Bessie’s Blues + Feminism

In Angela Y. Davis’s book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, he talked about three major respects, emancipation transformed African-American’s personal lives: travel, education and sexuality (8). And blues, which is the predominant postslavery African-American music form, was shaped by and gave expression to at least the transformations of travel and sexuality; especially, blues music registered sexuality as a tangible expression of freedom. This trait of blues music is highly-emphasized in both the article and the movie, Bessie.

Because, because of what Davis’s book points out, that during slavery period, “direct sexual exploration of American women by their white masters was a constant feature of slavery” (10), the focus of sexual love in blues music was not even close to what the mainstream popular music portrays: they focused on the freedom of the sexual relationship: the freedom to choose and not choose to engage in a certain sexual love with other people out of their own willingness. In Bessie the movie, it is clear that Bessie Smith, herself is on the dominant place she can actively choose to engage in a sexual relationship or not. The movie starts with a scene where Bessie Smith was almost forced by a man to have sex and she got slapped when she refused; but she successfully to keep her stand, paying back the man with violence as well. This scene well illustrates that in postslavery time, although women are still likely to be forced to a sexual relationship, they now have freedom to say no.

Plus, Davis also expressed a point that blues music, especially the ones created by female blues singers, “in drawing parallels between male and female desires, between their similar inclinations toward intoxication, dance and sex, launches a brazen challenge to dominant notions of women’s subordination” (22). It’s very impressive to see the transition. Women were usually portrayed and obligated as domestic and males were usually dominant in one relationship or in a family. Hence, the challenge by blues music on females’ position in a relation also works on their social stands. It reminds me of one scene in the movie where Bessie Smith was proposed by a man: she was not proposed only because of her appearance but her talent in singing – she was portrayed as a women who made her name in the field and won great chance of wealth, fame and sexual relationship. As a female blues singer, she used her music to challenge the view that males should be dominant in both the family and society: she is actually the one who have rights to make decisions to start or end up with a relationship and she is also the one who stands in front, letting all of her audience, including both male and female, quiet and enjoy her voice. Also, when she is in relationship with another female, she clearly put her career in blues music before the relationship; this contradicts with the common notion at that time of women’s domestication. Bessie Smith seems to be very independent in both romantic relationship with either men or women (since clearly, she cares about her blues musical work more than engaging in a good relationship) and her career in blues (since she makes great musical pieces by herself and her quarrel with her “tutor” after their first live show together clearly suggests that she can work well independently).

Form my own perspective, the most touching scene is when Bessie Smith saw the train with her name on it. It seems like a representative of her great success, as a blues singer and also as a woman.

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