said to me after watching “Lemonade.”

The words and the idea have been a defining, consistent and consensual reaction to Beyoncé’s existence for as long as I can remember. Whether it’s her die-hard fans who put her on a pedestal that seems outside of this Earth’s gravitational field or her harshest critics who think that she and her success are a product of our capitalist, materialistic, celebrity-worshipping culture. There is an air of incredulousness, ranging from ethereal to not real at all, that surrounds Beyoncé. And it makes us all look.

With “Lemonade,” the visual album that released on HBO on April 23, 2016, Beyoncé continues her tradition of inspiring disbelief among the millions who watch and wonder. And yet, this time, it is for very different reasons.

“Lemonade” shows sides of Beyoncé that we rarely get to see and in ways that we’ve never seen—broken, heartbroken, suicidal, doubtful, apathetic, vengeful, angry, aggressive, vulgar and at times, crazy and jealous. Some of these descriptions are more fitting for the likes of Azealia Banks, who, in my opinion, has served as the pop cultural foil to Beyoncé. Banks is known for her harsh, polarizing tirades on topics such as cultural appropriation while Beyoncé is known to stay far away from divisive, heavy subjects. Hell, Beyoncé is known for not saying anything at all.She goes through stretches of years of giving no public interviews. Her edges usually only come out in her music, and in the form of her alter ego Sasha Fierce.

But her silence has come at a cost.

In recent years, the Carters have been slammed by the African American community for their eerie silence and indifference on racial injustice in our country. And I agreed with this criticism. I had accepted that their almost unprecedented wealth and fame had put them out of touch with the experiences of most black people.

One of the groups of people on the front lines of racial injustice that are rarely at the forefront of our collective national concern are black women. The women who are losing their sons to police brutality, who are at effect to police brutality themselves. Who are objectified and overly sexualized in pop culture and media. Who are, as Beyoncé quotes Malcolm X in “Lemonade:”

“The most disrespected [people] in America…The most unprotected [people] in America…The most neglected [people] in America…”

When we look to the pioneering black women in our country who have center stage: There’s Oprah, Michelle Obama, and Beyoncé, to name a few. Each of these public figures reminds us, either directly or indirectly, that you can have immense success, respect and fame in America despite being born into your adverse or average circumstances—in this case, being born a black woman in America.

You can have a voiceif you earn the right platform.

But what does it take to get that platform? At least, what did it take during Beyoncé’s formative years? Could she really have stayed completely true and exclusive to her Southern roots and black heritage and gained the  mass-appeal that she has today? Could she have been as raw and unfiltered as Azealia Banks to achieve the status she has today?

I’d argue no.

She had to distance herself from certain narratives. Malcolm Gladwell said in a speech at the 2013 New Yorker Festival on the topic of “Tokens, Pariahs and Pioneers”:

“If you’re an outsider and you’re accepted, in part, by the majority, your identity has to change and that’s a complex process. That certain parts of your identity may have been tied up in being excluded. What’s interesting, for example, is if you talk to older African Americans who remember segregation…even though they are 100% happy that the days of segregation are over, they will also tell you that there were aspects of being excluded that were positive. There was a sense of community, a sense of coherence…When we’re gaining something large, we’re sometimes losing something specific.”

So, what exactly has Beyoncé been known to embrace at the expense of other black women? What has distanced her? What is the something specific that has been lost in her being a black woman as an extension of a larger group?

I think that on a subconscious level her fame and success have reinforced the “despite it all” narrative. When Oprah, for example, reminds us that she was able to achieve such success despite being born “a [poor] colored girl in the backwoods of Mississippi,” one of the implicit messages communicated to us is that if she was able to succeed despite such overwhelming adversity—and by such a large margin at that—what is the excuse for everyone else? Do they lack work ethic? Values? Are they just bitter and angry?

Beyoncé’s role has had a similar effect. If Beyoncé can have it all—an iconic career, half a billion dollars, a beautiful marriage, an even more beautiful child and a perfect post-baby body, what is stopping you? Why are other black women and women of color so far from this ideal?

Linked to this is the second point I want to make, which centers around the phenomenon of more direct and deliberate social distancing. In his speech, “Token, Pariahs, and Pioneers,” Malcolm Gladwell  explains, “Sometimes when the door opens, it opens for everybody else. Sometimes when the door opens, it gets shut.”

