Books by Kalamu ya
The Magic of JuJu: An Appreciation of the Black Arts
A Revolution of Black Poets
Everywhere Is Someplace Else: A Literary Anthology
From A Bend in the River: 100 New Orleans Poets
Our Music Is No Accident /
What Is Life: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self
My Story My Song (CD)
* * * *
DO RIGHT WOMEN
Black Women, Eroticism and Classic Blues
By Kalamu ya
I'm going to show you women,
how to cock it on the wall
Now you can snatch it, you
can break it, you can
hang it on the wall
Throw it out the window, see
can catch it 'fore it fall
I fantasize spanking you. What sexual fantasies do you have?" an
ex-lover intoned into the phone receiver.
As she spoke I remembered a time when we were in one of those classical
numeral positions and at a peak moment I felt the sharp smack of her bare palm
on my bare butt--not in pain nor anger, but surprisingly, for me, I remember a
tingle of pleasure, the pleasure in knowing that I had been the catalyst for
her, a person of supreme sexual control, going over the edge.
After I hung up, I admitted to myself that like many males my main fantasy
was to be sexually attractive to and sexually satisfying for thousands of women.
I "fantasize" sexually engaging at least a quarter of the women I see,
ninety percent of whom I don't know beyond eyeing them for a moment as I drive
down some street, spot them in a store, in an office building, in line paying a
bill, or walking ahead of me out of a movie.
I remember in one of my writing workshops in the fall of 1995 I shocked a
room of young men by declaring that sexual expression among male homosexuals
represented the fullest flowering of male sexuality. Some reacted predictably
from a position of virulent homophobia and others were just genuinely skeptical.
I explained that if he could, assuming that there were no restraints and that
it was consensual sex between adults, then the average American male would
engage in promiscuous sex every time they felt aroused--which undoubtedly would
be often. A major brake on our promiscuousness is the unwillingness of women to
cooperate with male socio-biological urges.
I asked one of the more skeptical homophobes in my workshop, "haven't
you seen a woman today you wished that you could get down with, a woman whom you
didn't know personally?" He smiled and answered "yeah, on my way to
class just now." After the laughter died down, I told him that this is
indeed what often happens with gay sex precisely because there is no restraint
other than desire and safety.
American male sexuality is, among other characteristics, a celebration of the
moment. Our fantasy is immediate sexual gratification with whomever catches our
fancy. Most of the time we deny, transfer, repress, or misrepresent these
fantasies. However, in popular music we forcefully articulate the male desire to
wantonly enjoy coition with women.
Thus, these 90's rap and r&b
("rhythm and booty") records about rampant sex with a bevy of willing
cuties is not just adolescent, post-puberty fantasizing but rather is an
accurate projection of ethically unchecked and socially unshaped male
sexuality--a sexuality which projects the male as the dominating, aggressive
subject and the female as the pliant (if not willing) object of consumption.
Here is a significant cultural crossroads. I hold no truck in prudish and/or
puritanical views of sex; while I abhor pornography (the commidifying of sex and
the reifying of a person or gender into a sexual object), I am opposed to
censorship. The status quo would have the whole debate about the representation
of sexuality boil down to either reticence or profligacy. The truth is those
extremes are not different roads. They are simply the up and down side of the
status quo view which either come from or lead to the objectifying of sexual
relations. Objectifying sexual relations is a completely different road from the
frank articulation of eroticism.
Within the American cultural context, this difference is nowhere as clearly
presented as in the early, 1920's woman-centered music known as "Classic
You never get nothing by
being an angel child,
You better change your ways
and get real wild,
I want to tell you something
and I wouldn't tell you no lie,
Wild women are the only kind
that really get by,
'Cause wild women don't
worry, wild women don't have the blues.
Known today as "Classic Blues" divas, these women married big city
dreams with post-plantation realties and, by using the vernacular and
folk-wisdom of the people, gave voice to our people's hopes and sorrows and
specifically spoke to the yearnings and aspirations of Black women recently
migrated to the city from the country. While many women took up domestic and
factory work, the entertainment industry also was a major employer of Black
author Daphne Harrison sets the stage:
black women with talent began to emerge from the
churches, schools, and clubs where they had sung,
recited, danced, or played, and ventured into the more
lucrative aspects of the entertainment world, in
response to the growing demand for talent in the
theaters and traveling shows. The financial rewards
often out-weighed community censure, for by 1910-1911
they could usually earn upwards of fifty dollars a week,
while their domestic counterparts earned only eight to
ten dollars. Many aspiring young women went to the
cities as domestics in hope of ultimately getting on
stage. While the domestics' social contacts were
severely limited, mainly to the white employers and to
their own families, the stage performer had an admiring
audience in addition to family and friends.
(Harrison, page 21)
The Classic Blues divas who emerged from this social milieu were more than
entertainers, they were role models, advice givers, and a social force for
Ma Rainey is considered the mother of the Classic
Blues. "She jes' catch hold of us, somekinaway." scripts poet Sterling
Brown in giving a right on the money description of the cathartic power of Ma
Rainey's majestic embrace which wrapped up her audience and reared them into the
discovery of self-actulization's rarefied air. "Git way inside us, / Keep
us strong" (Brown, pages 62 - 63).
Birthed by these women, we became our
selves as a people and as sexually active individuals. Twenties Classic Blues was the first and only time that independent
African-American women were at the creative center of Black musical culture.
Neither before nor since have women been as economically or psychologically
Ma Rainey & Her Georgia Band
In a country dominated by patriarchal values, mores and male leadership
(should we more accurately say "overseership"?), Classic Blues is
remarkable. Remember that although slavery ended with the Civil War in 1866 and
the passage of the 15th amendment to the Constitution, suffrage for women was
not enacted until 1920 with the 19th amendment. The suffrage movement, which had
been dominated by White women, was also intimately aligned with the temperance
movement, a movement which demonized jazz and blues.
