A Personal Oasis
As I drive to Pretoria on the M1 highway on this 9th day of September 2016, I am so excited I am anxious that I may cause an accident. I force myself to focus. Professor Angela Davis is in South Africa, soon to give the 17th annual Steve Biko Lecture at the University of South Africa (UNISA). While driving I keep having visual flashbacks of her face on the cover of Women, Race and Class – a book I read way back in 1993, eleven years after it was published. And then I see images of her in the 1980s when I first started hearing and reading about her activism. I wonder what she looks like in real life.
My memory of, in 2002, reading her second book – second for me, Davis is prolific, with over ten books published! – called BLUES LEGACIES AND BLACK FEMINISM: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday pulsates in my veins. It is not a good idea to be driving while visual, mental flashbacks keep interfering with the changing of gears and foot pressure adjustments to the accelerator. It is not a good time to be driving from Johannesburg because of the traffic directions at the end of the day. This is the reason I left early.
As the traffic begins to slow down drastically just beyond the Grayston off-ramp I am relieved that I left very early so as to give myself time. I will get there in time Prof Angela, before you start speaking. I will secure a front seat so I can see you clearly. And then it occurs to me that I should have talked to a friend so I am not driving alone, so I am not alone when this final meeting of minds and faces and energies takes place, in public view. By the time I approach Midrand the traffic has slowed down even further and I am now convinced there must be a serious, massive accident ahead. Very soon we shall all be driving in one lane, I think.
Why revisit and review a book published ages ago? The year 2020 is the 21st birthday of BLUES LEGACIES AND BLACK FEMINISM: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, so this review is a celebration. Toni Morrison’s blurb on the front cover of my edition reads: “Angela Davis’s book is a complete revelation to me and a serious re-education.” The book was a complete revelation to me as well but it was also entry level education. Through Women, Race and Class I had been educated about the specificities of black women’s lives during slavery in America. In Women, Race and Class Davis taught me about the historical trajectory of black women’s lives from slavery, to antislavery activism, to activism on universal suffrage, women’s fight for education as a tool for liberation, right up to the reproductive rights movements, amongst others. As a black woman and activist in South Africa the parallels I drew were clear and telling about the nature of activism all over the world. Needless to point out that this first book – Women, Race and Class – had tangible resonance for me because of where South Africa was politically in 1993.
When I picked up Blues Legacies & Black Feminism from a second hand bookstore in Key West in 2002 I was excited that I had found another Davis book, yet not fully convinced about the subject matter. I was attracted to Black Feminism but “Blues Legacies”? Mostly I connect with music in vicarious ways through my parents, my four siblings and some friends. Blues as a genre is completely foreign to me. But this was Angela Davis writing, so…
Rereading the book for this review felt like visiting with a friend after a long separation. I was reminded of so much I had forgotten. I reconnected with what I had internalised so deeply as my own knowledge, having forgotten I had read it from Blues Legacies & Black Feminism. Most impressive about Blues Legacies & Black Feminism is Davis’s intensive research. In her introduction she writes about transcribing 252 songs firstly from vinyl reproductions and later from compact discs (CDs). At the back end of the book Davis included Lyrics and Songs Recorded by Gertrude “Ma” Rainey which run from page 200 – 255 and followed by those recorded by Bessie Smith from page 258 – 358. This makes the book a treasure trove for music lovers and blues lovers in particular. It is a lasting archive of women’s creativity, available via a book. This is historically significant because erasure of women’s work happens in so many ways, particularly as time moves on.
In her introduction we read: “Black women were the first to record the blues.” This short sentence of nine words is an assertion Davis needed to make in this deliberate manner because of how easy it is for black women’s stories to be misinterpreted, misunderstood, neglected, trivialised and even erased. This then is the common thread in the book. Davis excavated facts and stuck to them to make the historical points and offer analyses. Davis’ book is focused on the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s and she asserts: “I am most concerned with how these women’s performances appear through the prism of the present, and with what these interpretations can tell us about past and present forms of social consciousness.”
While Blues Legacies & Black Feminism is an in-depth study of the work and times of these three singers, we learn about others of their times as Davis weaves connections between these three women and others, like Ethel Waters, and between music and other cultural genres like visual art, writing and literature. Davis paces through the early decades of the 20th century, thus offering readers an historical context for black people’s lives in America focussed on popular music.