Let me explain.

Beyoncé has been an exception to detrimental narratives and stereotypes of black women in our country. And I’m not sure it has been wholly coincidental.

Gladwell says:

“One of the things that you see with tokens is that their status is so precarious that in order to maintain it, they feel compelled to adapt to the values of the majority group. So you get the phenomenon of “acting white” if you’re one of the first black people through the door. Or women who feel compelled to masculinize their behavior when they enter all male professions…that actually plays into the dynamics that I’m talking about because it’s another way not only for you not to be seen for who you are, you can’t be who you are. You’re forced to kind of take on another role. And of course the person playing…the majority then, after forcing you to act like them, will judge you even more harshly because you’re not gonna be as good as being them.”

Specifically, Beyoncé has been the antithesis of the detrimental “angry black woman” narrative. Beyoncé is always smiling. She has climbed up by being pleasant, kind, working harder than anyone we know. In “Lemonade,” she even says in reference to her husband being distant that she:

“…tried to change. Close [her] mouth more. Tried to be softer. Prettier. Less awake.”

I believe this is also a metaphor in the context of a politically charged album—being less ‘woke’ to the racial distress that plagues our country. The extent to which she has done this because it’s inherent to her nature versus how much she had to force these qualities to be accepted by the larger group is something worth considering.

Why? Because with “Lemonade,” as she reaches yet another peak in her career, Beyoncé shows us that much of who she is and how she feels is, in fact, angry and frustrated. Maybe the qualities that constitute what it means to be a respectable black woman—one that is cooperative, agreeable, all too kind all too often are criterion set by the majority—the non-black majority. It may be easier for white folks to do these things and to seek out the self-help section of Barnes and Noble during difficult times because they just don’t have the same fire burning in them—and burning them.

More than simply expressing her anger, Beyoncé actually embraces the detrimental Angry Black Woman narrative. Beyoncé is no longer saying that your relationship with your man will be okay if you just put on your Freakum Dress and heels. That even civility in leaving someone who has mistreated you isn’t required.

In her song “Don’t Hurt Yourself” she says:

“Who the fuck do you think I am? You ain’t married to no average bitch boy, you can watch my fat ass twist boy, as I bounce to the next dick boy. And keep your money, I got my own…Motivate your ass…Call me Malcolm X…Fuck you hater.”

In “Hold Up”, Beyoncé is the same fierce high-heel and dress wearing diva we know and love, but she’s also busting through car windows with a bat…that says “hot sauce” on it. Other parts of the film show her in cornrows and Yoruba paint and defiantly sitting on porch steps with her sisterhood.

Up until now, we thought Beyoncé had everything. And she might. But in “Lemonade,” she so intensely shows us the anger and darkness that define her; that maybe she doesn’t exist in some immortal stratosphere of existence. Maybe she is just one of us, at least in her pain, in her feelings of brokenness. Despite having attained all the measures of success, she still feels her man and her country aren’t treating her right and that she deserves more, but not more in the way of material things as her song “6 Inch” reveals:

“She works for the money from the start to the finish..Stacking money money everywhere she goes…She grinds day and night…[but]…She’s too smart to crave material things.”

She’s not working for material success, but something else—something more. When will she get it? Why hasn’t she gotten it yet?

In her particularly politically charged song “Formation” (in which she sits atop a drowning cop car), she says:

“Earned all this money but they never take the country off me.”

This line, in the context of the song, reinforces my belief about Beyoncé’s previously more aggressive business-like, mass-appeal approach to her craft than a free-spirited, wholly artistic one in the way we might recognize in her little sister Solange. She’s worked incredibly hard to arrive at where she is. She and Jay-Z have a combined net worth of one billion dollars and yet, she can’t seem to escape being scrutinized through a racial lens. She can earn a billion more dollars, but she will always be defined in the context in which she lives and exists—which is not as much of a post-racial America as it is the “New Jim Crow.” She will always be understood in the context of her black female body.