Black women were a major organizing and stabilizing force in and on behalf of
the Black community between post-Reconstruction and the Twenties. Historian
Darlene Hine notes:
second period began in the 1890s and ended around 1930
and is best referred to as the First Era of the Black
Woman...black women were among the most active and
determined agents for community building and race
survival. Their style was concentrated on internal
developments within the black community and is reflected
in the massive mobilization that led to the formation of
the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs that
boasted a membership of over 50,000 by 1914. ... Black
women perfected a "politics of respectability," a
"culture of dissemblance," and a cult of secrecy and
(Hine, page 118-119)
||But a curious dynamic has always animated Black America--while those who
hoped to assimilate, to be accepted and/or to achieve "wealth and
happiness" strove for and advocated a "politics of
respectability" the folk masses sang a blues song a la Langston Hughes'
mule who was black and didn't give a damn, if you wanted him, you had to take
him just as he am. In other words, the blues aesthetic upsets the respectability
applecart. And at the core of the blues aesthetic is a celebration of the
I contend that this is a major cultural battle. Eroticism is the motor that
drives Black culture (or, more precisely, drives those aspects of our culture
which are not assimilative in representation). Whereas, polite society was too
nice to be nasty, blues people felt if it wasn't nasty, then how could it be
As James Cone notes in his perceptive and important book
and the Blues:
It has been the vivid description of sex that caused many church people to
reject the blues as vulgar or dirty. The Christian tradition has always been
ambiguous about sexual intercourse, holding it to be divinely ordained yet the
paradigm of rebellious passion. Perhaps this accounts for the absence of sex in
the black spirituals and other black church music. ... In the blues there is an
open acceptance of sexual love, and it is described in most vivid terms...
(Cone, page 117)
Many of us are totally confused about eroticism. Most of us don't appreciate
the frank eroticism of nearly all African-heritage cultures which have not been
twisted by outside domination (e.g. Christianity and Islam). Commenting on
"Songs Of Ritual License From Midwestern Nigeria" African Art
Historian Jean Borgtatti notes:
The songs themselves represent an occasion of ritualized verbal license
in which men and women ridicule each other's genitalia and sexual habits.
Normally such ridicule would be an anti-social act in the extreme... In the
ritual context, however, the songs provide recognition, acceptance, and
release of that tension which exists between the sexes in all cultures, and
so neutralize this potential threat to community stability. (Borgatti, page
The songs in question range from explicit and detailed put-downs to this
lyric sung by a woman which could be a twenties blues lyric.
When I Refuse Him
When I refuse him, the man is filled with
When I refuse him, the man is filled with
When my "thing" is bright and
happy like a baby chick, it drives him wild
When my "thing" is bright and happy like a baby chick, it
drives him wild
My argument is that socially expressed eroticism is part and parcel of our
heritage. In the American context, this eroticism is totally absent in the
"lyrics" of the spirituals (albeit not totally suppressed in the
rituals of black church liturgy). On the other hand, Black eroticism is best
expressed and preserved in the blues (beginning in the early 1920s) and in its
modern musical offshoots.
Erotic representation is another major point of divergence. Euro-centric
representations of eroticism have been predominately visual and textual whereas
African-heritage representations have been mainly aural (music) and oral
(boasts, toasts, dozens, etc.). The eye sees but does not feel. Mainly the brain
responds to and interprets visual stimuli whereas the body as a whole responds
Moreover, textual erotic representation invites and encourages private
and individual activity. E.g. you are probably alone reading this--if not alone
in fact certainly alone in effect as there may be others present where you are
reading but they are not reading over your shoulder or sitting beside you
reading with you.
| Moreover, you most certainly are not reading this aloud for
general consumption. If you do read it aloud it is probably a one-to-one private
Aural and oral erotic representation, on the other hand, require a
participating audience, become a ritual of arousal. Music, in particular, is not
only social in focus, music also privileges communal eroticism. Thus, whereas
text encourages individualism and self-evaluations of deviance, shame and guilt;
musical eroticism encourages coupling, group identification and self-evaluations
of shared erotic values, sexual self worth and pleasure.
Finally, within the African-American context, sound is used as language to
communicate what English words cannot. The African American folk saying,
"when you moan the devil don't know what you talking about" contains
an ironic edge that goes beyond spiritual commentaries on good and evil. The
White oppressor/slave master, i.e. "the devil," does not understand
the meaning of moaning partly because of intentional deception on the part of
the moaners but also because English lexicon is limited.
| Moans, wails, cries,
hums and other vocal devices communicate feelings, moods, desires and are the
core of blues expression. This is why the blues is more powerful than the lyrics
of the songs, why blues lyrics do not translate well to the cold page (when the
sound of the words is not manifested much of the true meaning of the words is
lost), and why blues cannot be accurately analyzed purely from an intellectual
standpoint. Moreover, erotic desires, frustrations and fulfillments--the most
frequent emotions articulated in the blues--are some of the strongest emotions
routinely manifested by human beings.
In the 1920's
mainstream America was nowhere near ready to acknowledge and
celebrate eroticism. Thus, as far as most Americans were
concerned, a frank and explicit expression of eroticism was
. This social "shame"
became the singular trademark of the blues. Moreover, the identification of
sexual explicitness with the blues was so thorough that sexually explicit
language became known as "blue" as in "cussin' up a blue
streak" or the kind of "blue material" which was often
"banned in Boston."
