Angela Davis, Bessie Smith, & Black Feminism

In the chapter “I Used to be Your Sweet Mama: Ideology, Sexuality and Domesticity” of her book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Angela Davis works to ground the importance of blues music in a post-slavery freedom. She speaks of sexuality in terms of homosexuality and extramarital relationships, as well as the ways in which the blues evaded themes of domesticity that fit within the confines of a white, heterosexual patriarchy. Instead, states Davis, “the blues gave musical expression to the new social and sexual realities encountered by African Americans as free women and men” (Davis, 4). Although African Americans were thought to have been given freedom, they still failed to scale the economic and political spheres of the white man’s world. Sexuality was one of the decisions open for African Americans to make on their own, and female blues singers very graciously took to this decision-making.

As a film, “Bessie” captures important qualities of post-slavery attitudes in the almost immediate appearance of a female lover. Bessie Smith is comfortable in her homosexual experiences. She is not ashamed of herself; she herself has made the decision to pursue a woman, and is content doing so. Later, when Jack Gee first confronts Bessie, he explains that he would like to “audition” for her heart. Although this choice of language frames Bessie as a prize to be won, an object of male desire, it also deconstructs the stereotypical passivity of a domestic woman. Bessie is given the option to choose her man. She has a voice; she has freedom. Angela Davis refers to a piece by Daphne Duval Harrison, who exclaims that the blues touched upon such themes as betrayal, love, homosexuality, injustice, sex, travel, low-income living, and depression, just to name a few; however, Harrison “does not include children, domestic life, husband, and marriage” as common themes (Davis, 13). Like the film, Angela Davis explores the values and principles of African American freedom through a sense of self that is able to exist without imprisoning domestic roles. Bessie Smith “mocks” the concepts of traditional marriage by forcing Jack Gee to become the object—a man with whom she shares no true emotional relationship, and who serves only as a body of money. She sings that there is, “No time to marry, no time to settle down / I’m a young woman and ain’t done runnin’ around.” She has overtaken the role of the conventional white patriarchal man, and in this way, completely deconstructs his role in society. Bessie Smith is the voice of black feminism; a voice that strongly confronts race issues and the newfound position of African Americans in a white society, as well as issues concerning gender roles.

The film also works to address domestic abuse through flashbacks of a secret childhood. The audience watches in horror as Bessie runs from, hides from, and screams at an abusive sister. We fear for Bessie’s safety, and constantly wonder about the ways in which these experiences have shaped the being that she becomes. These scenes compare to the male violence about which Bessie Smith sings and on which Angela Davis comments, and become a good foundation for acknowledging and criticizing the reality of abuse. Although Bessie is courageous, determined, and self-loving, the film forces its audience to reckon with the fact that she can still become victim to those stronger, larger, and bigger than she. Angela Davis imagines that, “Hearing [songs about abuse], women who were victims of such abuse consequently could perceive it as a shared…condition” (Davis, 28). In this sense, Angela Davis and Bessie Smith empower women to stick together in their yearning to overcome violence and abuse. They campaign that no woman is alone; together, they will fight the patriarchy.

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