Some have even gone to say that Beyoncé breaking from her previous demeanor so suddenly is so shock inducing that it might just be a master marketing ploy. That there was never any trouble in her marriage. Again, her emotions are pinned as inauthentic. But for the fans who believe her hurt and brokenness (regardless of whether or not Jay-Z actually cheated) and for those who, at the least, appreciate “Lemonade” as a standalone piece of work, the disbelief comes from Beyoncé’s willingness to embrace “all too real” emotions and narratives—ones that have been tossed under the rug. Beyoncé seems to embrace the Angry Black Woman narrative not only because she is angry, but because she thinks she and other black women have real reasons to be angry.

What I took from “Lemonade,” is that Beyoncé is a hell of a lot stronger than I thought and it’s because she embraces her vulnerabilities. We are stronger and more whole when we acknowledge the darker parts of our existences than in simply wishing them away.

headshot_browngirlmagNeerali Patel is an Indian-American, DC-based writer and poet who writes about subjects ranging from social justice in the form of consumerism to what it means to be an immigrant in this country. You can follow her on Twitter @neeconomics.

By Brown Girl Magazine

Brown Girl Magazine was created by and for South Asian womxn who believe in the power of storytelling as a … Read more ›

Moving on After Breaking up With Your Cat

“Take what you want//Take everything” reflects on a time with my partner and our cat, Layla. It’s a retelling of the chaotic night I adopted her. I didn’t know why Layla hid from me. When I chased her around, it scared her more. “Take what you want//Take everything” juxtaposes our first night, filled with misunderstanding, with the rest of the time we spent together. My fond memories call back to the loving moments Layla and I shared.

Such memories defined us; they reverberated in my partnership. I wonder if my partner, like Layla, only remembers her fear of me, over our shared moments of love. The title, a Kanye West lyric, is an acknowledgment that their happiness together–without me–destroyed my sense of self. When I see their photos, I wonder if I can see myself reflected in their eyes. I wonder if they still keep kind moments of our time together.

[Read Related: Artivist Poem Essay-Studmavati]

Take what you want//Take everything

I remember when she would look at me from behind a laundry basket.

A small simple cat with green owl eyes. She was afraid of her new home and its owner. Shit, I remember the night I got her, she hid under my bed, in the middle just out of my reach for maybe 6 hours, watching me. She didn’t eat anything the entire day. When the night fell I was afraid she’d starve or come out and attack me. I was just scared. I didn’t have a childhood pet, I’m not white, I didn’t know what to do. I picked up the whole bed and yelled that she needed to move. I chased her into the closet with a vacuum cleaner. When she ran in, I called my lover and yelled to her that she wasn’t helping enough, she needed to be there to help me. That was our first day together, me and that cat. No one will ever have that memory but me and maybe her.

It was during Ramadan, my first year fasting.

Our problems had already begun by then. Enough so that I decided to fast and show retribution. I’d try to change into a more patient and understanding self. Like the Prophet (SAW) I guess. To become someone that my lover could feel safe around. Somehow, getting a cat felt like it fit into that picture. I’d be a cat dad, you know, gentle. We’d raise her. I’d fast and become New Again. Maybe I’d wrap an inked tasbih around myself and show I’m a man of God.

I don’t know how a cat remembers fear any more than I know how a lover does.

I know her body stored it. My cat’s must have stored it too. That first night, I wish I could tell her that I was afraid too. It doesn’t make sense that I was afraid really — I’m bigger, more threatening. We don’t speak the same language anyway, so how could I ever tell her? She learned to trust me though, in her own way. Her small bean paws would press on my chest in the mornings. She’d meow to berate me for locking her out some nights, or when I was away from home too long.

She lives with my lover now. They share photos with me, they’re happy together.

I saw my lover once, it was on 55th and 7th, Broadway shined blue performance lights over us. She wore a red sacral dress. She said her mental health has never been better. I think she was trying to tell me that she’s doing well, because she knows I care for her. I don’t think she was trying to say she’s happier without me. We don’t speak the same language. I actually think they are happier with just each other. And I loved them both, so it hurts. Sometimes, not all the time. And it doesn’t always hurt that bad. Other times it does get pretty bad, though. I probably owe it to myself to say that.

I look back at the photos, the ones of our life together, and the ones of their new life.

Two green owl eyes, and two brown moonlit eyes. I look for myself in them.