Within the context of American Puritanism and Christian anti-eroticism, it is
important to note that "blue" erotic music was first brought to
national prominence not by men but rather by women. This privileging of feminine
sexuality was an unplanned result of the newly developed recording industry's
quest for profits. When "Okeh Records sold seventy-five thousand copies of
'Crazy Blues' in the first month and surpassed the one million mark during its
first year in the stores" (Barlow, page 128) the hunt was on.
selling "race records" (i.e. blues) was like a second California gold
rush. There was no aesthetic nor philosophical interest in the blues. This was
strictly business. Moreover, during the first years of the race record craze,
because race records were sold almost exclusively to a Black audience there was
less censorship and interference than there otherwise might have been. Black
tastes and cultural values drove the market during the twenties. There were both
positive and negative results to this commercialization.
On the positive side of the ledger, the mechanical reproduction of
millions of blues disks made the music far more accessible to the public in
general, and black people in particular. Blues entered an era of
unprecedented growth and vitality, surfacing as a national phenomenon by the
1920s. As a result, a new generation of African-American musicians were able
to learn from the commercial recordings, to expand their mastery over the
various idioms and enhance their instrumental and vocal techniques. The
local and regional African-American folk traditions that spawned blues were,
in turn, infused with new songs, rhythms, and styles. Thus, the record
business was an important catalyst in the development of blues that also
facilitated their entrance into the mainstream of popular American music.
On the other hand, the transformation of living musical traditions into
commodities to be sold in a capitalist marketplace was bound to have its
drawbacks. For one thing, the profits garnered from the sale of blues
records invariably went into the coffers of the white businessmen who owned
or managed the record companies. The black musicians and vocalists who
created the music in the recording studios received a pittance. Furthermore,
the major record companies went to great lengths to get the blues to conform
to their Tin Pan Alley standards, and they often expected black recording
artists to conform to racist stereotypes inherited from blackface
minstrelsy. The industry also like to record white performers'
"cover" versions of popular blues to entice the white public to
buy the records and to "upgrade" the music. Upgrading was
synonymous with commercializing; it attempted to bring African-American
music more into line with European musical conventions, while superimposing
on it a veneer of middle-class Anglo-American respectability. These various
practices deprived a significant percentage of recorded blues numbers of
their African characteristics and more radical content. (Barlow, pages
When the depression hit and Black audiences no longer had significant
disposable income to spend on recordings, the acceptable styles of recorded
blues changed drastically.
The onset of the depression quickly reversed the fortunes of the entire
record industry; sales fell from over $100 million in 1927 to $6 million in
1933. Consequently, race record releases were drastically cut back, field
recording ventures into the South were discontinued, the labels manufactured
fewer and fewer copies of each title, and record prices fell from
seventy-five to thirty-five cents a disk. Whereas the average race record on
the market sold approximately ten thousand copies in the mid-twenties, it
plummeted to two thousand in 1930, and bottomed out at a dismal four hundred
in 1932. The smaller labels were gradually forced out of business, while the
major record companies with large catalogues that went into debt were
purchased by more prosperous media corporations based in radio and film. The
record companies with race catalogues that totally succumbed to the economic
downturn were Paramount, Okeh, and Gennett. By 1933, the race record
industry appeared to be a fatality of the depression.
(Barlow, page 133)
|The Classic Blues divas founded and shaped the form of Black music's initial
recording success in the twenties. By the thirties women were completely erased
as cultural leaders of Black music. While there was certainly an overriding
economic imperative to the cutback, there was also a cultural/philosophical
imperative to cut out women altogether.
There was no precedent in either White or Black American culture for women as
leaders in articulating eroticism. This significant feminizing of eroticism was
predicated on an unprecedented albeit short-lived change in the physical and
economic social structure of the Black community converging with a period of
massive national economic growth and far reaching mass media technological
innovations in recordings, radio, and film.
Despite optimal economic and technological incentives, the twenties rise of
the newly emergent Classic Blues diva was no cakewalk, not only because of the
virulence of class exploitation, racism and sexism but also because of cultural
Regardless of race,
there was an open conflict between the blues and social
respectability. The self-assertive, female Classic Blues
singer was perceived as a threat to both the American status
quo as well as to many of the major political forces seeking
to enlarge the status quo (i.e. the petty bourgeoise-oriented talented tenth).
Moreover, unlike many post-Motown, popular female singers who are produced,
directed and packaged by males, Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, Ida Cox, Alberta
Hunter, Sippie Wallace, and the incomparable "Empress" of the blues,
Bessie Smith, were more than simple fronts for turn-of-the-century blues
Svengalies. Yes, men such as Perry Bradford, Clarence Williams, and Thomas
Dorsey were major composers, arrangers, accompanists and producers for many of
the Classic Blues divas; and yes, these women often were surrounded and beset by
men who attempted to physically, financially and psychologically abuse them,
nevertheless the Classic Blues divas were neither pushovers nor tearful passive
Emerging from southern backgrounds rich in religious and folk music
traditions, they were able to capture in song the sensibilities of black
women--North and South--who struggled daily for physical, psychological, and
spiritual balance. They did this by calling forth the demons that plagued
women and exorcising them in public. Alienation, sex and sexuality, tortured
love, loneliness, hard times, marginality, were addressed with an openness
that had not previously existed.
The blues women accomplished this with their unique flair for dramatizing
their texts and performances. They introduced and refined vocal strategies
that gave the lyrics added power. Some of these were instrumentality, voices
growling and sliding like trombones, or wailing and piercing like clarinets;
unexpected word stress; vocal breaks in antiphony with the accompaniment;
syncopated phrasing; unlimited improvisation on repetitious refrains or
phrases. These innovations, in tandem with the talented instrumentalists who
accompanied the blues women, advanced the development of vocal and
Of equal significance, because they were such prominent public figures, the
blues women presented alternative models of attitude and behavior for black
women during the 1920s. They demonstrated that black women could be
financially independent, outspoken, and physically attractive. They dressed to
emphasize their symbolic importance to their audiences. The queens, regal in
their satins, laces, sequins and beads, and feather boas trailing from their
bronze or peaches-and-cream shoulders, wore tiaras that sparkled in the
lights. The queens held court in dusty little tents, in plush city cabarets,
in crowded theaters, in dance halls, and wherever else their loyal subjects
would flock to pay homage. They rode in fine limousines, in special railroad
cars, and in whatever was available, to carry them from country to town to
city and back, singing as they went. The queens filled the hearts and souls of
their subjects with joy and laughter and renewed their spirits with the love
and hope that came from a deep well of faith and will to endure.