Getrude “Ma” Rainey
Gertrude “Ma” Rainey came to be known as “The Mother of the Blues”. Davis pulls numerous themes from the music she recorded: Ideology, Sexuality, Domesticity, Rivals, Girlfriends, Advisors and Travelling women. What makes these themes interesting is clearly their contextual historical period. The Mother of the Blues started singing as a teenager, at a historical period full of opposing political forces, as Davis puts it:
[w]omen’s blues bore witness to the contradictory historical demands made of black American women. On the one hand, by virtue of their femaleness, they face ideological expectations of domesticity and subordination emanating from the dominant culture. On the other hand given the political, economic, and emotional transformations occasioned by the disestablishment of slavery, their lived experiences rendered such ideological assumptions flagrantly incongruous. In the blues, therefore, gender relationships are stretched to their limits and beyond. (p. 22)
Of all these themes, sexuality – including same sex relationship between women – and travel must have been the most revolutionary concepts to incorporate into music, considering what slavery by white people and sexism from men prescribed for black women. On sexuality Davis writes:
Perhaps women’s blues history has been so readily marginalised because the most frequently recurring themes of women’s blues music revolve around male lovers and the plethora of problems posed by heterosexual relationships complicated by expressions of autonomous female sexuality. (p. 45)
What Davis points out here is the revolutionary nature of music by blues women singers. She dedicates a whole chapter on the travel theme in women’s blues. From another award winning, extensively researched tome by Isabel Wilkerson – The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration – we read about the epic nature of black peoples’ migration from the south of America where slavery was most rampant. This book helped me understand this particular historical migration in ways that contextualise the travel theme that Davis theorises about in Blues Legacies & Black Feminism.
The Mother of the Blues started singing at age 14 and her 92 records have become a testimony to her significant contribution to the history of music. In Blues Legacies & Black Feminism Davis uses the lyrics of the various songs as examples and as evidence of her theorisations.
As has happened in South Africa when black women have challenged men on their sexism, their feminism is sometimes viewed as a betrayal. This comes through very clearly in Blues Legacies & Black Feminism as Davis demonstrates how The Mother of the Blues’ feminism was received.
Bessie Smith, Davis informs us, considered The Mother of the Blues her mentor and “patterned herself after Rainey”. Smith’s period and geographical positioning meant that she was an important contributor to the Harlem Renaissance. This is how Davis positions Smith:
When Harlem emerged as the cultural capital of black America, Bessie Smith became the quintessential Harlem blues woman. And the audacious and innovative contributions of the premier blues women of the twenties would inform the evolution of both jazz and popular song for the remainder of the century. (p. 141)
Smith’s music included themes grounded in the lived experiences of African American women because many of her songs addressed: “…work, jail, physical abuse afflicted by male partners, and other injustices.”
The coincidence of Smith’s rise with that of the Harlem Renaissance makes possible the drawing of clear connections between music and literature and the visual arts. Langston Hughes, for instance, was so heavily influenced by blues that his first collection of poetry published in 1926 was is entitled The Weary Blues. Coming as I did into this era of American history via literature and political activism, I was fascinated by the connections Davis makes between the likes of Alain Locke, Booker T. Washington, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. du Bois and Zora Neale Hurston. Davis renders the intriguing complexity of that period in engaging ways. We read about the debates, concerns and controversies among the artists and how Bessie Smith was ensconced in it all. Until my first reading of Blues Legacies & Black Feminism my understanding of the Harlem Renaissance was landmarked by the literary landscape and Davis’ “persuasively argued and meticulously researched” (San Francisco Chronicle) book expands my understanding and educates me.
Ethel Waters, the other black woman jazz artist of the Harlem Renaissance, features extensively in the Bessie Smith chapter as Davis makes numerous comparisons between them and uses written reflections and analyses by journalists, arts and culture commentators, and scholars of that time.
What did Bessie Smith’s work make possible? According to Davis, Smith’s music affirmed the experiences of black people’s lives as well as their emotional responses to them.
Bessie Smith’s work allows historical consciousness that elevates women’s lives to a position of equal importance as men’s.… Her songs at once reflected and conferred order upon the social experiences of black women and men and their emotional responses to those experiences.
The themes of her music were the themes of working-class black people’s lives, and the myriad emotional qualities with which her voice transmitted these themes – pathos or humour, aggressiveness and resignation, iron and straightforwardness- were the various ways in which her working-class sisters and brothers lived the realities of these themes. (p. 142- 143)
Davis helps readers understand how she concludes that Bessie Smith and the Harlem Renaissance did not only coincide through time and geography; her music and ways of its rendering was an undeniable part of the goals and visions of the renaissance. The chapter titled “Up in Harlem Every Saturday Night” sums up and seals this symbiosis.
