I just finished loading Unit Three of my course on Black Women’s Rhetoric, a unit that uses Angela Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism as a launching point for naming and defining blueswomen as rhetoricians. I have a sense that what I will be asking students to do with black women’s music, lyrics, and performances might seem a bit strange to them, at first. The task might be easier in relation to Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey, but I suspect it will feel stranger when we begin to look at contemporary artists who I think operate in the same tradition. The main task will be for students to listen to and feel the contemporary songs they may already know but in a way where they can understand that there is an urgency underneath what might be regarded as mere romance, especially when we witness the live performances. That is what we are trying to claim for rhetorical analysis.
A black feminist theorist prompted me to really start thinking this way. Here I am talking about Hortense Spillers and this quote:
What is it like in the interstitial spaces where you fall between everyone who has a name, a category, a sponsor, an agenda, a spokesperson, people looking out for them— but you don’t have anybody. That’s your situation. But I am like the white elephant in the room. Though you can’t talk about the era of sound in the U.S. without talking about blues and black women. You can’t talk about the era of slavery in the Americas without talking about black women, or black men without black women and how that changes the community— there is not a subject that you can speak about in the modern world where you will not have to talk about African women and new world African women. But no one wants to address them… I mean we really are invisible people. And I just kind of went nuts. And I am saying, I am here now, and I am doing it now, and you are not going to ignore me… ‘whatcha gonna do?’ [italics, mine]
For me, Spillers gets at what it feels like to be a black female academic/professor with some real soul-crushing and soul-reviving insights. She really hits this nail on the head and drives it all the way through for me. Her words make a difference for someone like me who is coming behind her and reading her; she helps me read my situation as a black female academic and understand exactly where I am. “But you don’t have anybody.” She ain’t never lied on that right there! When I think back on the colleges where I have worked and many intellectual spaces where I do my work, there has been no one who has been down for me— no sponsor or spokesperson in my corner anydamnwhere! And outside of my closest sister-friends, this is, just as Spillers says, my “situation.”
Now Spiller’s points might not seem like they would ever have anything to do with contemporary musicians and what my students and myself are talking about in unit three of this semester. Nonetheless, it IS related. When I first, as an example, heard Goapele‘s “Tears on My Pillow” on her latest album, I felt like I was hearing and witnessing Spillers’s words and message all over again. It’s that part where Goapele says that the tears she has shed were all in vain, no one ever really cared because she was all on her own, she had to just move forward from there. Goapele is obviously talking about a romantic relationship gone awry here. Though Goapele’s individual romance/relationship may not carry the political urgency of the issues Spillers describes, Goapele’s song DOES certainly carry the weight and feeling of the world that Spillers delineates. In this case, “I was crying in vain” resonates its pain, social implications, and impact from within that same lens that Spillers describes so damn well: “But you don’t have anybody.” The issue of which women’s tears do and do not matter is also not neutral here. I have in mind Karen Dace’s essay, “What Do I Do With All of Your Tears,” that describes the privileged treatment that white women receive, oftentimes at Dace’s own expense, each time they cry publicly in professional settings. It is a kind of caring and centering that Dace, as a black female professor/administrator, knows better than to expect; to no one’s surprise, I have also witnessed the parting of the seas (especially by white men) every time a white woman cries at every white institution where I have worked. So, yeah, Goapele has it right: her tears will do nothing but land straight on her own pillow.
My students are young and may not extrapolate such meaning from a song like “Tears on My Pillow.” But they have seen this thing I am talking about with their mothers, their aunties, their godmothers, their grandmothers. What I hope is for us to see that this is a unique and serious social and political location from which to understand black women’s discursive productions, even when they are talking about the relationships that they desire and/or must leave.