Never since have women performed major leadership roles in the music
industry, especially not African-American women. The entertainment industry
intentionally curtailed the trend of highly vocal, independent women.
| Most of
the Classic Blues divas, it must be noted, were not svelte sex symbols
comparable in either features or figure to White women. The blues shouter was
generally a robust, brown or dark-skinned, African-featured women who thought of
and carried herself as the equal of any man. America fears the drum and
psychologically fears the bearer of the first drum, i.e. the feminine heartbeat
that we hear in the womb.
Bessie Smith and her peers, were sexually assertive "wild" women,
well endowed with the necessary physical and psychological prowess to take care
Actively bisexual, Bessie Smith belied the common
"asexual" labeling of stout women, such as is suggested by Nikki
Giovanni in "Woman Poem":
it's a sex object if you're
and no love
or love and no sex if you're fat
(Giovanni, page 55)
"No sex" was not the reality of the Classic Blues divas. Yes, many
of them were then and would now be considered "fat" but they were far
from celibate (by either choice or circumstance). Or, as the sarcastic blues
I'm a big fat mama, got meat
shakin' on my bones
A big fat mama, with plenty
meat shakin' on my bones
Every time I shake my stuff, some skinny gal loses her
In recent years the best description of the liberating function Blues divas
served for the Black community is contained in Alice Walker's powerful novel, The
Color Purple. Walker's memorable and mythic character Shug Avery is an
active bisexual blues singer a la Bessie Smith. Shug instructs the heroine Celie
in the recognition and celebration of herself as a sexual being:
(Walker, page 81)
Why Miss Celie, [Shug] say, you still a virgin.
What? I ast.
Listen, she say, right down there in your pussy is a little button that
gits real hot when you do you know what with somebody. It git hotter and
hotter and then it melt. That the good part. But other parts good too, she
say. Lot of sucking go on, here and there, she say. Lot of finger and tongue
Shug then instructs Celie "Here, take this mirror and go look at
yourself down there, I bet you never seen it, have you?" The blues becomes
a means not only of social self-expression but also of sexual self-discovery,
especially for women.
In a life often defined by brutality, exploitation and drudgery, the female
discovery and celebration of self-determined sexual pleasure is important. Thus
the blues affirms an essential and explicit reversal. We have been taught that
we are ugly, the blues celebrates our beauty and this is especially true for
(Walker, page 82)
I lie back on the bed and haul up my dress. Yank down my bloomers. Stick
the looking glass tween my legs. Ugh. All that hair. Then my pussy lips be
black. Then inside look like a wet rose.
It a lot prettier than you thought, ain't it. she say from the door.
It mine, I say. Where the button?
Right up near the top, she say. The part that stick out a little.
I look at her and touch it with my finger. A little shiver go through me.
Nothing much. But just enough to tell me this the right button to mash.
The major characteristic of the Classic Blues is that the vast majority of
the songs were sexually oriented and nearly all of the singers were women. In
his major study of Black music, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) notes:
The great classic blues singers were women... Howard W. Odum
and Guy B. Johnson note from a list of predominately
classic blues titles, taken from the record catalogues
of three "race" companies. "The majority of these formal
blues are sung from the point of view of woman...
upwards of seventy-five per cent of the songs are
written from the woman's point of view. Among the blues
singers who have gained a more or less national
recognition there is scarcely a man's name to be found."
(Jones, page 91)
Jones goes on to answer the obvious question of why women dominated in this
Minstrelsy and vaudeville not only provided employment for a great many
women blues singers but helped to develop the concept of the professional
Negro female entertainer. Also, the reverence in which most of white society
was held by Negroes gave to those Negro entertainers an enormous amount of
prestige. Their success was also boosted at the beginning of this century by
the emergence of many white women as entertainers and in the twenties, by the
great swell of distaff protest regarding women's suffage. All these factors
came together to make the entertainment field a
glamorous one for Negro women, providing an independence
and importance not available in other areas open to
them--the church, domestic work, or prostitution. (Jones,
Ann Douglas, in her important book
Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s,
Terrible Honesty identifies the twenties as a period of (quoting from the
dustjacket) "historical transformation: blacks and whites, men and women
together created a new American culture, fusing high art and low, espousing the
new mass media, repudiating the euphemisms of outdated gentility in favor of a
boldly masculinized outspokenness, bringing the African-American folk and
popular art heritage briefly but irrevocably into the mainstream." Douglas
believes the birth of modernism required the death of the white matriarch.
"The two movements, cultural emancipation of America from foreign
influences and celebration of its black-and-white heritage, had for a brief
but crucial moment a common opponent and a common agenda: the demolition of
that block to modernity, or so she seemed, the powerful white middleclass
matriarch of the recent Victorian past. My black protagonists were not
matrophobic to the same degree as my white ones were, but the New Negro,
too, had something to gain from the demise of the Victorian matriarch."
(Douglas, page 6)
Such anti-matriarch sentiments directly clashed with the reality of
female-led Classic Blues.
