Difficult Diasporas: The Transnational Feminist Aesthetic of the Black Atlantic

By Samantha Pinto | Go to book overview

1/The World and the “Jar”: Jackie Kay and the
Feminist Locations of the African Diaspora

A letter full of curses, again in Bessie’s handwriting to the manager of the
91 Club in Atlanta. An original record of “Downhearted Blues.” A reject
selection of the songs that were never released. A giant pot of chicken stew
still steaming, its lid tilted to the side. A photograph of Ethel Waters; un-
derneath the sophisticated image Bessie has written: “Northern bitch. Long
goody. Sweet Mama String Bean. 1922.”… A jar of Harlem night air
.

—JACKIE KAY, Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith’s first hit, 1923’s “Downhearted Blues,” tells a familiar blues story of love and loss using the strange and fantastic metaphor of “the world,” “a jug,” and “the stopper”: “Got the world in a jug, the stopper’s in my hand/Got the world in a jug, the stopper’s in my hand/Going to hold it, baby, till you come under my command.” These objects form a complex relationship to one another: on the surface, the lyrics are another performance of a popular heterosexual romance imperative; of course, as has been well documented, blues songs’ engagement with “love” often exposes decidedly unpopular narratives of power and loss. In “Downhearted Blues,” the world is both trouble and possibility, the jug is limited from inside and outside, and the stopper represents control as well as the inability to act. As an image of cultural and self-containment, the verse haunts with its suggestion of the capacity and agency of black subjectivity, the ordinariness of a jug holding the extraordinary body of the world.

Ralph Ellison uses a similar conceit in his 1964 essay analyzing the legacy of Richard Wright and of mainstream critical reception of black literature, “The World and the Jug”: “But if we are in a jug it is transparent, not opaque, and one is allowed not only to see outside but to read what is going on out there” (1995, 116). For him, the jug of public intellectual and artistic discourse limits how black writing (and black subjects) are held by the outside world to reflections of a particular form of tragic

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