Blues Legacies and Black Feminism by Angela Davis

Playbill for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, 1984. https://nmaahc.si.edu/LGBTQ/ma-rainey

Covering subjects outside the mainstream of early twentieth century swing and jazz music, the blues point to more than one kind of voice involved in the act of telling. Angela Davis suggests a multiplicity and fluidity prohibited by the homogenizing structuring of narration and community in mainstream music.[1] Through her transcription and analysis of the ideology, sexuality and domesticity in the Blues of Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith, relegated to so-called race records,[2] a liberating pulse is heard against the noise of the segregated American nation-state in the first half of the twentieth century.

Davis demonstrates the central role that blues played in the creation of a new African-American culture, and how the blues were used by women to help them define their place in this new social order. Davis describes the birth of the blues as the legacy of emancipation which replaced the antebellum spirituals as the collective expression of African-American culture. Tremendous change in society necessitated African-American communities to create a genre that accommodated and celebrated idioms which were simple and flexible enough to encompass all of the complexities and turbulence of a nation still reeling from the devastation of war. America’s social and sexual realities were in transition and “the status of their personal relationships was revolutionized”.[3] For the first time black men and women were able to make autonomous choices about whom they associated with and had sex with: “Sexuality thus was one of the most tangible domains in which emancipation was acted upon and through which its meanings were expressed.”[4] These personal and sexual relationships, the dominant theme of the blues, have their own “historical meanings and social and political resonances.” Davis contends that to discover meanings and elaborate on the resonances of the songs, one must excavate and reconstruct blues consciousness and blues society. The chronicle and exploration of personal and sexual relations were part of a recently freed people’s efforts to establish community. This is equally true of the less sexy themes in the blues such as those that sing about going to work. While concentrating on the blues’ primary subject, Davis gives some of these other themes secondary consideration, such as travel, spirituality, and economic hardship.[5] Later in the book, Davis writes that topical songs such as Bessie Smith’s magnificent “Backwater Blues” recast individual tragedies into “social, collective adversities … [giving them] the ability to constitute themselves as a community in struggle.” If the rhymed narrative force of a song produces a culture, the blues interrupts this production by singing a different tune or different tunes.[6]

            I am deeply interested in the imaginative leap taken by Davis in staking the ability of the Blues to disrupt the fixity in terms of the position of African-American artists and the structuring of the creative industry of 20s and 30s. In my research of American-educated Filipino modernists, I look out for innovations on forms of Western-style painting and deviations in subject matter to enable an exploration of new or previously underexplored subject matter outside the academic staples of the nude, the still life, and the landscape. Using theoretical approaches from the study of colonial and visual modernities, interpretative leaps can be taken in establishing the links between the expansion of the aesthetic language and the formation of nationalist sentiment. In my exploration of US Cold War diplomacy and its impact on the promotion of modern and contemporary art in Southeast Asia, I find several parallels between the conflicts and predicaments confronted by the musicians that Davis studies and the cultural-critical formation of US-educated Filipino artists and the notions of gender, race, ethnicity that underpin the discursive creation of these cultural subjects.


[1]Angela Davis, “I Used to Be Your Sweet Mama,” Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. New York: Random House, 1999, 4-6.

[2] Ibid., 17. Race records were 78-rpm phonograph records marketed to African Americans between the 1920s and 1940s comprising various African-American musical genres, including blues, jazz, and gospel music, and also comedy.

[3] Ibid., 29.

[4] Loc. cit.

[5] Ibid., 34.

[6] Ibid., 134.