We are forced to ask the question: does the freedom of the Black man require
the destruction of the Black woman? To the degree that the Black woman is a
matriarch, a self-possessed and self-directed person, to that same degree there
will inevitably be a conflict with the standards of modern America which are
misogynist in general and anti-matriarchal in particular.
to the revolt against the matriarch, Christian beliefs
and middleclass values would never again be a
prerequisite for elite artistic success in America. Nor
would plumpness ever again be a broadly sanctioned type
of female beauty; the 1920s put the body type of the
stout and full-figured matron decisively out of fashion.
Once the matriarch and her notions of middle-class
piety, racial superiority, and sexual repression were
discredited, modern America, led by New York, was free
to promote, not an egalitarian society, but something
like an egalitarian popular and mass culture
aggressively appropriating forms and ideas across race,
class, and gender lines.
(Douglas, page 8)
Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, et al may seem to contradict Douglas' thesis but
actually the disappearance of big, Black women from leadership in entertainment
is proof that Douglas was correct in her assessment of modern America.
Black people, the Black matriarch continued to reign in the arenas of church,
education and community service. However, to the degree that Black people adopt
modern American ways to that same degree our culture inevitably becomes "masculinized"
and "anti-matriachal." This is inevitable because, as Douglas' book
demonstrates in great detail, American modernism is based on the refutation of
the woman as culture bearer. Yet culture bearer is precisely the role that the
Black woman fulfills.
"The blues woman is the priestess or prophet of the people. She
verbalizes the emotion for herself and the audience, articulating the stresses
and strains of human relationships" (Cone, page 107). Theologian James
Cone, a Christian man, had sense enough to sustain the
potency of blues priestesses, a potency which is overtly
sexual but which also made strong social, political and
economic statements (e.g. "T.B.
Blues" by Ida Cox decrying poor health conditions and "Poor Man
Blues" by Bessie Smith condemning class exploitation).
There's a new game, that can't be beat,
You move most everything
'cept your feet,
Called 'Whip it to a jelly, stir it in a bowl',
You just whip it to a jelly, if you like good jelly roll
I wear my skirt up to my knees
And whip that jelly with who I please.
Oh, whip it to a jelly,
Mmmmm, mmmm, mmmmm, mmmm
In western culture the celebration of dignity and eroticism does not and can
not take place simultaneously. From Freud's theories of sexuality which focus
for the most part on penile power to the church which goes so far as to debase
the body as a product of original sin, there is no room for the celebration of
eroticism, and certainly no conception whatsoever of the female as an active
purveyor of erotic power. To me, the blues is clearly an alternative to Freud
and Jesus with respect to coming to terms with our bodies.
James Cone correctly analyzes this alternative.
Theologically, the blues reject the Greek distinction between the soul and
the body, the physical and the spiritual. They tell us that there is no
wholeness without sex, no authentic love without the feel and touch of the
physical body. The blues affirm the authenticity of sex as the bodily
expression of black soul.
White people obviously cannot
understand the love that black people have for each other. People who
enslave humanity cannot understand the meaning of human freedom; freedom
comes only to those who struggle for it in the context of the community of
the enslaved. People who destroy physical bodies with guns, whips, and
napalm cannot know the power of physical love. Only those who have been hurt
can appreciate the warmth of love that proceeds when persons touch, feel,
and embrace each other. The blues are openness to feeling and the emotions
of physical love. (Cone,
Moreover, the fact that Freud's theories find their first popular American
currency in the 1920s at the same time as Black women's articulation of the
Classic Blues suggests an open contest between widely divergent viewpoints. The
Classic Blues offered an unashamed and assertive alternative to both the
traditional puritanical views of sexuality as well as alternative to the new
Freudian psychological views of sexuality. Bessie Smith and company were
battling Jesus on the right and Freud on the left.
The puritans with their scarlet letters projected the virgin/whore (Mary
mother vs. Mary Madaglene) dualism. For the most part, Freud either ignored the
psychology of women, thought they were unfathomable, or else projected onto them
the infamous "penis envy."
The period between the Civil War and World War II is the birth of American
modernism. It is also the period when the bustle (an artificial attempt to mimic
the physique of Black women) was a fashion standard. While it is not within the
purview of this essay to address the question of how is it that Black buttocks
become a standard of femininity for white society, it is important to at least
mention this, so that we can contextualize the battle of worldviews.
Freud proposed the "id" as the controlling element of the civilized
individual. The purpose of Black music was precisely to surmount the
"id." The individual looses control, is possessed. This trance state
is a sought for and enjoyed experience. Rather than be in control we desire to
be mounted, i.e. to merge with and be controlled by a greater force outside
ourselves. Blues culture validated ritual and merger of the micro-individual
into the social and spiritual macro-environment. In this way blues may be
understood as an alternative conception of human existence.
In a major theoretical opus on the blues,
Blues and the Poetic Spirit,
author Paul Garon argues
To those who suggest that the blues singers are 'preoccupied' with
sexuality, let us point out that all
humanity is preoccupied with
sexuality, albeit most often in a repressive way; the blues singers, by
establishing their art on a relatively nonrepressive level, strip the 'civilised'
disguise from humanity's preoccupation, thus allowing the content to stand
as it really is: eroticism as the source of happiness.
The blues, as it reflects human desire, projects the imaginative
possibilities of true erotic existence. Hinted at are new realities of
non-repressive life, dimly grasped in our current state of alienation and
repression, but nonetheless implicit in the character of sexuality as it is
treated in the blues. Desire defeats the existing morality--poetry comes
into being. (Garon, pages 66-67)
Musicologist/theologist Jon Michael Spencer takes Garon's argument deeper
when he comments in his book Blues and Evil:
Garon was seemingly drawing on the thought of the late French philosopher
Michel Foucault, who said in his history of sexuality that if sex is
repressed and condemned to prohibition then the person who holds forth in
such language, with seeming intentionality, moves, to a certain degree,
beyond the reach of power and upsets established law. Sex also might have
been a means for "blues people" to feel potent in an oppressive
society that made them feel socially and economically impotent, especially
since sexuality inside the black community was one area that was free from
the restraints of "the law" and the lynch mob.
