Moanin' the Blues
Memoirs by African American women offer blues-inspired mix of humor and invention
By Diann Blakely
DECEMBER 13, 1999: Albert Murray--the greatly under-recognized novelist, memoirist, biographer, and cultural critic--began arguing nearly 30 years ago that the blues, not slave narratives, are the definitive African American art form. Furthermore, Murray believes that the blues represent our entire country's most creative, cathartic means of confronting adversity; and that blues singers are America's archetypal heroes, possessing "the ultimate human endowment" of on-the-spot invention (i.e., improvisation) in the face of history's dragons, which prove vulnerable to the blues' ironic humor and resilient spirit.
Murray's inclusive aesthetic, which calls our culture "mulatto" and the U.S. Constitution "a jazz [i.e., improvisatory] document," bears some similarities to present-day American feminist literary theory. Its practitioners, like Murray, find less truth in the fixed rise-and-fall of traditional narrative than in more associative, lyrical patterns. But the feminist theory of American identity has evolved largely into a non-assimilationist stance that values what Murray calls the "mosaic" over the "mulatto." While the latter celebrates the profound effects of cultural mixing (think "melting pot"), the former seeks to honor each of America's diverse, often fragmented traditions, which has proved problematic: One person's symbol of tradition--like the Confederate flag--can be another's symbol of oppression. Additionally, gender almost never operates in a vacuum: African American women have been rightly critical of a monolithic feminism that downplays the tension between competing social categories.
By contrast, Murray's "mulatto" metaphor seeks social connections and ways to improvise on them, thus broadening the terms on which people can meet. When that meeting takes place between books and a reader, and when the books are recent memoirs by African American women and the reader is a white Southern female, the language of feminist theory seems less accurate, appropriate, and metaphorically rich than Murray's blues-grounded "mulatto-ism," especially since race, not gender, forms the core of each of these books.
From the Mississippi Delta (Lawrence Hill Books, $15.95), the simultaneously hilarious and horrific life story of playwright and civil rights activist Endesha Ida Mae Holland, opens with a note that echoes throughout. In poetic but colloquial language, Holland describes a terrifying dream of fire that scorches and melts her limbs as she reaches toward her burning mother. The reader is as abruptly jolted as the 9-year-old dreamer by the wide-awake exclamation of "Git up from here, gal--you done pissed in the bed!" Holland's mother begins to swing her "spanking cord" even as her voice softens, protesting "Doncha be huggin' on me, ol' pishy gal!"
"Mama twirled the cord," Holland writes, " 'round and 'round her head like Lash LaRue, the white cowboy dressed all in black we saw up at the Walthall picture show." The trope speaks volumes about America's racial wounds, then as now.
Another crucial early scene, the grotesque rape Holland suffers at the pale hands of a man dying of heart failure and his insanely "helpful" wife, is all the more wrenching for its fluidly imagistic and tonal riffings between past and present, between reportage and meditation, between adult horror and childlike bewilderment. A few chapters later, Holland ably evokes blues humor when she recounts her introduction to the civil rights movement: Having begun turning tricks to ease financial desperation, one afternoon Holland trails the renowned and upright Robert Moses into Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's local headquarters, hoping to find a paying customer. Instead, she becomes a vigorous worker in the organization, frightening her mother as well as neighbors who fear a reawakening Klan's reprisals. Their fear is justified: Holland's story achieves a tragic, brutal crescendo; nonetheless, she rises quite literally from ashes to become a student at the University of Minnesota and later a playwright.
Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors (Beacon Press, $20), by longtime activist Marion Wright Edelman, generously structures its material around iconic beacons like Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Sojourner Truth, and the female elders of Bennettsville, S.C., where Edelman grew up in the 1940s. The most intentionally didactic and chronological of the three memoirs under discussion here, the book improvises on the traditional biographical sketch, religious meditation, and social expos, and it also includes journal excerpts.
