Angela Davis’ appearance at Columbia College’s Getz Theater April 30 was book ended by standing ovations. As she strode out onto the stage, the intergenerational audience that had been buzzing in anticipation rose as one and clapped wildly. In a mark of her status as a living cultural icon, some in the audience were sporting T-shirts with the famous image of her from the 1970s, when Davis was wanted and eventually jailed by the FBI, sparking an international “Free Angela” campaign that led to her eventual release.
Since then, Davis, who is currently professor emerita of history of consciousness and feminist studies at the University of California-Santa Cruz, has done academic and activist work on feminist issues and the spread of the prison industrial complex (PIC). The latter term has its origins in 1961 when Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about “… the acquisition of unwarranted influence … by the military-industrial complex,” but it is now mostly associated with Davis who is a leading voice in the prison abolition movement.
But Davis was not here to speak about the PIC, except tangentially. Instead, in a talk entitled “Blues Legacies: Female Artists,” she addressed the rise of the Blues as a predominantly working class form that allowed Black women in the early part of the twentieth century and onwards to defy the personal and political expectations thrust upon them. Davis is also the author of a 1998 book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, which she drew upon for her talk.
Davis sketched a brief history of the Blues as a genre of music explicitly defined as working class: “I did not experience the Blues as popular music. Growing up, Blues were the ‘low-down Blues.’ I became interested in the Blues because I see the Blues as a music that is all about freedom. And I’ve been interested in freedom practically all my life.” She went on to talk about how the Blues represented a “dialectic between freedom and unfreedom,” given how “ [Black] history is sedimented with the Blues.”
Davis explored this dialectic through the relatively lesser-known history of women in the Blues, like “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith whose work pioneered the emergence of Black performers in the entertainment industry. She pointed out that in the 1960s and 1970s, which saw a surge in the women’s and the Black Power movements, feminism was largely defined as the freedom of white middle-class women while Black freedom was defined in terms of masculinity. But looking at the history of the Blues reveals that working class Black women were in fact the pioneers in creating the genre and that they “had different discourses on sexuality and gender.” In effect, she said, the Blues constituted a “different kind of literacy.” Further proof of the influence of these women lay in their presence in the works of twentieth-century African-American female writers like Alice Walker. However, “the visibility of the Blues woman in fiction is in stark contrast to the critical literature of the Blues” which tends to focus on the contributions of male artists like Chicago’s Muddy Waters.
In fact, at the peak of the classical Harlem Renaissance era, thousands of women were recorded on vinyl records and this was the beginning of the Black entertainment industry. Among them was Marnie Smith, whose recording of “Crazy Blues” became the first “race” record to sell over 250,000 copies in 1920. Singers like Edith Wilson, Alberta Hunter and Coco Taylor were also immensely popular.
Davis pointed out that the women who sang the blues also sang about the issues that faced them, like love and discrimination, thus making the genre a precursor to the consciousness-raising of the ’60s and ’70s, when the personal was the political. As a genre, said Davis, “the blues were the first time that Black people began to perform as individuals—they were not just singing work songs or spirituals. In the blues, for the first time, Black people sang about personal issues.” But, she emphasized, “this was not the same individualism in the dominant culture, but about individuals in relation to community.”
The women of the blues openly explored sexuality in ways that challenged the heteronormativity of the period. In her “Prove It to Me Blues,” “Ma” Rainey sang that she “Went out last night, had a great big fight / Everything seemed to go on wrong I looked up, to my surprise / The gal I was with was gone.” An advertisement for the record portrayed her in masculine attire looking at a woman on a corner as a policeman looks a her. For Davis, such women of the Blues spoke of things that “middle-class women were not allowed to speak about, and this [highlights] the importance of working-class culture.”
Davis ended her talk with a statement that “one can develop alternative ways to engage with music as not just as entertainment but as a community-building force” and that it was important to “approach popular music in a way that recognizes it as a powerful social force and also as a site of resistance.”
The question-and-answer session that followed included a query about Davis’ thoughts about homophobia and conservatism in the Black community. About the latter, she said that it was a serious issue and that “conservatism emanates from an identification with capitalism,” but that she was “reluctant to characterize the community in this sweeping way” pointing out the “amazing work being done in Black communities” around issues of sexuality and social justice. For instance, she pointed out, the University of Louisville created the Audre Lorde Chair in Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality Studies in 2007, and that came about as a direct result of activism by the Black community that has also worked on a fairness campaign to address racism and homophobia in Louisville. About homophobia, she pointed out that it is an erroneous assumption that the Black community is more homophobic than others, as when it was blamed for Proposition 8 in California “even though [Blacks] constitute such a tiny minority of the population.” She said, in conclusion, that all these complexities were proof that “exploring the terrain of freedom is an infinite process.”