In essence, the Classic Blues as articulated by Black women was not only a
conscious articulation of the social self and validation of the feminine sexual
self, the Classic Blues was also a total philosophical alternative to the
dominant White society. In this regard two incidents in the life of Bessie Smith serve as archetypal
The first is Bessie Smith confrontation with the Ku Klux Klan and
the second is Smith's confrontation with Carl Van Vechten's wife. The Klan is
the apotheosis of racist, right wing America. Carl Van Vechten is the
personification of liberal America.
In Chris Albertson biography of Bessie Smith he describes Smith's July 1927
confrontation with the Klan that occurred when sheeted Klan members were
attempting to "collapse Bessie's tent; they had already pulled up several
stakes." When a band member told Smith what was going on the following
"Some shit!" she said, and ordered the prop boys to follow her
around the tent. When they were within a few feet of the Klansmen, the boys
withdrew to a safe distance. Bessie had not told them why she wanted them,
and one look at the white hoods was all the discouragement they needed.
Not Bessie. She ran toward the intruders, stopped within ten feet of
them, placed one hand on her hip, and shook a clenched fist at the Klansmen.
"What the fuck you think you're doin'?" she shouted above the
sound of the band. "I'll get the whole damn tent out here if I have to.
You just pick up them sheets and run!"
The Klansmen, apparently too surprised to move, just stood there and
gawked. Bessie hurled obscenities at them until they finally turned and
disappeared quietly into the darkness.
"I ain't never heard of such shit," said Bessie, and walked
back to where her prop boys stood. "And as for you, you ain't nothin'
but a bunch of sissies."
Then she went back into the tent as if she had just settled a routine
(Albertson, pages 132-133)
Bessie Smith was not an apolitical entertainer. She was a fighter whose
sexual persona was aligned with a strong sense of political self-determination.
This "strength" of character is another reason that singers such as
Bessie Smith were widely celebrated in the Black community. Furthermore, Smith
not only was not intimidated by the right, she was equally unimpressed with the
liberal sector of American society, as the incident at the Van Vechten household
demonstrates. Along with his wife Fania Marinoff, a former Russian ballerina,
Carl Van Vechten ("Carlo") was the major patron of the Harlem
Renaissance. Albertson describes "Carlo" as an individual who
"typified the upper-class white liberal of his day" (Albertson, page
Van Vechten loved the ghetto's pulsating music and strapping young men, and
he maintained a Harlem apartment--decorated in black with silver stars on the
ceiling and seductive red lights--for his notorious nocturnal gatherings.
His favorite black singers were Ethel waters, Clara Smith, and Bessie.
(Albertson, page 139)
Van Vechten persistently sought Bessie Smith as a salon guest. She resisted
but finally relented after continuous entreaties from one of her band members,
composer and accompanist Porter Grainger, who desperately wished to be included
among Van Vechten's "in crowd." Smith finally agreed to make a quick
between sets appearance. Bessie exquisitely sang "six or seven
numbers" taking a strong drink between each number. And then it was time to
rush back to the Lafayette Theatre to do their second show of the night.
All went well until an effusive woman stopped them a few steps from the
front door. It was Bessie's hostess, Fania Marinoff Van Vechten.
"Miss Smith," she said, throwing her arms around Bessie's massive
neck and pulling it forward, "you're
not leaving without kissing me
That was all Bessie needed.
"Get the fuck away from me," she roared, thrusting her arms
forward and knocking the woman to the floor, "I ain't never heard of such
In the silence that followed, Bessie stood in the middle of the foyer,
ready to take on the whole crowd.
"It's all right, Miss Smith," [Carl Van
Vechten] said softly,
trailing behind the threesome in the hall. "You were magnificent
tonight." (Albertson, page 143)
What does any of this have to do with eroticism? These are examples of Black
womanhood in action accepting no shit from either friend or foe. Blues divas
such as Bessie Smith were neither afraid of nor envious of Whites. This social
self assuredness is intimately entwined with their sense of sexual self
assuredness. As Harrison perceptively points out, the Classic Blues divas
"introduced a new, different model of black women--more assertive, sexy,
sexually aware, independent, realistic, complex, alive." (Harrison, page
These blues singers were eventually replaced in the entertainment sphere by
mulatto entertainers and chocolate exotics, Josephine Baker preeminent among
them. Significantly, the replacements for Blues divas were popular song stylists
who aimed their art at White men rather than at the Black community in general
and Black women specifically. The replacements for the big, Black, Classic Blues
diva marked the consolidation of the modern entertainment industry's sexual
commodification, commercializing and exoticizing of Black female sexuality.
|Although entertainers from Josephine Baker, to Eartha
Kitt, to Dianna Ross,
to Tina Turner all started off as Black women they ended up projected as sex
symbols adored by a predominately White male audience. In that context,
sexuality becomes, at best, symbolic prostitution. The Black woman as
exotic-erotic temptress of suppressed White male libidos is the complete
antithesis of Classic Blues singer. The Classic Blues singer did not sell her
sexuality to her oppressor. This question of cultural and personal integrity
marks the difference between the sexual commodification inherent in today's
entertainment world (especially when one realizes that the major record buying
public for many hardcore rap artists is composed of White teenagers) and the
sexual affirmation essential to Classic Blues.
Another important point is that Classic Blues celebrated Black eroticism
based in a literal "Black, Brown or Beige" body rather than in a
"white looking" mulatto body.
When we look at pictures of Classic
Blues divas, we see our mothers, aunts, and older lady friends. Indeed, by
all-American beauty standards most of these women would be considered plain (at
best), and many would be called "ugly."