Edelman, now president of the Children's Defense Fund, initially gained recognition in the early 1960s, when she became the first female attorney admitted to the Mississippi bar; she was only the fourth black lawyer practicing in the entire state during the Freedom Summer of 1964. Working for the civil rights movement was risky for everyone involved--including Robert Moses, who makes a reappearance here--but Edelman's chronicle of Klan horrors employs a theme-and-variations approach that pays tribute to the resiliency of the individual, in particular the anonymous African American women she met in the Delta. Mae Bertha Carter, for example, isn't generalized into a symbol but "lit" by her own special flame, which Edelman describes.
Edelman's story reminds us that children usually suffer most in troubled times: Carter's daughters and sons, living in a house that was shot into on a regular basis, became so terrified of night snipers that they refused to sleep anywhere but the floor for many years. But an even more poignant--and telling--moment in Lanterns occurs when Edelman tries to describe the piled children's shoes she sees on a later visit to Auschwitz. The shoes represent an evil largely untouched by the sort of activism that marked the civil rights movement; Edelman can sustain the description for only two sentences before cutting to a cheerier scene, in which an angry white mob of Mississippians is defused by the gospel song "This Little Light of Mine." Inspiring this episode might be, but it also underscores both the metaphorical and practical limitations of gospel music--and, by extension, the limits of Edelman's own memoir. At times it refuses altogether the blues' darker notes, as Murray would say, leading paradoxically to an inability to contemplate--much less pity--those caught most helplessly in history's flames.
Those darker notes resound throughout Toi Derracotte's The Black Notebooks (Norton, $13). Self-described as a black woman who looks white, Derracotte offers lyrically charged but anguished meditations on present-day racism in "progressive" suburbs, the academy, and even artists' colonies. Her book is composed of journal entries made over the course of two decades, exploring how cultural racism becomes internalized, poisoning blacks and whites alike. In her own case, that racism leads to long years of paralyzing rage as well as profound self-hatred and clinical depression.
A renowned poet and teacher, Derracotte doesn't deny that the civil rights movement paved the way for certain of her achievements. Nonetheless, she asks hard questions of writers like Edelman: "Many readers want literature that concentrates on solutions, on the strength and survival aspects of being black. The benefit is, of course, to nourish those of us who are starved for 'positive' images, for images of power. However, might these 'hopeful' images defend against knowledge of racism's most devastating, deep-rooted, and intransigent blows, giving false assurance that the effects of racism are not universally devastating?"
Derracotte's memoir embodies a psychic world doubly pained: Her appearance allows her entry into a realm where whites not only betray their own racial hatred but also assume she shares it; at the same time, the internalization of American racism makes her afraid of, and sometimes hateful toward, other black people. "I began to be conscious," she writes, "that my reaction to hearing a comment in a shoe store or seeing a young black boy on the street was a reaction of fear. My adrenaline would increase, the fight-or-flight response, as if a part of me wanted to jump out of my skin."
An anecdote about conducting a teachers' workshop is even more telling about our culture's instinctive, institutionalized racism, as well as its uneasiness regarding truths that only "darkness" teaches: "I explained how I have the children write poems using oxymorons.... Like Sun. Cold sun. Or--Rainbow. Black Rainbow. One teacher said, 'That's negative thinking. I don't like negative thinking. I want my rainbows to be colored good colors. Pretty colors. Not black. I don't like all this negative thinking.' "
A more hopeful conversation occurs near the end of Derracotte's book. Swapping snapshots of the grandkids with a white woman, the author and her acquaintance discover the former has a blond grandson, the latter a dark one. These grandmoms go on to joke about a New York Times article that claims 60 percent of Americans would be defined as "black" if old miscegenation laws were reapplied using today's DNA testing. But the Times science reporter merely echoes what Derracotte and her friend--like Holland, like Edelman, like Murray--already know in their hearts. Mainstream white American culture has been greatly enriched and defined by the African American, especially by the blues, whose notes simultaneously celebrate and lament those whom history has pushed into our country's most shadowy corners.
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