[Read Related: How Love Matures as you Grow]

By Umrao Shaan

Umrao Shaan is a short storyist, poet, and ghazals singer. You can find his songs on his Instagram. His other … Read more ›

‘A Man Sleeps in a Church:’ A Short Story by Sri Nimmagadda

Christian life crisis prayer to god. Woman Pray for god blessing to wishing have a better life. woman hands praying to god with the bible. begging for forgiveness and believe in goodness.

For BGM Literary, editor Nimarta Narang is honored to work with writer Sri Nimmagadda. In this short story, we follow a man in a gray suit who makes a stop at a church to bide his time before a job interview. Sri Nimmagadda is the Chief Program Officer at MannMukti, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing the stigma around mental health in the South Asian community through storytelling and advocacy. He lives in Los Angeles with his dog, Rani, and is passionate about authentically growing inclusion and diversity through storytelling in the entertainment industry. Editor Nimarta was extremely grateful to have Sri join the legacy of wonderful and moving authors for the literary vertical in honor of Mental Health and Awareness month. 

A man in a gray suit stands in front of a church and looks up and through the entryway with the resignation of a desiccated man taking a bitter medicine he’s absorbed for years but simply accepts as a fact of his life, however unpleasant. So, the man in the gray suit — a get-up slim but not so lean as to emit a cockish, metrosexual air, scraggly lint escaping the seams across the surface in a manner that supposes either venerability or somewhat tired desperation — thinks about what it means to take a bitter medicine, the trade-off between the instantaneous sour, bitter, wretched, and cloying and the promise of perhaps a better tomorrow, or a better tonight, or a better five-minutes-from-now. After some consideration, this man in a gray suit — an outfit that some would’ve supposed he’d purchased from Goodwill, the night before, for a painfully wrought $95.67 with tax after getting into an argument with his wife about who was going to take the kids to school in the morning and fucking Brenda skipping out on babysitting again — steps inside the church.

This man in a gray suit — armed with a briefcase, and the last and latest copy of his résumé that he’d worked on until 1:30 a.m. the night before after Max and Annabelle had long gone to sleep and his angry, exhausted wife laid restless, in their shared bed, thinking about whether she’d consult the number of the divorce lawyer she’d been recommended by one of her girlfriends in the morning before deciding she’d give her husband another shot just as she had the night before and the night before that and the night before that — paces towards the front of pews almost cautiously, as if someone were watching him, afraid to be caught in the act of being vulnerable and giving himself up to some higher power. Maybe if you go to church and the pastor or some other demure, God-fearing soul sees you, they’ll call you out — who are you? why are you here? — and you’ll realize that for as much ado as people make about the unconditionality of God’s love, they make claims to His love the way they’d claim a parking spot or a position in a queue at a grocery store. Faith, it appears to the man in the gray suit, is really about paying your dues.

So the man in a gray suit approaches the front-most pew — the communion table before him standing guard ahead of a cross. He lays his briefcase down. He sits at the pew. He closes his eyes. Please, he begs Him in his own mind. I need this.

But then this man in a gray suit considers his pathetic whimper to God, how he can’t even acknowledge God by his name, how he begs Please rather than Please God like a weak, unfaithful man who cannot bring himself to say his wife’s name when begging her for forgiveness after his own infidelity. What a mess, he thought of himself. So, he tries again.

Please, God. I need this.

The man in a gray suit considers this again and admonishes himself for his cowardice — when you pray in your head, words and phrases, and sentences and prayers, and pleas twine and intertwine and mix until the signal becomes the noise and you can’t really figure out whatever you’re trying to say. So, for a half-second, you think the only way to get it out of your head is to blow it up so that it all spills out and maybe then God will understand how you really feel — and so he tries again, and puts his prayers to air. The man in a gray suit is not used to coming to church. This is his first time coming in a couple of years. He’s going to need a couple of tries to get this thing down.

“I’m sorry,” the man in a gray suit exhales, “I’m just not used to praying.” But that’s okay. Prayer is a process, the man in a gray suit would find, and what begins feeling ridiculous, or like grasping for spiritual straws, ends up feeling akin to a dam giving way to water; unrestrained, unexploited. So the man in a gray suit — the man who’s come an hour and a half early to an interview because the early bird gets the worm, only to find himself with an hour and a half to kill and nowhere but a church to grace with his presence — prays, and he prays faithfully, and he prays well. He picks up the Bible on the shelf of the pew in front of him, flips it open to whatever page presented itself and begins to read. He closes his eyes, and at that moment he feels safe, like God’s hands envelop him, and that tomorrow will be a better day, and everything will be okay.