For example, Ma Rainey was often crudely and cruelly demeaned. Giles Oakley's
book The Devil's Music, A History of the Blues quotes Little Brother
Montgomery "Boy, she was the horrible-lookingest thing I ever see!"
and Georgia Tom Dorsey "Well, I couldn't say she was a good-looking woman
and she was stout. But she was one of the loveliest people I ever worked for or
worked with." Oakley opines
She was an extraordinary-looking woman, ugly-attractive with a short,
stubby body, big-featured face and a vividly painted mouth full of gold teeth;
she would be loaded down with diamonds--in her ears, round her neck, in a
tiara on her head, on her hands, everywhere. Beads and bangles mingled
jingling with the frills on her expensive stage gowns. For a time her
trademark was a fabulous necklace of gold coins, from 2.50 dollar coins to
heavy 20 dollar 'Eagles' with matching gold earrings. (Oakley, page 99)
I'm sure the majority of Ma Rainey's female audience did not fail to notice
that Ma Rainey resembled them--she looked like they did and they looked like she
did. There is no alienation of physical looks between the Classic Blues singer
and the majority of her working class Black audience. Physical-appearance
alienation of artist from audience is another byproduct of the commodification
of Black music.
What started out as a ritual celebration of openly eroticized life was
transformed by the entertainment industry into mass-media pornography--the
priestess became a prostitute. Albertson's citing of a colorfully written Van
Vechten assessment of a Bessie Smith performance clarifies the difference
between Bessie Smith performing mainly for Black people and subsequent
"Black beauties" (including the famous Cotton Club dancers and
singers) performing almost exclusively for Whites. Van Vechten not only points
out the literally Black make up of Smith's audience, he also points out how
Black women identified with Bessie Smith.
Now, inspired partly by the powerfully magnetic personality of this
elemental conjure woman with her plangent African voice, quivering with
passion and pain, sounding as if it had been developed at the sources of the
Nile, the black and blue-black crowd, notable for the absence of mulattoes,
burst into hysterical, semi-religious shrieks of sorrow and lamentation. Amens
rent the air. Little nervous giggles, like the shattering of Venetian glass,
shocked our nerves. When Bessie proclaimed, "It's true I loves you, but I
won't take mistreatment any mo," a girl sitting beneath our box called
"Dat's right! Say it, sister!" (Albertson, page 107)
The implication of such example is psychologically far-reaching and
explicitly threatening to male chauvinism, as Harrison explicates:
...the silent, suffering woman is replaced by a loud-talking mama,
reared-back with one hand on her hip and with the other wagging a pointed
finger vigorously as she denounces the two-timing dude. Ntozage Shange,
Alice Walker, and Zora Neale Hurston employ this scenario as the pivotal
point in a negative relationship between the heroine/protagonists and their
abusive men. Going public is their declaration of independence. Blues of
this nature communicated to women listeners that they were members of a
sisterhood that did not have to tolerate mistreatment. (Harrison, page 89)
That these women--big, black, tough, non-virginal, sexually aggressive--were
superstars of their era is testimony to the strength of a totally oppositional
standard of human value. Their value was not one of physical appearance but one
of spiritual relevance. And make no mistake, at that time there was no shortage
of mulatto chorines and canaries--Lena Horne, archetypal amongst such
"All-American beauties." Nor was there an absence of White male
sex-lust for exotic-erotic mulattoes. The difference was that during the
twenties there was an unassimilated Black audience which self-consciously
embraced/squeezed the blacker berry, i.e. the Classic Blues diva.
The Classic Blues diva was an extraordinary woman whose relevance to a Black
audience has never been approached, not to mention matched. William Barlow's
assessment is fundamentally correct.
The classic blues women's feminist discourse grappled with the race,
class, and sexual injustices they encountered living in urban America. They
were outspoken opponents of racial discrimination in all guises, and hence
critical of the dominant white social order--even while benefiting from it
more than most of their peers. They identified with the struggles of the
masses of black people, empathized with the plight of the downtrodden, and
sang out for social change. Within the black community, the classic blues
women were also critical of the way they were treated by men, challenging
the sexual double standard. Concurrently, they reaffirmed and reclaimed
their feminine powers--sexual and spiritual--to remake the world in their
own image and to their own liking. This included freedom of choice across
the social spectrum--from political to sexual resistance, from black
nationalism to lesbianism. Like the first-generation rural blues
troubadours, the classic blues women were cultural rebels, ahead of the
times artistically and in the forefront of resistance to all the various
forms of domination they encountered. (Barlow, pages 180-181)
At the essential core of the Classic Blues was a throbbing, vital eroticism,
an eroticism that manifested itself in the lifestyle and subject matter of the
Classic Blues divas. Although we can analyze in hindsight, the ultimate
manifestation of blue eroticism is not to be found nor appreciated in
intellectualism but in its funky sound which must be experienced to be fully
appreciated. Once again, Alice Walker's The Color Purple is exemplar in
portraying the importance of the blue erotic sound--an eroticism best
articulated by Black women.
Shug say to Squeak, I mean,
Mary Agnes, You ought to sing in public.
Mary Agnes say, Naw. She think cause she don't sing big
and broad like Shug nobody want to hear her. But Shug say
What about all them funny voices you hear singing in
church? Shug say. What about all them sounds that sound good
but they not the sounds you thought folks could make? What
bout that? Then she start moaning. Sound like death
approaching, angels can't prevent it. It raise the hair on
the back of your neck. But it really sound sort of like
panthers would sound if they could sing.
I tell you something else, Shug say to Mary Agnes,
listening to you sing, folks git to thinking bout a good
Aw, Miss Shug, say Mary Agnes, changing color.
Shug say, What, too shamefaced to put singing and dancing
and fucking together? She laugh. That's the reason they call
what us sing the devil's music. Devils love to fuck.
