Black Feminism in Bessie

In both Angela Davis’s article, “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism” and the film “Bessie,” black women navigate through the blues genre to demonstrate their fluidity in such a way that defeats societal constructs of gender and sexuality. The initial response I have to Angela Davis’s reading is due to her term “new black consciousness.” This term reminds me of W.E.B Dubois’s exploration of the “double consciousness” and the doubleness of blacks in society; this is not only how one sees himself, but how society’s views them as well. In the movie, Bessie’s brother thanks her for “awakening” their community, this event took place when they were riding on the train past the cotton field that showed other black people in what looked like old slave attire (or what is often shown in pictures and movies). This disparity between Bessie and other black people in the field, demonstrates the problems of everyday people versus those that escaped this particular fate. This duality is also present in the performers themselves as they try to reconcile with the Devil’s work and God’s work, however this wasn’t portrayed in the movie.
The doubleness present in the women blues performers was their ability to perform both genders. This is more noticeable in Ma Rainey’s first and second performance in the movie. The first time Bessie watches a Ma Rainey performance she enters the stage wearing an old gold costume. Ma Rainey’s style of dress evokes an image of grandeur and she looks more feminine with the sparkling dress, headpiece and ribbon tied to cinch in the waist. The second performance of Ma Rainey that Bessie witnesses, Ma Rainey is in a full waist coat suit and top hat, her voice is much more husky and deep. The song she performs on stage is “Sure got to Prove it on me.” The lyrics are as follows:

It’s true I wear a collar and a tie,
Makes the wind blow all the while
Don’t you say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
You sure got to prove it on me.
Say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me
I went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
It must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.

Even this small except fails to capture the fluidity of gender Ma Rainey as well as her sexuality and gender expression. While a “collar and tie” are typically associated as a male type attire and “It must’ve been women, cause I don’t like men,” statement hints at her preference for sexual partners she does not state it blatantly. The movie however, immediately situates the observer with this image.

The movie, “Bessie” within the first twenty minutes presents the observer with both Ma Rainey and Bessie’s female lovers. Despite being married she still has a liberated sexual freedom. Angela Davis’s analysis of “Barrel House Blues” demonstrates the parallel of indulgence in both men and women in a marriage which is clearly represented in the movie. Despite Bessie and her husband being married, they both have lovers. As Davis states, “Romantic is seldom romanticized in the blues,” and this is shown in the marital affairs of Bessie and her husband.
There are many points that can be made on Bessie and Angela Davis’s article, but I would like to sum this up by talking about the emphasis on mother’s in the movie. Ma Rainey even makes a statement about it to Bessie when she sneaks onto her train, she states that the “loneliest thing in the world is a motherless child.” This seems to be odd since this movie should be more about Bessie and her blues, but it seemed as if the movie was trying to draw a parallel between Bessie’s ability to sing the blues in relation to a traumatic event (her mother’s death and child abuse). Another quote by Ma Rainey in the movie furthers this idea when observers are able to know Bessie exclusively through the blues. She states, “the blues is not about people knowing you, but about you knowing people.” Perhaps, this is why presented the audience with flashbacks to her childhood; a way for the audience to break that notion and get to know Bessie. However, the powerful nature of women performers in the movie was accurately portrayed in my opinion. Bessie was extremely independent and clearly didn’t need a man.

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