Somewhere along the line, this stupid fucker in a gray suit fell asleep in the middle of Galatians and missed his interview.

By Nimarta Narang

Born and raised in Bangkok, Thailand, Nimarta grew up devouring Hindi movies, coming-of-age novels and one too many psychology textbooks. … Read more ›

Fireside Chat With Debut Author Sophie Jai

sophie jai
sophie jai

 I grew up in a household of strong Trinidadian women. I wanted to write about strong Trinidadian women, the roles they play, their histories and their backgrounds. — Sophie Jai  

“Wild Fires” by Sophie Jai is a story about one Trinidadian family’s journey through grief, identity and memory. Jai’s debut novel takes readers on a journey of a past Trinidad and present-day Canada. 


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A post shared by Sophie Jai (@sophie.jai)

In conversation with Jai, we talk about Caribbean stories, the psychology of a house and what makes a family. The following answers have been abridged and edited for clarity and concision.

[Read Related: Author Kirtie Persaud on Representation for Indo Caribbean Girls, Motherhood and Balance ]

 What inspired you to write “Wild Fires?”

I first started writing it for submission to a competition with the Borough Press. I wasn’t sure what story I wanted to write because I felt obligated to write certain stories or write in a certain style. I pretty much got fed up and started questioning myself. When I put pen to paper and got serious, the story that came out was a story of grief not necessarily specific to my life. I knew I wanted it to be about a family going through grief for decades, and how grief can arrest and impact the family structure.

When you first started writing, which part of the story came out?

It was the very first chapter. The first three chapters of the book came naturally. What you read in the book is untouched from the first draft that I submitted. I knew it was about a family that was going through grief. I knew I wanted it to take place between Trinidad and Toronto because I was born and raised in Trinidad and lived in Toronto. I wanted that sort of cross-generational mixture of family in the book as well – to see how each generation dealt with grief.

Did you always want to be a writer?

I don’t think I knew. It’s just one of those things that you think is impossible, so there’s no point dreaming about it. But when I was a young girl in Trinidad, I imagined myself carrying a leather briefcase and I don’t know why, but I knew I was going somewhere important, and I had something important to do. I always loved writing, but the truth is people get in the way and they dissuade you. It’s all around you – that the arts is not a viable career and if you pursue it, you have a 95% chance of failure. But after working 10 office jobs in three years, I’m like, ‘I’m not happy,’ so this is actually the failure. I knew I needed change.

How do you navigate the space of being told that art is not a viable career, especially in the Indo Caribbean community?

Those challenges were around me all the time. It wasn’t even my family, but it even comes from friends and acquaintances. When you’re young, being an artist is hard, and you’re told there’s no point in doing it. I listened to people who said that, and got office jobs and did what everyone else was doing because apparently, that was the way to be happy. Five years passed by and I realized I wasn’t happy and I should have never listened to those people. I started writing. I started doing something that made me happy and treated it as a serious craft. I did not treat it as a hobby, but as something that was going to pave my path. I really worked in a tunneled vision. So I never told anybody what I was doing – I didn’t want to be dissuaded. I had to be my own champion. I know that doesn’t sound healthy, but back in 2012, I didn’t know about community. 

Cassandra, the main character is a writer, like yourself. How much of Cassandra’s story is your story?

My family is very supportive of my writing and it took some time for them to get there. Like many families, they kind of saw it as a hobby. Once they saw that I got published, they took it more seriously. Now, they are supportive of my writing and I think in the book, Cassandra’s family is not that supportive. They just weren’t interested in her writing, which is why she didn’t talk about it. It is a little bit reflective of my own experience. 


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Is the rest of the book based on a true story?

It wasn’t based on a true story. That is something I get asked often – a lot of people say ‘she’s Trinidad and you’re Trinidadian.’ The places I wrote about are from my memory, but the plot itself is fiction. I wanted to challenge myself to write something truly fictional. I grew up in a household of strong Trinidadian women. I wanted to write about strong Trinidadian women, the roles they play, their histories and their backgrounds. The characters aren’t necessarily based on anyone particular in my  life. Overall, it was a joy to imagine and write it because each one of these characters are very different from the other.