Billie Holiday, also known as Lady Day, came at a moment that signified the transition from blues to jazz and accompanied by rapid individualisation of black people’s lives following the epic migration. How was her music different from that of The Mother of Blues and Bessie Smith? Davis offers this conclusion based on her analysis of her lyrics:
Unlike Gertrude Rainey and Bessie Smith, she did not concentrate on the musical creations of black culture. Rather she boldly entered the domain of white love as it filtered through the commodification images and market strategies of Tin Pan Alley. She revealed to her black audiences what the world of popular culture was about and invited them to discover how white people acquired a consciousness of love and sexuality that was overdetermined by ideologies of male dominance and heterosexism. (p. 171)
Davis summarises the power of Holiday’s music and rendering of it in one paragraph that ends the chapter “When a Woman Loves a Man: Social implications of Billie Holiday’s Love Songs”
We remain moved by her songs because we experience in them the anticipated, inchoate presence of a vantage point later produced and systematically elaborated by social movements that would insist upon historical transformations of gender, race and class relations. (p. 180)
I, perhaps like many other activists outside of America, was introduced to Billie Holiday via her song “Strange Fruit”. In the book Davis dedicates a whole chapter called “Strange Fruit: Music and Social Consciousness” to this song which was recorded in 1939 when Holiday was twenty-four years old. Anyone interested in reading about ways of erasure of women’s personal agency should read this chapter. Nuanced, detailed and multidimensional from more than one perspective, Davis tells the story of Strange Fruit. It is a haunting case study of race, class and gender power relations that black women are familiar with, told expertly. Summarising this story in this review will only spoil it, so I move on to how Davis positions Holiday’s contribution to music. This long quotation is poignant in framing an understanding of Holiday’s music through one song Strange Fruit.
Yet her performance of this song did much more. It almost singlehandedly changed the politics of American popular culture and put elements of protest and resistance back into the centre of contemporary black musical culture. The felt impact of Holiday’s performance of Strange Fruit is as powerful today as it was in the 1940s. By placing this song at the centre of her repertoire, Holiday firmly established the place of protest in the black popular music tradition. Her use of this work in her career helped dismantle the opposition, firmly entrenched until her singing of this song, between fame and commercial success on the one hand and social consciousness in music on the other (p.184)
Davis opens the chapter Strange Fruit with the lyrics of the song on the centre of the page. Reading the words makes them differently haunting, impactful and poignant. The eyes move with the lines, through the stanza, without missing the rhymes and the images evoked by the word come alive and seem to keep enlarging. Strange fruit indeed!
From The Mother of the Blues to Bessie Smith to Lady Day, Blues Legacies & Black Feminism is indeed ground breaking in its ability to forge feminist threads over some decades through the lens of music by black women. The life narratives of these three artists provide a firm spine for Angela Davis’ research trajectories. Twenty one years later, this solid scholarship on blues by black women in America deserves celebration.
Traffic slows down even more. I am late. We, the drivers on this highway, are late, wherever we are headed. There is no accident. We miss the off-ramp to UNISA because there is no way to force an entry into the turning lanes. By the time we have recalculated, made turn upon turn and finally entered the venue, we can only sit in the overflow space where a massive screen has been set up. My heart sinks: I am not inside the exact same walls as Prof Davis.
Why did I never imagine that Davis as a speaker at a Steve Biko annual lecture would indeed create a traffic jam on a major Gauteng province highway, necessitating an overflow area for her lecture? I realize now that in my head, my relationship with Angela Davies was that of author-reader-private-personal, and, I valued it as a personal oasis. My obsession with reading often means that I do not discuss the books with friends and family members. Books are my private world. On this day I made the mistake of extending this understanding to the persona that is Angela Davis.
I know that she is revered the world over for her activism, her academic work, her research outputs in books and other forms as well as her visionary ideas about the prison system in the USA. In Blues Legacies and Black Feminishm Davis has gifted women, feminists, musicians, blacks, historians and readers at large, all over the world, with a treasure of immeasurable value.
Davis, Angela. 1982. Women Race and Class London: The Women’s Press Limited.
Hughes, Langston. 1926. The Weary Blues. New York: Knopf
Wilkerson, Isabel. 2010. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration Insert city Random House.