Re-Thinking Activist Readings of Musical Texts

Jacob Merrell


It sometimes feels that academic discourses are too mired in arguments built on logos and ethos rather than on pathos. Angela Davis, someone with a vital counter-cultural résumé, makes a persuasive argument about the legacies of blues women, but to me it feels like this academically worded approach to erotic issues is sanitizing. Primary to the film Bessie is its narrative aspect, while “I Used to Be Your Sweet Mama” presents itself on the grounds of argument. Maybe we are predisposed to mistrust film and narrative, especially when we read it in scholarly contexts, but I think we are also overly willing to trust well-crafted arguments that don’t humanistically portray the story. Regarding the theme in the Blues of women accepting sexual violence in defiance of the opinions of others, Davis claims that “Lacking… is a naming or analysis of the social forces responsible for black men’s propensity (and indeed the male propensity in general) to inflict violence on their female partners. The blues accomplish what they can within the confines of their form (Davis 33).” Davis feels compelled to justify Smith’s and Rainey’s presentations in a moral-logical framework, but—and this is just me perhaps—this framework doesn’t actually help me to better see the issue at hand. Elsewhere she uses what I think is a better approach to argument: an empathic, narrativized understanding.

As Davis points out with regards to the curious absence of motherhood among love, sexuality, and domesticity as common themes of the blues: “The absence of the mother figure in the blues does not imply a rejection of motherhood as such, but rather suggests that blues women found the mainstream cult of motherhood irrelevant to the realities of their lives. The female figures evoked in women’s blues are independent women free of the domestic orthodoxy of the prevailing representations of womanhood through which female subjects of the era were constructed (Davis 13).” This is a narrative understanding, one that allows us to see blues women in a character-concerned frame. We sympathize with the feelings of apartness and exclusion from orthodoxy—which everyone knows from inevitable conflicts and tensions with expected behaviors. But, we also understand the socio-political issue at hand better for this reading. We can link a clarifying feeling to the circumstances of blues women. It doesn’t tell us exactly what their experiences were like, of course, but it does make it clear to what degree we cannot really understand the ways in which Bessie Smith suffered except anecdotally.

What would it look like to treat themes of domestic abuse and its acceptance in this characterological way? Continuing with more Davis: “For recently emancipated slaves, freely chosen sexual love became a mediator between historical development and the new social realities of an evolving African-American community (Davis 10).” We remember that the women we are reading about, while fortunate to have found some tolerance as queer women, were born of a recently emancipated people who were confronting and exploring the sexual volition that had for so long been prohibited of them. To defend one’s relationship with an abusive partner is bad modeling, to be sure, and particularly from a feminist-activist standpoint–Davis explicitly feels that conversation-raising is the extent of the blues capacity for achievement as a “form.” I would argue that she is misreading art, which may often be activist, but which in and of itself is not responsible for political achievement. As Davis notes, the blues are about expression and personal narrative, the celebrating and sharing of an individual’s waking reactions to the blue notes in their life. Blues women should perhaps be discussed on this narrative level if we are to treat them compassionately. Perhaps we should discuss more and more issues with a high empathic standard, as opposed to or in conjunction with a high theoretical standard.

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