The novel has nine major female characters and at most three major male characters. Why did you want to tell a female-driven story?

I grew up in a family of predominantly women, and most of my Caribbean friends also grew up in families of predominantly women. They really are, in my experience, our caretakers. For me, my family and my friends, our mothers are our worlds – we love and admire them. Family is their priority; raising their children is their priority. I wanted to write about Trinidadian women because I wanted to tell each of their stories. I want more Indo Caribbean and Caribbean women in fiction. I think anything that I write will always be about Caribbean women. I want to contribute to that field of literature. I have such enormous respect for them; all the sacrifices that they’ve gone through to bring their kids to new countries – some of them single moms. There’s nothing else I really want to write about, to be honest.

One of the other things I noticed was keen attention to the setting. How many of these precise details came from your own life, if any of them?

For Trinidad, a lot of it is based on my memory of the island and my home there. But I did have to turn to my family for specific details that I thought I may have imagined. Because I grew up mostly in Toronto. I was insecure about writing about Trinidad, so I went back to my mom and my family, who lived there for over 40 years. In terms of the house in Toronto, some of that is from my experience and some from imagination. I’ve written and talked about this book before, “The Poetics of Space” by Gaston Bachelard, which examines the psychology of houses. I tried to construct a house that would accommodate the psychology of the characters. If the house seems very detailed, it’s because I made it so, to accommodate certain secrets and people’s personalities.

Why explore the psychology of a house?

It’s not an original thought, but I think the way space is organized around us, or the way we organize ourselves in a space dictates physical behavior. If you’re in a wide open space and you don’t know anyone, that can seem intimidating. If you’re in a closed space, that can also seem intimidating. I tried to organize the space to give each character privacy from the other, but then once they were in a common room, it really changed the dynamics of their interactions.

What makes a family?

I think people who have been through challenges with you for years make a family. That’s not even a blood thing – I have friends that are like family because we’ve been through things together over decades. It’s people you’ve experienced highs and lows with, but managed to stick with throughout the years. But ‘family’ can also be people who you haven’t talked to for years, who you’ve had a fragmented relationship with. For those sorts of relationships, it can be an unhealthy loyalty or a wondering of what could have been.

The book doesn’t have a happily-ever-after ending. Why?

Not ending the story in a neat little package was very important to me. I think there’s a certain expectation in storytelling by readers that a story needs a conclusion. And, to me, this is not what actually happens in the real world. The reasons people read a book are different – some people are reading for escapism, others are to better understand cultures and other people – so it depends on the reader and what they’re looking for. In literary fiction, readers are more open to an inconclusive ending because literary fiction can take things to a darker, more serious place than other genres. If I wrapped up the story with a nice little bow, it would be untrue to what this family has gone through. I wanted to show how unsolved issues can pan out. I didn’t want to take the story from a sad beginning to a happy ending. Not all stories end happily.


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What do you want readers to take away from “Wild Fires?”

I set out to write a story that had a universal theme. I wanted to feature a somewhat normal story with Caribbean characters. It wasn’t centered around race or indentureship because a lot of the Indo Caribbean literature that I’ve read has been – and rightly so. That’s where I learned about our history and our stories. But that was not a story that I wanted to tell first because it was not the story that was closest to my heart. When I started writing, I realized the story was really about grief. I wanted to show Caribbean women and Indo Trinidadian women, in a universal light. We are a result of  these histories yet go through normal things like grief, secrets and family dysfunction.

Following the publication of “Wild Fires,” Jai is pursuing her Master’s at Oxford University as a Kellogg’s Scholar. While attending school, she’s looking to write a short story about Caribbean joy to contrast the dark themes of her debut novel and portray Caribbean women in unrepresented ways.  

“Wild Fires” is available in Canada and the UK and will be available in the U.S. in Spring 2023.

Featured Image Courtesy: Sophie Jai

By Usha Sookai

Usha Sookai is an undergraduate student at New York University, studying Journalism and Social and Cultural Analysis. With a passion … Read more ›