In a Different Chord: Interpreting the Relations among Black Female Sexuality, Agency, and the Blues

By Lewis, Nghana tamu | African American Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

In a Different Chord: Interpreting the Relations among Black Female Sexuality, Agency, and the Blues


Lewis, Nghana tamu, African American Review


Sometimes the lyrics mock and signify even as they pretend to weep. (Albert Murray, Stomping the Blues)

Black feminism is not a monolithic enterprise. But it starts to look that way in critical treatment of the intercourse among the blues, black female sexuality, and cultural agency. Angela Davis, for example, drawing from the lyrics of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, theorizes that the blues has "helped to construct an aesthetic community" that validates "women's capacities in domains assumed to be the prerogatives of males, such as sexuality and travel" (120). Davis follows Hazel Carby's lead in identifying the late 1920s and early 1930s as especially progressive periods in the history of the blues because black women, as at no other time before, used the medium to "manipulate and control their construction as sexual objects" (333). Carby likewise reads in Ma Rainey's and Bessie Smith's performances subversions of the stereotype of black women as down-trodden and forlorn in traditional blues matrices. (1) Michelle Russell and Sandra Leib argue similarly that black female blues developed at the turn of the twentieth century as a distinguishable idiom precisely because it enabled black women to own their "past, present and future" by confiscating and reconstructing their identities (Russell 130). Like Carby and Davis, Russell and Leib portray female lyricists of the 1920s and 1930s as ideologists of the notion of black female self-determination, out of which black feminist thought emerged in the academy in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

None of these scholars considers the possibility that musical and literary blues lyrics written by both men and women and lacking explicitly emancipatory features might nevertheless afford black women similar opportunities for self-formation and self-expression. (2) All take the same formulaic approach toward classifying "empowering" blues texts, isolating, almost exclusively, lyrics or performances in which female singers assert male prerogatives or reject and exact revenge against their oppressors as the loci of liberating and, hence, feminist moments of expression for black women. By focusing exclusively on "celebratory" black female performances, black feminist blues scholars suggest that the liberating potential of the blues is a primary function of the performer's gender identification. They forget that, while Clare Smith, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday were singing and stomping the blues in the '20s and '30s, black male writers and entertainers such as Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, and Louis Armstrong were also producing blues texts for mass consumption.

Limning Ma Rainey as both feminist foremother and prophet, Leib insists that the body of Rainey's recorded material "constitutes a message to women, explaining quite clearly how to deal with reverses in love and how to interpret other areas of life." Leib points out that, "in striking contrast to the popular concept of the blues as a music of sorrow and despair," Ma Rainey's performances reveal "women aggressively confronting or attempting to change the circumstances of their lives" (xvi). By contrast, in this essay, I work from the belief that the practice of dichotomizing black male- and female-authored blues constructions of black women and black female sexuality vitiates the life of the medium--the fluidity of the blues and its ability to circumvent diametrically opposed categorical analyses. Attending exclusively to works that paint only overtly "positive" images of black women, in other words, produces stereotypically negative interpretations of those "passive" female singers that have historically been condemned or ignored. The scholarly focus inadvertently dismisses a cross-generational body of musical and literary blues texts that, in fact, celebrate the multi-dimensionality of black women's characters. By cross-examining blues works by Langston Hughes, Billie Holiday, Mari Evans, and Natalie Cole, I aim to represent the blues' metasexual dimensions as well as the possibilities the blues have historically created for black American women to achieve actual and symbolic liberation within the constraints of white- and male-dominated societies. …

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