(Walker, page 120)
* * * *
Bessie. Braircliff: Stein
and Day Paperback, 1985 (Originally issued 1972)
Barlow, William. Looking Up At Down.
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989
Borgatti, Jean. "Songs Of Ritual License From
Midwestern Nigeria." In
Alcheringa Ethnopoetics (New
Series Volume 2, Number 1). Dennis Tedlock and Jerome Rothenberg,
editors. Boston: Boston University, 1976
Brown, Sterling A.
The Collected Poems of
Sterling A. Brown. Michael S. Harper, editor. Chicago:
TriQuarterly Books, 1989
Cone, James H.
The Spirituals and the Blues.
Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1972
Terrible Honesty. New York:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995
Blues & The Poetic Spirit.
New York: Da Capo Press, 1975
The Selected Poems of Nikki
Giovanni. New York: William Morrow, 1996
Harrison, Daphne Duval.
Black Pearls, Blues
Queens of the 1920s. Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990
Hine, Darlene Clark.
Speak Truth To Power.
Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing, Inc., 1996
Blues People. New York:
Morrow Quill Paperbacks, 1963
The Devil's Music, A History of
the Blues. New York: Harvest/HBJ book, 1976
Spencer, Jon Michael.
Blues and Evil.
Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993
The Color Purple. New York:
Pocket Books/Washington Square Press, 1982
also : http://mathrisc1.lunet.edu/blues/Classic.html
* * * *
music website >
writing website >
daily blog >
* * *
Guarding the Flame of Life
* * *
Ida Cox—Wild Women Don’t Have
Don’t Have the Blues
I hear these women raving 'bout their monkey
About their fightin' husbands and their no
These poor women sit around all day and moan
wondering why their wandering papas don't
But wild women don't worry—wild women don't
have the blues.
Now when you've got a man, don't never be on
because if you do he'll have a woman
I never was known to treat no one man right.
I keep 'em working hard both day and night
because wild women don't worry—wild women
don't have no blues.
I've got a disposition and a way of my own.
When my man starts kicking I let him find
I get full of good liquor, walk the streets
go home and put my man out if he don't act
Wild women don't worry—wild
women don't have no blues
You never get nothing by being an anger
You better change your ways and get real
I wanna tell you something, I wouldn't tell
you no lie.
Wild women are the only kind that ever get
Wild women don't worry—wild women don't
have no blues.
* * *
New Orleans Jazz Funeral for tuba player Kerwin
They danced atop his casket Jaran 'Julio' Green
Audio: My Story, My Song (Featuring blues
guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)
* * *
* * * * *
The Warmth of Other Suns
The Epic Story of America's Great Migration
By Isabel Wilkerson
Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper's
wife, left Mississippi for Milwaukee in
1937, after her cousin was falsely accused
of stealing a white man's turkeys and was
almost beaten to death. In 1945, George
Swanson Starling, a citrus picker, fled
Florida for Harlem after learning of the
grove owners' plans to give him a "necktie
party" (a lynching). Robert Joseph Pershing
Foster made his trek from Louisiana to
California in 1953, embittered by "the
absurdity that he was doing surgery for the
United States Army and couldn't operate in
his own home town." Anchored to these three
stories is Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist
Wilkerson's magnificent, extensively
researched study of the "great migration,"
the exodus of six million black Southerners
out of the terror of Jim Crow to an
"uncertain existence" in the North and
Midwest. Wilkerson deftly incorporates
sociological and historical studies into the
novelistic narratives of Gladney, Starling,
and Pershing settling in new lands, building
anew, and often finding that they have not
left racism behind. The drama, poignancy,
and romance of a classic immigrant saga
pervade this book, hold the reader in its
grasp, and resonate long after the reading
* * *
Obama's America and the New
Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander)
/ Michelle_Alexander Part
II Democracy Now
Michelle Alexander Speaks At
2 of 4 /
part 3 of 4 /
part 4 of 4
more African Americans under
today--in prison or jail, on
probation or parole—than
were enslaved in 1850, a
decade before the Civil War
began. If you take into
account prisoners, a large
majority of African American
men in some urban areas,
like Chicago, have been
labeled felons for life.
These men are part of a
growing undercaste, not
class, caste—a group of
people who are permanently
relegated, by law, to an
status. They can be denied
the right to vote,
automatically excluded from
juries, and legally
discriminated against in
employment, housing, access
to education and public
as their grandparents and
great-grandparents once were
during the Jim Crow era.—Michelle
The New Jim Crow
* * *
The Natural Mystics: Marley, Tosh, and Wailer
By Colin Grant
The definitive group biography of the Wailers—Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Livingston—chronicling their rise to fame and power. Over one dramatic decade, a trio of Trenchtown R&B crooners swapped their 1960s Brylcreem hairdos and two-tone suits for 1970s battle fatigues and dreadlocks to become the Wailers—one of the most influential groups in popular music. Colin Grant presents a lively history of this remarkable band from their upbringing in the brutal slums of Kingston to their first recordings and then international superstardom. With energetic prose and stunning, original research, Grant argues that these reggae stars offered three models for black men in the second half of the twentieth century: accommodate and succeed (Marley), fight and die (Tosh), or retreat and live (Livingston). Grant meets with Rastafarian elders, Obeah men (witch doctors), and other folk authorities as he attempts to unravel the mysteries of Jamaica's famously impenetrable culture. Much more than a top-flight music biography, The Natural Mystics offers a sophisticated understanding of Jamaican politics, heritage, race, and religion—a portrait of a seminal group during a period of exuberant cultural evolution. 8 pages of four-color and 8 pages of black-and-white illustrations. Colin Grant Interview, The Natural Mystics
* * *
updated 13 October 2007