Blueswomen: Discourse & Situation

Bessie+Smith+Bessie_Smith2I 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.

Academy & Mass Consumer Culture: Hip Hop

My lenses on Hip Hop are framed within what many people would label as Old Skool.  To be sure, there is a certain nostalgia for me.  I think back to 1984 when I was 13 years old. When boys tried to step to you, they often took on a set of identities from UTFO: Kangol Kid, the Educated Rapper, or Doctor Ice.   It was corny, annoying, and offensive, even to a 13-year old like me. Here is their infamous song, “Roxanne, Roxanne”:

(a moment of pause, please, for a brotha in a red leather suit, dry jerri curl, white Kangol, and white boots with the pant legs tucked IN!)

I don’t really remember UTFO at all.  What I remember, growing up all the way west in Ohio, was a 14-year old from Queensbridge projects: Roxanne Shante.  As the story goes, UTFO canceled its appearance on a show promoted by Marley Marl and Mr. Magic, an unthinkable and arrogant thing to do to your friends in the world of Hip Hop especially in those early days.  Legend has it that Roxanne Shante was on her way to the laundry, washing clothes for her mother who was at work and took breaks between cycles to record this song in one take in Marley Marl’s apartment.  As a 13-year old, doing my share of the same daily chores, this was someone who I saw worth emulating.

Every girl I knew could recite these lyrics and it infuriated the boys our age.  To learn lyrics like this took real work too.  For the most part, someone like Roxanne Shante was played for only a few hours on the radio station where I grew up, certainly not all day.  You waited until that hour came and taped the show on a boombox using a cassette tape.  Then you played that cassette tape over and over until the ribbon wore out.  That’s how we all became Roxanne Shante.  We didn’t need to go shopping or get our nails done to become like her, which was a good thing because there wasn’t enough money for food and lights, much less outfits and manicures. We didn’t need a new weave, make-up, or plastic surgery.  Of course, nostalgia can be romantic and, highly inaccurate, but it is also always politically loaded and carries a material effect.  I can’t help but think back on many of my black female college students today who, upon first hearing Roxanne Shante in my classes on Black Women’s Rhetoric, are stunned by how “aggressive” she is and question whether or not this is appropriate for a “lady.” I don’t think I am merely being romantic in suggesting that my female peer group didn’t construct ourselves so wholly within this cult of white womanhood (no one ever fully escapes it) as indicated in these social fantasies of wanting to always be seen as “ladies” who do not directly confront men (or wash clothes for their mommas who are at work vs. staying at home to service their middle class homes/families.)

This is all more than simply nostalgia for me; it is a different relationship to mass consumerism and, thereby, capitalism.  It wasn’t that consumerism was not there; it was.  After all, calling yourself Kangol in the 1980s was as obnoxious in its signs of wealth as talking about the cars/houses/women you own.  And that’s why Roxanne Shante disses him: he goes by the name of a hat; it is a hat and nothing more. The sign is stripped of its meaning. I bring up these issues because many only talk about what always gets simplistically talked about in relation to Hip Hop: mass consumer culture as the sum value of Hip Hop.  Instead , I want us to wonder if/how the academy is as consuming and domesticating as any other capitalist industry.

Hortense Spillers has particularly inspired a new lens on the academy’s mass consumption. My Old Skool disposition might then mean something much more than the rather simplistic issues of a choice in artists and songs.  Instead I am talking here about ideological positions, intellectual trajectories, and black political histories. What Spillers contextualizes as the history of feminism could very well apply to Hip Hop and it is this application that I hope students will take up. In a discussion with Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley, and Jennifer Morgan, Spillers says:

I think that the feminism as of the 1980s became curricular objects… all of a sudden, it would seem, the conversation changes, and it is so sudden it is institutionally traumatic…there are women in this country today who legitimately wonder what happened to their movement?  But it went to the university.  To the disciplines. With fund-raising imperatives, and hiring practices; and that’s a different animal from the movement, from the polemics that come out of jail time and confronting the police.  So what feminism has become is a curricular object that, in the living memory of at least one of its generations, has a very different source— a movement component…

We haven’t figured out a way to carry historical memory… the cost of Americanization, of equality, is to forget…

I am not suggesting here that Feminism and Hip Hop are interchangeable, not ever.  What I am interested in is the politics that Spillers offers us of what “curricular objectification” does to even the things that we consider radical and outside of the purview and bounds of the Western academy.  In Spillers’s representation, the academy will sell you and your stuff just as fast as any other auction block.  Mainstream success in the academy comes with as much of a price as mainstream success on MTV, VHI, BET, or Hollywood.  This might be the reason college students who are willing to see themselves as neoliberal subjects are also unwilling to see themselves as Roxanne Shante; she is not mainstream success.

As we look at these issues tonight, I also think back to Heather Andrea William’s book, Self-Taught.  In that book, we saw an entire people committed to the Word, to literacies, to reading and writing, not for material gain, but for the radical humanity that they themselves were defining.  I think  back on those masses of black people after emancipation giving all that they had left— both time and money— to learning to read and write regardless of that fact that it would not provide social access or material gain.  As Williams shows us, their work in creating the very meaning and practice of a free, public education was then taken away from them and co-opted for and by dominant groups.  When I think back to early Hip Hoppers, I see this same history.  There was very little material reason for Roxanne Shante to have spent so much time carving out her verbal skills back then; there was no Bentley promised to her at the end of that Hip Hop rainbow but she was committed to the Word anyway.  If we are at the same place with a new Post-Reconstruction redefining and taking away black communities’ literate commitments and creations, exactly like what happened with newly emancipated slaves’ schooling, we need to be clear about it.  And we need to indict all of the expressions of capitalism when it is culpable, especially the academy.